Transhumanism and Musical Evolution (A Music as a System Companion)

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This article is intended as a companion piece to W.’s most recent Music as a System article, and should be read as a supplementary exploration of concepts introduced therein. 

On the first installment of this Music as a System companion piece, I gave a (relatively) brief introduction to a subgenre of music talked about by one of our great leaders, W. in his initial article. However, the amen break was only a small part of his overall discussion, and his insights and ideas provoked within my own mind a plethora of speculations specifically regarding technology and the future of extreme music.

To connect technology and Drum & Bass shouldn’t be difficult even for those most musically illiterate. Electronic music wouldn’t exist without exactly that from which its name is derived. The reason I’ve chosen to highlight Drum and Bass (as opposed to house, or dubstep, or any other subgenre of electronica) is because it began as a sampled form of music, but became something virtually unplayable. The legendary Jojo Mayer did an excellent talk on this exact topic in a video which should be watched before we continue:

For those of you who didn’t watch the full video, Mayer provides a fascinating philosophical insight into his own musical journey within Drum and Bass and his subsequent reclaimation — or “stlylistical abstraction” — of the genre. He describes how electronic music became a new art form, a reflection of the desires of the current age: “Drum computers became a simplified abstraction of a real drummer. So in a way they created a new but genuine expression with a fake — which is kinda like what art is all about.” This is a beautiful way to describe the evolution of music (and of art in general), but is a perfect description of the emergence of electronic music.

He goes on to say that electronic music, in becoming its own art form, surpassed the capabilities of human performers (he is speaking specifically of D&B, and if you listened to the music on pt. 1 of this series, I think you could easily agree). It was at that point that he became obsessed with being able to play this new form of art; a task that initially appeared impossible:

“So in the process I became something like a musical John Henry, and because I was trying to replicate a machine that could . . . perform statistical density and accuracy that was just simply beyond my human capabilities. So in other words: to play this music is actually very difficult, and in the process of acquiring the idiosyncrasies of drum machine programming I constant got confronted with my human limitations. But, in the process, I managed to acquire enough technical understanding  — or maybe, even more important, stylistical abstraction — that I could create the illusion that I could play like a machine. So I actually also created a real expression with a fake — just the other way around this time.”

In his determination to recreate electronic music on live instruments, he (maybe accidentally) stumbled onto a new way of approaching music in the modern age — something Mayer describes as being “the distance between zero and one.” Once his “stylistical abstraction” had passed the stage of imitation into its own form, he realized that improvisation and playing in real-time was what separated his own brand of electronic music from that of a computer composition. A computer thinks, on the most basic level, in terms of 0 and 1 — binary. A human, in a live performance, knows no right or wrong, no black or white. Everything becomes reactionary and instinctual, and this, to Jojo, is that gap between the digits that a computer has never been able to realize (and he is careful to caveat this point with a “yet!”).

This is undoubtedly a fascinating perspective on the development of electronic music, and artists’ reactions to it. All forms of modern “western” music have been influenced directly by the electronic revolution of our generation; whether that influence manifests itself in an embrace of the new sounds or in a rejection of them matters not. The key philosophical point Mayer is making in this is that art is an expression of the people, and the digital age is manifesting itself in our music. From the first amplified instruments to the technological marvels of the current age, electronics have revolutionized music, from writing, to recording, to performance.

As modern science began to take shape, people as early as the 1920’s began to speculate on its implications on the future of humanity. This philosophical inquiry eventually manifested itself in a movement known as Transhumanism (or H+). Today, Transhumanism has been championed by many philosophers and scientists, and an organization entitled The World Transhumanist Association was founded by Nick Bostrom and David Pearce, but arguably the most influential person in the movement has been Google employee Ray Kurzweil.

The philosophy involved is not difficult to comprehend. To transhumanists, as technology improves, the next logical step in human evolution is to embrace technology into our very physical beings, effectively voiding all limits of our current bodies such as ugliness, sickness, accidental loss of tissue, and even (eventually) death itself. Modern medicine has already given us a glimpse of the potential of scientific advancement with prosthetic limbs, devices that allow the deaf to hear, assistive reproductive technology — the list goes on. Transhumanists view this medical and scientific advancement with open arms and minds, believing that for humanity to advance we must embrace this movement.

Of course, like every theory, transhumanism has its critics. Even the H+ website, www.humanityplus.org, mentions in its Transhumanist Declaration the potential for biotechnological advancement to be misused. As transhumanism is a movement stemming from science fiction ideas, we can look to science fiction to provide us with a viable reason to be wary of rushing into anything too quickly. Kurzweil himself has spoken on the dangers of nanotechnology.

