The Lost B Sides Of Our Lives

VINYLVinyl. Some audiophiles still say that it’s the best way to listen to music as they don their rubber gloves, pull their records out of the cardboard holders (plastic removed to avoid warping of the vinyl), carefully placing the record on the turntable, adjusting the speed for a 45 (single) or a 78 (album) post WW II, and 33 RPM later on for albums.

Today, the MP3 reigns supreme – a compressed version of the music where the frequencies are kept only to that which the average human ear hears. Yet there was a time before this, a time before the 8-track tapes and later cassettes and the then ubiquitous Walkman cassette players, before compact discs (CDs) (Hat tip to Valdis Krebs on his correction through LinkedIn).

In the house I grew up in, a Sansui amplifier and tuner was the core of the sound system – 2 Technics turntables, a reel-to-reel system, and a dual Technics cassette deck with Dolby recording and playback ability. When alone, the wooden floors vibrated as only speakers made in the 1970s would make them. Every Friday, Patrick and I would look over the Billboard Top 100 to watch the trends, and I would go off and buy some 45s at the local record store.

I learned early on that what I liked wasn’t always popular. With music slower to come by than it is today, I’d end up flipping the record over to hear the other single that came with the record. A great example of this was the B side of ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears: The Big Chair. A mixing dream, really.

I’d end up exploring the work of artists other than what was popular. Sometimes it was crap, something that the recording company chose out of their discography that didn’t even make it onto an album, and sometimes not.

We don’t do that anymore. I’m not even sure that many people did it in the first place, daring to spend the time to see if they liked the song, but I do know that at least some hit songs came from B-sides. You can read about some here, and some others here where you can listen to themThink songs like, “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) and “Revolution” (The Beatles).

In an odd sort of way, we were allowed to explore the music of artists through their detritus on the B-sides of albums – the stuff that publishers ‘threw away’, not wanting to give a free hit single away with another. And yet, some of their greatest mistakes are treasures – some popular, some not, the listener deciding what was good or not simply by flipping a record over and checking.

Fast forward to today.

The Internet brought us the ability to get music like never before. I’d like to think most of us legally buy music, I’m certain at least some of us download without paying some service or publishing company. Artists in some cases have bypassed the middlemen in this, allowing us to purchase directly from them through websites. Some even make their music available for free here and there.

But the services, just like yesteryear, are about maximizing profit. There are no more B-sides; we are bombarded with things that are algorithmically decided for us as we stream music. Just as on social networks our digital shadow – what we do online – is used to decide what we see, so it is with our music. Alternative – how can something be alternative when it becomes mainstream? – is even decided for us. We are less consumers now, maybe, than we were before the Internet in that there is no conversation (hat tip to the Cluetrain Manifesto), decisions about what we get are decided not even by other human beings but by statistical and heuristic analysis of our data. We are, in the eyes of algorithms, what we were, and not what we can be – never-mind what we should be.

Generations have passed having never flipped over a vinyl record, having never read something not decided for them…. we are become the algorithms of our algorithms, the ‘tools of our tools’ as Thoreau might write today.

Unless we find the B-sides of our lives.

Hedgehog 2.0.

927A9660.jpgSchopenhauer wrote about the Hedgehog’s Dilemma:

One cold winter’s day, a group of hedgehogs crowded together for warmth so as not to freeze to death. However, the pain from the mass of spines soon caused them to separate again, until the cold forced them back together, and thus they continued, moving from one source of discomfort to another, until they found a distance that allowed them to live but without the benefits of the full warmth of community.

To build on this, the longer a hedgehog stays out of the community, the longer the quills. It may not have started as a misanthrope but rather an explorer, maybe it was shunned because it was different, but over time without the issue of intimacy to contend with, it grows longer quills which makes it a misanthrope even when it tries not to be.

There are entire generations growing up more comfortable with a cold flat screen than other humans at this point.

Let that sink in.

Suffering Tortured Networks

connectors twistedThe world twists us, with all the cultural inertia we inherit, with all the cultural inertia those within our spheres inherit, torturing our realities into what is sometimes hard to recognize. Social networks magnify this beyond our geographical familiarity, connecting us with those we would not otherwise interact with – an improbable thought for those who have grown up with this interconnected world, a sometimes nostalgic thought for those who existed before the Internet came into being. Algorithms control what we see, shoving us into the echo chambers of our choosing, dooming us to a perception of agreement.

