Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
The Coming Of The Chip
If, with the Unix programmers, we date the year 1970 (The Epoch) as the beginning of all time, certainly the beginning of the Information Age, then we can see the thirty year period between Epoch and Millenium as a kind of Long March, a zig-zagging journey in which we argue about definitions and directions before discovering exactly what the Age of Information is going to be like -- not just in its application to computers and media, but across everything in society.
The heroic efforts you have been witnessing on the Momus website recently (not just new content every day, but a new concept for a hitherto unrecognised genre crossover at least once a week!) are my contribution to the Long March To 2000. I'm determined to have the sharpest ideas about where we're going, and to give them to you free. (The Mao uniform is ironic, although on some subconscious level I may, like Mao, also want to banish all the other intellectuals to labour camps and have sex with their wives and daughters.)
As a futurologist, I need to learn from the mistakes of past prophets. So I've been reading a book predicting the world of 2000, written back in 1980: Anthony Hyman's The Coming Of The Chip. This populist but wildly inaccurate little paperback is full of a typically British fear of revolution, predicting, amongst other things:
COLOSSAL UNEMPLOYMENT as machines displace people.
MODERN TECHNOLOGY creates tools of terrifying power to survey people's lives.
CASH BECOMES OBSOLETE replaced by plastic cards.
MEDICINE REVOLUTIONISED with diagnosis by computer.
A ROBOT CALLED SCOOP which puts away your slippers.
Well, none of these things have happened, though they may still be tendencies. The biggest impact has been from something hardly mentioned in Hyman's book, although it already existed as he was writing it. The Internet.
In a week in which I've been told that the New Musical Express will not even be reviewing the British release of The Little Red Songbook, I feel some limited sympathy for the plucky little digital network and the neglect it suffered back in 1980. The British aren't very good at seeing the future, even when it's staring them in the face.
The fact is, however, that, like Momus, the internet is still a secret most people are not in on. And so we come to another hot debate of 1980. Not XTC versus Wire, but LED versus LCD.
I want to update this debate for 2000 by changing what those letters stand for. It's no longer about Light Emitting Diodes versus Liquid Crystal Display (in fact both are still alive and well today). Now the crucial split is between Ludicrously Educated Dweebs and the Lowest Common Denominator.
It's all very well for me, a lucky geek, a plucky dweeb, to look around my house and see something close to the futurist utopia Hyman paints: my wall-width projector TV, my flat panel Mac pumping out Mp3 files of Plastic Bertrand, my satellite dish relaying Egyptelsat 1. But most people in London, and certainly most people in the world, are not living like this. They have rooms which Hyman would find disappointingly similar to the ones people had in 1980. Some of the duller ones are reading copies of the NME and listening to guitar bands which would have sounded pretty much the same in 1980 (although the lyrics would probably have been a bit more edgy and urgent and the reviews more intelligent twenty years ago. Hyman would probably be dumbfounded to discover that Blondie are still at number one).
Which brings me back to Chairman Mao. His once-radical New System crumbled, like the circulation of today's New Musical Express, because he tried to make everybody the same and persecuted the clever. He idealised the Lowest Common Denominator, and had the Ludicrously Educated Dweebs set to manual labour on state farms or killed.
In America and Japan, societies looking into the future with enthusiasm, people are listening to dweebs like Momus. I know this from my record sales and my web hits log. In Britain they are not. The NME ignores my new album and the amazing story of Stars Forever, preferring to tell its ever-dwindling band of readers that the Radiohead guitarist is going to be playing some harmonica on the new Pavement album.
Anthony Hyman, being British, had pretty mixed feelings about the future, seeing as many threats as promises, calling many of the applications of data to society 'notorious' or 'dubious' and finding consolation only in the thought that a doglike little robot called Scoop would one day bring him his slippers. He was right about one thing, though.
'By making information in every form cheaply and conveniently available the wired society can secure not only freedom of access to political information but cultural freedom. Again and again ruling groups or powerful men have taken control of other people's work, suppressed it, emasculated it, exploited creative work to make money. One good example is the American black man's jazz and blues of the 20s and 30s. Vulgarised forms of this magnificent music were published by corporations who made vast sums from the activity. Much of the original music was lost, while its creators were poor and often starving. Such a thing will be almost impossible in a wired society because it will be open to anyone to place their music, writing or film on vast data-banks to which the public will have ready access.'
If I had been recording in 1980, I would have been close to that stereotype of the starving bluesman. Denied coverage by the national music press, I would simply have wilted on the vine, and gone off to starve in a bedsit. Poverty would have cut off my access to international trends and global media, and I would have depended on local print media to tell me about exciting developments in the world. Which means that I would barely have heard of artists like Cornelius, let alone collaborated with them. I might soon have caved in, and accepted NME editor Steve Sutherland's worldview as the only one possible.
But the world went my way. It went the way of creativity, liberty, pluralism and diversity. (It still has a long way to go, but that direction is now pretty certain.) As it turns out, twenty years later I am not some failed, starving bluesman. I am happy, a winner, a content-producer, a culturepreneur. I'm at the height of my powers, in a world which is going my way.
People in countries like Japan, France and America (and even a few in China) can tune into what I'm thinking whether local gatekeepers and powerbrokers like the editor of the NME like it or not. In fact, although I happen to live in Britain, the internet and globalisation have given me intellectual and financial immunity to the conservatism of this country which chose never to have a revolution.
Well, no amount of water on either side of you can make you an island in 1999. There's a revolution happening right now as radical as those of 1776 and 1789, and nothing the British can do will stop it.
I'm reading the biography of Benjamin Franklin, printer, publisher, pamphleteer and proto-wired electric polymath, in preparation. In Chapter 5
The Author leads a dissipated life in London --
He lodges in the same House with Ralph -- Makes
Love to his Mistress -- Becomes Author, and
writes a Metaphysical Work in Answer to
Wollaston -- Is introduced to Dr. Mandeville,
Author of the Fable of the Bees -- Some Account
of that Gentleman -- Removes to another
Printing-House -- Drinks Water only, and is yet
stronger than such of his Companions as drink
Beer -- Enacts several wholesome Laws among his
fellow Workmen -- Ingenious Dissertation on the
folly of swallowing Strong Beer -- Anecdotes of a
Nun -- His Excellence in the Art of Swimming -- He
is engaged as a Merchant's Clerk, and returns to
Franklin returns to the States after discovering with deep disappointment that, like rock fans, his co-workers at the printing press are more interested in beer than liberty:
at the press drank every day a pint before
breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread
and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner,
a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about
six o'clock, and another when he had done his
day's work. I thought it a detestable custom;
but it was necessary, he suppos'd, to drink
strong beer, that he might be strong to labor. I
endeavored to convince him that the bodily
strength afforded by beer could only be in
proportion to the grain or flour of the barley
dissolved in the water of which it was made;
that there was more flour in a pennyworth of
bread; and therefore, if he would eat that with
a pint of water, it would give him more strength
than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and
had four or five shillings to pay out of his
wages every Saturday night for that muddling
liquor; an expense I was free from. And thus
these poor devils keep themselves always under.'