Back in the ‘80s, digital life was glorified by electronic musicians. Kraftwerk's song “Pocket Calculator” perfectly embodies this golden era where humans and computers were working together for a better future. “I’m adding and subtracting, I’m controlling and composing.” The words evoke a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, where a person could create numbers and sounds from a machine whose entire existence was dedicated for such functions.
Fast-forward to today, and artists are now at war with the machines, which evolved to be infinitely more productive and intelligent than the ones Kraftwerk sang alongside more than three decades before. Labels like PC Music and NON sound like they’re battling the very software they use to create their art, engineering sounds more fitting for a steel mill than a hard drive. Even the bright stretchy synths of producers like SOPHIE and A.G. Cook have a sinister undertone; their production process is more akin to plastic surgery than sonic refinement.
Sounds like these make it safe to say that the human-computer narrative has shifted dramatically. As we become increasingly involved both physically and emotionally in our phones and computers, the post-apocalyptic implications of such a lifestyle are finally making themselves clear in ways that the simplistic calculators of Kraftwerk’s fantasy lacked the computing to enact.
Part of this shift in philosophy can at least be credited to how computers now have enough memory and functionality to store an artist’s personality and life story, be that through social media or otherwise. Creating art about machines can no longer be exclusively about the machine, but now must also factor the artist existing within the machine themselves and seeing themselves through a distorted digital lens.
It reminds me a lot of how factories were viewed in early literature of the 20th century as in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. At first, the protagonist Jurgis marvels at the sheer efficiency of the meat processing factory at which he’s been hired, pondering the indifference of the machines as they slaughter the terrified pigs for food. As the novel progresses, however, his personal struggles and thoughts become one with the factory to which he dedicates his livelihood, to the point that all he can see is bloody-red horror. On its own, the industrial process wowed those who saw its potential to mass produce items at a fraction of the cost of individual labor. But combined with the human condition, it became a classic symbol for artists trying to embody the grit-covered, saw-shrieking era they were born into.
Similarly, computers and the internet become an infinitely more complicated platform for discussing humanity when they become homes for the artists themselves. Digitally manufactured beings like Hannah Diamond and QT play on the idea of a musician being a living, fully-formed creature by and for the Internet. And while their glitter and sparkly aesthetic can mask it now, artists like the anonymous SOPHIE are busy unearthing the implications that come with having human thought and feeling compressed to 1’s and 0’s with ear-splitting noise.
It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the sounds permeating this post-digital scene are made on software programs, bypassing physical instruments to further hone the aesthetic of their sound and existence. Part of this flight to software can also be credited to its infinitely more accessible price, which is always a factor in the minds of struggling artists balancing finances and their counterculture artistic vision. Those still creating harmonically sound dance grooves have returned to the physical studio, using hardware instruments to create the blips and drums that have become canonized in electronic music history. It’s certainly become an old man’s game, as that is one of the few demographics capable of owning such expensive vintage pieces of equipment.
The luxury of these instruments is their physicality and simplicity. Just like Kraftwerk’s calculator, vintage hardware instruments receive an input from hand and output an analog sound, plain and simple. Software is tangled in licensing fees and agreements, compatibility issues and ownership politics to the point that merely getting a program to work requires jumping through hoops for invisible corporations. My Korg M1 plugin, a software replica of a real instrument, came with a page of terms and conditions dictating where, when and how I could use the software. These agreements further enmesh musicians with their machines, almost to the point of reverse ownership, where unseen corporate forces have more power over the artist than they have over their instruments.
Symbiotic to parasitic: This fundamental change in the relationship between humans and their computers is what I believe to be the main force behind the frantic sounds manifested in post-digital record labels. It could be argued that people are the parasites; we use the digital cloud as a place to host our thoughts, ideas and creations and spread our personal gospels virally through networks. But on the other hand, humanity could be the host, with its existence chained by an inconceivable number of agreements and algorithms that go unnoticed throughout everyday Internet use. And, the most horrifying conclusion of them all—perhaps humans and computers are not parasitic, but rather two feral forces leaching each other to shreds, with no hope of sustainability or understanding.
PC Music was originally penned as “post-irony” by bloggers and critics like Jazz Monroe of Vice, citing its ridiculous views of capitalism and the digital era as a means to discuss something beyond the music. Others like The Guardian declared it “The Future of Pop.” But the most sensical reading of post-irony, post-future, even post-humanity labels is the one that NON Records artist Moro spoke about in a February tweet: “It’s not that Chino Amobi's, Angelho (and so on) music is ‘the future.' Theirs is actually the present, 99% new music is already old..its 2016."
Sci-fi is played out; we already live in the dystopian world that kept writers like William Gibson and Aldous Huxley up at night. Depending on technology to exist and be visible is a reality which faces more than just artists; it’s part of the first-world condition. Kraftwerk’s sci-fi fantasies have been shattered, and PC Music, NON and more are picking up the pieces of a shattered dream of human-computer utopia.