However, complete transhumanism, no matter how close it may appear to some or how terrifying to others, is still a long way off in the human journey. This leaves me some room to speculate about technology, its impact on music, and the potential influence of biotechnology on human performance and ability.

Triggers have already been discussed in the post that sparked this whole discourse, but their importance cannot be understated here. Triggering drums has revolutionized heavy metal music (and recording any genre of music across the globe) in that it allows drummers to play with a speed and precision never before possible. As W. puts it:

“Some purists may scoff at the thought of using an electronic trigger to tune the sensitivity of your equipment, but the fact remains that drum triggers, particularly on bass drums, allows for the requisite speed that a demanding musical genre necessitates. Drum triggers allow musicians to push the envelope on speed and intensity.”

The strength of triggers is that they allow the drummer to play at near-inhuman velocities, and yet they retain (or they do when they’re done well; we all know the dangers of overtriggering) enough of human creativity and emotion so as to not become computer programming. A drummer performing in a live setting can use triggers to clear up sound and compress volume while retaining blistering speed and complexity. However, the difference between this use of technology and Jojo Mayer’s approach is that using triggers to clear up sound is simply manipulating electronics to make a drummer’s job easier. It has nothing to do with making a non-human genre of music into a new art form.

But if we apply Mayer’s insight into the distance between zero and one — the reverse engineering of technology — to the concepts of transhumanism, an interesting thought occurs. If the future of humanity is indeed to couple ourselves with electronics and biotechnology to complete the next step of human evolution, will that not allow us to truly explore this gap? To finally, completely bridge the disparity between binary and the infinite complexity of human consciousness? Coupling our existence with computers wouldn’t just allow people to reinterpret art, or to manipulate technology from the outside — it would actually merge our consciousnesses with that of electronic devices. Our brains would still be capable of improvisation, of interacting in real time with stimuli, but we would be able to experience it, quite literally, between zero and one. While Mayer speaks of this gap in metaphorical terms, a biotechnically engineered human’s very psyche would exist in, with, and around that gap, allowing access to the black and white precision of computer analysis whilst retaining the almost non-aristotelian reaction to external musical influence in a live situation.

The message of transhumanism isn’t limited to mental capacity, however. If we’re willing to entertain this thought experiment for intellectual ability, we must not forget that transhumanism also speaks of eradicating physical ills such as disease, sickness, age, and death. We can turn ourselves into superhumans, with strength exceeding anything we could imagine in our current, frail bodies. The merge of human and machine has already begun (though, like I mentioned, we are nowhere near a next step in human evolution), specifically with people like this man. There are many other examples of technology replacing limbs and restoring functionality to amputees. We haven’t yet reached the stage of combining our mental capacities, but with such technology already being implemented today, we’re well on our way.

Imagine coupling the technical precision of a machine with the mental complexity of a computer, all controlled by a living, interacting brain capable of living in the moment, of sometimes making deliberate illogical decisions, of taking risks, of accepting challenges. The musical capabilities of such a person would dwarf (to say the very least) the skills of even the most formidable musician alive today, or throughout all history. To attempt to speculate on what music would sound like if such a condition existed is a bit like trying to show a blind man what “red” is — except I’m the blind man.  We’ve experienced the advent of Harsh Wall Noise, an electronically developed music that is “music” only in the broadest definition of the term, and yet it has purpose and therefore is art (a point that I may go into more detail about at a later time). But can we really understand what this music is? I can listen to it, I can begin to pull out different sounds, and yet Harsh Wall Noise holds no depth of emotion for me. I feel personally disconnected from it, and rather than engaging with it, I pull back. If I had an H+ computerized brain, would I then be able to hear things at the same rate as the computer is able to produce them? Would Harsh Wall Noise suddenly change for me and become a “song”? Would the entire movement towards harsh noise be abandoned for something completely different; something we can’t even begin to comprehend? I feel that without a such a mental capacity, my speculations are just that: speculations.

And of course, this is all speculation. We’ve already seen a rejection of technology in music (and in some cases, in day-to-day life), and it’s very possibly that trend will continue until transhumanism is but a long-forgotten memory. I personally doubt that either trend will continue to an extreme; humans are much too middle ground for that. When discussing this article, W. had this to say on the subject: “It seems to me that if transhumanism completely engulfs the human experience, all art as we know it may fade away into something else completely. Will metal still exist? Would we even care?” I am very interested to see what the future holds for music and for art, regardless of the form that it takes. Let’s see what humans create; what the next generation’s new, but genuine, expression with a fake is.

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I need to send a huge “thank you” to the legendary W. for inspiring me to begin speculation on such a topic, and for providing invaluable feedback, suggestions, and ideas during the writing of this article. It could not have been accomplished without his help and contributions.

 

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