David Bowie Spoke Fluent Human And Machine

John Maeda
5 min readNov 17, 2020

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.”

John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.