New Robot Ears

Or how I started worrying when the machine learned what I loved

Text by Felix L. Petty

Recently in a conversation with independent label No Pain In Pop on the subject of scouting for bands, co-founder Tom Oldham explained they would simply scroll through the MySpace networks of bands they already liked and listen to what they found. The days of the A&R scout, roaming the country, expense account in hand, are but a distant memory now. Armed with the internet, they zoom in on various places linked through digital strata in search of some magical musical moment.

The internet is often credited with destroying the conventional business model of the music industry. In a new world of abundance, with plenty available gratis, it would seem to be the supermarket mums, “£50 blokes”, vinyl nerds and advertising campaigns that are keeping the old-school enterprise afloat. As far as business models go, the concept of web distribution reflects the early ’80s US hardcore scene’s band-to-fan ideal, as embodied by sites such as Bandcamp.

Obviously the new model doesn’t work for everyone, but the shift in profitability has had an effect on what we listen to, because it influences what is made. It is an encouraging era for the hobbyists, doing it for the love, and for the top league club DJs, attracting stratospheric fees whose fans purchase everything they touch. A good time, too, if you are Radiohead and don’t have to worry about actually selling records for money any more. The rest of the middling indie bands are probably still thankful there are mobile phone companies wanting to capture a young audience through new music.

Our socially networked world relies on sharing; we accrue life online in a stream of mutual likes, status updates and comments, developing a presence that evaporates once the online interaction ends. Our retromania boils down to this supposition: we feel compelled to share online, and after compulsively sharing the new, we, via a swift bit of research, work backwards and start sharing the old. What this leads to is an odd temporal glitch where the past is always constantly re-evaluated and re-contextualised in the present. We end up with blogs catering to the hyper-specific micro scenes, reintroducing them into the contemporary wild like extinct creatures nursed back to health. An old world given a new online life because of our desire to rediscover and share. Social networks as cultural Jurassic Parks.

Recently at a club night at Corsica Studios, I caught up with Egyptian Lover, who was an integral part of Los Angeles’ dance and rap scene of the mid to late ’80s. He is indicative of the above trend: years of nothingness, before reappearing in the mid ’00s from beyond the grave. At one moment during his DJ set, he shifted into a section involving live use of a Roland 808 synthesizer. This culminated in him holding it aloft and encouraging the crowd to chant, “eight – oh – eight – eight – oh – eight” in time to the music. It was a prime example of the weird object fetishism of dance music, equivalent to worshipping T.S. Eliot’s pen; in love with the machine and not the human who wrings the creative potential from it, oblivious to the fact that the pen writes a shopping list just as easily as it does The Waste Land.

Egyptian Lover’s act is an example of retromania; dance music’s “golden oldies” playing music from a time when it was considered “real”. Yet as an original member of the ’80s West Coast hip-hop scene, he can be forgiven for harking back to a time when he was leaner, meaner and more relevant; when his use of the 808 was part of a revolutionary development in the possibility of sound and not just a signifier of a bygone age. But when the loudest cheers in your set are for a machine, it is as hard to discern whether it is the audience who is the problem as it is to understand just what is desired.

Newness is a relative concept, after all. Kraftwerk’s Man Machine no longer sounds futuristic but, instead, is rooted in the ’70s and ’80s vision of the future. Newness is reliant on the technology used to create; the relatively new technology of yesteryear is now relegated to an aged curio, held aloft and worshipped for what it once achieved. All musical avant-gardes are, essentially, suicide missions; trailblazing too far ahead and too fast. They are the light that burns out very quickly, only becoming discernible in hindsight.

But one thing that retro-fetishism and the constant re-contextualisation of our immediate past has led to, is a stream of ideas pouring out of our culture in a very new way; the built-in nostalgic value of the decaying mixes with the desire to attach something ostensibly real into something digital. More and more it appears that our digital and physical lives intersect in new and strange ways, as evidenced by a crowd of people chanting the name of a now obsolete machine.

The future has quickly crept up on us, and it is not a future of warp speed and laser beams. But, nonetheless, it is quite clearly the future. Today, I Skype-chatted with a musician in North America; engaged in real time, text-based discussion about this article with a friend in Sussex; and called my parents on the other side of the world via an app built into my phone. This is a future built on digital communications, not physics-bending fantasies out of Star Trek and Star Wars. This future has led to a revolutionary levelling of the access to culture. I can view a high-resolution download of the Mona Lisa, read Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and listen to the new release by Actress all at the same time. Of course, I could do this all before, but right now I could be doing that on a bus. While writing this feature and tweeting a thousand-odd followers what it is I’m doing.