This was all lauded at one time as a great democratization of information, of how it would change the world in ways that would be popular – and in this, it ended up being true where consensus will make fake news possible if only because people lack critical thinking skills that somehow escaped insertion in the indoctrination of formal education systems. Pieces of paper abound by people who followed a straight path and who did no more, who know nothing but what got them past batteries of multiple choice questions and glorified essays on topics graded sometimes with critical thought, sometimes not.

Processed like cheese, graduates come out homogenized and appropriately boring – perhaps, through good fortune, they become insightful in the areas they have studied in, but this does not translate to being insightful in the useful things in life because nobody seems to think life is important enough to talk about outside of the speakeasys of what social contact happens outside of formal systems.

We watch feeds of people arguing, jumping to conclusions, sharing things with catchy headlines that they did not deign to read the substance of. Reading to argue, emotion begets emotion and rationality is left behind. This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind:

Given a new tool for communication, we seem pretty intent with beating each other to death over differences of opinion, the meek becoming exactly what they hated in others and unable to see it in themselves. Good intentions abound, right actions are lost in reactions to reactions to reactions to reactions… so much so that no one actually remembers the actions that started it.

Our tortured social networks have a guided evolution this way, marketing wanting to sell people things that they want on pages that people are more likely to visit because they agree with. Fights are good business on the Internet; more advertising impressions.

And now we see that the democratization that the Internet brought us magnified our social faults more than our ability to affect positive change. Or is it not too late? Can we untwist these networks?

Perhaps we’re just not ready for our own technology.

Technology, Bureaucracy and Corruption

WireIt’s been an accepted opinion that technology reduces corruption. Examples abound. India is a popular example, and is mentioned in books (such as Performance Accountability and Combating Corruption) and articles on the Internet. And, at least in the ways that people are used to, corruption is mitigated. Reduced? Maybe.

It moves, or at least the potential for it does. And that is largely a good thing, where fewer people have the opportunity to profit from the bureaucratic systems put in place to manage things – be it land, licenses and permits, or registrations. With less human hands touching these things in the process, there is less injection of ‘human error’ – conscious or otherwise. And that, too, is a good thing since such human error slows things down to the point where the system is bypassed or ignored.

When the system is bypassed or ignored, the bureaucrats will say that it’s corruption and create Law that makes it illegal to – or they might actually start enforcing Law that already exists. They do this rather than fix the system as appropriate, which creates resentment in the populace. This simmers. Boils. And now and then, given the right circumstances, it erupts – and when it does, violent or not, those that boil over almost never have a plan for overhauling the systems if they are successful. The cycle continues.

Every sociopolitical space on the planet has these problems – it’s a matter of degree, and it’s a matter of Will to remedy these problems. In implementations of democracy around the world, this Will is rare to see used on things that are unpopular. Politicians like to get re-elected.

At some point, people might figure that out. At some point, people might identify this flaw on a collective level and do something about it – because that is the root of the problem.

The Will to fix things versus the Will to be re-elected.

 

Stay Up To Date.

technology is good for youHello. We’re the people selling the stuff that makes you stand in lines to get the latest one.

Our technology is good for you. Don’t think about the time you spend getting it to work, or getting it if you can. Don’t think about how many hours of work it will take for you to afford the new thing that is pretty much like the old thing with some humble improvements. Those humble improvements are going to make you more efficient and more happy.

Don’t worry about all your old stuff going to landfills. Why should you worry about the water table? We’ll make an app for that.

Use technology. It’s good for you. It will make your life so much better. It’s not that it will make you more attractive; it’s that if you don’t have it you won’t fit in. Stay up to date.

We care about you. We’ll gather your information and tell you things about yourself you might want to know – but we definitely want so that we can sell you more stuff. We’ll even map your house for you and sell it to people. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your house.

We’ll even sell your fear and outrage.

Technology is good for you.

Drink deep. We know what we’re doing – and our investors truly care about your money, which is why we make things that last just long enough to get you to a newer version.

You’re saving the world.

Ours.

Not yours.

Perspective

spaceWe used to look up.

