My Stepdad's Huge Dataset

by Gustavo Turner

Welcome to the age of data-driven porn.

Adult performer Melissa Moore waiting to go on set for a 2016 "stepdaughter"-themed video.
Photo by Gustavo Turner.

I was in a rented home being used as a set somewhere in the hills north of Los Angeles. “You have to say ‘stepmom’ three times before we get to the sex, then you can just call her ‘mom,’” the director told the younger of the two actresses. “Also, remember to say, ‘This is wrong!’ or ‘This is fucked up!’ once or twice, but never the word ‘No!’ because that messes up the consent.” The director then told the other actor there, who was playing the stepson, to refer explicitly to “being home from college” in order to establish that his character was over eighteen.

For three years, I covered the adult industry for LA Weekly as a writer and photographer. As porn professionals became comfortable with my presence on sets, photoshoots, and at award shows, I was allowed a rare level of access into a production process that, for obvious reasons, tends to be secretive. Producers, directors, and performers would often tell me things, share gossip, and answer questions—both on- and off-the-record—about the many aspects of the business that often baffle outsiders.

Over the course of these experiences, I learned about a major new force reshaping the industry: data. That day on set, the director’s instructions came directly from the production company, which decided on the topic and vetted the script. And the company based its creative direction on specific fantasies proposed by paying customers on an online forum that it owned. (“The stepsister should catch her stepbrother masturbating and she should humiliate him for being a dork,” one commenter suggested. And that was cut, pasted, and embellished into the script emailed to the director.)

In the pre-internet days, a producer might notice that a particular kind of porn movie sold well, and then try to make more like it. Today, a corporate porn conglomerate can analyze a continuous stream of information from online viewers, who supply feedback in the form of comments, and leave behind a data trail as they travel around porn sites.

The internet isn’t just revolutionizing how porn is distributed and consumed. It’s also revolutionizing how porn is made, by enabling companies to cater more closely to the perceived tastes of their audience.

Rise of the Tube Sites

The epicenter of porn production in the US—and, due to the size of the US porn industry, the world—is the San Fernando Valley north of the city of Los Angeles. Before 2006, the Valley was also the heart of the business side of porn. Trade publication AVN’s headquarters is still in Chatsworth and the sign for Vivid Entertainment, a key brand during the DVD years, can still be seen across the street from Universal Studios, in Studio City.

But between 2006 and 2007, the adult video business changed dramatically. Internet porn swallowed up the entire industry through the “tube sites”—porn-specific YouTube knockoffs like YouPorn, RedTube, and the unquestioned winner of the competition among them, Pornhub. These sites are owned by larger entities that are typically not based in the Valley.

The aggregator sites, much like YouTube, were first pitched as a way for people to upload content that they owned. But they quickly grew, Pornhub in particular. This growth is still a controversial subject in the adult industry. Many people on the production side, largely based in the LA area, are still adamant that the tube takeover was due to those sites being lax in enforcing the removal of copyrighted material that was being uploaded, at least for the first few years after their emergence. But a few years back, these producers were forced to make peace with the unstoppable hegemonic forces of what everyone in the industry calls “the  tube era.”

Pornhub’s parent company, MindGeek, disputes this account. “Pornhub is committed to enforcing the removal of copyrighted material,” emailed MindGeek Communications team member Rob Cassady after the initial publication of this piece. “For content removal requests related to copyright  infringement, people can simply contact copyright@pornhub.com or use the DMCA takedown request form on /information#dmca and the appropriate team will act on the request.” Still, the notion that Pornhub’s current status atop the porn food chain is due to their profiting from others’ content seems almost universally widespread in the porn industry among producers and performers.

Though many people in the production side of the industry in LA refer to MindGeek as a Montreal-based juggernaut that controls the tube site market via their ownership of Pornhub, their corporate reality is more complicated. MindGeek claims as its head location the small European principality of Luxembourg. Communications VP Catherine Dunn later clarified, when asked why the LA porn industry associates MindGeek and Pornhub with Montreal, that “MindGeek has approximately 1,200 employees worldwide in offices across North America and Europe. Brands under the MindGeek umbrella do not have ‘management offices,' they have teams working on them from around the world.”

Their Montreal base of operations, however, occupies several floors in an office building that was renovated (while the company was called ManWin) to accommodate 200 employees per floor. The help-wanted section of MindGeek's website offers opportunities in several locations, but most of the jobs advertised there tend to be Montreal-based.

The company also objects to the perception that Pornhub is the key player in the industry. “MindGeek owns and operates a wide range of  established banners across several key niches,” explains Dunn. “In the  subscription-based Paysite model, we offer premium content to an extensive and loyal customer base, including such brands as Brazzers, Reality Kings, Mofos, Digital Playground, Twistys, Babes, Men, Sean Cody, Bromo and Reality Dudes. We also operate four of the top ten tube  sites: Pornhub, YouPorn, RedTube and Tube8.”

MindGeek’s  major competitors include Gamma Entertainment, another Montreal company that provides affiliate services (the standard marketing monetization scheme that allows people to collect money for online customer  referrals) and owns several popular studios; and WGCZ Holdings, which owns XVideos.com, Porn.com, the BangBros studio, and recently acquired the Penthouse brand.

