Shadow of the Tin Man: Shadow’s Struggle with Artificial Intelligence

Posted: September 7, 2014 in Uncategorized
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In this entry let’s expand upon another of the extra-human intelligences explored in the aforementioned paper, “Way Way Out: Mysticism, Sci-Fi and the Psyche in the Music of Shadow”

"Caroni Circuit" (collage by Lawrence Waldron)

“Caroni Circuit” (collage by Lawrence Waldron)

From the 1970s to 1990s, alongside troubling us not only with the sentience of animals but also with their potential as foils of humanity and its suprematist conceits, Shadow was exploring two other lines of rival intelligences, namely space aliens and artificial intelligence.

Aliens have been appearing in Shadow’s oeuvre since the beginning of his career—long before X-Files or even Close Encounters. Shadow’s 1972 single “Jane” featured “Visit to Mars” on the flip side; and on the B-side of the single “Rap to Me” is the song “The Alien,” both songs being from the 1975 album King from Hell. But in 1979, when the danceable “U.F.O.” appeared on the album If I Coulda I Woulda I Shoulda it was the first of several extraterrestrial-themed major hits for Shadow. Subsequently, the popular “Tumble Down” from 1984’s Mystical Moods came off like a sequel to “U.F.O.” and was heir to over a decade of ‘alien Calypsos’ by Shadow. Along with extraterrestrials in their interstellar craft searching for good music or conveniently-located, tasty musicians, the space age accorded Shadow one other important sub-genre, which is the topic of this short article.

Just as fundamentalists distrust the mystic, the mystic often has some misgivings of his own. He harbours such suspicions not just towards the reductionist binaries of faithful and ‘infidel,’ absolutely right and absolutely wrong, Right Wing and Left Wing or West and East (which is perhaps why Shadow has not been one to publicly align himself with political parties), oppositions that are so central to the fundamentalist’s vain and infantile search for purity. Shadow also seems to hold as highly suspect the binary world of ones and zeroes: the language of computers, robotics and indeed industrialization.

In keeping with the mystic’s reverence for nature and nature’s porous categories, complex harmonies and rhythms, its seasonal transitions and interrelated, interdependent species and ecologies, Shadow evinces a sometimes-vague, sometimes-definite discomfiture with the prospect of Artificial Intelligence, (i.e. the question of and potential for machines being sentient, or at least fulfilling the functions of sentience). This seems ironic at first, since Shadow pioneered the replacement of some acoustic instruments with synthesizers in the early 1970s—as arguably the first great advocate of digital Calypso, which now falls largely under the Soca moniker. But Shadow’s position is often that technology is an ancillary tool, not a necessity, and that like any sharp or powerful tool we should use it with caution. We might consider that industries, institutions, ideologies, societies, factions, robots and computers all have in common that they are mechanical/mechanized systems created by man to perform some of his otherwise personal functions externally (and with some measure of autonomy), which end up modifying man in turn—changing his behavior, his speech, his writing (OMG!) and his very thoughts. Indeed artificial systems are creatures that can, and have, come to life to enslave their masters.

On the title song of the 1982 album Return of the Shadow, the Calypso master ascends to the “astral plane” to gain deeper mystical insight, leaving a robot in charge of his earthly concerns, including the running of his Calypso tent. It is not long after Shadow’s departure that the robot starts to “malfunction,” dressing up like a “saga boy” in disco outfits, developing an alcohol problem and taking its role as Shadow’s replacement a little too seriously. By the end of the song:

 …the thing that really aggravate me

The robot thought he was me

He take meh girl, Emily

And give she a big belly!

Naturally, the erratic/erotic robot forces a hasty “return of the Shadow” from his sabbatical in the disembodied spirit world if only to rectify this one-cyborg rebellion and to reassert his human patrimony.

By 1988, this ‘errant machine’ idea had spawned the Calypso “Crazy Computer,” a song in which human husbands are instructed by a computer app to allow their wives “a sweet man or two” in order to ensure marital harmony. Married men are admonished by the computer to “take your horn as a man” and ask no questions about their wives’ comings and goings lest unpleasant confrontations should ensue. Like many artificial systems, the computer seems to prize order in the institution (in this case, the institution of marriage) over mysterious, unquantifiable (i.e., uncomputable) things like personal emotions. It is then Shadow’s turn to rebel (but not like a licentious, lascivious robot) as he declares repeatedly in the chorus that this “crazy computer” must want him to kill somebody and “end up in the hangman’s cemetery.”

Interestingly, it is human masculinity that is most threatened by A.I. in these analog-digital/man-machine conflicts, with women partially operating as symbols of nature, hanging in the balance.

Is Shadow just betraying some deep masculine anxiety about a mechanistic overthrow of patriarchy? The cybernetic sabotage is something that Shadow overtly resists but is it also something that he secretly fears as man’s just deserts, the way that Hollywood movies are obsessed with an America, and perhaps a world order, created by people of European descent becoming the unwitting victim(s) of space aliens who have come to enslave them and seize their land (as those same world-changing Europeans did to Native Americans and Africans)? Is Shadow’s A.I. overthrow the paranoid product of a guilty dominator’s conscience waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop? Does the uprising of Shadow’s machines also speak of anxieties about playing God (or about God Himself), in which the curious, ambitious, imperious creator is interrogated, surpassed and subsumed by his self-aware, critical creations?

These are well-trodden sci-fi themes into which Shadow was playing in the first half of his career with his A.I. references, whether knowingly or unknowingly, as he invoked the computerized bogeyman, and thereby the uncontrollable Golem, the sensitive but resentful Frankenstein monster, the runaway Replicant, the all seeing software of Skynet with its hardest hardware of terminators or the all encompassing Matrix with its condescending, merciless Agents Smith.

But whether Shadow was merely picking up the A.I. theme as part of his ongoing exploration of non-human intelligences (i.e., animals, aliens, and machines) or his cuckolding computers were deliberately selected to ‘cuff’ man right in his masculine pride, is something we would have to ask Shadow. Would he tell us the whole story? Maybe one day we’ll find out.

What seems clear is Shadow’s apprehensions about artificial systems in general and their unexpected emergent properties. This “babe in nature’s cradle,” this student of nature has trusted the natural world to provide the wisdom and the way forward. For Shadow, artificial systems can provide only some tools, but left unsupervised or un-moderated by natural wisdom, soon go haywire.

And lest we accuse Shadow of indulging in his own brand of naïve Cartesian binaries of Nature vs. Culture, we have only to refer back to those early songs from what we might consider clumsily the first expositive or ‘manifesto years’ of Shadow’s natural wisdom philosophy. 1976’s “Mother Wisdom” off the Flip Side of Shadow album, says:


Some people tell me

That man is superior.

If they ask me

Well my answer is “never.”

Some people tell me

that man is a tyrant.

Born to be ruler

And do anything he want.

But attention my dear

I am making this clear

If the waters run dry

Man can’t even find tears to cry

If the sun cease from shining

Only reminding

That man and his world

is like nothing at all.


(second verse)

I am not trying to condemn man,

Please understand,

For I am one.

But everything,

Whether big or small

Are all important

In this world.

It might seem contradictory that Shadow would say that “man’s world” is “important” and “nothing” in the same song. But anyone who has looked up at the stars at night, has been through a hurricane, or has stood on the edge of Grand Canyon knows exactly what Shadow means. Here Shadow suggests that while everything has its place of importance both in and of itself and in the greater world, man’s seemingly all-important world is also by comparison but a subsection, an iota. Taken by itself, man’s world is of little significance. This artificial techno-cultural world is but a pixel in the high resolution big picture. It is at once indispensible and insignificant.

So are Culture, and its handmaiden, Technology (with its computers and robots in tow), true opposites of Nature? Isn’t Culture a quaint, ethnic subsection, a minor function, of Nature (like the farmer’s farm is a “preview of nature’s charm,” a nested microcosm with its petty concerns ruled by and reflective of grander and yet grander principles)? To conceitedly oppose or reverse Culture to Nature in order to fancy man at the top of the universe is to transpose orders of reality. To do this is also to invite overthrow by artificial systems modeled on man (which will inherit the human tendency to see themselves as pinnacles of creation). In songs like “Return of the Shadow” and “Crazy Computer,” Shadow casts himself as the vain, foolish cuckold to warn us, ‘doh get tie up’ in the wires.


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