Next!

I was born a modernist. I was born two weeks early, perhaps because I didn't want to wait any longer for the future to arrive. My first word was "Next!". I'm at heart an optimist about the future and our ability to make what comes next better than what came before. I don't pine for the past.

This is perhaps the simplest way to illustrate it: I like that my son prefers new Daft Punk to Jimi Hendrix. His curious YouTube-filled music box of a brain has enough "Danger Zone" and "Don't Stop Believin'" for me to be content that he has the needed referential ability for the memes of ancient history (along with his strange obsession for the Soviet National Anthem). But I don't have any nostalgia about the old days being so much better, particularly in music where culture and context are more than 80% of the product.


Modernist music of the 20th century (of which I was once a card-carrying member — Uptown Battalion; Company B, Babbitt; Section CU, Morningside Heights) wore the scars from forced migration of traditions from Europe both before and after World War II. The core Modernist objective: the desire to destroy the oligarchy, discard the ruins of the past and to build a new musical language without being bound to the old.

This Modernist mindset sought the creative destruction of Western Musical traditions, and created a vibrant path through the early-mid 20th-century from Vienna through Darmstadt through New York City and beyond, where melody, harmony, rhythm, advanced instrumental techniques and new electronic instruments sought to take the next logical, and in many minds inevitable steps in musical evolution.


"Respect the tradition" was an undercurrent, an expectation for my generation of professors (née composers) not only to honor their forebearers, but to carry their work on to even greater complexity. But beyond the most raw experiments, there was always a reconciliation to the elements of the past — a "tune" surfacing here, a rhythmic "motiv" there — that cast the backwards glance to the musical expectations that are hard wired into all our brains.

Looking back at my work now, I tried to strike a balance — lyrical but atonal, colorful and unpredictable, sometimes rhythmic but often free floating. The genre was mature enough where I could pick and choose where to rebel, where to embrace and embellish, and where to rely on the fertile grounds of centuries past to establish expectations — then satisfy them or break them. Like the reintroduction of figures and illustrator's lines onto the canvas of a reluctant abstract expressionist, looking back I can now hear voices of the past mixing in, subconcious influences rising to the surface. Politics of destruction aside, the bottom line is always to get out of the dogma and get to the double bar — real artists ship.


And while we like to think of the arts as a life force unto itself, like anything, it lies subject to the cultural and economic conditions of its time. Revolutionary art is born not only in times of political foment, but in times when pigment is cheap enough that taking your protest to canvas is a productive way to plant a message within the parlours of the moneyed dilettantes.

Modernist 20th century music struggles in a world without arts education, with the natural balance that swings to the center away from experimental extremes, and with the task of surviving in a marketplace without significant subsidy and taxpayer support. Left to its own defenses to find an audience or die, "High Art", especially those without physical artifacts (paintings/sculpture) that can appreciate in value, will always find it hard to compete in a marketplace of carnival distractions.


The capitalist pipe organ at the center of the ride won't stop for the aging soldiers from the ivory tower, slaying imaginary demons from a forgotten motherland (yeah, that sounds like a lost Hendrix lyric, but it's not. Might be Dylan 'tho. Check it.).


My personal path from music composition to technology has changed the meaning and implication of "Creative Destruction".

Technology, whether cotton gin or iPhone app, can automate human labor and improve efficiency. There are so many moments in my life when I come across a person, let's imagine her here as "Madge" — a middle-aged middle-manager muddling through what seems to be meaningless job — where I have said aloud "...she could be replaced with a simple shell script."

It is for me a visceral reaction to want to optimize, to solve via software and a published API, and to find a way that waiting-in-line for a pointless conversation with an angry Madge can be replaced with a immediate swipe-click-submit.

So once I've replaced Madge and all her co-workers with my code and a gesture and a fraction of a virtual server in the cloud, what happens next? Not for me, but for Madge?

Something new, something perhaps unforeseen, as the economy adapts around the changes to take advantage of our newfound efficiencies.