MindGeek is insistent that, regardless of public perception, they do not “control” the current porn market. “Pornhub is an internationally recognized brand that has partnered with acclaimed names in art, music and fashion, but it’s important to not confuse marketing and media presence with traffic and visitors,” explains Dunn. “To put this in perspective, Pornhub reached 100 [million] visitors per day in September  2018. WGCZ owns a portfolio of sites which include two of the largest tube sites in the world: xnxx.com and xvideos.com—each of these two tube sites alone receive over 100 [million] visitors per day.”

Big Porn’s new business model—like Facebook's—is online advertising. Many of the tube site’s employees are tasked with compiling, analyzing, and interpreting the data generated by users, which is then used to sell ads. MindGeek stresses that their core business follows the model made famous by Google Ads, in which “advertisers bid on contextual keywords.”  But the fact that the same companies also own many of the big studios means that they can use the data they collect not only to sell ads but to make their videos even more engaging so that users spend even more time watching them, thus generating even more data. They are creating a vertically integrated data porn empire.

Don’t Fight the Data

While a lot of people (most likely you and everyone you know) are consumers of internet porn (i.e., they watch it but don’t pay for it), a tiny fraction of those people are customers. Customers pay for porn, typically by clicking an ad on a tube site, going to a specific content site (often owned by MindGeek), and entering their credit card information.

This “consumer” vs. “customer” division is key to understanding the use of data to perpetuate categories that seem peculiar to many people both inside and outside the industry. “We started partitioning this idea of consumers and customers a few years ago,” Adam Grayson, CFO of the legacy studio Evil Angel, told AVN. “It used to be a perfect one-to-one in our business, right? If somebody consumed your stuff, they paid for it. But now it’s probably 10,000 to one, or something.”

There’s an analogy to be made with US politics: political analysts refer to “what the people want,” when in fact a fraction of “the people” are registered voters, and of those, only a percentage show up and vote. Candidates often try to cater to that subset of “likely voters”— regardless of what the majority of the people want. In porn, it’s similar. You have the people (the consumers), the registered voters (the customers), and the actual people who vote (the customers who result in a conversion—a specific payment for a website subscription, a movie, or a scene). Porn companies, when trying to figure out what people want, focus on the customers who convert. It’s their tastes that set the tone for professionally produced content and the industry as a whole.

By 2018, we are now over a decade into the tube era. That means that most LA-area studios are getting their marching orders from out-of-town business people armed with up-to-the-minute customer data. Porn performers tend to roll their eyes at  some of these orders, but they don’t have much choice. I have been on sets where performers crack up at some of the messages that are coming “from above,” particularly concerning a repetitive obsession with scenes of “family roleplay” (incest-themed material that uses words like “stepmother,” “stepfather,” and “stepdaughter”) or what the industry calls “IR” (which stands for “interracial” and invariably means a larger, dark-skinned black man and a smaller light-skinned white woman, playing up supposed taboos via dialogue and scenarios).

These particular “taboo” genres have existed since the early days of commercial American porn. For instance, see the stellar performance by black actor Johnnie Keyes as Marilyn Chambers’ orgy partner in 1972’s cinematic Behind the Green Door, or the VHS-era incest-focused sensation Taboo from 1980. But backed by online data of paid customers seemingly obsessed with these topics, the twenty-first-century porn industry—which this year, to much fanfare, was for the first time legally allowed to film performers born in this millennium—has seen a spike in titles devoted to these (frankly old-fashioned) fantasies.

Most performers take any jobs their agents send them out for. The competition is fierce—the ever-replenishing supply of wannabe performers far outweighs the demand for roles—and they don’t want to be seen as “difficult” (particularly the women). Most of the time, the actors don’t see the scripts or know any specific details until they get to set. To the actors rolling their eyes at yet another prompt to declaim, “But you’re my stepdad!” or, “Show me your big black dick,” the directors shrug, point at the emailed instructions and say, “That’s what they want…”

We Know What You Like

The data collected by porn companies doesn’t just shape what happens on set, however. It is also starting to shape how the media understands the state of sexuality today.

In mid-2013, Pornhub launched a sister website called Pornhub Insights. Unlike their main product, the high-traffic aggregator of sex videos, Pornhub Insights is designed to be safe for work. Its mission is to provide “research and analysis directly from the Pornhub team... to explore the intricacies of online porn viewership.”

Pornhub Insights posts regularly, but its greatest hit is its “Year in Review” article, which offers crunched numbers and spiffy graphics about its viewers’ habits over the previous twelve months. “Welcome to Pornhub’s 5th annual Year in Review,” Insights posted in January 2018, “the best place to discover and reflect on what we’ve collectively been searching for and how we’ve been viewing porn in 2017.”

These discoveries and reflections included self-reported traffic numbers (“28.5 billion visitors, which turns out to be an average of 81 million people per day!”), a ranking of “the searches that defined 2017” (#1 Porn for Women, #2 Rick and Morty, #3 Fidget Spinner), most searched terms (lesbian, hentai, MILF, stepmom), most searched porn stars (female and male), countries by traffic (#1 US, #2 UK, #3 India), top searches by country (e.g., Netherland’s #1 search is for “dutch”), and many other easily shareable graphics and numbers. The Year in Review also offers in-house analysis: “2017 seems to have been the year where women have come forward to express their desires more openly,” wrote Dr. Laurie Betito, who is credited as “sex therapist and director of the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center.”

