Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ignore The Jetsons, Dream Impossible Things

Let's get this out of the way: I doubt anyone reading this at the moment of writing will live to see jetpacks, the way our parents' imagination designed them. Aside from the whole jetpacks shoot flame that will char and destroy your legs bit, the vision of the future is largely understood to be the Jetsons. It doesn't matter that the Jetsons was always highly improbable, it imprinted on the (white) cultural imagination. I must pass over afrofuturism for this whole thing to work.

You have seen this on Facebook. "MAN WHERE'S MY FLYING CAR" and so on into infinity.

But as of October 28, 2014, it doesn't really feel like the future. Unless things get worse, my generation's Selma happened this year, Ebola is back, Russia is posturing on the world stage again and Christ only knows what else will come down the pike with the year 2014 appended to it.

Except, of course, for all the things that watch us from the sky, from the cell phones recording our major moves in our pockets and our social networks recording our minor foibles presumably to be hurled at us when we are cornered or weak. Women get bomb threats for having opinions about videogames.

The future, of course, is always gunning for us. It feels that way in my head.

Except for the margins.

I write this on a laptop computer with 500 gigs of memory, not all of it filled by pornography. I write this listening to a mashup of Aphex Twin and Taylor Swift. It's the mashup that feels like the future. Not in either of the parts, but what that last sentence means.

That last sentence is actually crazy, if given time to unpack it.

1) One no longer needs the imprimatur and recording budget of a big label to make music.
2) Recording technology (and what we define as possibilities for music) has advanced to the point where physical instruments are not always required.
3) The availability of music has gone from requiring a physical copy of the release to a free for all, with almost anything instantly available the day of release, if not before.
4) The ability to manipulate audio that already exists is so unremarkable that it comes standard on a Mac, and similar technology can be found for a steal or a lark on the internet.
5) The ability to record music is so pervasive that it comes standard on a Mac and free versions that do mostly the same thing can be found for a steal or a lark on the internet.
6) The ability to isolate and acquire vocals from a particular recording is available to us.
7) One can distribute what they create for a nominal fee or free, via the internet.
8) The end result is inside a genre that already exists and has a name that fits in our cultural imaginary.

Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to hear music from anywhere else, you had to import a copy of a physical release, which assumes, of course, anywhere else could afford to press it and promote it Today? Troll Soundcloud or Bandcamp for twenty minutes. No promises it'll be any good, but you can hear it.

It may be a shitty punk band you'll be listening to (and I say shitty punk band with solidarity and a smile here) but the option is now available. Something incredible will come. The universe will provide it. Which really means some person will have an obsession and get excited and the technology to create it will exist within their grasp, and the ability to distribute it easily will also exist within their grasp.

As for the content of the music, it's whatever. I never listened to Aphex Twin before, but I thought it was supposed to be weirder and more abrasive than what backs Ms. Swift here. Admittedly, I'm charmed by Ms. Swift's lyrics, even if I hurriedly maintain a jaundiced distance.

It doesn't matter what this mashup is comprised of, what matters is that it can be created, distributed and absorbed.

The takeaway: Music in my lifetime has gone from a thing that I must hunt to find and then purchase to a thing that I can find in a minute and a half if it's particularly obscure and be listening to in 45 seconds after that. Understand that and then multiply it for every other physical medium that yet exists on the planet.

Ten years ago, text messages were becoming interesting. Today? Your phone can record video. Ferguson is Selma, on some levels, but we're different people and we do not require a television channel to broadcast what we see. Now you, dear reader, can find a live feed that's more useful and accurate than CNN. How will that change the way we absorb and weigh information in the future?

Shit, Eleven Names founder Zach plays D&D over the internet with porn actresses. Regularly!

For imperial statements about the future, look to New Scientist or the New England Journal Of Medicine or any military weapons publication. Continuing down this path is a terrible idea, and I did that for an hour until I wisely deleted it.

(The thrust of it: I only have maybe twice my years left again if I'm lucky and the rate of technology currently means that what will be available to consumers the year I die will have existed in a nascent form used by military or random science place for 10 years. Or, put dramatically, the future will end for me in my 60s and it'll take until my 70s for it to reach me.)

And, at least outside of HEY WE CAN CURE [DISEASE HERE] NOW it's hardly ever the technology that is the future, it's what we do with it. The future means women can document the men that harass them using technology available in their pockets. The future means I will still die in fifty years, but I can know and process much more information in those fifty years than my parents and their grandparents were able to.

The future means science fiction is being made obsolete faster than it can be written. The future means everything gets more crowded. Everything gets messier, or we're now aware of how messy everything always was. We are granted more options (if from a fire hose) and more ways of seeing the world. Our ability to make a living on weird or non-traditional jobs has increased exponentially, even if the value of "make a living" is still fairly small. You can express yourself in wild, savage colors.

That last sentence feels too easy. Let me rough that up a little. The future means trans persons may be publicly recognized by my country's administrators while I am alive. When I was a teenager, that wasn't even on my radar, and if it was, I don't think I could imagine their suffrage moving forward at this rate now. Moving beyond the provincialism of my own lifespan, I think we'll be in a better place in terms of recognizing other people in a hundred or so years, even if I only get to contribute to and see the first fifty years of that. I can live with that.

Beyond the old Warren Ellis chestnut "the world's a strange place, let's keep it that way," I imagine, or believe exists a larger sprawl of possibilities at the margins. Look at Homestuck. That's a million dollar property, made entirely by a person from a generation that was native to the internet. Tell someone twenty years ago, you'll see a guy writing a dating sim based on his work on a webcomic, and he'll ask you "what's a dating sim, what's a webcomic and more importantly, no fucking way." We didn't get the future that was in our parents imagination, but what we have currently is something pretty exciting.

We won't get to the Jetsons within my lifetime, I think. But I don't really want the Jetsons now. Do you? How small of a future the Jetsons would be now! How limiting! If all we did was go to the same jobs, but the buildings were taller and the cars smaller!

As I was finishing the major strokes of this at 3 am, I typed in the tags Taylor Swift and it already exists here. I hope and imagine it was Emily or Katrina, from 2010-2011 or a lifetime ago, before the massive needle drop of Phonogram into my life. I don't listen to Taylor Swift or Aphex Twin, but this mashup makes me want to start.
This feels a little too hopeful for me, or I imagine a rebuttal of the terrible things I listed at the top of the article are all still true. It is hard to put a cost on inspiration. It can be done, I am sure, but not by me and not now. I'll say two things. ONE: Access was a major factor in what kept the powerful comfortable and that no longer is true. TWO: Empathy changes lives. What grants more empathy is many different firsthand experiences and failing that, art. I'm a better person for having read Phonogram, but I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after I completed a reading of the Nikopol Trilogy. Borges made me kinder. And if we are not the generation to grapple successfully with the military industry complex, then that makes us like every other generation. But we might gain an inch on it, if we push.

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