Computers Outside

Event One: Hip Hop and Technology (13th February 2020)

“Trapped in an internet or web from cyber cruising
a system that turns more consumers to recluses
we use music to chop nooses, here’s an answer for the clueless:
We are computers.”

Otis Mensah, Computers Outside

It is becoming difficult to ignore the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives. From the almost ritualistic scrolling through social media, to the growing reliance on gadgets and apps from Google, Apple and Amazon, to the recording of any and all moments and experiences, we are gripping our tech with more regularity as new tech in turn grips us. The deep-rooted problems and long-term implications that come with this development in the 21st century are something I have been slow to fully acknowledge and accept. However, recent conversations and reading material (Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in particular) have forced me to reckon with the disturbing, dystopian reality of our dependence on tech and the social conditioning that comes as a consequence.

Otis’s decision to kick off his residency by using Hip Hop to interrogate the ills of technology in today’s world presented a perfect opportunity to think about and discuss these issues further.

Using the Computers Outside music video as his primary provocation (streamed on loop through a large plasma screen) Otis invited university staff and students to consider the impact our ever growing reliance on technology is having on our personal identity, social relationships and the processes and systems that govern us.

Otis asked those who visited the exhibition to express their responses to his video, lyrics and other stimuli through “Twitter poems”, which were shared via the Rhyme and Reason Twitter account (SU_RhymeReason).

I was really intrigued by the idea of a “Twitter poem”. To some, the concept could be considered paradoxical. There is an argument that social media and other elements of the internet stifle creativity and genuine self-expression by conditioning users to conform to aggregate behaviours. This couldn’t be further away from our idea of the metaphysical essence of artistic expression.

We’re just force fed visions

Computer algorithms

Try and teach you how to listen

It’s time to bridge the schism

Matic Mouth

However, I have long been taken by Keguro Macharia’s suggestion that tweets can be used as ‘forms of theory’ which, similar to African proverbs because of their conciseness, can ‘articulate worldviews grounded in specific geo-histories and imagine possible worlds in doing so’. Beyond the obvious of connecting us with more people, Twitter perhaps allows us to think through and discuss ideas in new and exciting ways.

To what extent does Twitter’s 280 character limit constitute a new poetic form which explores and expresses truth and meaning in ways that are creative but distinct to the digital age?

Whatever the answer may be, it was clear when scrolling through the responses that – whether writing seriously or with tongue firmly in cheek – people are centrally concerned with the hold technology has on us and the harm it causes to us as individuals and as a collective.

These documented reservations regarding technology reflect the tone of discussions being held throughout the day. After over four hours in the exhibition space, Otis decided to take these conversation to the Diamond cafe, with the hum and chatter of the surrounding tables offering the perfect soundscape for an exercise in connection through conversation. We were joined by Mac, Steph, Benoit and our special guest: Sheffield-based Hip Hop artist Matic Mouth, who provided many interesting insights and thought provoking questions on the subject of technology and Hip Hop.

The centrality of Hip Hop in Otis’s residency is something that really excites me. His first event proved what a compelling and prescient prism Hip Hop is to observe the formation and expression of social identity, relationships and processes. Otis made sure to foreground this fact throughout the day by not only playing his music video (and providing the accompanying lyrics) but also bringing in a number of his records which prophetically predicted the current plight we find ourselves in when it comes to technology.

Our conversation in the Diamond cafe confirmed the value of engaging with Hip Hop when reflecting on important social issues. Sat with our coffees, hot chocolates and teas, we spent the final two hours of the day talking about topics like:

  • Otis’s inspiration for writing Computers Outside
  • Technology’s impact on the writing process
  • The internet, capitalism and the pressure to be productive
  • Concerns about privacy and autonomy in today’s world
  • The subtle social conditioning enacted by tech corporations
  • Social media, streaming and being an independent artist
  • Art as a form of therapy v commodity
  • The internet’s impact on how we define an “artist”
  • The failures of the education system to embrace Hip Hop as a valid art form
  • Hip Hop’s social function
  • Ownership in the internet era
  • The changing experience of live performance
  • Streaming v CD v Vinyl
  • Technology and Time
  • Hip Hop and Sheffield

It was such an invigorating conversation which has since made me reflect on how rarely I sit down to share, discuss and consider ideas and experiences with any group of people; let alone ones who share a passion for Hip Hop, education and social justice. The mutual sense of connection and renewed energy seemed to strike us all as being particularly precious and poignant given our reflections on the numbing experience of bingeing Netflix and scrolling through social media. We agreed that face-to-face conversation would become an ever more important therapeutic practice as technology further pervaded our lives.

We had decided to record the discussion as a way to include those who had been unable to attend the event but wanted to participate in some way. The irony of using this piece of equipment was not lost on any of us and we talked about how our desire to capture and share our conversation was potentially wrapped up in the striving for validation intensified by technology. We asked ourselves how we would feel if the recording proved to be of poor quality or was inadvertently deleted. Would it somehow cheapen our experience or make us feel like we had wasted our time? Was there less value in a fleeting conversation that remained exclusive to our small group until it was ultimately forgotten?

In the end, our feeling was that the moment we had experienced together, the feelings of connection that came through conversation would leave an impression that was precious no matter how long it lasted.

That said, the urge to preserve our experience is an extremely strong one, especially now that technology presents the opportunity to record virtually every facet of our existence. This impulse towards preservation is one that will become the centre point of Otis’s next event as he uses Hip Hop to explore ideas of memory and nostalgia.

I for one cannot wait.

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