Posts Tagged ‘technology’

42 Reasons Why A Jetpack Won’t Make You Happier

With all the recent internet hoopla surrounding October 21, 2015–a random, then-26-years-in-the-future date from a well-loved film, I thought this new music video was appropriately timely.

While fairly blunt in its execution—they don’t have the poetry or nuance of Neon Bible or Suburbs-era Arcade Fire—I still must say Bravo, YACHT!
As Robin Hilton writes in her introduction to the ‘Future’ video, “Disappointment is part of America’s DNA. It is as though its citizens are born with the desire for something better, fueling much of the country’s entrepreneurial and creative output; but even if everyone had personal jet-packs by now, they’d still be left unsatisfied. And much of what’s produced to fill the void is just ridiculous.”

As usual, I would certainly zoom out for the big picture and revise to say that disappointment isn’t uniquely something American, rather it’s part of civilization’s DNA. DQ sums it up nicely in one of his most exhaustive passages (bear with me, it’s a good one):

“For hundreds of thousands of years, people as smart as you had had a way of life that worked well for them. The descendants of these people can today still be found here and there, and wherever they’re found in an untouched state, they give every evidence of being perfectly content with their way of life. They’re not at war with each other, generation against generation or class against class. They’re not plagued by anguish, anxiety, depression, self-hatred, crime, madness, alcoholism, and drug addiction. They don’t complain of oppression and injustice. They don’t describe their lives as meaningless and empty. They’re not seething with hatred and rage. They don’t look into the sky, yearning for contact with gods and angels and prophets and alien spacemen and spirits of the dead. And they don’t wish someone would come along and tell them how to live. This is because they already know how to live, as ten thousand years ago humans everywhere knew how to live. But knowing how to live was something the people of your culture had to destroy in order to make themselves the rulers of the world.

“They were sure they’d be able to replace what they destroyed with something just as good, and they’ve been at it ever since, trying one thing after another, giving the people anything they can think of that might fill the void. Archaeology and history tell a tale five thousand years long of one Taker society after another groping for something to placate and inspire, something to amuse and distract, something to make people forget a misery that for some strange reason simply will not go away. Festivals, revels, pageants, temple solemnities, pomp and circumstance, bread and circuses, the ever-present hope of attaining power, riches, and luxury, games, dramas, contests, sports, wars, crusades, political intrigue, knightly quests, world exploration, honors, titles, alcohol, drugs, gambling, prostitution, opera, theater, the arts, government, politics, careers, political advantage, mountain climbing, radio, television, movies, show business, video games, computers, the information superhighway, money, pornography, the conquest of space — something here for everyone, surely, something to make life seem worth living, something to fill the vacancy…”

If My Ishmael had been written in our early 21st century instead of the late 20th (or if Quinn ever decides to update it), he could easily add the high-tech gadgetry that YACHT parodies in their video—“social media apps, wearable technology, VR, drones, self-balancing scooters (“hoverboards”), selfie sticks, Soylent, vape pens”—to the end of his list^ of “the endless, sad parade of distraction-enticing creations pawned off as advancements”.

Before it can be challenged, we must recognize the truth that this ‘disappointment’ is not an innate part of human nature, but rather is directly caused by the ‘Great Forgetting’ and the system of oppression and exploitation—civilization itself—that grew out of it.
You are not an app. Regain the human potential that has been taken from us without our consent. Remove these distractions; learn to recognize, combat, and resist the system that continues to dole them out year after year, each one more pointless and destructive than the last.

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Kill the K-cup


Single-use products like these need to be taken out back behind the shed, and shot.
Leave it to the Global North to be in such a hurry that it demands a complicated electronic machine to make single servings of coffee, that will likely either break (non-user-repairable) or be replaced (planned obsolescence) in two years, and creates non-recyclable waste with every use.
I signed it. Will you?

This culture of maximum convenience is also the culture of maximum harm.

