The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
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Does Your Digital Business Support a Lifestyle You Love? § Stock and flow / 2017-02-09 18:15:22
Daniel § Stock and flow / 2017-02-06 23:47:51
Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

Kanye West, media cyborg

Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project is unfolding this month, 50 years after the coining of the term “cyborg.” Here at Snarkmarket, our Tim has already contributed. Here’s my addition.

So, I love Tim Maly’s kickoff post: What’s a cyborg? It’s fun, revelatory, provocative, and it uses design to tell its tale. (You know I love that.) Tim laces the post with striking images, and he labels them: This is a cyborg. This is not a cyborg.


But I think he misses one.


Because this is a cyborg, too.


I’m not saying that because of the sampler on the pedestal or the vocoder attached to the microphone (although somebody could do a great #50cyborgs post about the recent robotization of pop vocals). I’m talking about the frame itself. About the image of a star on stage in front of 11 million people. About the digital distribution of that image to screens and eyeballs around the planet. And, most importantly, about the fact that Kanye West has the media muscles to make that happen.

Isn’t there such a thing as a media cyborg?

After you read Tim’s post, you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.

Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?

When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.

To understand people like that—and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)—you’ve got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that’s much, much bigger than a person.

This hits close to home for me. In fact, it’s the reason I do a lot of the things that I do. At some point in your life, you meet a critical mass of smart, fun, interesting people, and a depressing realization hits: There are too many. You’ll never meet all the people that you ought to meet. You’ll never have all the conversations that you ought to have. There’s simply not enough time.

You know those movie scenes where two characters miss each other by just a fraction of a second, and how it’s so frustrating to watch? You want to reach into the screen and go: Hey, stop! Just slow down. He’s coming around the corner! Well, that’s life—except in life, it’s multiplied a million-fold in every dimension. You can miss somebody not just by a second, but by a century. You can miss somebody not just by a couple of steps, but by the span of a continent.

Media evens the odds.

Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—it’s on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.

Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.

Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?

Again: I don’t think it’s dehumanizing. I don’t think it’s dystopian. Any cyborg technology has a grotesque extreme; there are glasses and there are contacts and there are these. So it’s like that with media, too. We all do this; we all use media every day to extend our senses and our spheres of influence. At some scale, sure, things gets weird, and you lose track of you, and suddenly you’re being choked to death by your own robotic arm. But way before you get to that point, you get these amazing powers:

  • The power to reach beyond yourself, outward in space and forward in time.
  • The power to have conversations—really rich, meaningful conversations—with more people than you could ever break bread with.
  • And, increasingly, the power to get reports back from your little platoon—to see how your media is performing.

We’re all media cyborgs now.


P.S. Don’t miss Kevin Kelly’s contribution to #50cyborgs!


“Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf.”

I almost passed the fuck out. Awesome!

Media and its accompanying publishing tools are making us superhuman, making us more like machines in what we’re able to accomplish through broadcasting, through communicating. We can reach far. We can connect with far. We can be on the same level, sort of, and that level is one we couldn’t have reached 10 years ago.

So gangsta.

Thanks so much!

Tim Carmody says…

This is also what Plato talks (and worries) about in the Phaedrus: the things we write are like our illegitimate children, encountering the world, standing in for us with no one to speak for them.

There’s power there, but power that works both ways: and that’s one of the notes that Kanye’s recent Twitterfession struck so poignantly, is the way that your media, the documents attached to your name, even (contra Plato) the words you speak, exceed your ability to control or contain them. Self-replicating DNA; genuinely viral.

Tim Carmody says…

I’m reminded of two things:

1) Something Allen Ginsberg said about Bob Dylan: “one of the most powerful blues singers ever heard in the West, peer of ma rainey and leadbelly in the long unobstructed ecstatic breath, his body consciousness, a column of air, stopping time, inspired at the international microphone, poetus magnus at the piano of conscience, so hardworking got no time to answer telephone.”

2) Something Freud says in Civilization and its Discontents, which I think about all the time: “we are God by means of artificial limbs.”

And I’m reminded of David Byrne discussing how the very nature of music was shaped by the architecture and tech that allowed it. That the existence of the microphone changed how songs sounded and were played.

This and Robin’s point about the scale required draws out one of my other cyborg obsessions: the invisible infrastructure that allows and maintains them, that they (contrary to the impression of power and independent strength they exude) depend on. Kanye West is only possible in the era of recorded media. Before that infrastructure crops up, he cannot clone himself. Millennia of media cyborgs lost because we lacked the tech.

