Forced connectivity

I suspect this post by Will Davies about an advertising poster for the city of Birmingham, England, might be a hard sell, and I would probably have just linked to it on Twitter (my feed is @marginalutility -- I would stop pushing it here if had some way of making it appear permanently on this blog somewhere) if I could have found some teaser quote that was fewer than 125 characters. But the post's key passages seemed uncondensable, and that I was even looking to truncate them for the expediency of my Twitter feed is a pretty strong argument against the whole Twitter concept. Alas, I want to share links that I find interesting, but I want to have space to give my reasons for wanting to share it. I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that simply linking to it, marking it with my personal brand's seal of approval, is sufficient to convey its significance.

Anyway, Davies notices a poster touting Birmingham's interconnectedness ("Discover networking on another level") and how that makes it suitable as a business hub: "200,000 annual conferences and access to over 400 million people by road, rail, and air." These numbers seem a little fishy and grandiose; Davies comments, "Maybe they should have mentioned that Birmingham's telecom networks offer access to basically everyone in the world." But the key point is that these sorts of figures imply a sheer quantitative understanding of networking that has been invalidated by the ways things have progressed since the internet has become ubiquitous in Western business practices.

The confusion lurking within this advert is partly due to a total failure to understand economies of presence, a failure that was not uncommon in the mid-1990s. The notion that knowing or meeting more and more people, of being more and more connected, was somehow advantageous has come to appear rather old-fashioned.

In the early days of the networked information society, getting more connected supplied a competitive advantage, but the ease of connectivity has all but eliminated that. Now virtual presence is taken for granted. Here's how Davies puts it, incidentally making an excellent connection along the way between the person Time named its person of the year, and the runner-up some thought should have been so designated:

We were told that power would consist in having more and more connectivity (so the telecom industry hoped), making charisma and bandwidth the most important forms of productive capital. By this account, the city of Birmingham could have been a contender. Instead, power resides with Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange, individuals with few friends or capabilities, other than to break down whatever norms, rules and institutions used to enable society and communities to cohere (for better or worse).... The only people who definitely gain from more and more connectivity are the sociopathic founders of the networks themselves. Everyone else is caught in various balances between knower and known, follower and followed.

Embedded norms in local communities are made meaningless by omnipresent connectivity; all specific places become anyplace, just another node. Likewise, the local norms about what makes a person seem charismatic -- the situational, improvisational aspects of personal charm -- are everywhere supplanted by what characterizes charisma online, a generic computational matter of how linked one is. Charisma is not necessary to conduct information; its role in making certain information seem more significant is a matter of how one is placed in the hierarchical structure in the network. That is to say, charisma is not something internal to the person -- all those qualities require presence and are becoming more irrelevant -- but something imposed on people by their position in the network. Charisma becomes a strict matter of the numbers one can drive in the quantified universe of social media. That has always been the case with commercial media, but because of social networking, the norms of commercial media have replaced all those local, more idiosyncratic norms and institutions that once served as the field of charisma. That field is disappearing, and we are more or less forced online.

At that point, our being networked serves to reinforce our powerlessness, our communicative servitude: "network connections are not always symmetrical, as twitter has now helpfully made plain: I can 'know' (or 'follow') as many people as I like, but if they don't know me then my 'inclusion' in the great network does not equate to power." By participating in online sociality, we feed our various utterances into a huge sorting mechanism that spits out our place in the hierarchy. Unlike the subtler sorting that takes place in real-life social interaction, the online results, construed in numerical data, seems inarguable and open to less interpretation. And being able to broadcast ourselves certainly doesn't allow for us to transcend that hierarchy and reach some higher democratic vista. It embeds us in hierarchy in a more thorough, more autocratic, more centralized way -- an emplacement untempered by local, temporal circumstances. (Thus I end up feeling like I have to promote my Twitter feed in posts.)

In short, getting everyone connected does not set them free; as the word connected suggests, it leaves us more entangled.

The prophets of networks thought that the greatest loser in the digital age would be the child without a modem. Instead, the greatest losers are those who are being forcibly plugged in, and losing authority and status as a result - state institutions, American embassies, old boy networks, publishers, families, political organisations, MPs and so on. It's not so much that these traditional forms of organisation are left behind by the rise of open access networks and fluid forms of association, it's that they are strategically undermined by them, sometimes to the point of unviability.

The true signifier of power is becoming the freedom to be disconnected, unavailable, without detrimental consequences.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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