In a New York Times opinion piece from August titled "How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class", Professors David Autor and David Dorn wrote:

Economists have historically rejected what we call the “lump of labor” fallacy: the supposition that an increase in labor productivity inevitably reduces employment because there is only a finite amount of work to do. While intuitively appealing, this idea is demonstrably false. In 1900, for example, 41 percent of the United States work force was in agriculture. By 2000, that share had fallen to 2 percent, after the Green Revolution transformed crop yields. But the employment-to-population ratio rose over the 20th century as women moved from home to market, and the unemployment rate fluctuated cyclically, with no long-term increase.


Turns out, bad news for Madge, that the ideal target for technology and productivity advancements in the workplace are most often middle class jobs that include repetitive digital or mechanical tasks that are best captured in a for-loop or by a twist of a servo. It's tough to get a robot cheap enough to safely clean that spilled ice cream cone on the floor, so that job is secure (for now), and jobs that require abstract, dynamic decisions, too, are safe from automation (for now).

Computerization has therefore fostered a polarization of employment, with job growth concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations, while jobs in the middle have declined. (Autor/Dorn)

So Madge has a something of a false choice. It's up or down. No matter how much she may prefer the status quo, there is no option to remain the same. Fight to take a job higher on the ladder, that she has perhaps tried before and found herself ill suited, or perhaps she was judged as not qualified enough to be management material. Or she can take a step back, in pay, in stature, and perhaps in self-esteem, and take what amounts to an entry-level job somewhere, finding her years of practical working experience now worth as much as a division-by-zero error.

So computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers. (Autor/Dorn)

For so many jobs the discrete skill you actually master is how to deal with your co-workers, and how to navigate the personal politics of the workplace. That is replaced by a computer program that doesn't give a crap about the Yankees' record, how crooked Sheila has parked her car in the lot, or the daily stench of balsamic dressing you slather in your Tupperware.

The most optimistic view is that Madge, now freed from her woeful Dilbertonian job, will be able to pursue something more meaningful, to find her true calling; freelance and find freedom from the prison of 9-to-5; or at the very least get some free online training to learn how to compete in the brave new economy.

While searching for a new job or career may be nothing when you're 23 years old and your world fits in a suitcase and those four blue bags you swiped from Ikea (dude, it says "Ikea" right there on the side), struggling with unemployment can be incredibly stressful, with negative impact on your health and well-being, especially for anyone with a sense of pride, hungry dependants and a stack of financial obligations. The anonymous confessions and frustrations of the unemployed on Whisper are simply heartbreaking.

Tyler Cowen describes our growing inequality and how the average household in rich countries has suffered due a slowdown in significant technological progress. His previous work, The Great Stagnation suggested that we'd be able to pull out of this funk with civilization's next great technology leap (think agriculture or electricity, not breast augmentation or iPods). In one of my favorite books of 2013, Average is Over, Cowen shows there is a rapidly disappearing middle ground between the have-an-awful-lots and have-not-much-at-alls. Cowen surveys some of the fascinating technology on the horizon and offers suggestions for policy reform, but also expresses skepticism that politicians would enact any solution, a point of view only strengthened by the Supreme Court's recent ruling allowing the wealthy to purchase elections direct from their Swiss bank accounts.


And, look, it's not just Madge's fault she's not ready for this change. Our public education system doesn't prepare students, and the adults they become, to be nimble and curious enough for modern society. Instead, most students are broken like wild-horses and made to fit in, taught to properly wait in line, turn in their paperwork, shut up and follow the rules, jump through hoops to meet your number. Schools prepare you for the factory jobs that have left, and the hollow corporate jobs that remained. Or once remained — until I replaced Madge with a few lines of logic and thousand pixels or so.

Internet "Visionary" Jaron Lanier says the Internet destroyed the middle class, noting that Kodak once employed 140 thousand people, while Instagram grew to prominence with 13 employees. The back story, however, includes how Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, and chose to ignore it to protect their film business, a perfect example of the opposite of creative destruction, and which ultimately led to bankruptcy in 2012. Comparing Instagram's headcount is unfair, as it ignores the fact that they didn't need to invent the internet and manufacture a mobile phone, but instead they simply needed to solve how to share saturated square pictures.

