“Technology Killed The City” is from Martin’s forthcoming book,
The Way of the Zen Cowboy: Fireside Stories From A Globetrotting Rhythmatist
on Sunyata Books
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.“
I think I first noticed it back in about 2000. I was pretty slow getting into the whole technology thing, but I remember that my first cell phone had been one of those legendary Nokias. It was flat black, indestructible, and everyone was getting one, but the monthly bill was astronomical and I eventually gave it up because I really didn’t use it that much. Most of my calls came through my landline anyway, which of course was back when people still talked on the phone—now it’s just text messages and emoticons. Landlines were nice in that you could just sit in a chair and have a chat with a friend or business associate without worrying about the radiation of the cell phone going into your brain.
I eventually gave away the Nokia (everyone wants them now because of their supreme durability) and the next technology I actually purchased was an early iMac, the kind where you could see the guts of the computer through the blue plastic body. I used it for all my papers in college and graduate school before I finally switched to a MacBook in 2006. I still have it, it runs like a tank, and I used it to record an album in the Peruvian Amazon as late as 2018. It’s an antique, aluminum behemoth, but I love it in the way I love old pianos, because they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Back in 2008, I had returned to Seattle, Barack Obama had just been sworn in as the new president, and things were looking up in the world. In any case, I needed a new cell phone with a Seattle area code, so I bought my first iPhone and joined the tech-obsessed masses.
I decided, for the first time, against a landline in my Seattle apartment, and instead had Wi-Fi installed for the Internet and emails. I never watched much TV anyway, and cable was already becoming obsolete, so Wi-Fi became my superhighway to the outside world.
By 2012, and only a couple of years after my first iPhone purchase, I began to notice the “smart phone drones,” those creatures who walk with their cell phones glued to the front of their noses. And it wasn’t just iPhones anymore, now there were Androids, and other brands of smart phones that appeared to dominate the mind and body. They would walk the streets of Seattle, eyes on their phones and nothing else—not at the sky, or the sun, or the people who were directly in their path. They’d miss the beautiful fashionista who walked right past them, or a car that nearly clipped their legs as it rounded a corner. I once watched a mother push her baby stroller out into oncoming traffic as she crossed a busy street in between crosswalks, her nose in her phone the entire time. I’m not sure she even heard the honking horns, as she never looked up and apparently didn’t seem to realize that she had a baby either. I’m sure that kid has some real issues by now.
When I would go for my evening walks at Alki beach I’d see them missing all the very things you go to the beach to see—the sunsets, the birds, and the occasional seal or sea otter playing in the surf. They’d be walking with their boyfriend or girlfriend, but instead of holding hands and looking at that gorgeous seascape together, they’d walk silently side by side, their mutual noses in their mutual phones, oblivious to anything else. In this smart phone trance they’d step in dog poop, or they’d step into the street and only look up when they heard the screech of halting tires—all because of that 4” screen, which occupied their increasingly tiny world.
“Smarter phones for dumber people,” that should be a commercial, I quietly thought to myself. There were also a few more nearly calamitous situations.
I was in New York a few years ago to accept a writing award in Manhattan. I went for a walk around the city the afternoon before the ceremony, which is the thing I love most about that town—walking. I was standing on a curb at an intersection in midtown right behind a guy in a hooded sweatshirt who was looking at his phone. I was looking side to side as I was taught do as a child, and I saw a yellow cab hauling ass to make it through the intersection before the light changed to red. We’ve all seen that scenario before. Our hooded dude, entranced and stupefied by his phone, began to step out right in front of the speeding taxi, I instinctively reached forward and grabbed the hood hanging off his back, yanking him backwards with a most violent jerk. The taxi whizzed by his head so closely that his long hair blew to the side.
The people standing around us gasped and he turned to thank me, a startled look on his face. When the green light appeared we started crossing the street, but before we had even crossed to the safety of the other side, he was already back on his phone, oblivious once again. He’s the best candidate for a Darwin Award that I’ve personally ever witnessed.
Around 2015, as the Great Recession evolved into the Great Nothingness, I found myself using more and more technology. I was writing my college lectures, editing my first book, and creating PowerPoint demonstrations for my classes, which used music, photos, and videos in one continuous stream of information. My students loved it and so did I—I like the way digital media can be used to transmit multiple, complex ideas. I had also upgraded to the next generation of iPhone, but only because I had cracked the glass on the first one. To be honest, I use my technology until it absolutely breaks, or I am forced to buy a new one. I’ve never been obsessed with having the latest gadget, as if that’s some kind of badge of awesomeness, which it isn’t. It just means that you like to spend your money on products that are designed to fail or become obsolete, so the only person who wins in that situation is the company that builds the thing to fail in the first place. Who is the smarter actor in that scenario?
It’s kind of like those rats my late friend, the artist/poet Anthony Hassett, talked about when he visited Vietnam many years ago. You see, they have these large rats that play with small, shiny metal objects that they find in the streets, tossing them ecstatically in the air as they scurry around in a kind of happy rat dance, after which they grab the metal object and gaze at it in a hypnotic trace. This very behavior was starting to appear in the crowds of people walking the streets of Seattle and I became alarmed.
Seattle is very different now, it’s essentially a tech city, rather than a music city and these are, philosophically, two very different things. Music cities appreciate art, which is soul, and tech cities appreciate money, which is empty and hollow. Seattle used to thrive on a balance of Boeing airplanes, Microsoft, and a massive music industry, not to mention all of the smaller independent businesses in the city. But the technology corporations decimated the music industry by taking other people’s intellectual property and making it essentially free.
