2010s: Confronting Uncertainty Consumption, code/spaces, and atemporality in the network age

"Pretty in Pink 1" by Billy Beaverhausen

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

“If the relation between artistic creation and our history is so difficult to pin down these days, it is precisely because time is accelerating and, as it were, evading us, and because the overlaying of temporal language by spatial language, the primacy of code, which prescribes behaviour, over the symbolic, which constructs relations, shapes the conditions of artistic creation.”
– Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity

Digital colonization has been a fundamental and increasingly oppressive component of the 2010s. The reach of the network has extended quite far, permeating nearly every aspect of social interaction and cultural genesis, bringing with it the exploitative and individualist logic of capital and those who control it. Over the last decade, the network (and the coding that enables its reach) has creeped into places of work and leisure, of cultural creation and consumption, even of love and relationships in ways unforeseen.

Control of and/or influence within the network has become synonymous with political and economic power. Under global capitalism, the wealth and power afforded by network control has fallen into the hands of a few moguls and corporations who now enjoy enormous political influence. The internet of things and labor automation are becoming more widespread; the former promises more surveillance capitalism, the latter more unemployment and a revolution of infrastructure that renders dozens of professions obsolete. Concurrently, refugee crises and food shortages have resulted in an influx of immigration into almost every nation in the Global North, which has ignited a surge of nationalism, classism, racism, and support for far-right ideologues. The dark miasma of global eco-crises floats menacingly over these radical transformations, an emergency often treated as invisible by policymakers until it stares them in the face via stronger storms, flooding, and forest fires. It seems like every day scientists unveil more alarming climate change data that spell out certain doom, and more often than not, such projections are best-case scenarios.

Instead of utopianism, democratization, and post-racialism, the grim truth is that the internet — algorithms, social media, and the network — seems to have achieved comparatively little in the way of effecting harmonious communities, equal access to information, and equitably prosperous societies. Often, it has done the opposite, having exacerbated racial, gender, political, and class divisions; enabled the rise of the alt-right; acted as a conduit for the radicalization of young men worldwide; and served as a vehicle for capital inequality and exploitation.

In short, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. In broad terms, both the creation and consumption of media seem to have entered a feedback loop: instead of pushing forward and embracing the realities of our own moment, artistic approaches and even political convictions have often either turned backward or stood still. Naturally, there are exceptions, and much can be said for various significant works and movements that emerged between 2010-2019, many of which we are proud to have covered here at Tiny Mix Tapes. But generally, experimental movements have been increasingly suffocated by the aforementioned trends and corporate takeover to the detriment of liberating art/music that might offer refuge. Similarly, independent music publications have been swimming upstream against a tide of exploitation, commercialization, and the encroachment of a network rooted in surveillance capitalism, making it harder to create space for discourse and meaningful criticism. From creation to journalistic coverage to consumption and enjoyment, the network has radically transformed the music industry, resulting in an environment that fails to nurture community, critical discussion, and the artists themselves.

As some cultural theorists and music critics have pointed out, a sense of atemporality and stagnation has emerged across creative endeavors, even society itself. The reasons why aren’t so apparent; perhaps it’s a glaring symptom of capitalist realism, which has resulted in an inability or unwillingness to develop solutions other than (or outside of) neoliberalism for the terrors outlined above; perhaps the usefulness of history as a tool for understanding ourselves and the art we create has been rendered obsolete; or perhaps creativity has simply reached an impasse of oversaturation and overload, so many styles and content available to us that it’s easier to market and make a living off “old” styles than to work to synthesize appealing “new” ones. Most likely, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Whatever the reasons, it’s a phenomenon that is plainly apparent. And all too often, experimental and avant-garde music(s) have been underappreciated or snuffed out before their potential could be fully realized. As I wrote in my review of Triad God’s 2019 album 黑社會 Triad, the decade has felt trapped in “a feedback loop wherein the avant-garde either became an afterthought, was written off as pretentious, or was otherwise abandoned (or mistaken) for pastiche or kitsch in a music culture unwilling or unable to find cohesion in an age of hyper-accessibility.”

