Cover designed by Abby Weintraub. Photo by Edward Matalon, courtesy of Vintage Books.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … .
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
Recently I had occasion to give a keynote address at an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers conference about the impact of Internet technology on the sale, distribution, marketing, and promotion of music. Amid all the brouhaha, ballyhoo, and anxiety about technology and where it might be going, I made a point of noting that something is going on but we have next to no idea what that something is, or where that something is heading. In William Cameron Menzies’s 1936 film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come, a togaed Raymond Massey extols the “triumph of science” in a glass-domed, pneumatic-tubed City Of Tomorrow, circa 1970. It’s been 30 years since Kubrick’s visionary film 2001; we’re a mere two years away from that date, and yet we’re still so far from that vision. Although Russian-American cooperation in space ventures is now a reality, the Mir Space Station, with its leaks and dents, is a far cry from the sleek futurism of Arthur C. Clarke.
The paragraph above is actually a second version. I lost the first version in my computer—strictly my own fault. I find it strange and frightening to speculate just how often this must happen to writers all over the world: not just paragraphs, but entire articles, stories, books. It does no good to admonish “always save”—I always do and it happens anyway. Edward Tenner would say that I had just experienced a repeating effect: “doing the same thing more often rather than gaining free time to do other things.” In his latest book, the brilliant and illuminating Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge Of Unintended Consequences, Mr. Tenner lists a number of other nastily ironic revenge effects. One such is the rearranging effect: creating a new problem directly related to the one solved; an example of the rearranging effect would be air-conditioned subway cars that raise the ambient temperature of subway platforms 10 degrees. The recomplicating effect is when elaborate systems rise up to take advantage of simple technological advances: the simplicity of the touch-tone keypad eaten up by lengthy long-distance access-codes. Multiplying a problem into troublesome fragments is a regenerating effect: Patriot missiles that turn Scuds into far-ranging shrapnel is but one example. The unlimited vista of an exciting new frontier becoming crowded and banal would be a recongesting effect. Or, the Internet.
In Tenner’s view, it isn’t technology itself at fault, but rather our tendency to “anchor it in laws, regulations, customs, and habits,” coupled with an inability to anticipate the unintended and unpredictable interactions between individual components acting as a system. The individual parts of a computer, an automobile, or an airplane are understood easily enough, but the parts combined form systems and subsystems that behave randomly. Wisely, Tenner doesn’t confine himself to discussion of machine systems but also includes our impact for good and ill on the world’s ecology and the human body. Our vastly damaging assault on the world’s ecology hasn’t just been the result of our waste and greed; our megalomaniac need to manage and improve nature and its creatures has also yielded disastrous results. The 19th-century movement of acclimatization—the transplanting of native animal and plant species to foreign locales—introduced such pests as the starling, carp, and the Gypsy moth to these shores, where they have proven themselves tough, recalcitrant pests, permanently changing the eco-landscape by outfeeding and outbreeding local species. Tenner writes eloquently on the paradox that while modern medicine is better, more knowledgeable than it was in its barber-as-sawbones origins, we seem to be “Doing Better And Feeling Worse.” Medicine lengthens our life span so we live longer with chronic, debilitating illness. Survival has a price—being haunted by post traumatic stress after surviving the horror of live combat. Diseases once thought to be eradicated, such as bubonic plague, cholera, and typhus, have had a disturbing resurgence. Scientists nervously watch the course of mutating killer viruses in fear of an echo of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which suddenly claimed tens of millions of lives worldwide and then, just as suddenly, subsided. Nowhere is the haphazard confluence of the systems of the human body and the complex machine more poignantly illustrated than in the chapter, “The Computerized Office: The Revenge Of The Body.” On one hand, Tenner tells us, “business is conducted at a pace and with an accuracy that 19th-century visionaries from Charles Babbage to Jules Verne did not dare to predict.” On the other hand, the revenge effects are physical: what had promised to make work painless unexpectedly attacks muscles, tendons.
Far from being a doomsayer, Ed Tenner is a truth teller and an acute observer of both the benefits and the folly of technological advancement. It took the sinking of the Titanic to implement the International Ice Patrol, and ships in the treacherous iceberg-laden North Atlantic are safer as a result. Safety in relation to the automobile, with its airbags, seat belts, and reinforced side beams, gives an aura of low risk, so more risks are taken. The whole idea of risk management and assessment has become an industry unto itself, as Tenner ruefully notes: “We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention … . “
Writing this article I have been listening alternately back and forth to the new records from drummer Brian Blade and the singer-guitarist P. J. Harvey, two artists that give a damn about risk management, and are forging fearlessly ahead in their own respective searches for authentic pulsing, emotional experience. Harvey’s record Is This Desire? is Hung Up. Obsessed. The women in her songs don’t care about who knows that they’re staring into the headlights of Doomed Love. She knows and doesn’t care. The sheer thrill of panic that comes from having your every thought ruled by another’s existence is the dangerous stuff that romance is made of and the fabric that binds Is This Desire? P. J. coos and howls and whines and whispers these songs in an untheatrical realness that disturbs. Who is she singing to? This Is Her Best Record Yet. Imagine Portishead as not just clever, but driven. Star-crossed and damned.
Brian Blade is drummer to both Josh Redman and Joni Mitchell, which should give a clue to his versatility. His recording Fellowship is a marvel of texture, mood, and dynamics; intense, yet thoughtful in its beauty. It is a mature work of a terrific composer leading a fantastic ensemble that sound welded and wed together: Dave Easley is a key reason why this band has such an original sound; he takes his parts and melodies into a land of dreams, the expanses of the western plains, with their possibilities and loneliness. Jon Cowherd has an unforced, richly dense approach to both the acoustic and Wurlitzer electric pianos; Melvin Butler is a find on tenor and soprano, with a beautiful warm sound. His section work with Myron Walden is flawless. Jeff Parker has a bluesy tone and attack on guitar reminiscent of Grant Green. Christopher Thomas is quietly empathetic on upright bass. Dan Lanois did a wonderful job of staying out of the music’s way in his production of this record. Echoes of Joni and Ornette and Mingus and Monk suffuse this remarkable album. Brian Blade is a chameleon, nearly silent, then suddenly kicking and roaring, then quiet. His touch and dynamics bring to mind Max Roach, Ed Blackwell, and Bernard Purdie, all somehow in the mix. Is This Desire? and Fellowship tell me that things don’t always bite back—Sometimes They Kiss.