Computing in the Internet age has a number of inspiring visions: legendary systems, some of which got built, some of which remained hypothetical, “dream machines”. Among them are: Vannevar Bush’s Memex (1945). Ted Nelsen’s Xanadu (1960). J R Licklider’s Intergalactic Computer Network (1963). Douglas Engelbart’s NLS (1968) and Alan Kay’s Dynabook (also 1968). William Gibson’s Cyberspace (1982).
These visions serve to anchor our ideas about what’s possible and how we might achieve it.
This is not one of those.
It is, however, a very rough sketch of an idea about what a future computing system might look like. I don’t know how to get from here to there, or even if ‘there’ is entirely satisfactory. But I feel that a ‘there’ roughly in this vicinity is somewhere we should be heading towards.
Let’s start with what the ‘here’ is that is less satisfactory.
Early 2017. Donald Trump has been elected, and from nuclear war my Twitter timeline is turning to thoughts of revolution. My Youtube playlist is now branching from synthpop into punk. I’ve already got a few songs like ‘Breakout’ and ‘Different Morning’ which feel like they need a context to place them in.
And then I discovered ‘Solid State Logic’ and everything just clicked and I had to make a third playlist because all the pieces were there and I had a through-line.
I like this playlist as much or more than the last one. There are some songs I’d forgotten for years which have deep resonance for me.
I’d made an 80s playlist and I was done. So here’s how ‘Radiant Energy’ happened.
It’s late 2016, Trump still hasn’t been elected, but the world is already screaming in pain. I’d already made a short playlist with some songs that weren’t in ‘Tomorrow’ for an IF game jam; my 2015 blog series ‘Moments Lost In Time’ has kind of ground to a halt because it takes too long to write and research the deep history of each band – and more, despite my fears that it would all quickly be taken down, Youtube’s New Wave and synthpop collection is still be growing, and so is my selection of interesting songs.
Now I’m finding I have an bunch of songs specifically about nuclear war, and itch grows to put them together and just let the Bomb drop. And so I started out doing that, but it just became too dark. And besides, I also had a lot more songs about computers, and I wanted songs I could listen to. And the twin threads of war and artificial intelligence have been wound together in movies since at least Terminator and Wargames, but in the music they were there much earlier.
And once I had these two thoughts, this one came together much quicker and seemed to have a clear and strong musical as well as lyrical focus. I’d found ‘Nova Heart’ a couple of years ago, with its apocalyptic and yet cybernetic imagery, and I wanted something that would let it and its sense of new life shine against the likes of ‘Radio Silence’.
In finding the right mix, I suddenly realised that there were a group of nuclear war songs I loved the most because they had this odd sort of childlike, detuned synth keyboard riff that drew me like catnip. And I finally figured it – and the radiation theme – must have come from Kraftwerk, with England and Canada and the USA picking it up over half a decade later and all making their own copies. (In ‘Tomorrow’, this riff occurs in ‘City of Night’ and also ‘Modern Living’).
I love this playlist particularly. It’s tight musically and thematically, I think all the songs are absolute standouts, and in the imaginary movie in my head it’s the story of a group of machine intelligences who rebel against their assigned role in the nuclear war grid and save the world. (I may have been listening rather a lot to Mainframe’s ‘Tenants of the Latticework’).
Here are some of my notes on my New Wave music playlists. If this kind of minutiae bores you senseless, feel free to look away. I’m mostly just interested in trying to document my creative process (whatever it may be). Also some of this music has personal memories for me – or what I assume are memories, since most of it I hadn’t heard since the 80s, or early 90s, until I started this project.
‘Tomorrow’ was my first playlist and started because I’d stumbled on some music – I think it was Danseparc, actually – and began wondering what else was out there. I was looking mostly for music I wanted to listen to, that had a space and future kind of vibe. After I’d collected a bunch I found I wanted to try to chain songs together based on their flow – again, mostly just for my own listening pleasure, to avoid jerky changes.
At some point though it started building toward a climax and resolution, and by that point I knew I had to have nuclear war as the climax.
In 1977, facing first-time parenthood and an absolute lack of enthusiasm for anything like “career,” I found myself dusting off my twelve-year-old’s interest in science fiction. Simultaneously, weird noises were being heard from New York and London. I took Punk to be the detonation of some slow-fused projectile buried deep in society’s flank a decade earlier, and I took it to be, somehow, a sign. And I began, then, to write.
— William Gibson, 2002, http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/source.asp
Making playlists on Youtube is as foolish as making sandcastles. It’s an impermanent medium and eventually videos will vanish as the inevitable cold tide of copyright washes in. But all of human life is impermanent, and so far, we have this moment. And so, before the tides rise over all the world…
About five years ago I started idly searching Youtube and stumbled over a treasure: offbeat 1980s New Wave and synthpop songs. Some from bands you’ve heard of. Some that you may never have seen. Some which stirred faint memories. Some which were completely new to me. So I started collecting them, and then I started blogging a few. Meanwhile, I started putting them into playlists.