I am of the conviction that art, creativity, and novel aesthetic experiences — and the analyses and criticism that rise in their wake — are powerful engines of redemptive change. In that regard, here I’ll explore some ways that the network has affected the creation, consumption, and distribution of music in the 2010s. Of course, any exploration of so complex a phenomenon requires a variety of methods, perspectives, and analyses, surely too many for one essay. As such, my goal here is less comprehensiveness and more to offer an invitation into subject matter that warrants urgent attention. My hope is that this essay will offer insight into the ongoing conversations regarding global technology-driven neoliberalism and the types of culture it produces.

This piece is titled “Confronting Uncertainty,” because our cultural trajectories have largely been shaped by the extent to which we are willing or able to confront the future and whatever anxieties it brings. In the last decade, we’ve experienced radical shifts in ideological consciousness, sociospatial relations, and technology. But with these shifts has come pervasive uncertainty that has produced tangible fear, cynicism, and paranoia. My overall aim is to draw attention to the desperate need to confront the uncertainty of our current condition. While I intend my analysis to be more diagnostic than prescriptive, at least in terms of specificity, I will still argue that if we are to push forward into the darkness, we would do well to embrace more contextual understandings of music so that they might retain their inherent value as powerful tools for envisioning alternative visions and narratives for our future.

Part I: Post-Piracy

“Will ubiquitous computing be co-opted as a stalking horse for predatory capitalism or can we seize the opportunity to use it for life enhancing transformation?”
– N. Katharine Hayles

Founded sometime around 2007, What.cd was the child of Oink.cd (colloquially stylized OiNK), a private torrent tracker active between 2004-2007 that was ultimately shut down after a two-year anti-piracy investigation led by Interpol. The investigation led to the prosecution of OiNK’s founder Alan Ellis, a British software engineer who would eventually face “conspiracy to defraud” charges but avoid being convicted. But despite the site’s demise and the threat of prosecution, OiNK’s former administrators and loyal members were unphased. They formed What.cd, which would eventually grow far beyond OiNK in size and scope.

For the uninitiated, a torrent tracker is a server that connects a network of users who share files downloaded to their computers via an application (a BitTorrent client) that connects users to each other via a central server (the “tracker”). While public trackers like The Pirate Bay were once widely used and more or less sufficient for downloading popular content, private trackers like What.cd were faster, more reliable, and less visible to authorities and internet service providers seeking to enforce copyright law.

Naturally, access to What.cd was selective, requiring an interview or a coveted invite from a current member. And once a member, there were strict rules and upload/download ratio requirements in place to ensure users were giving back to the tracker just as they took from it. Users were even incentivized to provide site maintenance and support (cataloguing content, editing Wikipedia-style entries on downloading methods, artist information, etc.). The result was an incredibly useful music website and a valuable encyclopedic resource for information.

The genius of a torrent tracker is its horizontal structure of distribution and accountability. Instead of a central database of files, the data is stored within the network itself on thousands of computers; the central server simply serves as a beacon connecting users, or “peers,” enabling them to share and download files from one another. This ensures that, even if the network itself is shut down, the files still remain intact because they are distributed on computers around the world.

Unable to effectively prosecute thousands of users, the best authorities have been able to do is to scapegoat one or a handful of people on piracy charges, and even then, building a case can be difficult. Further, because of a tracker’s decentralized structure, shutting down one tracker is less like the burning of The Library of Alexandria and more like a temporary roadblock. As occurred with the demise of OiNK, users can simply rebuild another tracker through which to exchange the already-downloaded files. Indeed, several trackers have arisen since the demise of What.cd (though it’s questionable how well they’ll thrive in the age of streaming). For authorities, it’s an endless game of whack-a-mole. Shutting down one tracker is akin to decapitating a hydra: more trackers are destined to rise in the wake of the dead one.

