Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A short debate about digital immaterialism, and the dancer-serfs

"The deluge of music, video, images, and words unleashed by the web has created an environment that is toxic to any kind of underground culture actually developing"
Bert Random


Frank Capri is a former writer-at-large for the long-disbanded Whorecull. Shortly after the Iraq invasion of 2003 he retreated to a Tibetan monastery in order to "karmarize" and "deal with a lot of discordant emotionality". In 2007, karma restored, he joined Lehman Brothers "on an entryist tip". The rest, you might say, is history. The Truth caught up with Frank recently for a think-off in a secret location in London's square mile. The specialist subject du jour: music and work, mediated by meditations on robots.

Frank Capri: I go through phases but I'm gradually convincing my head that the automaton is a device to appropriate time and make workers docile. Take the metronome. It's a metaphor for stupidity; but not in any creative sense. The dancer-workers imagine it's a dialectical thang where stupidity transcends and sublates its conditions of existence in some higher consciousness. Frankly this argument is a cliché that I'm bored of hearing: the idea about "sound" which every bedroom DJ knows off by heart: a stripped down beat, noise, drum roll, more noise, crescendo... followed by some sort of euphoric condensation in which the dancer-workers are given time to take a swig of their Red Bull, before being compelled to start the whole routine from scratch. Or else get the night bus home just in time to get up the next morning for work. Whether the "work" in question be "real" or "virtual" dole-ite subsistence. I'm getting off on Chopin these days, not robot percussion.

S Truth: We are in a world where those funky Apple product ads are pure ideology, and the wider point ur making about barely knowing the conditions of our existence hold true. Not totally sure that an aesthetic swinge to the likes of Chopin can get us out of the immaterialist mire though. I just think western work-life has changed so much with the genuine digital age but we're still using old paradigms to try and define it. Fear of the Rise of the Machines is all a bit Adam Curtis isn't it?

FC: Yeah, maybe, but not machines per se. Let's not go bum up on robots. I did some empirical research some years ago with monkeys. It was all about time travel. [At this point Frank gets up to go to the bathroom and doesn't return for 40 minutes] Where was I?

Truth: You were talking about time travel.

FC: Sure. Which just proves my point.

Truth: Perhaps you could go over that again.

FC: Look. Old paradigms. I'm not big on that kind of scholastic chat. I just think machines are so booted up to human psychology that it's impossible to think around them. But let's get back to my earlier point about the metronome. It seems to me that right now the metronome is perfectly amenable to the use of TV and other digital media in the service of advertising. It might change one day, why not?

Truth. You mean Chopin might one day become more amenable to advertising? How does that square with the metronome beat theory?

FC: OK. Granted. The listener cannot help but be hailed as a worker/consumer by the beat. "Get up!" It's a slogan once the preserve of James Brown, but now embraced by the brands, inducing us to work harder, fitter, stronger and then fuck up, piss up, blow out all the more harder. There's a perfect symmetry and social discipline going on in this metronome beat which apes behaviour at all levels of work, rest and play. Does subculture mean anything anymore, if we accept that we can no longer really distinguish work from leisure? Subculture's supposed to be the preserve of casuals who find spaces of stylistic solidarity – "resistance through rituals" – outside "the factory". But all that's changed. On the dole or in work, where does the factory end and leisure begin nowadays? All this factory discipline being imposed on the unemployed – not just by government but monumentally by the multi-task culture of Linked-in or what not – convinces me that it's one continuum, you never stop being a worker. And so the "bosses" need a universal beat.

ST: Leaving aside the related issue of the unchecked data harvesting of the likes of Google etc with one result being your lifestyle (once considered individualist) algorithmically thrown back at you, your line about subculture meaning nothing as we can't readily distinguish work from leisure is the most important. Subculture does virtually nothing now, or at least something entirely different as to how older generations would have understood it. This is not so much about cultural artefacts appearing ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ as their function – music to make us work and dance and work. This is why we have hipsters as our 'youth cult – little left to represent, nothing left to say, but hey my mate's just set up this bare cool vintage goods shop. Dalston is as much Harry Styles and, more importantly, gentrified spaces as it is scuzzy warehouse dos and independent arts collectives going beyond. So you're right – the role of popular music and the values it embodies are shifting. Little seems to cut it above the commodified techno-society today. It is accepted that brands are exploited for funding by culture operators. Appropriating the appropriators.

Yet most of the immaterialist development has come from the bottom-up as the infinite uses of internet communication have unravelled; problem is as you say that it is so easily co-opted by the management class. We're always-on these days, available for a second opinion, a bit of viral marketing, some (invariably free) work, etc, etc. The culture of delivering intangible goods for nothing easily slips over into the real world, where, for example, qualified interpreters have to boycott police and court work because some great outsourcer tells the MoJ they can do the job with monkeys being paid peanuts. New problems; same old exploitation. We have let our value and worth become degraded.

FC: This goes back to my earlier point about the monkeys. It was a totally safe experiment. But the company sponsoring it decided it would be cheaper to use real people!

ST: One aspect is what seems to be the supine nature of left debate, and therefore the lack of action, if Twitter's any guide. It seems fine minds and potentially powerful activists are addicted to 'the conversation' - no one likes to miss out on any cheap meme at the expense of theorising What Is To Be Done. 'We need a left of the left' - they sarcastically remark. Wrong, we need people who stop labelling themselves left but who do fuck all but sneer at more activist voices. We need people to get off Twitter. Hard sometimes to think Twitter is anything other than a valve where people are allowed to let off steam (and of course have a laugh, and look hip, and talk about food, and cats, and share tracks) to no great effect. Meh to the 'memes'. Both of these issues have the same factor – whatever the reason more and more people can't get off their computer, the smartphone, the tablet (the fucking machines). I do see positive elements to this interconnected autonomy, but people seem to dismiss the negative implications too readily.

FC: I'm hearing you! This is where the technology hasn't gone far enough. We're not enough Linked-in. If we're going to be Linked-in 24/7 then let's learn something on the way to the culture lobotomy clinic. Go beyond work, make knowledge an end in itself. Knowledge is the only answer to the perennial redundancy of human labour and intellect. Set theory, topology, differential calculus. Let's bring the Republic back down to earth through years of compulsory mathematics. Bring me your unskilled laborers – dishwashers, security guards, care workers – and I'll make them Platonists.

ST: An LRB piece by Rebecca Solnit covered the Google and Apple buses that take new San Fran residents out to Silicon Valley and back every day, and how this tech driven culture directly links into the gentrification ossie. These tech workers are destroying the need for cheap, local services as they're not there and only have time to eat out, drive up rents, homogenize the culture (basically they're fine with a latte and a wifi) and are eating away at the Bay area. It’s an elite monoculture that doesn’t care about the poor sods left behind. FC: Let's Platonize the fucks.

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