For the record, the only responsible solution (if you have to drink coffee in the first place) is to head down to your local antique store, pick up a vintage moka pot:
buy organic fair-trade beans, and compost the grounds (roses love them). You may be slightly inconvenienced, but when this is the alternative, suck it up.

The Suburbs: ‘We Used to Wait’

We Used to Wait (almost a suite in itself) functions as a companion piece to Deep Blue, dealing with similar themes of technology in recent decades. But while that song focused more on the actual technology itself, this track considers the side-effects of said technology’s now-omnipresence.
The song begins with a lone piano pounding away in A-minor, soon joined by Butler’s croon and sparse percussion; with the fourth line the mix adds an electronically pulsing organ:

I used to write, I used to write letters, I used to sign my name.
I used to sleep at night, before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
But by the time we met, the times had already changed
(some really funky effects here)

So I never wrote a letter, I never took my true heart, I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown…

Win is singing here on two levels: on the surface, yes, it’s about how he no longer writes letters. But go a level deeper—and it’s a bit more sinister—and it’s a commentary on the sped-up pace of today’s world. If Arcade Fire’s songs are any indication, our media-oversaturated broadband culture is creating a generation of emotionally-numb insomniacs.

In that last line, why have the lights cut out? Is this a repetition of the violent wind/solar flare motif from Month of May? Did someone cut the lights (as Reginé pleads in Sprawl II)?
For that matter, what is ‘the wilderness downtown’ (besides an exceptional media experience we’ll look at later)? Is this perhaps sometime after, and we’re speaking of a literal, re-wilded city, the end result of the Wilderness Downtown video?:
City Reclaimed
Or is it a comment on the fact that in Our society, our educational system churns out graduates without the knowledge necessary for true survival (because in Our Culture, being able to survive amounts to being an obedient worker so you can collect green pieces of paper to exchange for rent and locked-up food) in the uncivilized Wild?

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last

Seems pretty self-explanatory.

Don’t it seem strange, how we used to wait for letters to arrive?
But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive

Indeed. I’ve been there, spending a summer waiting for a postcard from a distant like-minded lady-friend. And when those letters arrive, man, there’s the whole experience of it: opening the envelope, getting a waft of perfume, unfolding the pages, reading, the whisper of paper as you turn the pages, aahhhh… It’s the same with CDs; I’m not a vinyl snob in terms of sound (“but LPs sound so warm!” they all tell me), but I do like the ritual: admiring the square foot of album art, sliding the album out of the sleeves, putting it on the turntable, lowering the needle, and that sound as the needle drops. Ugh, there’s no permanence to electronic forms of books, music, correspondence—it’s just electrons zipping around; cut the power and it’s gone.

We used to wait, we used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait, all those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

There are those adolescent ‘wasted hours’ again. I’m still not sure what the wilderness he speaks of here is, because I’m really drawing a blank on all the wasted lives there. Some have suggested that the wasted lives are the corporate Suits, going to their soul-crushing cubicle jobs because they pay the bills, but being ultimately miserable and unfulfilled because they’re not “[writing] a letter to [their] true love”. Or as Eugene Hutz puts it: “zombies and willful slaves, living in their tiny private caves/crooked hands, digging up their graves”:

Okay, it's from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

Okay, it’s from a Pearl Jam video, but the idea is the same.

I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table I wanna walk again, gonna move through the pain

There’s a lotta talk on this album about moving past feelings and moving through pain. Huh.

We used to wait for it, now we’re screaming “Sing the chorus again”
I used to wait for it, Now I’m screaming “Sing the chorus again”
Wait for it!

Win now applies the immediate-gratification aspect of digital culture to his own circle of the music industry. I remember growing up, you’d hear a song on the radio, and you didn’t know when you’d hear it again; sometimes it felt like you could go years without hearing a particular song, and then one day there it was, outta the blue, and man, it just made your day. With a simple switch in pronoun, Butler admits that he’s not immune to this technological convenience either, but he doesn’t have to like it—remember, this is from the same guy who “don’t want it faster, don’t want it free”. In the end, the listener is urged to cultivate patience, and wait for it!