With efficiency in mind, torrent trackers should be regarded as the ideal means through which music is consumed in the network age. Trackers and MP3 downloading consume less energy than streaming and are far less precarious. The only problem, of course, is that this model of consumption is the anathema to any industry built on the “scarcity logic” of market capitalism, which cares not for efficiency or public good, but for profit.

As the prevalence of torrent trackers grew, so too did filesharing services. And much of that story begins with Kim Dotcom. By 2005, he was living in Hong Kong, and his track record fell somewhere between a self-professed “hacker” (who had a fondness for embellishing his feats) and a shady internet entrepreneur who had somehow made a hefty sum of money in the data security business. But the world’s economy was becoming increasingly globalized, and the network economy maturing. Now free after a few run-ins with the law, he saw an opportunity to make good money in filesharing. So, while living in Hong Kong, he founded Data Protect Limited, a hosting service that he would rename Megaupload shortly thereafter.

Megaupload, of course, quickly became the standard for file storage, viewing, and sharing until 2012, when it was shut down by the US Department of Justice. Before that happened, Megaupload and sites like it indirectly gave birth to an underground network of music blogs that distributed music files, often illegally, to millions of people worldwide. Music fans and curators who lived in the era of music blogs often reflect on those years fondly as a time when the internet still held promise of a better future, or at least a more fun one, where corporate influence in music and journalism was less pronounced.

Like torrent trackers, the music blog circuit — spearheaded by sites like holyfuckingshit40000, Mutant Sounds, Fantod Under Glass, and others — was characterized by horizontal participation in the consumption and distribution of music. Any number of music blogs offered downloadable records (via MegaUpload, Rapidshare, Mediafire, etc.), from popular to rare, and often included reviews, substantial artist information/history, and comment discussions. And, of course, it was all free.

The staggering extent to which MegaUpload was used to download illegal media is difficult to grasp. At one point, it was estimated that 4% of all internet traffic was directed through MegaUpload. The site had its fall from grace in 2012, partly for reasons outside of copyright infringement (money laundering, racketeering, etc.), but the message was apparent: if music on the internet had a future, then filesharing was not going to be a part of it. It served as a warning to other companies seeking to take MegaUpload’s place. Robbed of the filesharing services that enabled them, the music blogs began to fizzle out in the early 2010s. They took with them the possibility of a more democratized and less corporate way of gatekeeping and curating music online.

Piracy is waning in relevance, less due to the success of copyright law enforcement and more because of a sea change in the technology used to consume media. Cloud storage, more powerful smartphones, and wider availability of WiFi/4G are rendering MP3 storage more inconvenient than paying $5-$10 a month for a catalog of music via Spotify and other music apps. Why illegally download music and then transfer it to your phone or MP3 player when you could pay a relatively small amount and have it all available in your pocket 24/7? Most are happy to sacrifice some autonomy for such convenience.

But the convenience comes at a cost. It’s no secret that the vast majority of artists offering their music on Apple Music, Spotify, et al. see little-to-no profit. As TMT writer Ze Pequeno highlights in his year-end essay “Who Controls Music?,” even the companies themselves are having trouble making profits via streaming, as it is wildly inefficient in terms of resources and costs.

Consumers are hardly better off either. Listening habits are now largely at the behest of prescriptive algorithms instead of people, resulting in more atomized modes of consumption and less cross-genre exchanges. And, sadly, artists are being forced to put their music on Spotify and Apple Music, not to make money, but simply for exposure. No one seems to be benefitting that much, but streaming is still on its way to becoming standard.

To be sure, the age of torrenting and music blogging wasn’t a perfect Eden. It was still marked by the same racial, gender, and class divides endemic within the internet and society more broadly, and filesharing services were certainly used for various criminal enterprises. Still, this era at least offered some promise of more open control of information whereas streaming services do not.

