Cyberculture History: Did Gary Numan Predict Facebook?

Cyberculture History: Did Gary Numan Predict Facebook?

February 17, 2011 12:58 pm 5 comments

Gary Numan Replicas cover

With Numan’s first album, Tubeway Army (‘78), it was already clear that Numan’s songwriting was concerned with the relationship between man and machine and what we would now call the post-human condition. It includes lyrics like “Me I’ve just died / but some machine keeps on humming / I’m just an extra piece of dead meat to keep running,” from the track “Life Machine.” Anyone listening to a lot of Gary Numan will notice that the word “me” figures heavily in his lyrics. The song “My Love is a Liquid” from the same album features the lines “can’t meet you face-to-face / There are no corners to hide in my room / No doors, no windows, no fire place.” In our times, this is a blatant comment on the way the internet mediates social relations.

Numan’s following album, Replicas (‘79), couldn’t be more drenched with prophetic visions of the internet and Facebook. The opening lines of “Me! I Disconnect from You” – in itself a charged title – are metaphors for botched Facebook relationships: “The alarm rang for days / you could tell from the conversations / I was waiting by the screen / I couldn’t recognize my photograph / Me, I disconnect from you” – the line about the screen doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the late ’70s, unless Numan was specifically talking about an imagined form of communication. It practically goes without saying that “disconnecting” from someone entails ending a Facebook relationship or, even worse, de-friending someone. It doesn’t even require analysis to see why the following track, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is rich with Facebook meaning. The track “You Are in My Vision” anticipates critiques of television by theorists like Marshall Mcluhan, Jean Baudrillard, and though not a theorist, naturally Cronenberg in Scanners and Videodrome, with its lines “Fade to screens of violence / Like a TV screen but silent / Where the victims are all paid by the hour.”

Thought Catalog: Did Gary Numan Predict Facebook?

Someone in the comments points out that some of this isn’t as enigmatic as it seems:

most of his lyrical elements, especially in Replicas, were references to a dystopian science fiction novel he was writing but never finished. the ‘friends’ he talks are identical robots that could be hired and used for any purpose, and “the life machine” is about a comotose individual being sustained by a machine. it’s all quite directly inspired by numan’s favorite writers, and as such one could more perhaps more aptly say that william s. burroughs or phillip k. dick “predicted the future”. still interesting though. numan’s contributions to modern music and popular culture are woefully under-appreciated.

To be clear, Numan has distanced himself from his early sci-fi lyrics. He told Electronic Musician:

Science Fiction has no influence on the music, especially lyrically, and especially now. To be honest I only ever wrote a handful of songs that were remotely connected to Science Fiction and they were all nearly 20 years ago. The ‘Replicas’ album, or bits of it, one or two things on ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and one or two things on ‘Telekon’. I would say about 15 songs, maybe 20, out of a total of well over 300 to date have anything to do with Sci Fi. I think because I became successful with electronic music, a newish thing 20 years ago, and a song called ‘Are Friends Electric’ (it was that song that launched me in the UK anyway) I was given a Sci Fi label that stuck long after I’d moved on to other things.

For the curious, via Song Meanings, here’s a bit from William S. Burroughs’s story “Astronaut’s Return” that is clearly referenced in “Down in the Park”:

Ugly snarl behind the white lies and excuses. [...]
DEATH DEATH DEATH

So many you can’t remember
The boy who used to whistle?
Car accident or was it the war?
Which war?

The boy’s room is quite empty now. Do you begin to see there is no face there in the tarnished mirror?

5 Comments

  • As a paid-up Numanoid back in the 70s and early 80s I remember Gary made no secret that most of his early lyrics were inspired by William S Burroughs (who appeared in an early Tubeway Army song as “Jack Burroughs”). Burroughs was even quoted in the tour programme for the Replicas tour. And the ‘friends’ in “Are Friends Electric” were robots used for sex by humans too alienated by their kind to attempt something so organic as a physical relationship…

  • I think it was more Philip K Dick, William Burroughs who influenced Numan that predicted facebook. If you read the Numan interviews, he didn’t even think he would be alive after the age of 35.