The Suburbs: ‘Deep Blue’

Here are my place and time
And here in my own skin, I can finally begin
Let the century pass me by
Standing under a night sky, tomorrow means nothing

It was with this song that I first started to suspect that there was an ‘Arcade Fire Sound’, which I can now articulate as ‘dystopian songs in A-minor with funky electronic backings’.
Once again, we have a reference to at long last being able to start or begin. Could it be that our singer—like that of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Muzzle, with its epiphanic climaxis at last at peace with his place in the world? After all, in the infinitude of multiverse, there can really only be one you in this time, this place.
As for that last line, the night sky falls neatly into the category of uncivilized Wild imagery; when you spend time soaking in the non-human world, you begin to realize how silly our attempts to control the flow of time really are. Spend an evening stargazing and tomorrow really does mean nothing. Here’s an experiment: go to bed early one night, then get up an hour or two before sunrise, and just watch and experience how the sky changes colour in the foredawn. There’s something sublime about the slow glow of a sunrise that the instantaneous flick of an electrically-charged liquid crystal can never capture.

I was only a child then feeling barely alive
when I heard a song from the speaker of a passing car
And prayed to a dying star, the memory’s fading
I can almost remember singing la la la, la la la la…

Now, another quintessential-Butler verse vignette: our singer as a boy (if it’s Win, this takes place in the ’80s), a car drives past, the radio plays some half-forgotten song. As for the identity of that song, Win has suggested that it might’ve been Depeche Mode, which would be pretty awesome if that’s the case. My real question is—what’s the dying star? Is it the general state of things, or our relationship with technology (because at its heart, that’s what this—and the next—song is all about)?

We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen, a dead star collapsing,
and we could see that something was ending
Are you through pretending? We saw its signs in the suburbs!

Now, after turning the page of the millennial calendar, things are different. Glowing screens abound; people walk around all day with shiny devices stuck to their faces, cutting them off from all those around them; people experience life with gadget-screen as intermediary, recording and uploading every trifling moment of our lives. We’re connected, but we’re not connecting.
When our singer “was only a child”, the star (and the state of things) was merely dying; twenty-odd years (an entirely insignificant amount of time, on the planetary scale) later, that star has now died, and begun to collapse.
What could they see that was ending? While I’d like to say ‘the System’ or ‘the suburban way of life’, I think it would hit closer to the mark to say a world in which people were just people—we weren’t completely married to (and overly reliant upon) our beeping, glowing screens just quite yet.
I suppose it’s possible the Singularity is the endpoint of this path down which we’re blindly proceeding, but we must remember that it didn’t happen overnight, the signs were there in the ’burbs for all to see.

fate
You could never have predicted that it could see through you,
Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996
Your mind’s pulling tricks now
The show is over so take a bow, we’re living in the shadows of…(something unintelligible)

Solid recent-history reference. For those of you who might not have been around or were busy watching MTV in 1996, Deep Blue was the IBM supercomputer that—with shades of Watson— saw through and beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in their first game. Granted, Kasparov eventually won the six-game match 4-2, but Deep Blue won the rematch 3½-2½ the following year.

Was Kasparov’s loss—to a machine—one of the “signs” seen in the suburbs?

The bit about living in the shadows is tricky, because it gets lost in the mix under the “la la la la” refrain; it might be “shadows of the night”, “shadows of the song”(that’d be a nice callback), or “shadows of the lie”, each of which could alter the interpretation of the song.

Hey, put the cellphone down for a while
In the night there is something wild, can you hear it breathing?
And hey, put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild, I feel it, it’s leaving me

Note that they don’t sing, “Hey, throw the cellphone/laptop away”, just to “put [it] down for a while”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technology—cellphones and computers aren’t innately bad, if you use them to talk to friends and loved ones instead of playing Angry Birds or trolling the comment sections of Youtube—just don’t abuse and overdo it to the point of becoming grotesque and rococo, “where you have all this information that you don’t need or want but the medium is there so it’s filled up.”