The demise of What.cd and Megaupload exemplify a phenomena that has plagued web development since at least Napster: users help to innovate beneficial, more open, and cheaper means of information exchange better suited to the information age, and then the powerful subvert or appropriate them for capital gain. They evidence a situation in which the music industry was faced with something new — something uncertain — and neglected to adapt in favor of outdated, inefficient, and less democratic modes of production and distribution.

Author and critic Ryan Alexander Diduck prefaces his book Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century with the following joke:

There once was a crossing guard who worked at border patrol. Every day at this guard’s checkpoint, a man would line up to cross the border with a wheelbarrow full of sand. Now, the guard was positive that the man was attempting to smuggle something across; surely there was some sort of contraband hidden in the sand. And every day, the guard dutifully sifted through every grain of that sand. But every day, finding nothing, he was bound to let the man across. This same episode repeated itself for thirty years — the same man crossing over the border with a wheelbarrow full of sand, and the same border guard becoming ever more confounded.

Finally, the guard’s last day on the job arrived. He asked the man, “Please! I am retiring tomorrow, so it no longer makes a difference to me, but I must know: what is it that you’ve been smuggling all these years? To which the man replied, “I thought it was obvious. I’ve been smuggling wheelbarrows.”

Diduck continues, “More than simply saying that technologies dictate the ways we use them, the technological vessel gives form and contour to the content.” His book applies this logic to the fascinating history of MIDI, but it also applies here. Instead of recognizing the value of peer-to-peer filesharing (the wheelbarrow), companies continue to fight an uphill battle trying to make music (the sand) profitable. Of course, artists weren’t making money off people listening to their music via torrents or Megaupload. But they aren’t making much money from streaming either (and if they are, it typically pales in comparison to touring/merch sales). The difference is that, where filesharing removed the yoke of exploitative corporate gatekeeping, streaming services have replaced it.

Part II: Hauntology Was the Rage
“SecondLifeBetaViewer 2011-03-28 10-16-36-58” by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓

At the dawn of the millennium, the network still operated largely as an aesthetic ideal rather than an absolute. Cyberspace was imagined as a utopian otherworld full of promise, an immersive place one could enter, navigate, and explore, much like outer space. It was colorful, shiny, metallic, full of knowledge, leisure, and abundance. And, more than anything else, it was arriving. It was perhaps the last cultural impasse when art and music readily centered itself optimistically around the future.

A financial meltdown and a never-ending war on terror later, by 2010 the network was not only still there — it had substantially grown. But a vision of the future and any optimism associated with it had not. In stark contrast to the year 2000, 2010 marked a strange, increasing emphasis on backwards-looking aesthetics. In music, everyone seemed affected with nostalgia, from pop to even the so-called avant-garde.

In 2011, the once-reclusive Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel (whose 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is widely considered a magnum opus of indie rock) announced an extensive tour via a head-scratching note on his website:

hello friends in a flock of finches unfolding from the face of a foam horse on the phone to inform you that jeff is heading out for one last u.s. acoustic tour, giving him the chance to play to all the silver citizens dwelling in citys that he has yet to sing in.

The announcement was a shock to most fans, many of whom were now in their late 20s and 30s. The world of indie rock was naturally awash with ecstasy at the news of his return. Notably, however, there was no announcement of new music. He was to be playing mostly solo acoustic covers of songs written in the 90s.

The following January, I was in the audience as he walked on stage to a standing ovation in an ornate music hall. Partly because of the ticket price and partly because of his aging fanbase, many in the crowd were older, donning beards and plaid shirts, holding craft brews from the chandelier-lit lobby. Some couples had kids with them. Even still, many in the crowd were college aged, which means they would have been children when In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was released. I remember it feeling odd that a band over a decade old could attract and maintain a contemporary fanbase.