Amazon.com has been here since its inception back in 1994, except that now it’s the second biggest corporation in the United States, just behind Wal-Mart. Well, actually Amazon is really an Internet version of Wal-Mart, because Amazon just sells other people’s products, as most tech companies do. Spotify, Facebook, Google, Uber, Air B&B— they all just sell other peoples music, data, or products and services. They do not, inherently, create anything particularly original. They’ve simply invented a new method of distribution, which benefits the tech companies far more than the content creator/providers.
Microsoft, which is an innovative, progressive company that treats it’s employees well, had the good sense to build its headquarters about 20 miles outside of the city, whereas Amazon plopped its fat, cubicle- shaped ass right down in the middle of downtown Seattle. Within a year, the city had the worst traffic gridlock in the nation and the city’s only solution was to add more Rapid Ride busses, which is an oxymoronic joke I don’t think they’ve ever figured out. The city is also in a homeless crisis, the likes of which I have never seen in my life. We have tent cities that are bigger than some small towns, and Amazon doesn’t want to help alleviate the damage they have caused to our city—they pay no income tax. Microsoft, however, has offered to help, and this is just one of the many reason why the vast majority of Seattleites love Microsoft’s Bill Gates for his grace, humanity, and philanthropy. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos—not so much.
The problem isn’t just technology as an industry—numerous tech companies have called Seattle home for years. The problem is that the City Council and the County Commissioners never took the time to really think about what a great city should look like, or even what a great city we already had. In their blind quest for revenue and development, they put money ahead of quality of life. Nor did they consider that the city’s most talented, creative artists would no longer be able to afford to live in the city they made famous.
Every city in the world has great musicians, and Seattle is no exception—some of the finest musicians in the world came out of Seattle. But having musicians in a city is not the same thing as having a music scene, and these are two very different concepts. A music scene means that an economic infrastructure exists for the musicians to earn a living, but the very real fact is that many great bands and artists have left Seattle, largely because the physical space that they need to do their work is absolutely unaffordable in a city taken over by the Borg. The infrastructure of the music scene has evaporated, and when the artists start to leave a city, the soul of the city leaves with them.
A couple years ago I saw an article in the Seattle Times that said the City Council was concerned as to why so many musicians and bands were leaving. The Council had finally, in its infinite wisdom, decided to listen to the artists who were being pushed out, to see if there was something the city could do to help them. They proclaimed that hearings would be held, committees would be formed, a magistrate and a tribunal shall be appointed!
I wanted to scream at the patronization, because the time to help the artists was long before the Council allowed the big developers to move in and tear down their world. It seemed like once a week, I would hear about another artist building, recording studio, or performance space being torn down for “progress.” In their place, the developers built gigantic apartment buildings that were so poorly built, they began to rust and melt with the first Seattle rains. You rarely even see musicians busking in the streets anymore, one of the things that made Seattle great so many years ago.
Now we have another dangerous twist with the introduction of the so-called “smart meters,” which intelligent people are now calling “danger meters.” These electricity reading meters have been installed on all houses and buildings in the city, even though they have been proven to emit extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation that are off the chart dangerous compared to every other known electronic device. Every home and business in Seattle now has one (many were installed without consent) and they are completely unreliable for reading electricity usage—I recently got a monthly electricity bill for $5,216.95, when my average monthly usage is less than $100. This is the insanity part of technology, when we don’t even know how to control it.
These danger meters are also causing severe symptoms in people, such as insomnia, migraine headaches, confusion, and various other maladies. The ACLU is investigating these devices, which are also designed to gather other forms of data in an invasion of privacy. It turns out these meters are largely manufactured in China, have little oversight, occasionally catch fire, and it’s entirely possible that the whole system could be crashed intentionally. This is the kind of thing Seattle jumps into without knowing the long-term effects. In fact, it’s not even a surprise anymore, it’s just predictable.
Those of us born in the Northwest remember the “peak soul” of Seattle in the mid 1990s when the city roared with alternative music and all manner of experimental artists who lived there to create art, write plays, direct films, start fashion houses with their own runway shows, and a million other cool things that were going on in the clubs, cafes, and warehouses of Seattle. Technology had nothing to do with it, in fact, it probably would have hindered our creative output. That was the real soul of Seattle, embodied by the artists of the city. In Nashville they name their streets after musicians, they build artist housing and rehearsal space, and the city thrives on the huge spirit (and financial power) of music created there. I suppose that’s why Nashville is now called the City Of Music and Seattle is called…oh that’s right, Nashville took the name from us.
It’s like this: In a modern world where things only have value based on their monetary worth, then a huge amount of art, music, literature, and wisdom is simply tossed out with the trash. It’s not because Americans can’t make great music and art—they can and certainly do, but the value of it has been exchanged for the worst kind of commerce— content. Technology has simply become a platform for selling other people’s ideas and creations, to the benefit of the tech companies, but largely to the detriment of the artists. They’ll even sell your personal information, if they can get away with it.
Alas, O’ City Of Music! Technology hath killed thy soul most unceremoniously!
Featured Image by Liam Walsh
Barrett Martin is a Grammy-winning producer, composer, and renowned session drummer and percussionist who has played on over 100 Rock, Blues, Jazz, and World music albums. His work can be heard on albums by REM, Queens Of The Stone Age, Mad Season, Screaming Trees, Walking Papers, Tuatara, Blues legend CeDell Davis, and recording sessions that range from the Peruvian Amazon, to Brazil, Cuba, and even Jerusalem. He recently won a Latin Grammy for his production work on the Brazilian album “Jardim-Pomar.”