Cosmic Cars & Cyberspace: The Prophecies of Cybotron and William Gibson

Miles Raymer on how Cybotron’s techno-futurism and William Gibson’s Neuromancer dystopia predicted much of our modern musical and social worlds

1983 Fantasy Records / Jamie Putnam

In 1983, two unknown musicians from Detroit named Juan Atkins and Richard Davis released an album called Enter, under the name Cybotron. Denizens of the pop fringe back then might have been able to pick out its primary influences – Kraftwerk’s Teutonically precise electronic programming, Funkadelic’s lysergic Afrofuturism, about a decade’s worth of theatrical post-Bowie Euro art pop – but the combination itself was unprecedented. In the context of the era’s prevailing musical zeitgeist, it still seems freakishly futuristic and weird.

Most notably, the electric guitar, the dominant instrument on the pop landscape for decades (and played on Enter by temporary member Jonathan Housely), appears infrequently, replaced almost completely by synthesizers. Cybotron also ditched human drummers entirely in favor of drum machines, which had only been introduced a few years prior and were still considered by most musicians to be at best a marginal novelty. And while the lyrics were typically blues-influenced meditations on the hassles of everyday existence, they were frequently set in near-future science fiction environments.

Cybotron - Alleys Of Your Mind

At the same time, the writer William Gibson was working on his first novel in Vancouver, British Columbia. Like Atkins and Davis, Gibson drew from easily identifiable sources: Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard’s psychotropic sci-fi smashed into Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s coldblooded noir, then run through the filter of Cold War TV-news techno-paranoia and late-capitalist angst. Like Enter, Gibson’s Neuromancer, published in 1984, recombined these influences into a distinctly new work, one that blurred sci-fi’s utopian and dystopian impulses and envisioned a fascinatingly messy, ominously believable tomorrow.

Enter was reissued in 2013 by Fantasy Records, which also put it out the first time around (and in 1990 released a reworked version of the album entitled Clear). When I got my copy I was in the middle of revisiting Gibson’s “Sprawl” trilogy, comprised of Neuromancer, Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). The combination turned out to be thoroughly, unexpectedly synergistic.

Not only did Cybotron and Gibson more or less create entire genres, both presented idiosyncratic visions of the future that have actually come true.

On the surface, both works speculate on the future from a moment in history when the personal electronics revolution was just reaching critical mass, with technology like home computers and the Walkman starting to penetrate the mainstream. There’s a similarly retrofuturistic flavor to their aesthetics, redolent of wireframe computer graphics and first-wave punk fashion – if Gibson could have embedded musical cues in his books, they’d probably sound a lot like Enter. Dig deeper, though, and more substantial similarities reveal themselves. Not only did Cybotron and Gibson more or less create entire genres within their fields (Detroit techno and cyberpunk, respectively), both presented idiosyncratic visions of the future that, unlike the vast majority of similar predictions, have actually come true.

Gibson’s most famous prediction was of a global computer network where almost any piece of information imaginable was potentially available to any person who knew how to navigate it. While Neuromancer’s image of a gritty, globalized dystopia, run by corporations as powerful as nation-states, helped launch a whole genre of sci-fi called “cyberpunk” (and its taut plotline about an elaborate heist involving a burned-out junkie hacker, a “street samurai” and a break-in on a space station was memorable in and of itself), the cyberspace concept became by far its greatest legacy:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...

Gibson first imagined this hypothetical cyber-reality while the basic elements of the internet were still being built on top of the backbone of smaller, more self-contained networks like Arpanet, and almost a decade before the World Wide Web made such a dataverse accessible to non-specialists. His writing’s direct influence on the internet’s technological development seems to have been negligible (Tim Berners-Lee would still have invented the World Wide Web if Neuromancer had never been published), but his work provided a lexicon to understand it, and its spirit pervaded the culture that eventually bloomed – I definitely wasn’t the only person in the BBS era using a Neuromancer reference as my screen name.

Cover for Japanese Edition of Neuromancer Yukimasa Okumura

In the field of virtual reality, however, Gibson’s influence runs to the core. He didn’t invent the concept of computer-generated virtual reality, but the movement to create it was only starting to get rolling when Neuromancer was published, and his made-up version of the technology was coded into the real-world technology’s earliest DNA. Gibson’s elegant imagining of an immersive multisensory user experience didn’t just offer a winning sales pitch for the emergent technology. It was such a compelling model for how it could work that he was accepted by the virtual reality development community as a legitimate thought leader, on par with influential engineers like Jaron Lanier (despite the fact that Gibson was a complete non-techie who didn’t even get an email address until 1996).