I don’t know exactly who I mean by ‘we’. Maybe it was my generation, when we had seen man actually make it to the moon. Maybe it was people of my mindset.  I’d like to think it was my generation, with parents who had watched the original series of ‘Star Trek’ – and our generation who saw the original ‘Star Wars’. Or,  ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, or even, ‘E.T.’.

We used to look up. We used to stare at the stars, some of us, while laying in the grass.

I’ve spent most of the day watching this live stream, in the background, as I read and did other things. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. And we take it for granted, we sit there staring at phones, communicating about little of worth.

The things of worth we do talk about are about how we can’t keep things from flooding, or people from doing dumb things, or arguing over which idiot is better than which – we who could put a man on the moon, who could build an international space station, who could go peeking at other planets like a nosy neighbor.

We have the capacity to know where we are on our own planet with accuracy that would make ancient mariners ecstatic, and we have that on devices that Tesla told us we would eventually have. It wasn’t so long ago that these things didn’t exist. We dreamed big.

Then the Internet happened – a complex system of communication, too complex for our communication as we began to talk to people around the world. Kittens and pornography propagated it across the world.

Some were so intent on selling their products, services and thoughts that they got really good at marketing. In fact, they got so good at marketing that their marketing became better than their products, services and thoughts.

Somewhere along the way, I think we stopped looking up with a sense of awe. We stopped seeing what our combined efforts could do if we chose to work together.

We should look up.

Arts And Technology

Sisyphean TechnologyI found myself at my alma mater, discussing with the present Dean the divorce between Sciences and Literature a few weeks ago. It’s part of the concrete issue that I faced as a young man – in Trinidad and Tobago, then, probably around 1986, we were put into focused classes for Ordinary Level examinations.

There were paths for Modern Studies, Technical for the more hands on, and two Science classes. I made it into one of the two Science classes where we were driven down the science path – which most of us wanted. We were also required a language, which was Spanish. I was very happy with this at the time, only of the Computer Science aspect.

I was convinced Computer Science was my future, and to a large extent this was a self-fulfilling prophecy – as most prophecies seem to be.

In retrospect, as I spoke to the Dean of the school, a man younger than me, I looked back on how I wish I had the option to continue studying English Literature. I lost that when I got into the Science silo.

For 3 years prior, at the beginning of every summer vacation, I read all the books required for the next year. A voracious reader, I had read everything in the house already – all my father’s novels. Louis L’amour, James Clavell, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Zane Grey and Clive Cussler come immediately to mind. We also had an Encyclopedia from the early 1980s that I had read from end to end.

As I look back, I had two main passions but at the time I only understood the passion for one: Computer Science. The second, which I didn’t understand as a subject, was literature in it’s many forms – except plays. I thought reading plays was silly, and to a large extent I still do – you lose the forest for the trees, in my mind, and to write a forest one does not study trees but the forest. An opinion.

Now, what would have happened if I had been able to trade Spanish or Geography for English Literature? We could speculate a lifetime. I could say that the system failed me, but it’s not the system’s job to create individuals. In fact, when it comes to Education, what the system’s job is probably one of the most debated topics on the planet.

I can’t fix the Education system. That’s not the intent here. Nothing works for everyone, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to – but we set humanity’s most horrendous weapon to task, bureaucracy, and it grinds at young minds enough so that Pink Floyd wrote, “Another Brick In The Wall” as I began my very journey through the grind, beneath that wheel.

This isn’t about Education, though. This is about Learning, and the need to be balanced to at least be competent to some degree in sciences and art.

Just because you like being an individual who writes poetry doesn’t mean you won’t gain from understanding how a tree lives. Just because you like to know how things work doesn’t mean that you have to be spartan in your reading.

It was later on in life where I was rescued and given challenging things to read that tested my mind, poked and prodded it and teased out the importance of other things. It was an openness to knowledge that allowed me to do that, and while I was in a secondary school silo I did not feel that I had the time for such… luxury… such freedom to allow my mind to explore.

Yet I worked for decades with people who were generally horrid to communicate with, who weren’t aware of some of the lessons available in the Arts – about why society maybe should do some things and maybe shouldn’t do others. Ethics, and the roles as builders technologists play on the world stage. Philosophy. Being human. And in doing so, we forget what our role is, shrugging off the responsibility and putting it on others because we like our paychecks.

We should be better than that.