When I’m asked to explain the basic foundations of speaking machine, I turn to David Bowie as my go-to example. I posit that if he were born a decade or so later, one of the big tech companies would have been run by Bowie.
To true Bowie fans out there, I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really discover Bowie until he passed away in 2016 — so instead I’ve been lucky to get to do a lot of catching up over the last five years.
There are two video interviews with Bowie where his power to speak both machine and human are in stunning view. One happened in the 80s, during a conversation with a rising media startup called “MTV”. In the interview, Bowie criticized MTV for excluding Black artists. (At the time, it did.) The other occurred over a decade later, when Bowie was interviewed by the BBC. He described the Internet in terms that can be eerily recognized today in 2020. Rather than reading about these videos, it’s best to go off and experience them at the source. But because I’ve got your attention here in text form, let me try and outfit you with some extended context before you double-click your way off to the soothing eyeball quicksand of YouTube.
MTV (“Music Television”) was founded in 1981 as a platform for the emerging promotional art form of so-called “music videos” — and the network played them on an endless loop, 24-hours/7-days a week. Looking back, it seems odd to call this out as a big idea, given how essentially every video repository online is a 24-hours/7-days a week service like Netflix, Hulu, etc. But back in 1980, this was new. And, of course, David Bowie was one of the first to do something interesting with this new thing. He released what was then the most expensive music video ever made, to accompany “Ashes to Ashes.” It’s a beautiful film that pushed the envelope of non-digital techniques for image making, using a photographic technique called “solarization,” which is the analog equivalent of a Photoshop effect.
“The only few Black artists one does see [on MTV] are on about 2:30 in the morning until 6:00.”
By 1983 MTV had become the the dominant hub of commercial music culture, so when Bowie questioned why MTV wasn’t playing more videos by Black artists, it was an unusually bold move. Most artists would want to play the sycophant in order to garner more opportunities to have their music shared (remember there was no social media) — but Bowie played the critic instead. “The only few Black artists one does see [on MTV] are on about 2:30 in the morning until 6:00,” he said.
To which the interviewer responded how MTV needed to consider the full demographics of their audience beyond the major metros when deciding which artists to air: “… Poughkeepsie or the Midwest, pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces. We have to play the type of music the entire country would like.” The interviewer shares a few more arguments along these lines of complex “business” logic, and Bowie speaks back in human terms how he was watching a different TV channel with “a lot of Black artists making very good videos.” This exchange didn’t result in an immediate shift of MTV’s approach to broadcasting, but at the end of that year Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” debuted. And the rest is history.
Fast forward to a decade later, when Bowie is being interviewed by a conservative BBC announcer. Bowie pushes back on an analogy comparing the Internet to the advent of the telephone, arguing that the Internet will be far more transformative. He believed that the Internet was going to lead to sweeping change in culture and society and that the world was “on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.” But the announcer refused to imagine that it was anything but a new technology in the house, like a washing machine, automobile, or television set. So he tried to compare the Internet to things that we’ve already known in the past; most people in 1999 would have done the same, insisting just like him to Bowie, “It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?” To which Bowie responded,
“No, no, it’s an alien life form.”
How do we know it’s an alien life form?
Consider that to create MTV as a 24/7 platform back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it required tens of millions of dollars to fuel the people and technologies to manually operate a media machine that can distribute content continuously and without any rest. And that’s just one thread of programming delivered all over the world, and with one set of humans’ biases affecting what’s being simultaneously aired in Los Angeles and Poughkeepsie. Today because of the Internet, we don’t think twice about offering a 24/7 service that can stream custom content at the exact time that you desire — without any human beings curating those feeds or live engineers managing the broadcast to your home or device while you’re on the go. It’s all automated, somehow.
How is that at all possible?
The level of automation we experience today has to be powered by an alien life form because it’s completely unnatural. It can’t be from earth. It does what we tell it to do over and over and over and without needing a lunch break or a nap. Things quickly get worse when we program the alien life form to digitally stream content with embedded anti-otherness undertones into human minds over and over and over again it will obediently do that forever. What should concern us all today is that there aren’t enough Bowies in the universe to face and criticize the automated biases that are individually livestreamed to all of us.
Back in 1999, it wasn’t obvious to anyone beyond the brethren of the fluent and few programmers across the world how this alien life form worked. Although Bowie wasn’t a coder, somehow he understood its three unique properties that can lead to both marvelously wonderful and devastatingly dangerous outcomes. Is the Internet an alien life form? It certainly is. Does it speak human? Not if we consciously fail to do the work of teaching it the right things. What are the three properties that make it so unique? Let’s explore this further in our next installment here on Medium.
I’ll be posting weekly as part of the Medium team’s special invitation for me to share what I’ve learned over the years about how to speak both machine and human. And if you happen to see this between the dates of November 10 and 20 in 2020, please vote for my SXSW submission “Safety Eats The World” if the 2021 CX Report at all interests you. Thank you for tuning in! — JM