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Journal editor: Pat Kane

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You can't buy a thrill

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Edited by Pat Kane (email)

:: Pixeleen, My Three Times Perfect Ultrateen ::

If you think we take play far too seriously, then you should listen to the latest Steely Dan album, Everything Must Go. You may already be running in fear from even a mention of these whiskery spectres of early seventies muso-dom. But as Barney Hoskyns puts it, in his interview with the cerebral two,
Isn't it a little ironic that some people think that Steely Dan are a pair of old farts the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of jazz-funk when actually you're writing more trenchantly about this fucked-up virtual world we live in than almost anyone?
And he's right. For example, no artwork has caught the malaise of post-Enron and post-dotcom capitalism in America better than the title track:
It's high time for a walk on the real side
Let's admit the bastards beat us
I move to dissolve the corporation
In a pool of margaritas
Songs like "Pixeleen" and "Green Book" are no more, and no less, than two rueful old jazz-loving ex-hippies musing on what it means to love in a digital world, where "the torso rocks and the eyes are keepers/Now where'd we sample those legs?/I'm thinking Marilyn 4.0".

Now of course, this has its sonic limitations. William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon may be the inspiration for the lyrics, but musically (and for this writer, comfortingly) Becker and Fagen can't get beyond their love of grooves "played by guys in cheap suits with their backs to the audience" (let's call that "live jazz and soul"). Compared to the earnest and experimental Radiohead (see a previous PlayJournal), Steely Dan are luxury-class cynics, musing elegantly on the general entropy as the rioters hammer on the limousine window (and yes, one would want to read their review of Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis).

Are the Dan the very embodiment of the extremism of everyday life that the average cutting-edge hip-hop record plays around with?. No, they are not. But as an antidote to the soul-reducing dominion of Robo-Pop, they are still commodiously welcome.

:: No Innovation Without Representation ::

Maybe we have to wait till the next album for Becker and Fagen to get round to bioscience, and its unleashed genies of the gene (there, I'm already writing the lyrics...)

The "who gets to play God?" theme seems to be naturally emerging in this column. Part of the reason is that I'm always keen to expand what we mean by play, moving beyond the usual Puritan cliches of triviality and frivolity. And the capacity of science to give us the power to play with matter and biology itself is one of the most urgent "ethical" issues of all.

There's a great play quote from novelist Margaret Atwood in the New York Review of Books (unfortunately, not free-to-web), reviewing Bill McKibben's intelligent-Luddite analysis, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (extract here). McKibben's argument is that our new disruptive technologies (bio-, info- and nano-tech) allow us too much power, over nature and ourselves. Do we really want to head towards immortality, for example, if these technologies allow it?

Atwood asks us to question whether all this intelligence is being properly applied:
There are some very clever people at work on the parts that will go into making up our immortality, and what they're doing is on some levels fascinating - like playing with the biggest toy box you've ever seen - but they are not the people who should be deciding our future. Asking these kinds of scientists what improved human nature is like is like asking ants what you should have in your backyard. Of course they would say, "more ants".
Of course, a novelist whose job it is to construct virtual human selves all day, and ultimately has the power to create or destroy her characters, is going to admit to a mild "fascination" with the "toy box" of bio-science. And though she is in agreement with McKibben - that "we can accept or reject technologies according to our social and spiritual criteria" (huge point) - she's "not too sure we'll do it".

Two other thinkers on "playing God with science" perhaps worth exploring, and from very different perspectives, are Robert Kegan and Bruno Latour.

Kegan, a Harvard psychologist says that our techno-scientific evolution far outstrips our mental evolution: thus, in the title of his book we are 'in over our heads', subjectively drowning in the demands of life. How we close that gap and become, as Kagan puts it, "reconstructive post-modernists" - ie, big enough to 'play across' the various levels of our personal development - is his agenda. How do we attain the wisdom to deal with all this?

(And, passim, are large parts of the oeuvre of Steely Dan about a rueful recognition of how insuperable that gap might be? "Call your doctor - call your shrink/Western science she strictly rinkydink" ['Two Against Nature'])
Bruno Latour, a French sociologist of science, has a more direct answer about who gets to "play God" with science: we all do. In the edition of Wired magazine edited by Rem Koolhaas, Latour proposes an update of the old US anti-colonialist slogan - 'Taxation without Representation is Tyranny'. His version is, 'Experimentation without Representation is Tyranny':
The sharp divide between a scientific inside, where experts are formulating theories, and a political outside, where nonexperts are getting by with human values, is evaporating. And the more it does, the more the fate of humans is linked to that of things, the more a scientific statement ("The Earth is warming") resembles a political one ("The Earth is warming!"). The matters of fact of science become matters of concern of politics...
Latour's aim is to extend the realm of players in science's future -"an imbroglio of spokespersons in a room". Will more voices improve our choices?

:: Play Times ::

TV vs. Gross National Happiness Exceptionally poignant story about the introduction of TV into Bhutan - causing their first crime wave. So what is happiness?

The University of Matrix When pop culture goes high-brow, I'm always the loudest cheerleader. The Matrix Reloaded, as its goatee-tugging devotees might say, kicks serious intellectual ass. Apart from the in-house philosophers, there have been techgnostic, diffusely spiritual and specifically Christian readings. Slovakian Leninists and Californian post-humanists also take a shot. Or... you could just watch the movie...

When human beings are the canvas "My role in this game is to press my finger on the sore places and create uncomfortable situations for people" (Santiago Sierra). Body art too far?


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