(And yes, I’m completely aware of the irony that I’m writing this on my laptop, to be broadcast out into the electronic aether to be read by strangers. But at least when I’m done, I’m going to do just what Win and Regine say, and put the laptop down for a while, and go do some wood- and leatherworking with handtools.)

The Suburbs: ‘Modern Man’

So I wait in line, I’m a modern man
And the people behind me, they can’t understand
Makes me feel like…like something don’t feel right
Like a record that’s skipping, I’m a modern man
And the clock keeps ticking, I’m a modern man
Makes me feel like, makes me feel like

This, according to Butler, is what it means to be a ‘modern man’: an adulthood wasted spent standing in line day in, day out like a skipping record (shades of Groundhog Day?).
In this haze of undifferentiated days, we keep getting older (the clock keeps ticking), we can’t sleep, and we’re increasingly emotionally disconnected. Worst of all, we’re troubled by the feeling that something don’t feel right:
“…you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad.”

In my dream I was almost there
Then you pulled me aside and said, “You’re going nowhere”
They say we are the chosen few but we’re wasted
And that’s why we’re still waiting on a number from the modern man…

When I was seventeen, I was selected to be in my state’s ‘Governor’s Scholar’ program (we liked to joke that GSP stood for ‘government-sponsored procreation’, and that the program existed to help smart kids hook up to improve the gene pool and prevent brain-drain, or something). Throughout the program, we were continually told that we were the ‘best and brightest’ of our generation. Maybe they were right; maybe in another life we really could be the best and brightest, if it weren’t for the fact that the adulthood we were being groomed for was the one designed to turn us into the timeclock zombies Butler describes in this song.

Maybe when you’re older you will understand
Why you don’t feel right, why you can’t sleep at night now?
In line for a number but you don’t understand, like a modern man

Here we see again the theme of growing older being linked to this kind of numb, insomniac existence; the converse of this notion is that childhood must be the time when we’re truly alive, vibrant and full of energy and unaware of the passage of time, which is pretty much true.

Oh, I had a dream I was dreaming
And I feel I’m losing the feeling
Makes me feel like something don’t feel right
I erase the number of the modern man
Want to break the mirror of the modern man
Makes me feel like, makes me feel like

In my dream I was almost there
Then you pulled me aside and said, “You’re going nowhere”
I know we are the chosen few but we’re wasted
And that’s why we’re still waiting in line for a number but you don’t understand – like a modern man

And if you feel so right, how come you can’t sleep at night?
In line for a number but you don’t understand – like a modern man
I’m a modern man

If you ever need a clear visual of the modern man, take a look outside your nearest temple of Apple the day before the release of their next major gizmo. There you’ll see a generation of young people content to stand in line, to try and assuage the barely-suppressed gut feeling that “something don’t feel right” by buying ever more shiny gadgetry.

‘The Suburbs’: Context & Composition

The Suburbs is (the) Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, and it continues to build on the themes of their EP and previous albums, especially 2007’s Neon Bible—so much so that it really seems a bit like a sequel or side-quel to that record.
In fact, the idea of successive sidequels continuing to explore deeper facets of an original’s theme reminds me of the life’s work of another Houstonite, Daniel Quinn, whose writings could (from a certain point of view) be interpreted to deal with the same issues as Arcade Fire (such as calls for change in how we relate to our communities; escape from the world in its present form; and imminent environmental destruction). I wonder if the Brothers Butler have read any Quinn?

But where Neon Bible seemed to focus on a cultural and environmental collapse/apocalypse brought on by the potent overlap of politics, overconsumption, religion, and television (which is to say, it’s an album about Right Now), The Suburbs dials down the doom to zoom in a bit.
While it’s entirely possible that both albums occupy the same universe, this time around, the story—while set against a backdrop of suburban war—is more intimate, focusing on a Millennial generation of nostalgic, dissatisfied Young People—alienated by technology and the sterile uniformity of their modern surroundings—yearning for a rewarding way of life outside the Sprawl.
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with that serious description, but it’s just as deathly topical as its predecessor.

