David Byrne's Attempt to Predict the Future of Computers Shows Why Rock Died

David Byrne of Talking Heads thought we'd never use computers creatively. Why?

“I don’t think computers will have any important effect on the arts in 2007. When it comes to the arts they’re just big or small adding machines. And if they can’t ‘think,’ that’s all they’ll ever be. They may help creative people with their bookkeeping, but they won’t help in the creative process.” - David Byrne, 1987

In 1987, David Byrne of Talking Heads put on his futurist hat and made some predictions for 2007 in OMNI magazine. He talked about the evolution of video and network programming, but one of his most startling predictions centers around the way we’d be using computers twenty years on. Namely, Byrne predicted that we wouldn’t be using them too terribly much.

Typically when we look at futurist predictions, we look at predictions that were a bit too ambitious or slightly overestimated. We’ve looked at Isaac Asimov’s prediction for underwater colonization, a plan to change our alphabet and simplify English, and Arthur C. Clarke’s urban exodus. These predictions reached a little too far and overestimated the ability of humanity to bring about significant change in certain arenas.

But Byrne’s prediction is a little different. Still wrong, yes, but only because Byrne undershot, which is odd given his tendency to live beyond the curve. Still, mulling his wrongness is actually an interesting exercise that provides a real glimpse into the music industry and a deeper understanding of the reason it has changed so much.

The eighties saw some really significant advancements in computing. It was the time of C++ and Lisa, of CD-ROMs and Microsoft Word. It was the age of IBM’s PC, it was the age of Macintosh. MIT’s Media Lab was founded and ILM was using computers to do effects on a host of films. A year before Byrne penned his predictions, Pixar was founded. So why was Byrne convinced that computers would be creatively non-useful? Well, probably because for all of the advancements and opportunities they presented in graphics and information processing, they still felt very much like a walled garden in 1987.

Byrne was and is an artist who tends to do what he wants to do. This has served him well professionally, but it wouldn’t have incentivized him to start programming in the early days. Computers were far more purposeful in the late eighties and early nineties and that was almost antithetical to the Talking Heads artistic stance. Stop Making Sense is not just a great movie, it’s a rallying cry.

It would’ve been difficult for Byrne to predict things like Audacity or Photoshop or Soundcloud or Spotify. In 1987, computers existed largely as machines in offices that likely felt sort of fundamentally at odds with artistry. The machines of the 80’s were ugly and big and seriously underpowered by today’s standards. The idea of using them in an artistic context was uncommon and, in some ways, even laughable. They had nothing to offer David Byrne because they couldn’t — synthesizer aside — improve his music and he wasn’t wanting for distribution channels.

Rock music didn’t fair well when the internet arrived and Byrne may have accidentally presaged that. New technology had so little to offer rock groups that they were slow to adopt it and less curious about its potential uses. In the early eighties, Byrne had been collaborating with Brian Eno. By the mid nineties, Eno would be using computers to make “generative music” and working intensely with samples, taking a cue from hip-hop artists. Byrne wouldn’t become irrelevant because he remained great, but his work would never again be popular in a way that it had been. Was that because he failed to figure out how to leverage technology? Not entirely. Cultures change. But it sure didn’t help.

All that said, Byrne was right in that computers would be good for bookkeeping. Nailed that one.