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SXSW: We are all cyborgs.

Happy hump day! As I'm writing this, I'm looking out on yet another snowstorm in NYC, despite the fac
SXSW: We are all cyborgs.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #24 • View online
Happy hump day! As I’m writing this, I’m looking out on yet another snowstorm in NYC, despite the fact that it’s the second day of spring. *shrug*
First off, I’m thrilled to share that the Water & Music community has now reached over 900 subscribers!! Thank you all for following my work and for exchanging thoughts & ideas—and as always, feel free to introduce yourself simply by responding to this email, if you haven’t already!
Today’s newsletter draws from two separate inspirations: my exhilarating week at SXSW, and a book called Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark, a philosophy professor at the University of Edinburgh. This is a slightly longer writeup than usual, so bear with me…
I spent a total of nine days running around downtown Austin—speaking on a handful of panels (the playlist panel recording is up here), hearing many artists for the first time (Anna Wise’s showcase keeps playing over and over in my head, in part because she did it in the middle of a multi-week vow of silence, and you could sense a newfound expressivity in her voice) and meeting a ton of new, like-minded change-makers at the nexus of music, media and tech.
Most people who have been to SXSW more than once will tell you that you will end up feeling miserable unless you go in with specific goals to accomplish and/or themes to explore. For me, that’s where Natural-Born Cyborgs came in.
Clark’s overarching argument in the book is that we humans have actually been cyborgs for the entirety of our existence on earth. He defines a “cyborg” state not in the traditional way of physically inserting mechanical, machine elements directly into the body, but rather in a more distributed, outward-facing fashion, in the sense of humans engaging in “information-processing mergers” with external tools and props more skillfully, and to more impactful ends, than any other species on the planet.
A modern case study: have you ever misplaced or lost your laptop or cellphone and felt pained because that device contained so much important, actionable information to you—contact info, photos, emails, documents, maps, calendars, to-do lists, creative tools, internet bookmark/browsing history, etc.—as if that device were an integral part of your own brain without which you could not function normally? If yes, you are a cyborg.
Clark goes on to define various categories of computing across the spectrum of everyday visibility: “tangible” computing has a concrete, physical form (e.g. laptops, cellphones, watches, cars), while “invisible” or “ubiquitous” computing enables, tracks and surrounds us without necessarily being seen (e.g. RFID, GPS, online tracking pixels). These two paradigms are not antithetical, argues Clark, but rather complementary and mutually dependent in our journey towards an ever more advanced future.
Circling back to SXSW: needless to say, much of the conference has become a noisy hotbed for corporate brand activations. As a company or artist, how do you break out of the noise and land that flashy press headline or that prospective consumer’s attention? Most would turn to making even more of a visual spectacle, to making their brand and computing ambitions as tangible as possible.
But some of my most interesting SXSW encounters this year were trying to engage with the opposite approach: avoiding flash, presenting a vision of tech as effortless, invisible and ubiquitous in our everyday lives—making the case that being a cyborg is actually the definition, not the enemy, of human nature. One approach is to build apps that remove most or all friction from a particular mode of operating or communicating; another approach is to treat one’s existing perspective on the world as an interface in itself, rather than building an entirely new app or device from scratch, such that the end product takes a backseat to natural, human behavior.
Below are three of these encounters—it is by no means exhaustive, but gives you a taste of where I’m trying to get at with this cyborg banter: 
• Bose’s audio-powered AR glasses. Bose is currently recruiting developers and partners for its audio-driven augmented reality platform, Bose AR, and the company premiered their new AR glasses at SXSW. While the product I demoed was an early prototype without much functionality, it was the first pair of smart glasses that I could see myself actually purchasing and using on a regular basis.
