“…there is a thinness to things, a smoothness, a muffled quality– it’s all insulation, as if the deities of Dreamworks were laboring invisibly around us, touching up the canvas of reality with digital airbrushes. Everything has the edgeless flowing feel of computer graphics, like the lobby of a high-end Marriott/Ramada/Sheraton– the sculptured flower arrangements, that glowy, woody, marbly, purply, cushioned-air quality. Every gadget aspires to that iPod look– even automobiles. The feel of the virtual is overflowing the screens, as if the plasma were leaking into the physical world.”
– Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It
Lisa: Well, look at the wonders of the computer age now!
Homer: Wonders, Lisa… or blunders?
Lisa: I think that was implied by what I said.
Homer: Implied, Lisa… or implode?
– The Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror X”
James Ferraro’s Human Story 3 is a painfully boring album. Really– it is. Normally, I wouldn’t bother reviewing boring music (what would be the point?) but as usual, Ferraro manages to be boring in an interesting way, a way that’s worth talking about. In fact, I’m pretty sure this album is intentionally boring. This is boring music about boredom itself, specifically the kind of boredom unique to this millennium, the kind that’s brought about by the glowing screens we stare at all day. This might sound weird. Hear me out.
Remember those awful vocal settings on your old Casio? The ones that let you play weird New Age renditions of “Ode to Joy” when you were a kid? Imagine a boatload of that, then add some meandering, pseudo-Philip Glass passages that go nowhere, and punctuate it all with a robot voices chanting words like “GPS,” “Starbucks” and “IKEA.” That’s Human Story 3 in a nutshell. It’s a frustrating listen. Every sound on the album is rendered with stunning, 1080p crystal-clear resolution, but at the same time, it has the hollow, distant echo of nothing. Apart from a few engaging moments where emotion shines through (e.g. “Neotenous Smart Car”), the music is vacant. It signifies nothing, it is nothing.
This is all by design. Ferraro is a master provocateur. His 2011 album Far Side Virtual was deeply polarizing: some hailed it as a tongue-in-cheek techno-futurist masterpiece, while others derided it as boring Muzak garbage. I loved it and I suspect that the split in opinion might have been generational. Those of us born in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s grew up in a virtual world, and we feel emotional resonance in sounds like the whoosh of Windows 98 starting up, the ping of an incoming IM, and the gentle lounge-jazz soundtrack of The Sims. In Far Side Virtual, Ferraro took those computer noises and that aesthetic of smooth, virtual nothingness, and assembled it into a collage that was by turns hilarious, trippy, distantly cold, and heartfelt. It was a nostalgic love letter to a bygone era that was, in all honesty, pretty shitty– but it was ours, and we understood it. If you haven’t heard Far Side Virtual, you really should. The dream of the early 2000s is alive in Ferraro-land.
So now it’s 2016 and we arrive at Human Story 3. Ferraro appears to be doing something else entirely here. His focus is not on the recent past but on the present. He explains that the major theme of the album is “the loss that occurs in the way technology is being integrated and applied to our lives.” He writes that “in contrast to cognitive machines that store all of human ability in its most practical and virtuous form, human beings seem riddled un-virtuous with folly.” This rise of cognitive machines he speaks of isn’t a sci-fi fantasy: it’s real and it’s happening right now. Just ask Siri. Human Story 3 is the musical encapsulation of that phenomenon. It depicts a world where the machines have taken over. These aren’t the giant, lumbering, clanking machines of the Industrial Era; they’re the sleek, “friendly” machines of 2016. The iPhone. The Amazon Echo. The Nest Thermostat. The kind of machines that hum and buzz and glow in all sorts of pleasing ways, the kind that cheerfully assist us in accomplishing the myriad tasks of our daily lives.
Ferraro, I believe, composed this album from the perspective of these cognitive machines. The point he’s trying to get across is that the overly-pleasing smoothness of computers was funny, hip and nostalgic in 2011, but now it’s worn out its welcome. In 2016, AI has integrated itself into our lives to a point where we can no longer detect our own humanity. We’ve reached a point where computers are making their own music. Human Story 3 is that music. It’s bright, cheery, tonal music that goes nowhere and says nothing. And if you peak under the surface, there’s something dark and menacing about it.
Actually, wait… you know what? I’m listening to it again and this time around, I’m getting more into it. It’s fun. It’s soothing. It makes me feel like I’m in a climate-controlled Apple Store, hovering off the floor as I browse the multitude of gadgets one by one. This is nice. I like it here. This is pure digital heaven.