Noticeably absent in the Pornhub Insights reports are links to any of the actual data about porn consumption gathered by the company, however. This is unsurprising: the actual user, traffic, and search data is one of the company’s most valuable assets. MindGeek’s dominance over the industry is based on its ability to monetize content via targeted advertising and an algorithm that delivers certain videos to certain customers, not to mention its treasure trove of unique consumer data.

But the Year in Review’s lack of substantiating information doesn’t stop reporters from repeating its claims as facts. Nor does it stop them from extrapolating those claims to stand in for all of online porn, or to speak definitively about “our” sexual predilections.

Over the past few years, a new genre of story about sex has become widespread in the mainstream press. These stories purport to tell the general public about what “people,” “women,” “gay men,” “people in Southern states,” “Russians,” “Mormons,” “millennials,” “Americans,” or any other broad category of humans—including sometimes an absurdly universal “we”—are really into sexually. The italics on really are important, because the assumption of most of these articles is that “people” have a public self that is either asexual, ashamed of discussing sexuality, or vanilla—but that there is another self, a more “true” or “real” self, that comes out at 2 a.m. when these same people search for porn on the internet.

This Victorian Jekyll-and-Hyde model of desire and sexuality informs the recent bestseller Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Stephens-Davidowitz, who holds a PhD in economics and worked briefly at Google as a data scientist, claims that for his sections on pornography he was given access to “the Pornhub data,” though his method and data sets are unclear from the endnotes or accompanying website. His argument is simple: people’s public personas are deceptions that conceal a secret, more “truthful” self obsessed with taboos, kinks, and unconventional sexual desires.

The many pieces of clickbait that claim to illuminate these desires by drawing on Pornhub Insights are often ridiculous. “While interest may be hot and heavy,” Mashable wrote in 2017 about the supposed rise in searches for fidget spinner porn, “what you'll actually find on Pornhub is pretty hilarious. It's just a lot of video of fidget spinners...spinning. [...] For instance, a video called ‘1000MPH Fidget Spinner Bisexual Threesome’ literally features three spinners ramming into each other with excellent narration.”

More often than not, Pornhub Insights press releases get spun into stories about broad trends in human sexuality. On August 2017, for example, Insights published a post called “Boobs: Sizing Up the Searches” looking at data about “the most popular breast related searches.” The post revealed that “Pornhub visitors between the ages of 18 to 24 are 19% less likely to search for breasts when compared to all other age groups.”

A Maxim writer then turned that single line in the report into the headline “Millennials Aren’t All That Interested in Breasts, According to Pretty Depressing New Study.” Playboy’s popular Twitter account received almost 10K likes, 2.8K retweets, and 2.4K comments for an 100% on-brand tweet that read “Millennials aren't as interested in breasts as older generations. Why?” In fact, if you search “millennial” and “breasts,” Google will return countless hits about this supposedly data-based “fact,” all clustered around August 2017 and all sourced from a couple of quotes from that one Pornhub Insights report.

Ever since Pornhub Insights launched, a large number of articles in the mainstream press about sexual proclivities in the US and around the world have drawn their sourcing from it, or from press releases sent to journalists by Pornhub. This is the other side of data-driven porn. Not only is it changing how the industry makes porn—it’s also increasingly changing the popular narrative about sexuality, by supplying the fodder for sensational stories about people’s “true” kinks.

The resulting dynamic benefits both Pornhub and the media. Pornhub strategically releases “reports” they know will make good clickbait, based on proprietary data that is not independently verifiable. The clickbait, amplified by Twitter and other social media (because sex always sells), then drives traffic both to the news sites that produce it and back to Pornhub itself. In the era of the attention economy, media and porn are in the same business, and have forged a symbiotic relationship to their mutual benefit.

After the Fall

It would be easy to see the rise of data-driven porn as a familiar internet narrative: the corporate betrayal of a digital utopia. Online porn was supposed to give everyone unfettered access to their own particular kinks, with tech-hippies sharing a new world of hyper-specific fetishes with a like-minded crowd of early Burning Man adopters and subscribers to Mondo2000 magazine via newsgroups with names like alt.sex.aluminum.baseball.bat (an actual newsgroup).

In this account, the prelapsarian idyll of internet porn seems to have suffered the same fate as the internet as a whole: corporate consolidation and the monetization of our attention. A few massive companies control the online porn industry, and use sophisticated techniques to grab more of our attention and sell it to advertisers, or to coax us into becoming paying customers.

The story, of course, is more complicated. Internet porn has become a big business, but amateur communities are thriving. Just as millions of little-known SoundCloud musicians didn’t prevent the rise of a megastar like Taylor Swift, the ready availability of free amateur erotic content on spawn-of-newsgroups megasites like Reddit coexists with the unstoppable rise of Pornhub. The spirit of the older internet endures there, albeit in a different form.

As for the performers, many are torn between endorsing the “success” narrative being pushed by Big Porn outfits like Pornhub and voicing very real grievances—some of them brought about, in their opinion, by the rise of the tube sites.

In September 2018, Pornhub produced their first award show at a historic theater in Downtown Los Angeles, enlisting a large number of actresses and actors with the promise that the winners would be “decided by the viewing patterns of the site's millions of visitors and loyal members.” Shortly before that, Kanye West had mentioned the site on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show. West referred to “Pornhub” as a generic term for online porn, much like older people in the 1990s would call the internet “AOL.” Pornhub promptly scrapped their original plans for their event, and made West “artistic director” of the evening.