The tech is invisible in the sense that the glasses look like regular sunglasses (unlike Google Glass), and no one outside can hear the smart-audio playing through the rims. What’s more, some pretty prominent companies like TuneIn, Anchor, Strava, TripAdvisor and Aaptiv have already signed on as partners. If the final product is successful, it could drastically expand the potential for voice-enabled experiences beyond the home in a meaningful, enjoyable, non-intrusive way (i.e. not Siri), and empower us to make more informed decisions on the go without breaking our backs staring at our smartphone screens.
• Mission Control’s 100% mobile, 100% free music creation and distribution process. Through my older sister, I got to meet one of the founding members of SF-based band Mission Control. Several of the band members have day jobs in tech and prolific experience on the hackathon circuit, so are deliberately approaching their music career like they would grow an early-stage startup.
That equates in part to releasing content as frequently and routinely as possible: as of now, Mission Control is recording and releasing at least one new song every week. What’s more, their entire process takes place on their phone, and doesn’t involve any fees: they record all their music on a free, 8-track iPhone app called Spire, and then upload it to Spotify using a free mobile distribution app called Amuse.
This tech is “invisible” and “ubiquitous” on the process level—in the sense that, even as they drive the growth and creative workflow for an entire band, these apps can also hide in your pocket and work from anywhere. A growing number of producers, such as The Internet’s Steve Lacy, are making music on their iPhone, but very few use their phone as their singular studio AND distributor. (Not surprisingly, Amuse’s cost of zero comes with caveats in terms of data ownership—here’s a brief video explaining why—but the members of Mission Control didn’t seem uncomfortable with that).
• Max Richter’s SLEEP. SXSW hosted the North American premiere of SLEEP, an eight-hour minimalist classical work meant to be performed and consumed in one sweep (in one sleep?… ha) between midnight and 8am. I and 149 other audience members got our own mattresses onstage alongside the performers, which included five string players and Richter himself on piano and live electronics. The sensation of falling asleep to live, repetitive, ambient music, only to wake up and fall back asleep again in two-hour chunks to entirely different but equally sleep-inducing sets of sounds, was psychologically jarring—and, ironically, not that restful.
SLEEP is not so much a feat of technological innovation as it is one of human stamina and perseverance, but it presents an interesting counterpoint to growing concerns in the music industry about the art’s overly productized, contextual, “functional” future. Spotify’s “Sleep” playlist has over 2.4 million followers; mood- and context-based playlists at large are growing at a faster rate on streaming services; startups like Weav and Endel are entering the market with the promise to generate and optimize music for a variety of activities in real time. Even the original SLEEP album itself, which was conceived in collaboration with a neuroscientist, has already sold over 100,000 copies.
At their most extreme, all of these functional delivery channels for sound could become fully automated, such that music becomes yet another external cyborg “tool” for optimizing and augmenting human performance. One could interpret SLEEP as the last bastion of humans trying to intervene and compose sleep/relaxation music for themselves—and the painstaking struggle that ensues.
If you were at SXSW, I’d love to hear from you about any similarly “invisible” technologies and experiences you encountered. Regardless of whether you went to SX, I’d also love to get your take on the future of “invisible” versus “tangible” tech, particularly around whether the former empowers or endangers us creatively (the dangers of invisible tech seem to carry much more weight in political situations, e.g. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica).

My writing
Why Spotify Thinks Its 'Self-Driving Music' Strategy Will Benefit Creators
Even more banter
I was recently a guest on Funny as Tech, a podcast co-hosted by a tech ethicist and a stand-up comedian that tackles some of the most challenging issues facing tech & society today. We had a great time talking about musicians going on tour as holograms, and about the role of AI in the creative process. Take a listen! :)
Good reads
Media’s Serious Cutback in Startup Investing
Obligatory potato
An 18-year-old high school student named Benjamin Firester just won $250,000 for his predictive modeling around the spread of potato blight, a disease caused by the microorganism Phytophthora infestans that led to the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. While infestations have alleviated a bit since then, potato blight still leads to over $6 billion in lost crops annually, so Firester’s work can have significant long-term commercial as well as academic implications. In case you haven’t already come to terms with this, kids are ruling the world!!!!!!!
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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