Neon Dream #11: Kinski – Semaphore

I will never summon ethereal fire spirits to rend my foes, and unless the unknown reaches of physics politely comply with Hollywood, I will never receive a post card from the dark side of the Milky Way. I will also never applaud a director’s effective use of taste and smell, or upload a backup of my memory to external storage in between breakfast and a morning shower, but there is a difference here…

Nearly every cyberpunk story I have encountered begins with an apocalypse shortly after its publication. I guarantee you someone is writing one right now in which, in 2020, either Putin or radical Islamists nuke the shit out of everybody. Now it is 2060, and all of a sudden everyone is rocking cybernetic implants, babies grow in artificial wombs, and Lunar Colony Beta just declared independence. It’s not an absurdity. It’s not as if people just go “it’s the future; of course it will be futuristic!” and ignore the context. The assumption is that a cataclysmic act of destruction will somehow propel technology towards radical progress.

This makes sense, if you think about the forces that drive technology forward. In capitalism, there is always an incentive to stagnate. The longer you can milk a product, pumping out new models with superficial “upgrades”, the less you have to invest into research and development. Especially in oligopolies like America, once you establish a monopoly you can dig in your heels for years, even decades, before competition on other fronts undermines your turf. Technology is also hardballed by the western world’s incoherent, slapped-together code of ethics. Since the 1980s, our society has been pretty thoroughly convinced that free will is an endangered species preservable only in captivity. Half of the potential at our fingertips is illegal to research let alone implement, on the grounds that it somehow violates our sanctity.

The post-apocalyptic setting washes us clean of our old ethics and oligarchs. The society that emerges might be a terrible place to live, but it may well be a technocracy. When capitalism undermined the old aristocracy, revolution created bourgeois democracy. The First World War birthed all sorts of hyper-industrial dictatorships, even at the far fringes of the Industrial Revolution’s sphere. A catastrophic event in the information age should, if the trend holds, generate Google empires. How long can conventionally mechanized warlords withstand against soldiers modified to receive live satellite imagery of their terrain and fully regenerate major wounds in a matter of months? Is 45 years too soon for all this? Mother Russia went from de facto feudalism to Sputnik in fewer. And we have to make some allowances for fiction…

There is nothing fundamental preventing massive progress towards biological enhancement–at least nothing we are commonly aware of. The Cyborg Age won’t emerge in our lifetimes, realistically, but only because of entrenched social, political, and economic conditions. The fictional cataclysm is compelling for a lot of bigger reasons, but plausibility still hangs in the air. Our cozy modern lives won’t take us anywhere, but maybe a little pandemonium will usher in the paradigm shift to a society which praises integration of digital technology into our biological systems.

Kinski are a post-rock band from Seattle that formed in 1998. “Semaphore” appears on their 2003 Sub Pop release, Airs Above Your Station. I am pretty sure that the opening two minutes contains a formula to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity, but I am too old to do acid. At any rate, I hear it as some sort of major shift in perspective inaugurating an era of progression.

Neon Dream #10: The Album Leaf – The Outer Banks

The Album Leaf is an electronic-oriented post-rock band headed by Jimmy LaValle. While the project has been around since 1998, LaValle made it onto most post-rock radars with his third album, In a Safe Place. Released in 2004, is was LaValle’s first album on Sub Pop, and it featured most of Sigur Rós as studio musicians. The album was significant, I think, for affirming that great post-rock did not have to conform to the structure and instrumentation standards that were beginning to overwhelm the genre.

For me though, it filled a very different role. I was pretty obsessed with Lost in Translation at the time, and that soundtrack had a bit of a love affair with Rhodes piano and similar tones. That sound happened to be The Album Leaf’s trademark, and it fit in beautifully, especially with Brian Reitzell’s contributions and “Tommib” by Squarepusher. I ended up inserting my favorite track off In a Safe Place into the middle of my Lost in Translation playlist, and that’s how a song called “The Outer Banks” came to make me think of Japan.