We Have the Technology
Thoughts on Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”

The first thing you’ll hear as you start listening to this 8:21 opus is the annoying, pulsing drone of the rhythm track — a single, breathy monosyllable of Anderson’s voice sampled and looped over and over again without syncopation or variation. After a while, the effect becomes hypnotic, and then is hardly noticeable at all. This seems to tap into the song’s theme on a couple levels: first, it builds the song around something organic that has been electronically processed and made “artificial.” Secondly, it cleverly reiterates the stages of our relationship to technology — initial antipathy is slowly replaced by mesmerized attraction until finally the object becomes so familiar that it is virtually invisible.

It is a telling conceit — Anderson’s use of our first and most immediate musical instrument (the human voice) in such a transformed, dehumanized manner — and it dovetails nicely with the ideas at play in her lyrics. These are the concerns that drive much of her music, in which she repeatedly questions, re-defines, and re-envisions exactly what it means to be human in a post-industrial information age — to be a visceral creature in a world of such pervasively present machines that it not only has become difficult to imagine living without them but it is often difficult to demarcate clearly where man ends and mechanism begins. More than at any other time in history, we are becoming cyborgs — living inter-meshings of the natural and the artificial combined as interactive, mutually dependent systems.

At heart, Anderson seems fascinated by this process of gradual fusion of humanity and its machines. As noted, her songs often both portray and re-enact that evolution, describing the ways the two pieces of the equation affect each other as they are drawn increasingly close to each other in form and function. “O Superman” in particular is an early revelation of the attraction and horror of this hybridization. It comments obliquely on how the human who wishes to communicate something about technology realizes she can no longer do so without relying on it. It has become almost impossible to comply with her deeply rooted need to reach out to other intelligent beings to share something poignant without the mediation of any number of ubiquitous devices.

In “O Superman” the process of the song mirrors our own (often-unquestioning) growth into the outlets we are given in our high-tech world. To wit, we are lulled by the cold but soothing beauty of the music as it burbles rhythmically on, layered tastefully with synthetic strings, and it is perhaps only in the last verse that we begin to wonder if we have been seduced more by the machines or by the woman behind them — and find that it is very hard to say. The realization is intended to awaken us to the elusive, almost subliminal ways in which we have consented to this connection of human and machine. Too late to pull them out, we finally see the wires running under our own skin, bringing digitized information processing into a reckless head-on confrontation with all of our grandiose notions about the elusive and enigmatic sanctity of human cognition.

It is with chilling empathy and an abrupt shock, then, that we hear the final lines of the song:

So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms. In your electronic arms.
It is fitting that these lines receive particularly dramatic musical backing. They are absolutely key to the deepest truth she has to share with us about the world we may be (un)lucky enough to wake up to and comprehend. She strikes an especially powerful note when she twists Orwell’s “Big Brother” into a maternal figure. This change makes the closeness of the relationship seem even more intimate and the realization even more shocking by means of its juxtaposition — insinuating an alien touch into our associations with the warmest, most human figure we know in our lives. What could be more profoundly frightening than finding steel cables and circuitry relays behind your mother’s face? What realization could possibly put an icier hand on the back of your neck than realizing your umbilical cord is a fiber optic line and that your familiar, comforting world is nothing but a cathode womb?

Perhaps even more alarming, the invocation of “Mom” hints at and plays upon the pure unavoidability and absolute necessity of this relationship at this stage in our history. We are raised, nurtured, and guided by the “long arms” of this society of computer-assisted efficiency that we have created — as well as by its guardians, the technocracy, the high circle of specialists with the authority and expertise to most effectively manage this construct.

This brings us to perhaps the most fear-inspiring of the realizations to be gleaned from “O Superman.” No matter how much we might be left with awful shivers at the thought of being swallowed up by a serpent with access to PDAs, nanotechnology, and RFID implants, there is the horrible certainty that we cannot tread back along this path we have taken. It is therefore imperative that we learn more and understand the tools that otherwise place us in the disadvantageous position of ignorance in relation to this system. “You don’t know me, but I know you,” says the technocrat in the song, and thus the raison d’etre for Anderson’s investigation and warning. But what exactly is the alarm all about?

It is the realization that there is now hanging over us the very real danger of losing everything that ever made us irrational, lustful compassionate beings with warm blood, pained brains, and unfulfillable desires burning in our hearts.

’Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom.
In three succinct lines, Anderson powerfully kicks us with a painful awareness of the escalating levels of devolution and degradation that the human soul is subject to when it too rashly pursues the alluring call of science. It is well worth noting that the futuristic dystopian state suggested by “Mom” (perhaps much like the one described by Huxley in Brave New World — a state such authors as Neil Postman think we may already be well on our way toward achieving) is seen as being even more ominous and dehumanizing than the overtly repressive authoritarian state suggested by “force.”

Anderson doesn’t go so far as to point at technology itself as causative of this insidious evil (the caveat, after all, comes from a woman who is herself thoroughly conversant with many aspects of modern technological innovation), but the point does seem to be that these advances of science make the execution of abuses of power that much more expedient. It makes them more palatable in the sense that, as efficiency and convenience and even novelty become the driving concerns of our culture, it becomes harder to hear the insistent — if muffled — calls of conscience, caution, and prudence. There is unquestionably much to be gained by the restless push forward, but Anderson also says that “this is the hand, the hand that takes” — and what it takes most often is what makes us different from machines to begin with.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all is the unsettling mix of feelings one has about this metamorphosis. While the subject will inspire strong mistrust and fear in anyone with even the tiniest shred of neo-Luddite concern, it is also true that — if one sits quietly and listens carefully — an attraction will be found mixed in with the trepidation. This state we are hurtling toward with breakneck speed is, after all, perhaps no more than the logical extension of everything the opposable thumb has ever meant in shaping our identity as human beings. There is, perhaps, finally no way to really avoid becoming inextricably bound up in the tools one uses — a thing is, as Aristotle so insightfully pointed out, no more than what it does. When we remove the perceptive blinders of our particular cultural vantage point, we see that there are really no absolute distinctions between the natural and the artificial — only arbitrary ones based on the prejudices of one’s time and place.

Ultimately, then, the only question lying before us is not that of whether to proceed, but rather that of how. There will of necessity be prices to pay for our gains, whatever they may be — there always are, for that is the inevitable nature of change. The responsibility laid upon our shoulders now (and it is an absolutely crucial one) is to choose wisely and humanely what we are willing to give up for progress, and what temptations we are willing to pass over to preserve the sanctity of our nature as thinking, feeling, wondrous creatures with hearts and souls as well as minds.

So you better get ready. Ready to go. You can come as you are, but pay as you go.