You may know him as DJ Spooky, a pioneering force in the entire universe of trip-hop. There are others who remember his speculative fiction (aka sci-fi) or his alternative moniker That Subliminal Kid.
But he's Paul D. Miller: Artist, musician, turntablist, filmmaker, executive editor of Origin Magazine, author of non-fiction and fiction books, app developer and tech junkie extraordinaire.
We had a chance to sit down with DJ Spooky, who recently scored Alex Winter's forthcoming Napster documentary Downloaded, in which he invoked his immaculate fusion of grace, eloquence and trademark eldritch funkiness.
The man with a million things on his mind and even more on the screens of his impressive array of mobile devices (that he'll use while talking to you, whether you like it or not, all the while with a lilting voice and boyish smirk that makes you not care) also has a new book coming out via MIT called The Imaginary App.
The book gives us an extensive view of DJ Spooky's passions for the tech industry, some of which he also shared with us during an hour-long interview at a posh New York City bistro. Here's what he had to say about disruptive technology and why it might be more eruptive than you'd think:
iTech Post: You said you've been using 15 different tablets from various companies to complete The Imaginary App. What have you been discovering about the various products taken to task in such an endeavor?
DJ SPOOKY: Apple is really good at interface design. Samsung is great at that, as well. There are some things that are slightly quirky and clunky, though. I'm not a specialist. I'm more of an artist who uses this stuff. But uses it very robustly and very actively.
iTech Post: What about some of the complaints we've been hearing about the Microsoft Surface line?
DS: Yeah, it's not happening, man. They're gonna have to bring the price point down a lot and it's going to cause a lot of pain because they put a lot of money into these tablets with huge memory and the OS takes up so much of the available memory, even when you get it straight out of the box.
iTech Post: As someone who's been messing around with so many different tablets and devices, can you be more specific about the Surface Pro problems?
DS: If you've got a Surface Pro tablet with 160 GB, and the OS takes up 90 GB, it's just absurd. Microsoft has always been quirky, counterintuitive ... Hewlett-Packard did some really good tablets, but they didn't catch their stride. Samsung really hit a resonance with all the Google Android products. My only worry right now is all this stuff is so easy to hack.
iTech Post: How have you integrated all these devices into your everyday life?
DS: My daily routine is: I wake up in the morning, I usually go for a run, I go and sit at a café ... I used to have to carry a laptop and sit some place. In the last two years, this fits in my pocket [points to his Samsung Galaxy Note 2]. It's such a relief, man. This [Samsung Galaxy Note 2] is my office. And it's quite robust.
iTech Post: Samsung seems to be leading the pack in so many different ways these days, almost unquestionably.
DS: Yeah, they're just killing it, and I don't know how they're just cranking them out! Just look at scalability and production models.
iTech Post: It definitely seems as though Asia has gained an interesting foothold in the market.
DS: As it has been for a long time, China is the world's factory. So when I go there, I visit a bunch of really interesting computer manufacturing spots and computer sales spots like Buynow [pronounced Bay-no-way] which is in the middle of downtown Beijing. And the sheer volume of computers they make in China is mind-boggling from the viewpoint of an American consumer experience.
iTech Post: What is the difference between the American and Chinese consumer experience?
DS: Our experience is so kind of locked into a real lack of choice. When I go to China, there's bootleg computers, there's crazy gear, mega-every-possible style of tablet. Not just one floor. Not just one room. But entire city blocks.
iTech Post: What are the big devices you're seeing there?
DS: Interestingly enough, they're really keen on Google Android. That's my personal experience. You just have to imagine the experience of going into a hyper-overwhelming environment and just seeing every possible kind of computer you can imagine.
iTech Post: What is it about your Samsung Galaxy Note 2 that makes it so favored among your vast litany of devices?
DS: I like it because of its very elegant sense of interface. I started out mainly with Apple stuff. I got rid of PC's a long time ago [laughs]. Although I edited music and video on my Windows machine up until maybe four years ago. And then finally just phased out of Windows altogether. I have a feeling a lot of people are doing that.
iTech Post: Any other tablets you've liked working with?
DS: I had a [BlackBerry] PlayBook. BlackBerry sponsored me for a little bit. Their ecosystem wasn't as robust. For a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do, a lot of the apps didn't work or were too just too late.
iTech Post: What are some of the other things you use your tablets for aside from making art?
DS: I read and write on my tablet. And on my phone. I'm kind of a "power user." So, yeah, if you don't have the material I need to get through with my daily stuff, that computer gets pushed to the side. I have a whole row of computers I'm using in the morning. It's been kind of an interesting year getting this book done.