Tim Carmody says…

Well, that’s part of the way there. What would a musical cyborg look like in the analog age? Maybe something like this:

Tim Carmody says…

I should qualify: Louis Armstrong is a very LATE analog musical cyborg. But it’s worth noting that amplification is built into the instruments (no electricity, no microphones) but you still have a direct analogue (an analog analogue) to the auto-tuned voice in scat singing, trying to imitate the sound of the instrument, that’s already caught in a feedback loop with the human voice.

One problem about being a media cyborg is that “the media created by others about them” can act in a way as a second cyborg, sent down T2 style to destroy the original cyborg. I think a good example is our President, Barack Obama. Through his campaign, his books, interviews, and the White House, he sends forth Barack Obama, defender of America. But evil Cyborg Obama is a Kenyan-born, Muslim, socialist. It’s scary to watch the two media Obamas duke it out.

“The media created by others about them” also has some awesome possibilities too. I think a lot of speculative blog posts about celebrities are a form of fan fiction. Just before clicking on TCarmody’s link to this post, I read through this funny story, which definitely falls into the fan fic category:

Totally agree with all of this. And totally love your use of the T2 extended analogy šŸ˜€

is my cooking a bit of my cyborg self? A small piece of me I send out into the world to express myself with, to have an impact on others—to literally become enfolded into their breath and flesh?

3. Robin already linked to KK’s guest post which describes the food as the extended stomach.

Meaning there’s a lot to what you say, and I’d love to see you run with it.

I’m not sure I can run with it, exactly, I was just thinking about permanence (digital media vs. 20th c. Style publication vs. Plato’s manuscripts vs. writing in the sand vs. whispering by a fire) and reach and significance as parameters for this notion of tooled up self-expression. Yesterday was a religious holiday and I was just briefly checking into Snarkmarket in between cooking a large amount of food and driving to have it offered and then feasted upon. Cooking is one of my major forms of self-expression and artfulness, and certainly there’s a very gadgety, tooled up aspect to it. But it is so impermanent and small of audience, that it seems to be losing ground as an expressive art valued in itself (rather than mere fuel for photography or prose or tweeting) compared to, say, a Gaga extravaganza. And yet it says something about me, from me, and can be eaten in one evening by more people than I can do more than say hi to. If I could become a music star or even a hit novelist, but could never cook well again, I wouldn’t do it.

I can’t wait for Pop Up Mag’s Food Issue. That is all.

My “little platoon” (sometimes rogue “robotic arm”) is the tcsnmy8 gang, the now eighth graders that Robin met as tcsnmy7. They’re constantly reporting back. Sometimes it feels like I spend half my day saying, “I said that? Really?” or, as Frank puts it, “I think past me just punked present me.”

Yes, we do seem to be going quite a way beyond the printing press, now. This is a slow process that takes some adjustment, but when the dust settles we’ll never go back.

“Cybernetics” is all about things and processes as systems, so it makes sense to me that when you look at people from a systems point of view, they turn out to be cyborgs!

“the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee” — I was recently reading Sherry Turkle’s book Life on the Screen, published in 1995, and it was really fun to see how much the things she says are still relevant. Chapter 7 is “Aspects of the Self”: “[Freud as] proposing a radically decentered view of the self…Judgian ideas stressed that the self is a meeting place of diverse archetypes. Object-relations theory talked about how the things and people in the world come to live inside us…In the past, such rapid cycling through different identities was not an easy experience to come by. Earlier in this century we spoke of identity as ‘forged’…The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life.”

I also like this part, from pages 117-118:

“The rigid, hyper-logical machines of the original Star Trek television series evoked most people’s vision of advanced computers during the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Across the divide between humans and computers sat logic-bound machines that, when faced with a paradox, would slowly begin to emit smoke and ultimately explodeā€¦humans were superior to machines because humans could be flexible: Logic is not our highest valueā€¦But by the late 1980s, the popular image of computers had changed. Poeple read the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation asā€¦a kind of artificial intelligence with which you could sit down for a good talk and a good cry. Unlike the androids of Blade Runner, which are passionate, sexual, and physically perfect according to human ideals, Data is very pale, very polite, very well-meaning. Part of what makes Data seem approachable is that he is distinctly unthreatening.”

This is all totally fascinating and thought-provoking. (The comments, too!) Thank you.

So, thanks to media and branding and twitter, etc., we can expand ourselves–our identities, our influence. I think the idea of comparing that to a more stereotypical image of someone with a cool metal arm is fascinating. That metal arm might be able to expand and reach across the hall to tap someone on the shoulder. Or, I could open a chat window and ping that person, all without leaving my seat.

