Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Cultural Style: Software, Jamming & #DH

Prompted by some recent reading in digital humanities (aka DH), I'm bumping this to the top of the queue. It started with Scott Enderle's The Radical Potential of RDF Dimension Reduction? That took me to Miriam Posner, What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities, and that, in turn, shuttled me off to an interview in which Tara McPherson argues, "early developments in digital computing were also intertwined with shifting racial codes in the U.S. and beyond."

In the piece that follows I take up a similar conjunction, computing and race, though to a somewhat different end and with a different valence. It dates back to the previous millennium. IBM is no longer on the ropes, as it was when I wrote it, though it is a very different company, with a different product mix. But it hasn't quite regained its past glory either. That is gone, perhaps forever. There are other players in the game. The once mighty Microsoft is still mighty, but it has been outstripped by Google and, of all companies, Apple. Still, there's a basic truth stored away in these words and that truth doesn't change just because the high tech world keeps whirlin' around. You might also check out this historical fantasy in the subject of Independence Day.

* * * * *

21st C = von Neumann * Armstrong^2

Why is America the software center of the Universe?
Because it is also the Rap-Rock-Funk-Soul-Jazz-Blues
center of the Universe. What does that have to do
with the If-Then-Else imperatives of byte busting?
Technology is not just technique. It is style and
attitude. You can't write great software if your
soul was nurtured on the mechanical clockwork and
internal combustion rhythms of the Machine Age. You
must free yourself from the linear flow of
mechanical time and learn to improvise order from
the creative chaos lurking in the multiple
intersecting flows of the digital domain.
Roll over Beethoven, it's Jimi Hendrix time.

* * * * *

Cases in point: Steve Wozniak took time out
from Apple to produce rock and roll concerts.
Microsoft was co-founded by a guitar-playing
Jimi Hendrix fan, Paul Allen. Borland International
is the brainchild of barbarian jazz saxophonist
Philippe Kahn. Xerox and Apple guru Alan GUI
Kay worked his way through graduate school as
a jazz musician. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor
has taken to riding the informatic frontier
with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.
* * * * *

Now, IBM is on the ropes. Marching to the tick tock
strokes of a steam locomotive, it can't swing to the
rhythms of the Apollo moon dance. Big Blue is crying
the blues because it isn't hip enough to play the blues.
If you don't want to be dogged by the hell-hound on
IBM's tail, then baptize your brain in the soul-juice
of funkadelic jivometric drumology.

* * * * *

Still, we can't create the future from nothing.
The post-IBM world has been in the works
for a long time. In the Roaring 20s the sons and daughters
of Henry Assembly-Line Ford and Tom Light-Bulb Edison
cruised the night spots of African America dancing to the
improvisations of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway,
and all the other pioneering funkateers. Getting juiced,
they got loose, and mechanical tick tock began to die.
Their sons and daughters dug Elvis the Pelvis and blew
Bob Dylan's changing winds into the high-tech
studio wizardry of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.
When Woodstock Nation faded into decaying
reels of audiotape and videotape the young, the hip and
the restless decided that communes were 19th
century and created the video game and PC industry.

* * * * *

Now a new cultural force has emerged on the scene.
Tempered in battle with Ronald Raygun and his
Bush League Wrecking Crew, hip hop reaches back to
the rhythms which created humankind on the African
savannas and, through digital sampling, crosses those
rhythms with our recorded musical legacy. Silicon Age
rappers insinuate body-heart rhythm into the digital
warp and woof of emerging cultural patterns. The anger
cuts through accretions of industrial armor and
creates room to grow, letting the neurons branch in new patterns.

* * * * *

That's where it all begins: the nervous system.
While the genes lay down the basic plan, the
detailed wiring is worked out through
extended and intimate interaction with the environment.
To update William Wordsworth,
the jazz child is mother to the cybernetic man.
The dancing you do at ten forms the matrix out of which you think
when you are twenty. If you grow up to mechanical rhythms,
digital dancing is unnatural.
To be a natural born child of the 21st century
you must dance at the wedding between
the soul of John von Neumann
and the science of Daniel Louis Armstrong.

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