This is because the containers within which these moments of cultural endeavour are encapsulated have shrunk to nothing more than lines of code. No more lugging books around; read them on the compact and light Kindle. No more hauling CDs and records around; listen to them on your iPod. No more visiting stuffy art galleries; look up the artist on your MacBook’s vivid retina display.

As we experience more and more of life digitally, and culture is accessed digitally, it makes sense that the new culture will be digitally based, and the new aesthetic movement will also rely on such a format.

And, yes, it is actually called The New Aesthetic. James Bridle coined the name for his Tumblr, a project he described as a “moodboard for unknown products”; everything’s for sale, even if we don’t know what we’re selling yet. After a discussion group at last year’s SXSW festival, The New Aesthetic quickly became consumed by a wave of debate regarding its politics, its lack of politics, its point, as well as its newness and aesthetic value. But overall, just for the implication of what it was saying, and for how it was being said. It is clear we are dealing with, for better or worse, the culmination of a trend within our world towards digitalisation, whereby the avant-garde has swapped its Left Bank cafes for coffee shops with free wi-fi.

The New Aesthetic deals with the weird overlap between the digital and the physical. So you could be on a website that live-streams police radio from various locations across the United States while randomly selecting music tagged as “ambient electronic“ uploaded to Soundcloud from the same area. The result is an hypnotic mixture of relaxing new age synth sounds over dispassionately reported crime incidents; the undiscerning eye of the computer capturing a randomly generated moment of sublime beauty.

The New Aesthetic is tangentially related to the term “post-internet”, which says we can no longer ignore the role the digital world plays in “real” life. It is born out of the gap between the perfection we expect of the machine and the realisation that, because it has been built and programmed by humans, it is also fallible and prone to mistakes. And these mistakes are at times odd, wonderful or strangely enchanting.

The New Aesthetic is interesting to music because it would appear that more of our cultural explorations rely on unseen programmed algorithms. From iTunes’ Genius software mechanism to and Spotify playlists, the computer systems are generating our tastes now. It isn’t quite Terminator’s Skynet AI, but it is, nonetheless, quite unsettling.

The root of the computer-generated system of taste-making is, at its most basic level, a capitalistic one. We hear more, we buy more; it feeds into our need to share. Think of our constant Facebook stream of videos, links, likes and digi-snaps of people you attended school with. We live in a digital village of curious neighbours.

Computer systems have a more direct effect on finance institutions, too. “The Flash Crash of 2.45,” when Wall Street’s computer algorithms wiped 9% off the value of the exchange in minutes, only for it to recover moments later, was the second largest point swing in history. These sophisticated codes, written and programmed by humans, suddenly started operating beyond our control, almost destroying the stock exchange, before correcting themselves. Analysts cannot agree what happened, because the codes have become so unknowably complex, the patterns so obscure, that it is now unintelligible to mere mortals. Our computers have become so intelligent that they could run our whole economic system for us. Or destroy it in mere seconds.

In 2006, an open competition was held to devise a new algorithm for the film streaming service Netflix. It would recommend films to watch based upon previous titles that subscribers had viewed and rated on the site. Their “pragmatic chaos” algorithm now recommends 60% of the movies people view on Netflix. We see the same sourced collaborative filters at work in other areas of online cultural commerce, from Amazon to Pandora Radio to These computer algorithms control what we see, watch, buy and listen to.

Or at least they would like to. Because, ultimately, I am as unknowable and strange to the computer system and its algorithms as it is to me. I have no more insight into how the algorithms caused “The Flash Crash of 2.45” than they do into my life. For all Amazon’s recommendations they have no knowledge of my shopping at second-hand book markets, the books I have checked out of the library, the books lent to me by friends that have sparked interests in subjects I have not yet read about. has no insight into my activities outside of what I listen to on my computer; it doesn’t know the clubs I go to, the blogs I read, the records I listen to. When it comes to the life the computer system has programmed, it has no comprehension of me and I to it. I remain an anomaly in its perfectly coded algorithm.



  • Robot Ears