Perhaps the crowd’s charisma could be explained by the mere spectacle of a reclusive musician returning to the spotlight after so long. Maybe it was simply the undeniable quality of Mangum’s music. Looking back, though, I’m more skeptical. The most compelling reason explaining the positive response to his return is that late 90s indie music was still incredibly relevant in the early 2010s. For years, the umbrella genre of indie rock (and its adherents) had seemed indifferent to the idea of the “future” or even the “now” as developmental frameworks. Of course, there were exceptions, but by and large, it was (and is) a genre that centers itself around the bygone influences of shoegaze, iterations of punk, garage rock, folk, psychedelic, and so on. Unwilling or unable to reify the present moment and where it might lead, artists and fans alike seemed content to recycle old movements and sounds in the early 2010s. Bands either refused to abandon the methodologies of their forebears or otherwise opted to use nostalgia as a vehicle for their art (e.g., chillwave and lo-fi).

The most well-known diagnosticians of this phenomenon are Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher, whose books (Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past and Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, respectively) offered prescient analyses of our era’s cultural lag. James Parker and Nicholas Croggon summarized Reynolds’s theory of retromania thus in a 2014 essay for TMT:

The idea was that, more than ever before, contemporary music is concerned with being “retro,” with repeating its own very recent past. In justifying this central claim, Reynolds detailed numerous examples, both pop and experimental, that referred either explicitly or implicitly to music of bygone eras: the eternal return of 60s- and 70s-era garage rock, Amy Winehouse and Adele’s ludicrously successful neo-soul, the onslaught of 90s Eurodance recently unleashed by David Guetta et al. on the world’s charts. And in the global underground: chillwave, hypnagogic pop, hauntology, hipster house. In each case, Reynolds’ diagnosis was almost entirely negative. For Reynolds, retromania is a sickness, a form of cultural malaise. With each passing year, he worried, the pulse of the present is growing increasingly faint.

Fisher, for his part, understood the phenomenon of “retromania” through a wider lens of an oppressive global capitalism that regards itself as the ideal form of governance. The idea is that culture is less fascinated with the future simply because there is no reason (or salient encouragement) to idealize any vision of societal/economic arrangement other than the one we already have.

Certainly Reynolds’s and Fisher’s theories have holes and exceptions, especially when understood in terms of race in the U.S. (though perhaps that’s expected given that they are English). Still, theirs were prominent modes of analyses for cultural theorists throughout the decade, serving as useful reference points in discussing everything from 80s aesthetics to normcore fashion to vaporwave.

In a 2009 blog post, writer Adam Harper outlines the Derridean theory of Hauntology:

Hauntological spectres come to bother us and our images from any zone of deficit lying between things as they were / are / will be and things as they are thought or hoped to have been / be / be in the future, thus history haunts (Marxist) ideology, and (Marxist) ideology haunts history; theory haunts practice and practice haunts theory, Utopia haunts reality and reality haunts Utopia, and so on. Art that permits a hauntological reading would facilitate this process of haunting.

Importantly, one year before Derrida published his theory of hauntology in 1993’s Spectres of Marx, Francis Fukuyama penned his well-known book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama positioned the disbanding of the Soviet Union and the triumph of liberal democracy as the “final form of human government,” thus rendering history an increasingly obsolete metric of orientation. Fukuyama has since revised and denounced parts of his original theory in light of Brexit and the Trump era; still, like Fisher’s and Reynolds’s theories, the idea of liberal democracy as “the end of history” paired with Derrida’s original theory of hauntology are useful in understanding the cultural tension(s) between past and future in the 2010s.

I find the most apparent manifestations/uses of hauntology (as applied to music) in a few genres emergent in the 2010s: vaporwave, Chicago footwork, Jersey club, deconstructed club, and PC Music/so-called “bubblegum bass.” The internet played a major role in the distribution and rise of each of these movements, and each were “hauntological” in their own ways, whether through the co-opting/dissection of accelerationist pop aesthetics (PC Music, deconstructed club) or kitschy deconstructionist sampling of Muzak (vaporwave) or the recycling of viral internet videos/pop-culture soundbites (Jersey Club and footwork). These were genres that looked forward by looking back, enabling the past to “haunt” the present, making a spectacle of media decay and consumption.

