Nostalgia: robots and heavy metal

I’m impressed with Compressorhead — the three-piece robot band (three and a half if you count the little robot who drives one of the cymbals).  I went to their website to see if I could discern the origins of the project, DIY, corporate, academic, or whatever and couldn’t really find anything on the makers.

Then I tracked down the drummer.

Stickboy was created by Robocross Machines and a whimsical roboticist named Frank Barnes.  A quick tour through the other robots created from this shop and you get the robot tent intended to “hunt children.”

And of course, the robotic shark.

Reminds me of the Survival Research Labs robot machines, built for public performance and disturbance.

When my old band couldn’t find a drummer we used a computer to make some mediocre drum tracks.  Will the future hold the chance for fourteen year old folks to go to the robot shop and rent a bass player robot?

I can also imagine the perspective of my uncle, a working musician who would immediately complain about humans losing gigs to this robot monstrosity (despite the fact that he doesn’t know how to play ‘Ace 0f Spades’).  When I lived in the Hudson Valley I remember friends who hated the automated toll booth (EZ Pass?) and would prefer to wait in line for humans to take their money.

I appreciate these perspectives which all seem to be anchored in a nostalgia for the real.  But of course in 2013 all of these experiences are reflections of an ideal of the real — with no real connection.  Real isn’t a human taking your money at the toll booth, it is certainly more human, but it isn’t a move of resistance commensurate with the degree of changes toward digitization and computer-mediated life.  Nostalgia is getting to choose between having a human taking your money and a machine and preferring the machine.  Of course, the ability to have a human-to-human interaction with the toll booth operator is a sincere and real advantage to those who choose that lane.  But since the exchange is one that takes place at someone’s workplace, you have to doubt the sincerity of the exchange (in these cases, the employee is often not permitted to speak their mind while at work).

In this case the machine is humanized and the human is made mechanic.

I”m not trying to emphasize the division between human/machine but suggesting that it is more complicated.   Are the humans at the toll booth in part using machines in the booths to keep track of money, time, and vehicle size?  Of course they are.  And in the same way that the new human-free check out stations in grocery stores require a human to staff them (to check IDs, troubleshoot machines, and help confused human customers), the humans in the toll booths support their digital replacements.

The human is made mechanic — we long for the cool replacement.  Of course I would like to be in a band that I could program.  Plan their every note and move for a performance.  But I doubt I could keep up with the robot bass player, so I could imagine slowly moving from participant to planner, and making my own robot replacement in the band.  Wizard of Oz-like, one becomes the master controller who programs all of the moves and music, even for your own character.  They are simultaneously something new and a reflection of your genius.

There is something about the setlist (it includes Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’) and the note-for-note simulacrum that is played to copy sloppy that is digging at me.  The distrust to let the machine make it’s own music.  I guess that is the moment where you give your Robot musician some degree of autonomy and we probably head toward the world of the Terminator movies.

But I’m curious about the sound.  What comes out when we let the circuits overheat and do their own thing.  A guy built a random shopping robot for himself.  Consider Darius Kazemi:

In the recent year he and his spouse have bought a house, and with it comes increased thought on the conscientious couple’s part to ideas about consumerism, “things.” Kazemi noticed how the occasional sudden arrival of back-ordered Amazon products he’d long since forgotten about ordering feels somehow more exciting, “like a gift you bought yourself,” and wondered what it would feel like to design a program that buys you things seemingly at random?

The bot’s purpose, in Kazemi’s words, is largely to “fill [his] life with crap,” to see if somehow those purchases feel more or less meaningful than something he would have conscientiously chosen himself; a way, if you will, of exploring his attachment to that “crap.”

Thus Random Shopper was born, complete with controls that keep it from buying anything too expensive or too physically large (spouse Courtney was “supportive,” Kazemi says, but “was also like, ‘I don’t want skis showing up at the house.'”). Random Shopper has its own Amazon account, and its budget is limited to a set amount on a gift card. For now, Kazemi’s restricted its categories to CDs, DVDs and paperback books — that keeps the size issue under control, and limits purchases to stuff that’s easily digitized, consumable and can be given away or donated, “as opposed to, like, a plug for a device that I don’t own,” he explains.

via Meet the random shopper: Amazon gifts bought at a machine’s whim – Boing Boing.

Sounds like it’s time for Robot Insurance!


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Filed under art, music, representation

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