Posts Tagged ‘Bill Hicks’

Lazarus Corps

Monday, August 7th, 2017
Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

Photo: John Pratt from Unsplash

The ten thousand strong crowd had been waiting nearly an hour for the show to start. Most of them were absorbed in their phones, staring vacantly at glowing screens that threw an eerie light onto their faces.

Rancid, the PR intern from the production company organising the show, was standing near the stage and looking at his own phone, monitoring the social media comments being posted by the crowd. They were using the #malariadeathring hashtag – and most of the audience were clearly becoming pissed off at the delay but were trying to be amusing about it in their comments.

The delay in the start of the show was being stage-managed. With high overheads and punitive financial penalty clauses in the venue contract should anything go awry, the entire show was designed to run like clockwork. It was Rancid’s job to gauge whether the ‘rebellious’ attitude of the tardy band was returning any dividends. A debrief after the show would discuss the efficacy of the tactic and decide whether to continue with the practice or not at future events.

Rancid checked the time on his phone, the show was going to start about…now!

The background music yielded to a swelling bass tone of menace that got louder until it was at concert hall level and reverberated in Rancid’s chest. He looked up from his phone at the vast stage, empty of people but festooned with equipment poking through the shallow layer of dry ice like skyscrapers piercing cloud cover. A column of light was falling onto the stage like a biblical portent. The audience, as one, raised their phones into the air to video the moment.

From the side of the stage emerged a lone figure walking towards the spotlight. It was a young man with long dark hair as lustrous and bountiful as a woman in the prime of her reproductive years. He was wearing a loose-fitting white poet shirt tucked into brown leather trousers that were accessorised with an ornate buckle belt – the aficionados in the audience immediately recognised it as the silver Zuni Navajo Concho belt made famous by its wearer.

The figure reached the pool of light drilling into the stage and as he stepped into its beam the audience could clearly see Jim Morrison. He stood silently for a few seconds allowing the audience to take in the extraordinary detail of his clothes, hair and belt. A huge screen above the stage relayed the live moment. Then he spoke to the crowd in a husky drawl, “Ladies and gentlemen… Malaria Death Ring” and with that he turned and walked off the stage the same way he had come.

To the cheers of the audience, the members of Malaria Death Ring emerged from the centre of the stage on a hydraulic riser. They were face-painted and costumed so exotically that they made Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band from their acid days of the ‘60s, look like a team of bank clerks on their first day at work. A distinctive intro chord was struck and the show began in earnest.

oOo

Countless months before the show, the production team had their regular meeting at the record company headquarters. They sat around the clear glass, boardroom table.

“Siobhan, who do we have introducing the band on the 5th?”

Martin asked this question while scrolling through his digital tablet. Siobhan was on the other side of the table flicking her dyed hair away from her face. The others at the table all looked at her.

“We’ve currently got the President of the United States as the introducer.”

“Which one?” asked Martin.

“Donald Trump,” answered Siobhan.

“Isn’t he getting a bit…clichéd?” interrupted Hugh, a young, handsome man sitting next to Siobhan “I mean, how often can he say ‘this is the best band, you’re going to see the best show’ before it gets too predictable? Besides, I’m reliably informed that Donald Trump is going to be introducing ‘Horse Blood’ on the same night in Birmingham. Surely we want to be a bit more exclusive than that?” He looked at Martin for support. Martin continued to peer at his tablet.

“Who told you that?” asked Martin still looking at his tablet.

“Peter Pinkjacket,” said Hugh.

“Pinkjacket! He’s a coke-head; you can’t trust anything he says!” yelled Siobhan.

Martin quickly looked up from his tablet sensing a time-wasting spat between his two team members. He addressed the five people at the table. “Reliable or not I think it’s worth looking at other options anyway. This is a big gig for Death Ring as it’s the album launch so it might be worth exploring something… unusual. Andy, do you know of anything being developed that we might be able to use?”

Andy was the technical expert with his finger on the digital pulse of innovation.

“I hear Jim Morrison is going to be available soon,” he suggested.

“Whooa! He would be cool!” said Mike, the creative executive.

“Really? Any idea how much he would be?” asked Martin.

“It wouldn’t be that much more than Donald Trump, but there would obviously be a premium for exclusivity. The downside is the quality wouldn’t be quite as good as Trump, as the archive footage is so poor. Comparatively.” Andy added.

Mike said, “But it’s been so long since anyone saw him in the flesh it wouldn’t matter. To the people in the audience he would be real enough. And, as we own The Doors back catalogue it could generate sales from curious onlookers who haven’t heard of him.”

“I’m liking the idea of Jim Morrison more than Donald Trump,” said Martin as he glanced at Siobhan, “Morrison has more…gravitas than Trump and Mike is right, we need to consider the trade off between the extra cost of the avatar and the possible revenue from fresh sales. See if you can fix that up, would you?”