The Pornhub awards afterparty, a swanky affair held on the rooftop of affluent hipster mecca the Ace Hotel, was organized by Greg Lansky. The 2018 porn industry includes larger-than-life characters like Lansky—creator of big international brands like Vixen, Tushy, and the biggest interracial brand of all time, Blacked—who are attempting to be to today’s digital porn content what Playboy was to an earlier era of paper-based erotica.

Obviously inspired by Hugh Hefner in terms of exposure, projected lifestyle, and the desire to be embraced by mainstream publications, the French-born Lansky is known to pay top rate to his performers and spends lavishly on promotional stunts and PR. By crowning girls “Vixen Angel” of the month or the year, Lansky deliberately fosters an old-fashioned, glossy star system of sorts within the industry. His graphic design and aesthetics owe a lot to early 2000s French Vogue and American Apparel billboards.

The partnership between Big Porn outfits like Pornhub and ambitious entrepreneurs like Lansky is lucrative. As of September 2018, Lansky’s Pornhub channels Blacked (mentioned by Kanye West as his favorite “category” of Pornhub), Vixen, and Tushy, which drive content to his sites, are ranked #4, #6 and #9 on the tube site. The videos on the Blacked channel, founded four years ago, have 892,613,843 views.

These are rarified success stories in an industry that, at the production level, has a habit of complaining about its perceived “collapse” from the halcyon days before the internet changed the game—especially when talent or crew wants better pay or better working conditions. By all accounts, the rates usually paid to performers (even those featured on the trendy sweatshirts that Kanye West designed for the Pornhub awards) have been stagnant for a decade. If the new tech overlords in Montreal are doing as well as their PR blitzes imply, it might be about time to spread the wealth.

Gustavo Turner is a writer and photographer in Los Angeles.

On January 17, 2019, the second section of this piece was updated to reflect updated information about MindGeek.


This piece appears in Logic's sixth issue, "Play." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.


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Game Workers of the World, Unite!

An Interview with an Anonymous Game Worker

The cover of a zine published by Game Workers Unite in March 2018.

Game making is big business. While there has been a recent rise in the visibility of indie or auteur game developers, much game-making happens at large companies with widespread labor issues that are at odds with the feelings that their games evoke. Like many creative industries, game companies capitalize on workers’ passion for the medium—and the fact that there is a ready supply of new recruits once people burn out or get wise to the industry’s exploitative practices.

Game Workers Unite is an international worker-run solidarity organization that connects pro-union activists with workers and allies in order to improve conditions in the game development industry. It formed in March of 2018 after workers were galvanized by a roundtable discussion at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization.” Through their organizing, they fight against the endemic unpaid overtime, poor job security, and rampant sexism in the games industry.

We sat down and talked to an anonymous member of Game Workers Unite. Some details have been changed, to avoid the threat of retaliation.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I work for one of the biggest AAA developers. We have studios internationally, and our games are worked on by teams that range from 400 to over 1,000 people—at least our big marquee titles.

I've worked there for about six years. I came to work at a game development company because I had a passion for games—I was excited to be part of a company whose products I really enjoyed.

The game development industry is unique because it's multidisciplinary in a way that I can't really think of having analogues in any other industry. Game development is this complicated intersection of software, tech, media, and Hollywood. There are so many different kinds of skills that come into making a game. And it can often feel like it’s just a lot of pieces that are hastily thrown together. The development cycle is very, very hectic—a game never feels actualized until the last few months.

In terms of revenue, the game development industry makes more than twice what Hollywood does any given year. It’s been ahead for almost a decade now. But that's not going to the creators—not the programmers, not the QA folks, not the artists. Game development is centered in metropolitan areas like San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Paris. These are places where the rents are going up, but the pay for game workers isn’t. So more and more, we're seeing people struggling to make it in this industry.

How have the jobs changed within the gaming industry over time?

Similar to other parts of the tech sector, the game development industry is moving away from hiring people full-time and towards a gig model. It’s becoming commonplace to hire contractors and freelancers, instead of hiring full-time visual artists, sound designers, or writers for games. Or having fans submit speculative work to be used in games, paying them only a pittance.

We're also seeing executives increasingly try to pay people in exposure, particularly in the promotion of games. While most companies have dedicated marketing and community teams, there is also a trend towards trying to promote through “influencers”—often younger gamers with a sizable social media presence that will spend hours streaming their game sessions. If someone has a lot of views on their channels, the company will pitch a partnership, offering free games or flights out to flashy events—a moment in the sun. In reality, these people should be hired and paid a living wage to do this sort of promotion.

Twitch is another way that companies are exploiting players. A company will say, “Oh, your Twitch channel gets millions of views every month, why don’t you sign a deal with us?” And for a lot of these young players, maybe they've never signed a contract before. They have no idea whether what they are signing is a fair contract or if they are going to be compensated fairly. And unfortunately, with thousands of Twitch and YouTube video game personalities, they have to make hours and hours of content every week to stay relevant or they lose their viewership. Game companies will tease people with the possibility of full-time employment in one of the few cherished on-staff social media positions, in order to get them to keep grinding to stay in the good graces of the company.

In terms of the labor of game-making, if people have heard of anything, it’s often the idea of “crunch.” Could you talk a bit about that? What is your experience with crunch?