Now, my brain is wandering. (which is why I like articles like this.) Are we the things we leave behind? Is a throwaway tweet about my donut like a footprint? Certainly an accumulation of both tells a story to those who choose to follow them. And surely we are our stories. (And the more we extend ourselves, the more metphorical arms we reach out to be yanked around by. Someone could follow my footprints to my location and stab me in the back. Obama sticks his nose into society, and someone makes an Evil Muslim Clone.)

Likely, it has to do with conscious identification. I take my footprints for granted, and choose not to consider them a vital part of my identity. It’s all just persona, right? I am my persona, but I’m not only my persona. When people identify with their persona, it’s a bad thing. These people are what is known as “shallow.” That’s what happens if Kanye were to think of himself only in terms of his media power, and forget that he’s also a guy who likes teddy bears and bringing his mom breakfast in bed, (or whatever things he did before he became a superstar. I know diddly about the guy.)


I’d call out Jesus Christ as the first media cyborg.

The Bible, of course, being the medium (with Paul the enabler), aided after some time by the printing press.

Tim Carmody says…

Hmm… maybe that’s why Kanye cut this record?

Jesus: media cyborg and divine cyborg (being at once the father, the son and the holy spirit, talk about non-hereditary adaptation!).

Delightfully, HiLoBrow is on the case.
“Previous prophets were analog tools, blunt weapons, ā€œinstruments of god.ā€ In the world of the Gospels, the Christ is a cybernetic system of the divine, made of meat.”

Tim Carmody says…

Also, arguably the most important cyborg in pop-music history: Les Paul. Paul pioneered the electric guitar, overdubbing, multitrack recording, pedal/delay effects… Basically everything we associate with electrified music.

Tim Carmody says…

In 1948, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul’s garage, entitled “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”, which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence “double-fast” when played back at normal speed for the master.

1948. That’s so amazing. I’d love to read a good book about the electrification of music in the 20th century — from Les Paul to Robert Moog to whoever.

There’s a terrific documentary, actually, that’s mostly about recording technology, but touches on all of it: Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.

Matthew Battles says…

Another striking perspective is offered in the documentary What the Future Sounded Like, which recounts the rise of electronic musicā€”specifically, the engineer/composers who founded the Electronic Music Studios, which produced synthesizers used by Brian Eno, Pink, Floyd, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But these guys seem emphatically not cyborgs, at least not conscious ones; they’re not using electronics to extend or to robe themselves, but almost to efface themselves. At some level they were after generative art, art that produced itselfā€”theirs was a Promethean pursuit. Different from the electric guitarist, a cyborg whose motive is Orphic, whose body is involved in the electric making…. well, I’ve gone off the deep end with this unsupportable distinction. Anyway, the documentary is a good one.

Ooh, great tip. Queued up to watch!

I thoroughly enjoyed the post. Enough that I actually made a bit of a reply to it here:,-We-Are-Gods.html

As I stated in my post, your post really got me thinking, which I greatly appreciate, and I think that that alone speaks volumes.

Ryan ā€” that’s awesome! So glad you wrote something up, & so glad you dropped a pointer to it here. Thanks for reading.

“media cyborg” is a great concept! pretty interesting article.

but – and this is a major but – in this day and age, are really celebrities still the best example of media cyborgs? obviously TV is still big, but look at so many people so much stuff.

damn, look at Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber – they wouldn’t be who they are if it wasn’t for the publishing platforms any person can have access to. Even if Gaga came around through the traditional roads, she rocketted so fast because of them.

so to me the most important media cyborgs are the ones who provided means for self-replication, for any person to become media cyborgs themselves:

Mark Zuckerberg, Biz Stone + Ev Williams, Steve Chen + Chad Hurley + Jawed Karim, Matt Mullenweg, David Karp + Marco Arment, all the engineers responsible for small digital cameras [specially those inside cellphones], and obviously Christopher Poole (m00t).

oops, I meant “so many people doing so much stuff.’

I guess my cyborg commeting software has a bug…

good article, reminds me of an editorial in the (sadly defunct) London music magazine Undercover when I worked for them a good 5-6 years back; it pointed out that for the vast majority of humanity, all we would ever have of Beyonce was a bunch of digitally treated video and audio footage; that in effect the public form of her, the root of so much (sexual) adulation and fantasy, was an entirely cyborg version only distantly related to the physicality of the actual human being.

you could run a good line of thought down into this and come back with some reasonably perceptive insights into the prominent dysmorphic undercurrent of modern society, I reckon – especially if we consider the divide between contemporary porn and peoples’ actual sex lives. And speaking of fetishes, I’m pretty sure this cyborg reality’s physical disassociation has a lot to do with the upswing in zombie appearances in modern media…

thanks for the article

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