Acid house, technology, and democracy

This weekend I watched a documentary that does a very good job of explaining how technology changes social relations and shapes identity. It wasn’t however, even about technology - not in the strict sense at least.

Instead, it was about acid house music. Avoiding the usual cliches about ecstasy, it looked at how the music has evolved out of the house scenes of Chicago and Detroit into a phenomenon that challenged the very fabric of British society.

Aside from some incredible footage and images, the documentary showed how technological change impacted cultural change which, in turn, led to political change. As an example, we looked at one of the core technologies that was instrumental in the development of house music - the Roland 303.

This was, artist Jeremy Deller explains to a classroom of 17 year old politics students, “originally made to accompany guitarists but as a product it was a failure as it was so difficult to use and unruly. But in the hands of DJs and house music producers, it made music that people had never heard before.”

This is a nice example of how progress (perhaps it’s better to just use the word ‘change’) can paradoxically take place as a result of technological failure. Indeed, this isn’t the fast failure espoused by Silicon Valley billionaires, but instead a more imaginative form of failure: this isn’t about anything as inane as iterative improvement, but rather creative recontextualization.

Watch Everybody in the Place: an Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992 on iPlayer:

Technology and democracy

This is also important because it highlights what can happen when technology is democratized. It gives people the opportunity to create their own forms of culture and express their own evolving identities.

However, democratization is a complex concept in this context. Indeed, there’s a battle over what democratization actually looks like today in our highly connected and high-tech world.

Facebook, for example, might say that it’s a democratizing force because it’s providing billions of people with a platform from that allows them to connect. But while it undoubtedly does provide a certain degree of access and connectivity, it does this by deliberately shaping the network that surrounds you. Its algorithms, designed to keep you engaged, are instruments that allow Facebook to construct and then better understand your identity as a form of demographic indicators that help marketers sell to you.

Contrast this with the world of Acid House: the soundsystems that emerged in the U.K. in the mid-1980s formed social networks of their own, but these were decentralized and communal.

They were ‘decentralized’ in the sense that they could be found all across the country, in provincial towns and cities hundreds of miles from London (which is today typically regarded as a cultural epicentre from which ‘creativity’ emanates), and they were communal in the sense that they were often shared by a group of people, with a community building up around them.

Here’s a video that featured in the documentary. It’s taken from a TV show called The New Dance Show - it shows people dancing to Kraftwerk in Detroit:

Technology and space

What I particularly like about soundsystems is how they changed space. Initially they were crucial in helping marginalized groups reimagine community halls, streets, and homes as places they could socialize and party, and later they transformed small towns and cities across Britain from disaffected post-industrial places to cultural hubs where young people could socialize, enjoy, and express themselves.

By contrast, technology today maps and records. Facebook allows you to ‘sign in’ to existing places, such as a restaurant or cinema. Fitness apps, meanwhile, trace the route of your run, turning your immediate environment into a gymnasium - not a space for self-expression but instead one for fitness and health, helping you ensure that your body can play its part in the ongoing poly-rhythms of capitalist production.

The cultural technologies of the eighties and nineties allowed people to imagine the world could be different, that we could live different lives outside of the cycles of work and consumption. The technologies that penetrate our lives today do little but help us to imagine things will be okay in the world as it is - that we will be okay, healthy, social, still desirable enough to be sold to.