Siobhan made a note on her phone.

Later, at around midnight, Siobhan made a video call to Leee from Lazarus Corporation.

“It looks like we’re going to run with Jim Morrison, Leee, do you know if the avatar will be ready for the 5th? We just need him to say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Malaria Death Ring!’”

Leee was suitably rock ‘n roll; with a shaven head and dark glasses. He responded from his sunlit office in LA, “Yep, he’s just about ready for a trial run and he looks beautiful. We’ve rendered him in his prime at about age twenty-two. You’ll be the first to have him.”

Yeah, after some American outfit uses him first, thought Siobhan.

“Fabulous” said Siobhan “consider this confirmation. I’ll send the official request through in about fifteen minutes.”

oOo

In the old days, living celebrities would open a show for a band in person but this entailed so many problems with egos, riders, and reliability issues that an exasperated executive came up with a novel idea.

He got the idea from a development first seen at conferences. A speaker, who was many thousands of miles away, would be projected onto a stage during a live event. To the audience it looked pretty much as if this speaker was in the room, not in a studio on the other side of the world. They could even conduct a Q&A session with them and still maintain the illusion of reality.

It was only a small step to imagine a pre-recorded message given by a celebrity being projected onto a stage but this still involved getting the cooperation of the celebrity in the first place and pandering to their narcissism.

Then some digital artists armed with fast computers and lots of start-up funding took it one step further. They had seen the online videos that mocked certain politicians with mashed-up broadcast footage of their old speeches. Fast and clever editing made the politician say or sing outrageous things that the public understood to be nearer to the truth of what they meant.

What these digital artists did was to create a believable hologram of a living celebrity purely from footage that was available online. A hugely sophisticated algorithm could visualize new scenarios based on the known mannerisms of the subject. A programmer could then feed in any body movements and dialogue that they wanted into the programme to generate a convincing hologram of the celebrity on a stage at a live event. The result was the current fashion of having a big name introduce an act. The day of the indistinguishable avatar from the real celebrity (at least viewed from a distance) had arrived. Algorithms had revolutionised the entertainment industry. Real celebrities were a pain in the arse. Avatars were the future.

The celebrities on offer were growing by the month – alive or dead. However, the older the celebrity the more expensive they tended to be as the processing power needed to resurrect them was higher due to the paucity of material and the poorer quality of recordings.

Having a celebrity introduce an act with the line “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome x” was just the right length to make the process commercially viable for medium sized acts. And once they had been generated, smaller acts could purchase a licence to use the same file but with a slight alteration for whatever name they required the avatar to speak.

Of course, the first time this stunt was pulled, the celebrity in question was outraged at the appropriation and lawsuits were quickly filed but once the lawyers started to look into the case many loopholes and omissions were revealed. The technology was too new for the old law. The originators argued that they weren’t pretending that the actual celebrity was opening the show; they were completely upfront that a counterfeit was being displayed. The lawyers weren’t even sure if the image fell under the legislation designed for artworks or not, it was a lawless frontier.

Such were the vagaries of the case that it was quickly thrown out of court and the celebrities suddenly realised what it must feel like to be a production worker in a factory and witness the introduction of a tireless robot that could do your job far more efficiently. Overnight, celebrities got increasingly shy about appearing on any media that could record them walking, talking or even cutting a ribbon with a pair of scissors. Old media started to get deleted from video sites and lobby groups were putting pressure on the legislators to protect the rights of the unfortunate celebrities.

But by that time the innovators had already banked terabytes of data ready to analyse and render into their new compliant ghosts.

It wasn’t too long before filmmakers started to look at the costs of creating a full-length movie using digitally reproduced actors based on real actors – but these new actors wouldn’t throw a tantrum, get coked up in their trailers or even age over time.

Some gossip columnists enjoyed the shadenfraude of celebrities losing status and earnings due to the avatars. Writers felt especially smug; they were in a position of renewed status as the spoken lines that the avatars delivered became more important than the celebrity.

That didn’t last long however as the ‘deep learning’ algorithms managed to become creative and start churning out copy that humans found amusing, dazzling or moving based on what the audience had previously found amusing, dazzling and moving. The algorithms even learned to apply context and topicality to their output.

Then Bill Hicks got his own show. It was a brand new show and completely written by algorithms. The show even used the name of Bill Hicks as the owners of his estate realised it was useless fighting the onslaught of new technology and they might as well take a slice of the pie through licencing agreements rather than go hungry.

The show was a smash. The persona of Bill Hicks lent itself beautifully to some of the surreal imagery that the algorithm conjured up out of its mathematical processes and it even managed to come up with a routine that included some self-referential jokes about artificial intelligence being too clever by half for dumb humans.

All the creativity in the show was machine generated and the only thing left for humans to do was to market it and consume it.

Had he been alive, Bill Hicks would have got high on the irony.