The Art of Listening: pop, propaganda and North Korea

On "Huh" by 4Minute.

First you hear the wail of a siren-like synth, which is quickly followed by a chorus of female voices yelping in syncopation to a strutting beat. In these initial moments, it could be Girls Aloud or the Pussycat Dolls, or any one of a host of less well-known Anglo-American girl bands -- but in fact the group is 4minute, one of the stars of South Korea's homegrown K-pop scene.

Singing in a mix of Korean and English, the polyglot 4Minute also bear the dubious distinction of having reopened the propaganda war between North and South Korea. Following the sinking of the Cheonan warship earlier this year, the South has resumed radio broadcasts and installed 11 loudspeaker points along the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries.

Radio and loudspeaker broadcasts to the North -- which largely attempt to convince subjects of Kim Jong-Il's authoritarian regime to defect by boasting about higher living standards -- form one element of the low-level conflict that has simmered between the two countries ever since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953.

As relations between the neighbours warmed, in 2003 the South suspended its "psychological warfare" campaign. It was resumed last month, however, launched by 4Minute's song "Huh" and provoking a threat from the North Korean regime to turn South Korea's capital, Seoul, into a "sea of flame".

But who are the ultimate targets of this propaganda? The number of North Koreans it will reach is unclear, given that in 2003 the broadcasts were described as "virtually ineffective" by South Korea's Hangyore newspaper, but the song has now been relayed around the world's media countless times. "Huh", in the words of Bloomberg News, is a "pop song extolling freedom of choice". And indeed it is, if by choice you mean a rigid adherence to the norms of consumer culture. (A typical lyric translates as: "When I say I want to appear on TV, when I say I want to become prettier, everybody says I can't do it. Baby, you're kidding me? I do as I please.")

The 4-hour radio broadcast that followed "Huh" also included a taunt about North Korea's devastating famine of the late 1990s and its ongoing food shortages. South Koreans, said the presenter, are more worried about getting fat than starving to death. "Huh" is a fitting accompaniment to this charming statement. Boasting a glut of flashy production techniques, the very song itself sounds obese: the lead melodies are swimming in reverb, vocal harmonies are layered one on top of another, cymbals, kick drum and distorted bass combine to give a pumped-up, aggressive thrust.

In keeping with much pop music, its underlying message is simple and perhaps even a little threatening. Much like when bankers meet with the chancellor of the Exchequer, the message is: keep the party going -- or else.

Crude enough, but as Walter Benjamin averred, there has never been a document of culture that is not simultaneously one of barbarism. Just ask Alex, the delinquent protagonist of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, who sneers at the idea that he will be reformed by listening to Beethoven:

Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power.

Ha ha power indeed. Kim Jong-Il couldn't have put it better himself.

You can read more from the Art of Listening column here

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out"

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

GERRY BRAKUS
Show Hide image

“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution