Black Music Cybernetics: the limbic system’s killer app

If we look at the history of Unix, we see the evolution of almost every contemporary computer operating system. The original “research UNIX” became BSD, which mutated into Apple’s OS for your mac and iphone; the PlayStation OS for gaming, much of the internet backbone, and so on. Before DOS and Windows, Microsoft began with Xenix, which was essentially UNIX re-branded. In many cases UNIX was rewritten from scratch, so that the ideas could be used without violating copyright. That’s the case for Minix, which provided the file system and some crucial ideas for the linux kernel, whose descendents run pretty much all of the internet not run by BSD.  You can see an image of the whole UNIX family tree below.

And here is a similar evolutionary diagram for the Black music family tree. Starting from West African roots, we have the work songs of enslaved Africans; the spiritual renaissance of gospel; the secular mutations of blues, ragtime, swing, jazz, rock, soul, funk and rap; the Caribbean and Latin American explosions of mambo, salsa, samba, zouk, reggae, Afro-cuban, reggaeton, and so on. From Coltrane and Miles to gangnam styles; Black music is the Unix of the global rhythmic network.


Attribution: Eraserhead1, Infinity0, Sav_vas – Levenez Unix History Diagram

Unix was the core code; the killer app; the mother of all motherboards. Its DNA (whether directly or re-written from scratch) is part of a grand computing heritage that nearly everyone uses on a daily basis. Why? Take away all the variations and at its core you have a fundamental mesh between what digital computation needs, and what system architecture provides.

Now lets ask the same question about Black music: why was it so phenomenally successful? First, we have to understand that music is analog representation. Analog vs digital is not, as we were taught, continuous vs discrete. Binary code is actually a digital square wave of zero volts and five volts in a continuous signal, and the analog system of music is discrete notes. Digital symbols are representation by arbitrary assignment; Analog is representation by proportion.  The more excited I am, the louder I get. The physical parameter changes are mapping out the “meaning” parameter changes. Our emotional intelligence–the limbic system in the brain, the neuroendocrine system linking brain with the secretion of hormones, the entire facial and bodily apparatus of affect communication–is mostly analog. And therein lies the answer to our question. Just as Unix entered and took over the digital ecosystem over the last 50 years, African traditions did the same for a global analog communication system called “music” over the last 200 years. They hacked the limbic system of our shared brains through juke joints, radio waves, recording studios and peer to peer file sharing. Take away all the variations and at its core you have a fundamental mesh between what analog cognition needs, and what music architecture provides. We know why that mesh works for UNIX; we don’t have a clue why that’s the case for Black music.

The “projects” page for Generative Justice is reserved for practical application, and this one is no exception. A simple start might be Black music in STEM education, as you can see here:

But the implications are much broader. Some of the greatest technical problems of our era–the failure of HCI to provide pleasurable, profound, principled integration between human lives and computational powers–lies in the fact that our analog existence is constantly hammered into digital boxes. Would the legacy of UNIX be helpful here? Damned skippy. But so would the legacy of African polyrhythms. Black technologies matter.