But as James Bridle points out, even artists using hauntological frameworks subversively are still paradoxically “steeped in nostalgia.” It bears questioning whether nostalgia is a useful or desirable tool in our current era of crises. While certainly not fruitless, the visions and critiques offered by the aforementioned “hauntological” movements — all more or less reliant on sampling fossilized genres, sounds, and signifiers — can be potentially undermined by their using the past as a central referent. Over-fetishizing and offering pastiche/deconstruction of what once was runs the danger of encouraging us to revel in a ghostly fantasy, one informed more by cynical nostalgia than creativity.

Of course, I am making broad generalizations — though they are somewhat unavoidable in analyzing decade-long trends. I do not intend to lazily gloss over movements that have, with varying success, harbored their own sound in the past decade or otherwise cultivated novel aesthetic experiences. While I am more hesitant than Fisher and Reynolds to unblinkingly diagnose supposed cultural lag as a wholly bad thing, I do think Fisher especially makes a valid point to link the flattening of time with broader trends endemic in global capitalism, and that there are very real oppressive entities benefitting from music culture’s unwillingness/inability to explore new ideological frontiers.

Emile Frankel notes in Hearing the Cloud: “Future critical purchase is often made forceless when it stays entirely stuck in the nostalgia of the past.” Of course, the future, by definition, must be informed by the past, lest it become indistinguishable from what was or is. As such, the question is not whether to discard the past, but whether we can look upon it with a critical gaze while using it as an aesthetic tool.

Part III: The Primacy of Code, The Dissolution of the “Real,” and the Musicalization of Meaning

“We live life in real space, subject to the effects of code. We live ordinary lives, subject to the effects of code. Code regulates all these aspects of our lives, more pervasively over time than any other regulator in our life.”
– Lawrence Lessig

Much of the cultural nostalgia in the 2010s had to do with growing skepticism toward technology and the network. Lest we forget Jeff Mangum’s famous no-photo, no-phone use policy during his return tour, assumedly to force people to “disconnect” for 90 minutes. And Mangum was hardly the only performer known to enforce such a policy. The “let’s be here now” call-to-arms became widespread at shows in the 2010s, a controversial attempt to dictate the mode of enjoyment for concert-goers.

While I respect the idea for its good intent, it doesn’t get at the underlying issues that performers seem determined to resolve. Aside from buying into the false dichotomy between the digital and the social (i.e., “digital dualism”), simply banning cell phones/photography during shows fails to acknowledge the fact that the network and code/spaces are inescapably part-and-parcel of daily life. It divorces the question of why we so desire to share and document our experiences via the network from the how, answering for us whether cell phone use is good or bad. And it poses the question as an individual problem instead of one tied up in the systemic mechanisms of social media and the network, the profit-motive that drives it, and the way it prescribes behavior. Most of all, it shifts focus away from the code/spaces that got the audience and Mangum there in the first place, a space that has permeated the music industry such that it is now inescapable, cell phone use or not.

In plain terms, code/spaces are places where computer code is not just present, but an indispensable component of the place as such. In other words, code/spaces include any sociospatial realms that fundamentally rely on code to not only function, but to exist. Airports are an instructive example; also supermarkets and, as we will see, spaces (physical and non) where humans both produce and consume music and other media.

In no small measure, the slow creep of code/spaces into everyday relations has contributed to what I term a dissolution of the real, or a lesser emphasis on distinguishing between what is “real” (here meaning true or more valid with respect to some “other”) and what is not. Such dissolution — produced by, among other things, a widespread mapping of the internet onto both the physical world and social relations — has resulted in less curiosity about the internet as an unexplored frontier or a harbinger of utopian possibilities. In short, the once pervasive idea of the internet as a “frontier” in the public lexicon and consciousness is diminishing now that the internet is manifesting observably in everyday life, hardly replicating the glowing world of cyberspace envisioned in the 2000s. As such, it seems that visionary creativity/inspiration has either disappeared, become less useful, or recognized as carrying false promise.