Companies, like jobs, life and humanity itself, don't last forever, and swift paradigm changes and slow reaction will take most anyone down. Despite this, Bach and Beethoven are taught with great diligence at the school Charles Eastman founded, and both remain unthreatened, but I digress. The Modernist in me says that pining for an age where paying for film and processing and waiting an hour for a single print is ridiculous, and yet for the all the individual employees affected by Kodak's (own) failures, I wonder, where do they go now?

But even if technology doesn't take away your job, we're all constantly connected and working with myriad apps in a way that may increase productivity, but also makes work a never-ending battle at the end of Lucy and Ethel's conveyor belt. But instead of facing an onslaught of tasty, tasty chocolate, you're faced with a doing the work that twenty years ago took five people, in a barrage of email and requests at all hours beyond the workday. To be sure, the chocolate processing role of Mrs. Ricardo will be played by a machine today.

Ian Bogost describes this as "Hyperemployment", and he includes in the mix the invisible and free labor of contributing to social media, creating content for Google, Twitter, and Facebook who then target ads to your eyeballs, and those of your family and friends. Lanier suggests that we should get paid royalties for our user-generated content, like royalties that get paid when your song gets sandwiched between ads on the radio. But the reinvigoration of the stormtrooper-lawyer copyright enforcement business, a militarized MPAA, ASCAP and BMI, sounds like a stupefying step away from the future.

Ok, so now what? Don't do cool stuff that makes life more efficient, and perhaps more enjoyable for the consumer because, y'know, Madge?

All this can’t stop the wars, can’t make the old younger, or lower the price of bread. ~ from Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (1968), 3rd Mvmt

Or maybe start the question at a different place. This hollowing out of the middle class is already well underway, and driven by much more than just the Internet or geeks building apps and startups. It's a whole bunch of solipsistic navel-gazing to blame the chasm of the inequality gap on your little app, and not SCOTUS, the Ayatollah and David Stockman (sounds like a Warren Zevon lyric, but it's not).

What are the inefficiencies that are now in Madge's way, to find a new job, to make money on her own, to start her own business? Maybe Madge will consider opportunities previously closed by regulation and other hurdles — finding new income enabled by the internet and mobile phones in the "Sharing Economy".

Or maybe Madge feels cheated by the system, lied to by the promise of fairness sold in every social studies textbook, and just says "Fuck it". Blames Obama, clings to guns and religion and Candy Crush, and drops out. Damn, Madge. I don't have an app for that. Come back, girl (u can leave the balsamic at home doh).


And maybe the Creative Destruction question for me is the same as it was in music — forget about destruction, what can we create that is truly new, and truly meaningful?


"Out with the old, and in with the new" in my musical youth meant experimentation, exploration, and eschewing tradition. It meant finding my tribe, creating a voice, and making a way to stand on a stage and disrupt expectation to create the next sonic world for my generation to inhabit.

In my tech world of today, the constructive elements remain, as do the personal, creative elements of exploration, learning and experimentation, and a very analogous freedom of doing more with less. But in the way innovation could have real destructive impact on real lives there exists a much larger responsibility I don't wish to ignore in the race to find the future.

Creative destruction isn't an inevitable next step, but a choice. Some elements of stasis may be tied up in economics or politics, some native to the culture, but many of those seemingly fixed facets are bound to be lost to natural market evolution and innovation. Things change — our one constant is impermanence. It's up to us to choose the future we wish to create, and building a hyper-optimized future that destroys livelihoods without creating new opportunities for people is just the shallow pursuit of wealth.

And that's not my "Next!", but without a doubt going backwards isn't either. That's the challenge that makes "Now!" so interesting.

Author

Jason Uechi

The standard applies: I goes to IV, which usually goes to V; These thoughts and opinions are my own, and not that of my employer; Spinning wheel got to go round.