To provide comparisons as we start our examination of this album, I’m going to be relating examples from my previous favorite concept album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), partially because they’re surprisingly similar in presentation, and partially because I’ve invested so much time studying that double-LP monster over the years it would seem like a waste if I didn’t.

So, for starters, both albums begin with an atypical-sounding first track or two. I have to wonder what the first ’Pumpkins fans to hear MCIS in 1995—expecting something similar to the swirling guitar layers of Siamese Dream—thought upon hearing the piano/synth and orchestral strings of those first two tracks (the ’Pumpkins’ signature sound would return in spades by MCIS’s third track); similarly, the splash of cymbals and the deceptively cheerful piano line that opens The Suburbs might’ve surprised Arcade Fire fans, although I suspect they’re smart enough to understand the band’s penchant for making songs in a wide variety of styles.

Since we’re talking about arrangement, I feel I should—even though I promise I’ll discuss it later as part of this series—draw attention to Scenes from The Suburbs at this point, specifically how Spike Jonze rearranges the album’s tracks to great effect to open his film.
As exciting an opening as those splashy cymbals on The Suburbs are, they sound way better when preceded by sorrowful narration and the melancholy strings of an extended version of The Suburbs Continued (the album’s coda track).
Hey kids!, just for fun, next time you listen to the album, try playing that reprise as the first track. Pretty cool, huh?
So, compositionally-speaking, this opening title track functions as an overture or prologue, containing concentrated versions of the album’s themes. The next song will open the programme proper (MCIS’s first ‘scene’, jellybelly, begins with the words, “Welcome to nowhere fast”; while after its prologue, The Suburbs launches with Ready to Start, a song that would be a perfect album-opener by nature of its musical composition, title, and lyrics).
The songs that follow will explore the themes first broached in the prologue, reaching an emotional climax about halfway through the album (Muzzle for MCIS; Suburban War for The ‘burbs), and ending the album with a Reprise of the main theme, which acts as ‘end titles’ for the listening experience.

Said title track (or in the case of MCIS, the second track, since the title track is instrumental) contains concentrated versions of most of the key themes examined in the course of the album (and in a larger sense, in all of Arcade Fire’s works). While there is some significant overlap for several of them (due to exploration of dichotomies, for instance—all coins having two sides, to be able to discuss something like the Wild without being aware at least on some level of its opposite would be an impressive feat of Orwellian thought), in their distilled forms the album’s themes may be classified thusly (in no particular order):

  • children/childhood/youth/adolescence
  • nostalgia for said carefree times ^ (the “wasted hours”)
  • Millennial Young People of today (“the Kids”)
  • music/singing/screaming
  • modernity/recent history
  • Place: Cities/Downtown/the Sprawl/Towns/the Suburbs/Home
  • one’s connection to said locales^, (especially issues that arise when said locales^ change)
  • roads and driving (inherent in our relationship to said modern locales^)
  • Destruction (either in the form of War, or another nonspecific source, and often of said locales^)
  • Technology (and its effect on the speed of life), and waiting (as metaphor for a slower-paced life)
  • alienation (often as a result of said technology)
  • authority figures with ‘power’ (emperors, kings, soldiers, police, &c.)
  • tribalism
  • insomnia/sleeping/dreaming
  • Escape
  • the “Wild” (often represented by “the Night”, used as a catch-all term for the natural/organic/uncivilized)

In fact, if someone asked me to further hyper-refine The Suburbs in 25 words, I’d say it is about ‘the dichotomy between Civilization/The Wild (and all that go along with both), explored from the vantage point of Young People in the early 21st century.’
But of course, that’s coming from someone with an anthropology/anarcho-primitivist background. Hell, as Win sings on Culture War, “You see what you want to see.”

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?