I'm usually really busy, and I'm on massive deadlines. I edit the magazine [Origin] on my tablet. I kind of weaned myself away from keyboards. We're doing the photo layout, the design, editing the articles ...
iTech Post: Do you think you would work with so many different tablets on one project again in the future?
DS: I don't know if I would do it regularly, but it really changed my way of dealing with computers. Simple things like constant updates to the architecture of Google Play Store. For example, for a long time, they didn't have a specific tablet area, whereas Apple did. So if you downloaded an app that was optimized for a smaller screen, it would have a lot of different quirks and hesitations.
iTech Post: What other kinds of "quirks" have you had to deal with?
DS: When you see a screen like this [Note 2] with Super AMOLED resolution, it's excellent, but it doesn't work very well outside. That's another thing. Whereas Asus, they have this tablet where they use a very specific technology for their screen. Like HTC One and other ones use it so you can have a very clear image when you're outside. But Samsung didn't on the Note 2. On the Note 8.0, it works fine.
iTech Post: Do you still use other devices regularly for your other projects?
DS: Yeah, I use my iPad a lot for lectures and I lecture a lot. The Note 8.0 didn't have HDMI Out, and I need to be able to have video for lectures and stuff. And I use it for demos ... Although they have this thing called Miracast or Samsung AllCast. But it's not as stable as having a basic cord. And I lecture in a lot of different lecture halls constantly. And VGA is kind of a basic standard. I can show with my iPad, can plug it in anywhere. No problem. I mean, Samsung's catching up; I'm sure by the end of the year.
iTech Post: Do you feel like we're seeing the end of PCs altogether?
DS: Desktop? Yeah, the "desktop experience" is going to be viewed as a 20th century anomaly. Definitely.
iTech Post: How about how all of these changes will alter things like gaming and other realms, too?
DS: Your phone can control everything. Samsung's already doing that. I mean, I love the way that it interacts with your TV ...
iTech Post: But do you see this leading to the end of gaming consoles?
DS: No, I think they're gonna migrate.
iTech Post: How so?
DS: Samsung's position is at a critical crossroads because they manufacture in different contexts. Apple just does computers and monitors. Even though those computers and monitors are made in China, where somebody can flip and bootleg you in two seconds. As soon as they take your order, they can take the same specs and parameters and flip it to something else. [laughs] Which they do.
iTech Post: How does this affect things?
DS: The good news and bad news out of that is that there's this co-dependency between China and the rest of the world. Obviously they are the world's factory. But they still need consumers. Thank God. Their own economy can't sustain the feverish pitch.
iTech Post: What else have you seen in your trips to Asia, as far as this is all concerned?
DS: I go to Asia usually a couple of times a year. And it's been incredible to see the amount of evolution in Asia. But spearheaded by Korea, not China. And the funny thing is that because Korea is a former colony of Japan — same thing as Taiwan — they were able to take the Japanese sense of precision and the Japanese sense of really robust engineering and apply it to Chinese scale. So they took the best of both countries. Taiwan and Korea are more parallel than Korea and Hong Kong or Taiwan and Hong Kong, although a lot of their manufacturing goes on in Hong Kong.
iTech Post: How about e-Readers? Seems like a waste of money when you can just do everything on your tablet.
DS: I don't know. People are stupid. They're cheap. I wouldn't buy one. But people are stupid and they will buy G.W. Bush. I'm being ironic there, but it's one of those things: Why would anybody buy? The same functionality could just be a Kindle app on a much better device. And for not that much difference of money. Like maybe $30 more. I'm stunned. The inertia in people's brain versus the actual conditions in the marketplace? The market's moving much quicker.
iTech Post: Let's step into the near future here with augmented reality products like the Google Glass. Will we be seeing a similar shift away from tablets themselves, too?
DS: Yeah. I think [products like Google Glass] are going to displace most of the functions of how people used to use other devices. It's more a matter of how people look at functionality getting into their everyday life experiences. Gaming consoles: They're actually very robust interfaces. Like why is everyone still using a QWERTY keyboard? We don't need to. I mean, there's so many other interfaces we can use. The inertia. For that matter, why are we still driving cars that use gas? It's the same thing.
iTech Post: What do you mean by that, exactly?
DS: It's fascinating because we're applying all these older forms to a reality that could easily change within a year if we wanted to, like cars don't really need to have the gas that they are using. It's inefficient, but you would have to be pulling teeth at major industries and changing all their production models and all their routes of production. Imagine if one day everyone woke up and said We can have cars running on electricity. It would just take turning on a dime, but people won't do it. I bet you for the next 20 years or so, we'll still be using cars that have gas.
iTech Post: What are some of the products you're really looking forward to right now?