Every developer has a story involving crunch—it’s existed as long as the industry has. It's generally a three-month-per-year period of mandatory unpaid overtime, sometimes up to twenty hours a day. Three to six months is average. I've heard people say that there are crunch periods that have lasted over a year, which is extreme. I’ll say, crunch time doesn’t exist solely in the game development industry. Tech companies definitely have crunch periods, as does Hollywood. But it is particularly acute in game development.

Crunch periods have led to things like people working so long that they suffer from memory loss and anxiety attacks. There was one developer who described working for so long that he had an attack of paralysis — he went out to his car and was literally unable to move for an hour. All sorts of health problems are attributed to crunch periods.  Anyone knows that working a sixteen-hour work day for three months will fuck with your health. And obviously those sorts of work hours are also detrimental to your relationships.

Crunch, in my experience, is almost entirely due to bad management practices. There have been plenty of studies that show that crunch is not only bad for your health, it’s actually ineffective and wastes money. It's not profitable. In every way, shape, and form, it is a bad labor practice that has no practical benefit. But it’s the thing that management has always done.

Crunch is contributing to a brain drain in the industry. The average burnout rate is around five or six years, after which people just quit. They can't take it anymore. They want to raise a family, but they're not making the money they need to be able to. They're too exhausted and don’t have time to do the things they want to do in life outside of work. So they leave the industry, and then we have to reinvent the wheel with a new batch of folks fresh out of college.

It's not a problem as far as management is concerned, because there are always plenty of new people that they can pay even less, who are told they should be grateful to work in this industry that they have idolized for their whole lives, who are willing to put in the same long hours. Until they burn out, and then the cycle repeats.

Now that most consoles are connected to the internet, do technological changes like digital patches and updates impact crunch time? You might expect that since we now live in a world where you can always patch a game after it is released, the pressure to crunch to get it perfect the first time might be lessened.

You would think so. Before we could patch games, you would finish the game, send it out, and then that’s the end of the project.

But the reality is that this just means you get an extra three more months to continue the crunch cycle. What ends up happening is you produce an unfinished or under-polished game that will get patched later—and creating the patch then becomes even more urgent because the game has already "gone Gold" (industry parlance for "finished and ready to ship"). There are games that come out where if you don't have internet access, you are getting a markedly different product. It’s a playable product, because first party publishers (i.e. console makers) have thresholds that games are required to meet—but barely.

The pressure this creates just makes it more intense, because when an unfinished game is going to come out, you know that if you don’t continue to work on it you will have released a shoddy product. You feel like your future is riding on fixing it with a day-one patch, because otherwise the game you’ve worked on for two or three years will review poorly, which will affect sales, and as a result you’ll get laid off. And having a game that is critically panned on your resume doesn’t look great when you go looking for your next job.

Do conditions differ between indie vs. AAA studios?

It really depends. There are some smaller independent companies which are co-ops, which is super cool. Motion Twin, who recently released a very popular game called Dead Cells, is a company of about twenty people in France who are all paid the same wage, and all have a say in everything about how the company is run. And there are definitely some smaller studios who are open to the idea of unionization.

But the finances are very different. It’s not like there is a culture of venture funding in game development, and a lot of smaller studios are folks who are doing it either on the side of another job or in their free time. So their development cycle is much, much different than for AAA. Most AAA games have a very strict two- to-three-year development cycle, whereas indie games can take up to five to ten years. And as far as compensation, working conditions, and stuff like that, it varies. It’s not as simple as, smaller studios treat people better because it’s a more familial setting or whatever. I have heard stories of small studios that are nightmares, and I've heard from people who work in AAA studios who really like their experience there. So it just depends on who you ask.

I will say that AAA studios are experts at giving the appearance that they are taking care of you. My company is constantly sending us emails emphasizing the amenities they are offering. There are rewards for working there for certain periods of time that are ludicrous when you look at them. Like if you’ve worked there for five years, you get to drive a sports car for a day. If you’ve worked there for ten years, you’ll get a paid weekend away somewhere.

And it’s like, ten years? If I’ve worked there for that long, I better be making a good living. My partner and I have plans for raising a family one day. In ten years, I don’t want to go on a weekend excursion, I want to make sure I can put my kids through college.

There is this very paternalistic way that all the game development companies treat their employees. We’re often told, “We’re one big family.”

And the workers are the children.

Yeah, exactly. It’s a way to manipulate you into feeling guilt for demanding more, for expecting a reasonable work-life balance.

Looking For Group

You’re currently involved in organizing within the game industry. How did you get involved with that?

When I started at my company six years ago, I had no nuanced political analysis, and no real idea that I could be bargaining for anything. I was just drinking the company Kool-Aid, and accepting everything they said. I really believed that the company was taking care of me. Only in the last three years have I started to piece things together through my own experiences and reading stories of labor abuses through the industry, which go back thirty to forty years—pretty much since the industry started.

I first got involved with GWU after the March 2018 GDC, which is the major annual industry conference for game developers. During GDC, there was what was effectively an anti-union panel, which galvanized people to join the organization. After I read about that, I inquired a bit more and reached out to folks on Twitter.