As the network and the computers that enable it become essential in producing and mediating social and economic activity, “online” and “offline” mesh into one, and the distinction becomes almost meaningless. From Martin Dodge and Rob Kitchin’s Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life:

Code/space occurs when software and the spatiality of everyday life become mutually constituted, that is, produced through one another. Here, spatiality is the product of code, and the code exists primarily in order to produce a particular spatiality. […] A check-in area at an airport can be described as a code/space. The spatiality of the check-in area is dependent on software. If the software crashes, the area reverts from a space in which to check in to a fairly chaotic waiting room. There is no other way of checking a person onto a flight because manual procedures have been phased out due to security concerns, so the production of space is dependent on code.

Just as Marc Augé’s non-place prescribes social behavior in the physical world (modeled in the video below by James Ferraro), code/spaces go one step further into the virtual, mediating and often determining everything from social interaction to creative production.

As Kitchin and Dodge point out: “One can make a case for code changing not only the epistemic culture of music-making, but also the dominant kind of sound.” The spread of code into sites of music production and consumption has (from DAWs to social media promotion to downloading/streaming) democratized the industry with respect to the barriers of entry common in the 1970s and 80s (studios, engineering expertise, production costs), and in some ways allowed for greater creative freedom. On the other hand, Kitchin and Dodge note that there are ways that software reliance can actually work to stifle and automate creativity:

Some have argued that the ways in which the design of software structures human cognitive processes can have a detrimental effect on performance. For example, criticism has been directed at the way Microsoft’s successful PowerPoint application has shaped the rules of giving presentations, encouraging a dull linearity of bullet-pointed texted over deeper, more discursive talks; the software overtly focuses the audience on the presentation format and not its content.

Similarly, DAWs like Pro Tools, Ableton, and Logic Pro come loaded with design presets, MIDI instruments, and a claviocentric design that certainly impacts the modes of creative production and output, paradoxically encouraging aesthetic homogeneity rather than diversity. Artists such as 食品まつり a.k.a Foodman, Giant Claw, and the PC Music roster have importantly drawn attention to these modes of automation by making glaringly “artificial” compositions rife with MIDI and cartoonish/plastic instrumental presets. These artists’ work tend to draw attention to vital questions of artificiality, creativity, and authenticity in the age of the network.

Music has become less and less a vehicle through which to explore frontiers; rather, music itself has become the end, increasingly divorced from meaningful insight and discourse. In the network age, information (music included) has become musicalized, which is to say, the appearance of information (here, music) is more a spectacle than the information itself. Artists Romy Achituv and Camille Utterback demonstrated this phenomenon with their prophetic 1999 interactive installation Text Rain:

In the Text Rain installation participants stand or move in front of a large projection screen. On the screen they see a mirrored video projection of themselves in black and white, combined with a color animation of falling letters. Like rain or snow, the letters appears to land on participants’ heads and arms. The letters respond to the participants’ motions and can be caught, lifted, and then let fall again.

Importantly, the letters in Text Rain are not random. If a participant stands still long enough, letters arranged to form a poem about bodies and language, a meditation on the very activity in which they are partaking. But of course, rarely did participants stand still long enough to decode the message, instead opting to play with the letters, toss them around, and enjoy the spectacle of their distribution. Author Roberto Simanowski interprets the installation thus:

Suddenly, letters were no longer linguistic bearers of meaning that needed to be decoded, although that was in fact possible since the letters were taken from a poem and formed words and lines, if observers were patient enough to collect them. But of course hardly anyone thought of putting the letters together and reading them when they could be scooped up with an umbrella and balanced on fingertips. Experience showed that the audience didn’t pay much attention to the text in Text Rain.

One consequence, then, of the overproduction and ubiquity of music is its rendering as a spectacle of consumption. Faced with so much music and no time to listen to (let alone reflect on) all of it, listening becomes less an act of meaningful engagement and more like wading through a glut of content, where the act of consumption itself is enough. We’ve seen this happen to varying degrees with a slew of genres in the 2010s, from Chicago drill to “SoundCloud rap” to vaporwave to deconstructed club and its affiliates. More often than not, small music movements are cycled through like memes, trendy fads slated to be discarded as quickly as they come before meaning can be decoded.

