Welcome to Starting Monday - my musing over the last week of busyness, and what leads it gives me for the next seven.
This week, two experiences of talented, expert people in a room, wondering furiously about what those outside the room might actually want to do, or hear.
Now, we weren’t poring over visualisations and pulsing graphs of behaviour, captured from big data scraped from the interactions and posting of millions of humans. Indeed, however powerfully predictive these methods might be, it would be hard to find a research practice more vilified than this, in the age of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
Many creatives in many areas have been wondering for a while whether they just have to get close to those with the cash to splash on data analytics, in order to ride the next wave of products and services.
I recently did a presentation for a marketing company where I strenuously recommended that they should mix big data with small data. That is, old-fashioned observing of people’s real-world, clumsy, living-room interactions with other people.
But the anxiety in my audience was whether “programmatic” marketing - where the algorithm was queen - would simply turn their creative talents into a box of lego bricks. They would be the providers of chunks of segmented content, infinitely customisable for each targeted, data-fied user/consumer. (Does this remind you of any recent analytical dodginess?)
So it was intriguing, and something of a relief, to be down a side alley just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, in a basement room talking about “common platforms” to keep citizens’ restless and active. And then, in my brother’s humming and blinking music studio, starting the writing ball rolling on the next Hue And Cry album.
In the first situation, all we had to go on was whatever our activism brought into the room; striking stories and lively networks to share, derived from quite a few decades of pushing for the Good Society. In the second situation, all we had to go on was what we felt would be the opposite of what we’d done before - a moody ballad record. So now, we quickly agreed, a “record to keep people happy and dancing”.
So far, so organic, intuitive and conversational. And I could write you rhapsodies about how humans in a room, conversing there in a spirit of generosity and creativity, can both innovate great ideas and also build the collective will to execute them. This is what I called in my second Starting Monday blog the “Nordic Secret” - that “building of character with others” which can perhaps restore some integration and self-possession to our otherwise “dividualised” lives. Indeed, it’s what our Alternative UK platform hopes is the fuel of a new politics.
But prowling around outside these cosy rooms are algorithmic intelligences - strongly claiming that their data patterns can tell you what you’re really doing, how you really feel, how you can efficiently impact on others. Even if you had the resources to draw on their powers, would you?
In the “common platform” evening, conducted with a non-party-political but centre-left grouping, we filled out our maps diligently. One side of the whiteboard was crammed with self-starting, fiercely independent, bottom-up organisations that we knew, who tried as much as possible not to be bought over. The other side was filled with bits of the state and corporate life that might be susceptible to the forces of change, whether that force was based on ideas or social action.
It was useful to see and do - to identify the zone where top-down and bottom-up might meet (what the groups called 45-degree politics) But I couldn’t get my mind off the other operations I know, swarming around our current political instability, waiting to profit thereby.
CrowdPac, run by ex-Tory advisor Steve Hilton in the US and Labour NEC candidate Paul Hilder in the UK, are a crowd-funding and -mobilising platform that will talk to just about anyone who wants to use them. That includes Aaron Banks, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of Brexit”, and his ambitions to create a post-Brexit version of the Italian Five Star Movement.
CrowdPac combines money-raising and political-data collection in the one tool - and you don't need to be the Robert Mercer’s of the world to afford it (though money helps). CrowdPac's advocates are often turning up at progressive political meetings, urging those present to “use our technology, before your opponents do”. (They take their platform percentage cut, in either case).
Is politics, at every level, ending up as a psycho-technological arms-race? If you recoil from getting involved, you have to believe the alternative theory - that the “small” and “rich” data you get from solidaristic action makes your politics concrete, sensual and fertile. As the political theorists might say, this is how you do “prefigurative” politics - dragging the desired future into the present, by building a lifestyle or practice that’s actual, not virtual.
It’s a strong, ethical and humanistic stance. In the futures event I curate, FutureFest (on which more next week), we have two speakers - Paul Mason and Douglas Rushkoff - who will be adamant about defending the powers of humanity against, and over, digitality. I’m mostly with them. But I’m also keeping an ear out for the machine hum.
Mood mums and "life, technology, music"
You can’t avoid the hum of machines when you go into a music-writing crib in 2018. Even when there is a room next door full of cellos, mandalins, Strats, kalimbas (a plucked African instrument), the room you primarily work in has three massive aligned screens, powered with software which seems to perform more miracles each time you come back from a leave of absence.
My favourite gizmo this week: an AI-drummer who responds with striking originality to hummed melodies or faltering keyboard lines, and whose mood - reflective, rocky, funky, techno, whatever - can be shifted across a matrix, tapped and dragged here and there.
So to make music in 2018 is to have those prowling algorithmic monsters right inside the room, offering amazingly slick solutions to songwriting challenges. The challenge for my brother Gregory and I - with over 20,000 of Gladwell’s famous “10,000 practice hours” between us - is to find the jolt of human uniqueness, and emotional tug, amidst the infinitude of digital possibilities.
Yet even when you find it - usually in the silences between vocal melodies and piano chords - you can reach for the “technium” (to use Kevin Kelly’s term), and give your plaintiveness an instant inhuman amplification. We composed romantically and lushly for an hour, but then allowed the AI-drummer to apply an EDM (electronic dance music) sensibility to what it heard from us.
Suddenly, and surprisingly, we found our song was ready for the sunrise moment at some Balearic festival - the bitter-sweet melancholy being driven by something like a cross between a frantic heart-beat and a quasar. That may not be new for the world, but it’s new for us. And so, with our goosebumps as indicator, definitely worth developing.
Perhaps what politics might learn from music, in how to make digital power tractable, are the exact points where you embrace it, and where you distance yourself from it. Believe me, there is a psycho-technological complex of contemporary hit-making which is informed by everything from neuroscience to sentiment analysis (what to know what a “mood mum” is? Don’t ask).
Would deploying this expert, super-musicological knowledge unravel all the reasons - the knot of mystery, tension and need - that made you want to make music in the first place? Would it be like rolling Robbie the Robot into your murky creative glade? The answers are yes, both times. Yet the point about music making is that you have to dive deeply into the "technium", in order to sense when the “humanum” has to assert its role.
We ended our writing days enjoying a video of Oak Felder, a producer with a massive string of contemporary hits. In this he lays out his writing and producing method with modest simplicity. Watch it here, but take away his line: “pop is all about three elements - life, technology and music”.
Maybe the question to take forward for the next week is - what else could be put in place of “music” in that sentence? Politics? Business? Climate activism? Education? How do we find our right personal relations with digitality - and what novelty and impact do we passionately want to have with it?
What’s your answers to these? Let me know directly, or use "Comments" below.