And immediately I was like, this is the intersection of the two things I’m most passionate about: the organizing work I’ve been doing for the last two and a half years with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and game development, the industry I have been in for the last six years. I had been in the same position for a long time and felt like I was stagnating. I was weighing whether it was worth staying in the industry. But after hearing about GWU I thought, here’s the opportunity to organize the game development industry and make it something that that lives up to the expectations that people have for it. I definitely wanted to be a part of that movement.

So after the GDC action in march I reached out to Emma, one of the founders of GWU. I learned there was no chapter where I was, and I was encouraged to start one.

Can you give a bit more background on what you do within Game Workers Unite?

GWU is a union advocacy group. Our job is to advocate for unionization in the games industry, generally advocate for game workers, and spread a grassroots movement internationally. If anyone feels alone, or that unionization is something they want to see but they don't know how to achieve it, they can reach out to us. We give training and education to workers so they can start organizing in their studios and communities.

We are a completely horizontal organization. There are no leaders, no one is “in charge.” To make things manageable and to be able to have a grassroots, bottom-up movement, we organize around local chapters so people have a place to plug into. But everyone has an equal say in the business of any chapter.

The organization has scaled up massively since starting. We went from essentially a Facebook group of frustrated developers to over twenty-five chapters internationally with thousands of supporters. We now have hundreds of members from all areas of the industry, from folks who are freelance or contractors to people who have been in the industry for years to students who are just getting interested in game development. Some have years of organizing experience, while for others this is their first foray into organizing.

I’ve never seen a movement grow so fast and so organically and remain so positive. In contrast to other groups I have been involved with, there’s far less worry about the politics of how we organize, and much more focus on making sure that people get the support they need to build the kind of industry they want to see.

We are involved with the effort to unionize, but I would say that the final goal of becoming an industrial union is many years away. It's thousands of steps away. We're on like step five. So right now we're focusing less on formally becoming a union, and more on just helping people start to organize their workplaces. And that begins with establishing some rapport with your coworkers, learning how to talk to them and identify their self-interest, seeing what they need that their company is not providing them, and seeing if you can organize around that.

Locally, we’ve started our education efforts with some basic initiatives, like giving people workplace organizing training and working with unions and organizations like Labor Notes and Tech Workers Coalition. We’ve also been learning about the history of the labor movement, reading about things like organizing in the steel industry.

We’ve started to form really good partnerships with existing unions. The stagehands union (IATSE), which is responsible for building all of the booths at GDC, has sent union organizers to our meetings to help guide us through things. Everyone I’ve spoken to in a union is very excited to see the industry unionize, which is really great.

So yeah, right now it’s still this massive scaffolding of an organization, but with a lot of exciting plans down the line.

Have there been any successful labor actions within the industry?

The only labor action I’m aware of in the game development industry has been the voice actors strike of 2016. During that strike, basically all unionized voice actors stopped voice acting for games. The strike lasted for almost a year. They won—but honestly, it wasn’t as big of a victory as their union, SAG-AFTRA, played it up to be.

The voice actors were fighting for royalties on their games. They will work on these huge products like Grand Theft Auto that make over a billion dollars, but only get paid a few hundred dollars per session. In response, CEOs tried to pit workers in the industry against each other. They would say, “Well, it wouldn't be fair to everyone else if we gave you royalties—the programmers and the designers and the artists aren’t getting royalties.” And it’s like, “No, you’re absolutely right, they all should get royalties!” They try to play us all against each other, but really we should all be in this together.

Gamer Solidarity

What has the reception been like with the player and fan community?

People are really interested in what we're doing. There's been a lot of media attention. Prominent game developers and respected journalists have been writing about us and what we are up to, which has been extremely good for us.

Because that's the big challenge: any unionization movement needs a big solidarity effort from the community. We need players to be on board with our efforts to unionize and understand why we're doing it, and that it is not going to detract their experiences. It’s not going to make games worse, it’s not going to delay games—all these myths that are popping up.

GWU is not just against shitty labor practices. We’re also against shady business practices, and those impact players. A good example is the recent controversy around “loot boxes.” People will design systems that require a ton of grinding and say, you could toil through this game for 100 hours in order to get all the content, or you pay us five dollars and we'll unlock the Darth Vader mask or whatever it happens to be that you want to get.

That's an exploitative business practice, and it's shitty because game workers didn’t come into this industry to make little tchotchkes to sell to people. They came into this industry because they loved the great experiences they had playing games growing up, and they wanted to contribute to that and tell their own stories. And instead they're forced into making this cheap, exploitative content.

In building an anti-capitalist framework to fight back against shitty labor practices, there is a natural alliance with players who are exploited by shitty business practices—not that they always appreciate that.

It sounds like the relationship between developers and players is pretty complicated.

It’s tough, because to some people outside of the industry there is a perception that working in games is a dream job. That making games is so fun and easy because you get to play games all day. And it’s not like that. Sometimes it’s hell, all day, and then you go home and people troll you on social media for making something that didn't live up to their standards.

It’s not just frustrating, it's something that hurts the organizing, because it makes people not empathize with your situation. People think you’re doing fine for yourself because you’re working in the games industry—you're not working in service or whatever.

And there are a lot of examples where particularly toxic fan reactions have had a real impact on people’s lives in the industry. We saw this with GamerGate, where women in game development and games media were made targets of online harassment, including death threats, and in some cases companies folded under the pressure and fired workers for standing up for themselves.