    Still anything that gets Gary into the blogosphere is good in my books ;)

  • A Numan collector I knew said that GN wrote about what he knew at the time. Early on: homosexuals and robots. Later: wealth and fame. Later still: other interests.

    Anyone interested in this period of GN’s work is encouraged to listen to Ultravox just before John Foxx left, and Foxx’ first solo LP ‘Metamatic.’

  • James M

    NIGHTMARE NUMBER THREE
    by Stephen Vincent Benét

    We had expected everything but revolt
    And I kind of wonder myself when they started thinking -
    But there’s no dice in that now.
    I’ve heard fellows say
    They must have planned it for years and maybe they did.
    Looking back, you can find little incidents here and there,
    Like the concrete-mixer in Jersey eating the wop
    Or the roto press
    that printed “Fiddle-dee-dee!”
    In a three-color process all over Senator Sloop,
    Just as he was making a speech. The thing about that
    Was, how could it walk upstairs? But it was upstairs,
    Clicking and mumbling in the Senate Chamber.
    They had to knock out the wall to take it away
    And the wrecking-crew said it grinned.
    It was only the best
    Machines, of course, the superhuman machines,
    The ones we’d built to be better than flesh and bone,
    But the cars were in it, of course . . .
    and they hunted us
    Like rabbits through the cramped streets on that Bloody Monday,
    The Madison Avenue busses leading the charge.
    The busses were pretty bad but I’ll not forget
    The smash of glass when the Duesenberg left the show-room
    And pinned three brokers to the Racquet Club steps
    Or the long howl of the horns when they saw men run,
    When they saw them looking for holes in the solid ground . . .

    I guess they were tired of being ridden in
    And stopped and started by pygmies for silly ends,
    Of wrapping cheap cigarettes and bad chocolate bars
    Collecting nickels and waving platinum hair
    And letting six million people live in a town.
    I guess it was that. I guess they got tired of us
    And the whole smell of human hands.
    But it was a shock
    To climb sixteen flights of stairs to Art Zuckow’s office
    (Nobody took the elevators twice)
    And find him strangled to death in a nest of telephones,
    The octopus-tendrils waving over his head,
    And a sort of quiet humming filling the air. . . .
    Do they eat? . . . There was red . . . But I did not stop to look.
    I don’t know yet how I got to the roof in time
    And it’s lonely, here on the roof.
    For a while, I thought
    That window-cleaner would make it, and keep me company.
    But they got him with his own hoist at the sixteenth floor
    And dragged him in, with a squeal.
    You see, they cooperate. Well, we taught them that
    And it’s fair enough, I suppose. You see, we built them.
    We taught them to think for themselves.
    It was bound to come. You can see it was bound to come.

    And it won’t be so bad, in the country. I hate to think
    Of the reapers, running wild in the Kansas fields,
    And the transport planes like hawks on a chickenyard,
    But the horses might help. We might make a deal with the
    horses.
    At least, you’ve more chance, out there.
    And they need us, too.
    They’re bound to realize that when they once calm down.
    They’ll need oil and spare parts and adjustments and tuning up.
    Slaves? Well, in a way, you know, we were slaves before.
    There won’t be so much real difference-honest, there won’t.
    (I wish I hadn’t looked into that beauty-parlor
    And seen what was happening there.
    But those are female machines and a bit high-strung.)
    Oh, we’ll settle down. We’ll arrange it. We’ll compromise.
    It wouldn’t make sense to wipe out the whole human race.
    Why, I bet if I went to my old Plymouth now
    (Of course you’d have to do it the tactful way)
    And said, “Look here! Who got you the swell French horn?”
    He wouldn’t turn me over to those police cars;
    At least I don’t think he would.
    Oh, it’s going to be jake.
    There won’t be so much real difference-honest, there won’t
    And I’d go down in a minute and take my chance-
    I’m a good American and I always liked them-
    Except for one small detail that bothers me
    And that’s the food proposition. Because, you see,
    The concrete-mixer may have made a mistake,
    And it looks like just high spirits.
    But, if it’s got so they like the flavor . . . well . . .

    Copyright 1935, by Stephen Vincent Benét

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