DS: I'm looking forward to the next iPad because I use the iPad a lot. I got rid of my larger iPad for the smaller one, but this still doesn't have the same processing power and it freezes up a lot and other things. I developed my software for Apple's main iPad. With my iPad app, we've had over 15 million downloads. It's been a great run, but it runs kind of slightly slow.
iTech Post: Actually, can you describe your app for our readers?
DS: It lets you interface with all of your media on your iTunes library in a pretty robust way. It's just called DJ Spooky. We made it very easy. It's a turntable interface. But we got copied immediately. Everybody copied us. We were one of the first DJ mixing apps to get out there. And we've been going very strong for the last two years. Even that has been radical because we had people who got in later or in the same way like Brian Eno. He did a series of apps that lets you make music from his kind of algorithmic approaches. On the other hand, there are people like Philip Glass who just did an app. Or Bjork.
iTech Post: OK, so here's a tough one. With mobile devices taking over, what are we going to do about privacy issues and issues of noise from people futzing around with their phones and whatnot in coffee shops or on the subway?
DS: Multitasking. Get used to it, you know? Protocols of social norms and mores? In the 19th century, you weren't allowed into someone's home unless you sent your card in first. You had to wait in the antechamber and the person had to agree to see you. Imagine that now. Of course society changes and of course we're going to have different societal protocols.
I have a tendency to walk everywhere and I walk for miles. And I'm answering messages, dealing with various stuff. I even have friends who put in treadmills at their office so they're walking while they're typing and on the phone. Always moving instead of sitting at a normal desk. I love stuff like that. Who wants to sit at a desk every day? It was a torture made over the last century and something that we're now freed from.
iTech Post: Paul, do you ever get annoyed when people are screwing around with their shit next to you, though?
DS: If I'm at a movie, I do want people to turn the fucking cellphone ringer off. Some people get mad if you even pull out a cellphone; you can see the little screen. I get that; I can ignore it. But the sound interferes a lot with my visual experience. And I think the privacy issues are profound and deep and here to stay.
iTech Post: What about those privacy issues, though? People recording you with their Google Glass, say, and then immediately uploading you to their Facebook page or something?
DS: They're already doing that kind of thing. My concerts and shows. I've been living that way for a long time.
iTech Post: How about how these devices will be affecting people's ability to concentrate, with all that multitasking going on?
DS: Human beings have always had "ADD" or always had passions like that.
iTech Post: But aside from all the "ADD" discussions, do you believe there is a real here-and-now, real-world danger that this technology will literally change the way our brains will work?
DS: There's people who really are tracing the neurological impact. You can see the film Connected about the way neural networks respond to digital media. I did the score to the film.
iTech Post: What are we going to do with all the people who don't want to transition over or can't afford to or can't because of medical reasons, say, or just don't ever hear about this stuff?
DS: Not everything is for everyone.
iTech Post: But we're getting to the point where people will almost have to switch over the way you have to have insurance to drive a car or will soon have to have medical insurance. This is changing the way everyone will be communicating. What about the people who just can't or won't do it?
DS: They will find themselves isolated, outside the discourse of whatever they're not paying attention to. If you don't read the newspaper today, the world is still going to. This is just the global version of that, hyper-fragmented and hyper-overloaded.
iTech Post: There seems to be an almost fetishistic quality to all of this gadget geek stuff. Processors that are being developed that are so fast they literally burn out the device, bigger screens that are so bulky the device is hardly mobile anymore, all the different color variants and more ... It seems like there's something there where it's not even about practicality anymore but just who's got the biggest, fastest, "best" device ...
DS: People get into that. The same thing happened with cars. Anybody who gets fanatic about any technology or anything, they're gonna look for extra bells, hooks and whistles, and the companies are trying to force feed that and spark that. What happens is they get economies of scale, segmented markets and they can maximize profit off of that. Samsung has been doing that with all of their devices. Apple, their production model is still based on an American idea from the late '90s. They need to up their game. All the Chinese companies are going crazy. Every Chinese company has zillions of different phones and price point ranges and Apple just has one thing.
I haven't bought in a normal store in years. I usually order from weird Chinese sites.
It's really intense and it's going to get deeper and weirder and you have to throw a very wide net now.
iTech Post: What is the ultimate inherent value of all this technology?
DS: Consumers want choice but they don't know it. And the companies are kind of leading them. It's hard to describe. But, again, I'm an artist. I use these devices to generate cultural materials. I'm not a tech specialist.
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