In the last few months, ArenaNet, a company that makes an MMO called Guild Wars, fired two of their workers for defending themselves on social media. One of the narrative designers wrote a long Twitter thread about a complicated narrative puzzle that affects her as an MMO narrative designer. To which some dude with no actual experience making games responded with some incredibly basic, obvious response. And so she got frustrated and tweeted back the equivalent of: “I don’t need you to mansplaining my job to me.”

That spawned this tornado of vitriol, where people were like, how dare you treat one of your customers like that. And one of her co-workers defended her by observing that as a man, surprise surprise, he’d never received this sort of treatment from the community.

The two were unceremoniously fired the next day for “failing to uphold standards of communicating with players” —basically proving to the trolls that they have power. The bosses value their purchasing power more than the well-being of their own employees.

This is absolutely a labor issue, because if these companies were unionized, there would be a defense against this. We shouldn't take this—we should have protection. We should at the very least not get fired for defending ourselves online.

Recently there was a huge exposé of the sexism that happens at Riot Games, the company that makes League of Legends. I have a friend who works at Riot who told me things that weren’t in the stories that were published—it’s just been toxic for years and years, and only has come to light recently when workers tried to defend them themselves publicly, and were fired.

This is unfortunately very common. In the game development industry, if you are a woman, or if you are trans or nonbinary or intersex, you've always had to deal with sexism or workplace discrimination, whether in the form of outright harassment or lower pay. I am hard-pressed to think of anyone that I know personally in the industry who hasn't.

And that's something you organize around.


We met with the Anonymous Game Worker in September 2018. In the days and months after our conversation, a number of new high-profile cases illustrated the volatility of the video game industry. Two days after we spoke, Telltale Games, the creator of the critically-acclaimed narrative game The Walking Dead, laid off 250 employees with no severance. A few weeks later, another 150 workers were laid off at Trion Worlds. Meanwhile, leaders at Rockstar games have been called out for speaking proudly of their companies’ exhaustive crunch periods for Red Dead Redemption 2, describing several “100-hour” weeks.

Game Workers Unite can be found on Twitter at @GameWorkers, or on the web at https://www.gameworkersunite.org.


This piece appears in Logic's sixth issue, "Play." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.


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Call for Pitches: Bodies

We are soliciting pitches for an upcoming issue of Logic.

Logic is a magazine about technology and society that publishes three times per year. We're trying to ask the right questions about how technology works, and whom it works for. Learn more about the magazine, and read our manifesto, at logicmag.io.

We’re seeking reported articles, features, essays, and profiles. We pay $150 for shorter essays of 1000-1200 words, and $400 for longer features of 2000-3000 words and up.

Issue 8: Bodies

The Internet was supposed to free us from our bodies. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, John Perry Barlow thundered in the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” but it it is not where bodies live.

The year was 1996. America was getting online. Individuals could meet in chatrooms and flirt and fight without revealing what they looked like or how they sounded. The World Wide Web let them communicate across vast bodies of land and water and beyond—boosters said—the reach of governments; doing so, it rewired the body politic.

Even then, some critics had their doubts. Did virtual crossdressing really free you from gender? Was cyberspace “colorblind,” if people of color were vastly less likely to have the computers to access it than their white counterparts? In the new millennium, cyberspace merged with meatspace: computers migrated from our desktops into our pockets and smarthomes and cities and even our sex toys and medical implants.

This issue will look at “bodies” in their many contexts—asking how technologies are rewiring us and how to make an Internet where everybody thrives. Possible topics for pitches include: Violence, Prosthetics and implants, Haptics, Sports and Fitness, Pleasing Bodies, Vile Bodies, Reproduction, Reproductive Justice, Resurrection, Reincarnation, Life after death, Funerary technology, Synthetic biology, Medicine, Mind-brain interfaces,  Drugs (pharmaceutical and recreational), The Quantified Self, Gender reassignment, Texts and Corpora, (Other) Animals, Robots, Cybernetics, Nutrition, Agriculture, VR and proprioception, Sex, Self Care, Governing Bodies, Bodies of Water, Astral Bodies, Viral Stars, etc...

Please send pitches to pitches@logicmag.io by January 10, 2019, with the subject line "Pitch: Bodies Issue."

Nothing Ventured

by Nick Serpe

Silicon Valley wants to revitalize the Rust Belt with venture capital. The story of venture suggests we shouldn’t hold our breath.

An advertisement published by the National Venture Capital Association to promote a reduction in the capital gains tax.

Congressman Ro Khanna, a first-term Democrat representing a large chunk of Silicon Valley, has a lot of friends in high places in the tech sector. But when he ran a campaign in 2014 emphasizing their support and celebrating the Valley’s accomplishments, he lost.

So in 2016, Khanna tried something different and won. This time, he promised to represent not only the interests of companies like Apple and Intel (both headquartered in his district), but also “folks who had been left out” of the “profound transition from an industrial to a digital age.” Since taking office, he has committed himself to channeling the technical expertise and enormous wealth of Silicon Valley to the economically depressed American interior.

In March 2018, Khanna and Congressman Tim Ryan, Democrat from Ohio, helped bring a particularly (though not exclusively) Californian institution—the venture capitalist fund—to the Midwest on the “Comeback Cities Tour.” They took a delegation of venture funders, including hillbilly whisperer J.D. Vance, through cities in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana—all states that backed Trump in 2016.