Even further, as discussed at the Sonica 2018 roundtable on music and class, available DIY spaces and funding for artists have become increasingly scarce (at least in the US), while the logic of capital has seeped into music production via streaming services, the festival circuit, and other corporate interests that benefit from consistent content engagement. Even the “gig economy” has encroached on the disposable time artists and fans alike have to critically reflect on music, as labor is increasingly outsourced into spaces once characterized by leisure and reflection. The result is an environment dominated by corporate logic and for-profit curation, where some subcultures (particularly dance music and hip-hop) have had to submit to and exist under the auspices of the very capitalist/corporate modes of control they once sought to subvert.

Conclusion: ‘Can you tell what they’re making?’

‘What’s that going thunka-thunka-thunka?’
‘Must be the machine. There’s a huge, black machine in there going round and round. But what can it be making?’
‘Come on now, give me a look! Yes, it’s the machine, all right. A big one! Oh — I see some men working!’
‘What are they like?’
‘There are three of them. The older one must be the father and the two younger ones his sons.’
‘So — a family.’
‘They’re covered with grease, and they’re certainly going at it!’
‘Can you tell what they’re making?’
‘I wish I could.’

–Betsuyaku Minoru, Factory Town (1973)

It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which smartphones, 4G (increasingly, 5G) networks, and diffuse internet access have reshaped social relations, infrastructure, both local and global economies, and culture in the last decade. Perhaps even more so than the automobile or railroad train, the pervasivity of the network and the conduits through which it is accessed have altered sociospatial reality such that previous modes of cultural interaction have been altogether upended.

As such, one would expect that we would feel considerable distance between now and pre-networked smartphone society. The 1990s and early 2000s should feel an eon away, if it is indeed true that the network has revolutionized various aspects of culture and society. Instead, we see that there is a disparate lag between the progression (and accompanying promise) of technology and culture at large. If, as Augé suggests, time is really “accelerating and evading us,” then perhaps the measure of a decade is becoming obsolete in terms of cultural eras. Maybe time itself is becoming obsolete.

I began by outlining the fundamental paradox of cultural information in the networked age: that a neoliberal/capitalist mode of distribution is inherently incompatible with the democratic potential(s) of the internet. But it seems like that model is winning. I do wish I had an alternative to offer, but sometimes the only way out is through, and the first step toward any solution is recognizing that there is a problem. And right now, the biggest problem I see is the obsolete ethos of capitalist industry in music culture.

As the internet and the media consumption that makes it profitable continue to expand, we are increasingly less able to answer what the “factory” of the network is making and to what end; moreover, we are unable to see and understand who or what controls it. Overwhelmed and despairing, we are increasingly content to observe the spectacle of cultural production instead of reflecting on its purpose. We are teaching people how to code, but seldomly teaching them why; we are better at operating the vehicle of technological and societal change, but failing to invent a road map. Without proper orientation, we can only walk in circles.

The question here goes deeper than technology, the answer more complex than “disconnection.” Opting for a world without the network is understandable, but it’s not particularly desirable or better than a world where the benefits of networked interaction are fully realized and equitably distributed.

As I noted in the introduction, the 2010s have given us much to be pessimistic about. But as the decade draws to a close, one thing we surely have to hold onto is the uncertainty of our condition. As long as there is ambiguity, there will be reason for music. It offers a means through which to untangle the complexities of struggle and uniquely express what other mediums cannot. The future is cloudy, the future of music even cloudier. And the future will not always hold promise, but by definition it will always hold uncertainty. In confronting the uncertain, the goal is never to eliminate the uncertainty itself — the goal is to ensure that it remains there always, offering darkness as refuge from whatever oppressive light blinds us.

We are celebrating the end of the decade through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the decade for us. More from this series

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