In a 2007 interview with the A.V. Club, Gibson recalled that “There was a time in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when every government in the world decided to have a huge, lavishly funded virtual-reality conference, and I got invited to all of them. So I met lots and lots of the players in the goggles-and-gloves school of virtual reality. [T]o a man or woman, they all allowed as how I had really helped them out. They had this idea, but they’d never been able to explain to anybody what it was. Once they had Neuromancer, they could just go around with a suitcase full of copies, and when people said, ‘I just can’t fathom what you’re talking about,’ they’d say, ‘Read this. It’s sort of like this.’” The border between fiction and reality got even blurrier once a generation of engineers raised on Gibson’s cyberpunk prophecy set out with the specific goal of making his cyberspace a reality.

Techno may have happened without Cybotron – the idea of mixing George Clinton’s cosmic funk with Kraftwerk’s uptight robot beats was already literally in the air, thanks to Detroit radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo’s influential mix show show, Midnight Funk Association. However, Enter undeniably accelerated the music’s development. While Cybotron didn’t play techno as we now understand it, their music contained everything that Atkins (who struck out as a solo artist when the group split in 1985) and a handful of closely linked Detroiters would codify into the techno style a few years later: mechanically throbbing 4/4 beats, psychedelic synthesizer basslines and a dystopian sci-fi atmosphere that permeated much of the genre.

Both predicted a point in the evolution of the relationship between people and personal electronics where the border between each would disappear.

More crucially, Atkins and Davis showed how even the most rudimentary electronic music gear could offer a new path of creativity, one that put the technology on the same level as the humans operating it. While Enter has only ever sold a tiny amount of copies, the machine-driven creative process it displayed would have earthshaking consequences for pop music after Detroit techno records made their way down I-94 to collide with the more groove-based Chicago house. Together, techno, house and their myriad descendants spread around the world, offering not only a basic blueprint for beat-focused music emerging alongside hip-hop as the global music lingua franca, but a model for the hybrid human-machine creative process that would eventually become pop’s status quo.

Gibson, Atkins, and Davis all predicted a point in the evolution of the relationship between people and personal electronics where the border between each would disappear. They also accurately predicted that technology could actually turn out to be superior collaborators than humans. In Neuromancer, this was present in Gibson’s building of a cyberspace where people could interact with artificial intelligences of near-godlike intelligence; in Atkins and Davis’s, it was replacing the drummer with a drum machine. In the present day, we’re only now getting to the point where AIs are woven into everyday life, but in music the idea has already become a reality.

Not only have machine-generated, microsecond-accurate beats become the industry standard these days – to the dismay of session drummers everywhere – but there are whole swaths of the pop landscape, from the fringes of dance music to the very center of the mainstream, that couldn’t have been produced without computers. Companies like Native Instruments and Ableton are pushing the idea even further, with plugins for digital audio workstations that can generate not just beats but entire melodies on their own, allowing DAWs to become full-fledged creative collaborators with the people on the other side of the screen.

Cybotron - Cosmic Cars

Gibson, Atkins and Davis were less than optimistic about the future they were sketching out. They collectively and correctly saw that when humanity started moving towards the Singularity, we’d still be bringing along our human baggage. Gibson’s cybernetically-enhanced street criminals anticipated gangs of pestilent credit card thieves and malware developers that have insinuated themselves into the global computer network. Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars,” possibly their best and most important song, suggests that new technology wouldn’t eliminate the drag of day-to-day existence as much as it would give us new modes of escapism. “I wish I could escape from this crazy place,” Davis sings, “Fantasy or dream, I’ll take anything.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the millions of people who routinely step into the shoes of a video game space marine, or a Kardashian, or any of a vast number of other identities available online.

For better, and for worse, we live in a world that bears a striking resemblance to the ones depicted in Enter and Neuromancer. But Gibson and Cybotron didn’t just predict this world – their art inspired others to make it manifest. Operating on the cultural fringes, the three techno-prophets presented visions of the future so compelling and cogent that they were bound to experience a seemingly inevitable transition, from fantasy framework to contemporary reality.

By Miles Raymer on July 7, 2016

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