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Friday, January 11, 2019

Born before 1985? Then you’re a ‘digital immigrant’

2014’s best new music sounds lonely. As a firm believer in the theory that music’s evolution follows the path of technological progress (the Vox distortion pedal begat Hendrix and the face-melting solo, the Linn drum begat the Human League and 80s pop and so on), I had put this down to the fact that artists at the cutting edge these days work alone, by night (music doesn’t pay much, so they all need day jobs), on a laptop or home studio. That’s not a qualitative judgement, by the way. As much new music as ever is excellent – but, I believe, the circumstances of its construction leaves an audible imprint.
Listen to the Clash and, along with other things, you will hear traces of their cultural context – an alternative scene which was collective, political and urban. The sound of the capital now (artists like Azekel, Kwes and Deptford Goth) is almost the opposite – languid and nocturnal, conjuring the hypnagogic state between waking and sleeping, occasionally becoming claustrophobic. It sounds isolated. Musically and lyrically it speaks to the modern city at night and a creative community whose members now mostly work alone – a product of financial necessity as much as an individualist culture. The days of local rehearsal rooms and recording studios are on the wane thanks to rocketing property prices and technological advances (though Kwes has a cool-sounding place in a remodelled freight container).

This week, though, I started to think there was something else to that lonely sound, and my connection with it. Technology was still at the root – a book about tech, actually. Michael Harris’s fascinating The End of Absence, which should be required reading for anyone born before 1985 (and anyone else interested in tech). Harris’s topic is us – “digital immigrants”. The last generation that will remember the world before the internet. He writes: “We have in this brief historical moment… a very rare opportunity… These are the few days when we can still notice the difference between Before and After… There’s a single difference that we feel most keenly; and it’s also the difference that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence – the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished.”
The book is a paean to the quiet pleasures (and productive frustration) created by absence – of noise, distraction, entertainment, other people…and the consequences of a partly digitised, constantly connected existence. It sets out to answer questions like: are we losing the ability to think deeply? To remember? How is “continuous partial attention” changing our culture and our brain chemistry? Our aptitude for distraction might have an evolutionary imperative (it’s how we notice the approach of predators, apparently), but in the context of the internet, is it damaging us as much as our disposition toward fat and sugar, which was equally useful to prehistoric man? The answers are more interesting and not so luddite as you might be imagining (though the actual Luddites get a few words of praise because of what they stood for – children’s and workers’ rights – rather than the technology they took against).
I was so engrossed in the book that I read until I realised night had fallen around me. It occurred to me that it had been a long time since I’d allowed myself to do that. I thought about my life as a digital immigrant – I will never be from the place I inhabit, but my children are. What do I want to teach them about where I come from? I think it is yearned for and portrayed in the new music I love. That’s the reason I love it: it depicts and imitates the beauty of solitude. You might think I’m projecting; maybe I am. I do spend a lot of time daydreaming. I learned how when I was little.

Lauren Laverne

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