The tour only generated a couple hundred thousand dollars for Midwestern businesses, a fraction of the billions of dollars that venture capitalists invest in the Democratic strongholds of California, New York, and Massachusetts each year. Yet it served as an advertisement for venture capital’s much-vaunted function: risking resources on startups with the potential to grow rapidly, develop innovative products, and create high-paying jobs.

Elite segments of the tech sector sense that the political fissures exposed by Trump’s victory are entwined with plutocratic entrenchment and diminished opportunities for the working class. So they are eager to prove that they can ease economic malaise by bringing growth to regions with very little of it. And the instrument of that growth, they believe, is venture capital.

The Comeback Cities Tour belongs to a long tradition. Venture capital represents a very small part of US GDP, but it plays an important ideological role. In times of crisis, when financiers have felt the need to justify their activities to the broader public, they have held up venture capital as a force for good—as an engine of technological development and economic growth that benefits everyone. Venture capitalists risk their own money to build companies that contribute to a dynamic economy. The reality, however, is that the benefits of venture, like those of the financial sector as a whole, flow primarily to rich investors. Throughout its history, venture capital has been successfully deployed to conceal this reality, soothing popular hatred of the bankers while advancing their agenda.

An Angel Gets Its Wings

American business leaders feared for the future of capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s. A massive financial collapse contributed to the rise of socialist and fascist threats to the economic and political order—which were only beaten back in the US through legislation that increased the state’s role in economic activity. During World War II, the federal government took an even stronger hand in regulating industry. Businessmen regained some public trust for their contributions to the war mobilization, but Wall Street worried that a command economy might become more attractive.

So bankers launched a counterattack. According to the historian Martha Louise Reiner, the financial sector used venture capital as a “rallying cry” to stave off the threat of central planning. The Investment Bankers Association felt compelled to “prove that free enterprise—and its accumulated wealth—met society’s needs.” The activities of venture capital—more theoretical than real in 1946—fit the bill perfectly.

Yet if bankers felt apprehensive about the wartime economy, they also greatly benefited from it. It was the war, in fact, that taught them how to be venture capitalists. The grandfather of modern venture capital, Georges Doriot, founded his firm American Research & Development (ARD) in 1946 after earning his chops procuring goods for the US Army during the war. In the coming decades, the young venture sector continued to take advantage of government support, most notably through a Small Business Administration program that provided state funding to match private venture capital. Meanwhile, the state proved to be the “Biggest ‘Angel’ of them all,” according to historian Stuart Leslie, through contracts for the advanced technology needed to power the American war machine during the Cold War.

Venture capital was a tiny industry, and remained so through most of the 1970s. At the end of that decade, however, venture investment pools grew by leaps and bounds, as did the number of funds. This inflection point coincided with the broader financialization of the economy, following a crisis in corporate profitability that had begun at the tail-end of the booming 1960s. In the face of this crisis, the US government undertook measures to expand access to credit, in order to compensate for the decline in real economic growth. The strategy prevented the crisis from deepening, but it has come at great cost: growing inequality, increased public and private indebtedness, and repeated speculative manias resulting from money chasing money in asset bubbles when no avenues for productive and profitable investment are available.

The sharp growth of venture capital in the late 1970s also reflected major changes in public policy. Two moves in particular opened the floodgates: a reduction in the capital gains tax in 1978, and a revision to federal rules on institutional investment pools that allowed them to put some money into riskier venture funds in 1979. The latter change was ultimately more vital to the venture explosion: within a few years the majority of venture funding was raised from sources like pension funds, foundations, and university endowments—and all of that money was nontaxable.

But the venture sector cut its teeth politically on the capital gains tax. The 1978 fight proved to be a watershed moment in the transition from the Keynesian postwar consensus to the conservative economic ideas that have dominated both major US political parties ever since, and venture played a critical role. Venture lobbyists were some of the first to push the supply-side argument that lower tax rates would increase tax revenue by stimulating economic growth over the long term. They drew on a tradition reaching as far back as World War II, when investment bankers had demanded a lower capital gains tax using the justification that it would spur venture investing—which would help the economy grow. History suggests these promises haven’t panned out. Cuts to the capital gains tax are a great way to make the rich richer, but we can’t count on them to put that money to productive use.

Bubble Boys

Thanks to the policy overhaul of the late 1970s, venture funds were flush with institutional investor cash in the early 1980s. They poured that money into technology start-ups whose products featured components that often owed their existence to long-term federal investments. By 1983, there were over a hundred venture firms, compared to the fewer than twenty in existence through most of the 1970s. There were 173 tech company initial public offerings (IPOs) that year, over five times as many as three years earlier.

All this investment didn’t produce a flourishing, diverse ecosystem of new technology firms. Instead, it led to overinvestment and speculation. The disk drive business became an especially hot market. In 1982, the New York Times reported that thirty new disk drive companies were founded over a single year. By the end of 1983, there were over seventy companies in the market.

Then came the crash: by the end of 1984, the industry’s valuation had collapsed, and incomes sector-wide fell a staggering 98 percent. Some of the smaller venture capital firms still tied up in non-public companies went bust; many others managed to cash out in public offerings and acquisitions. By the end of the 1980s, many VC firms that had publicly prided themselves on making equity commitments to young and innovative companies had turned to safer, lower-yield investments in retail outlets, and others turned to the dark side of private equity: leveraged buyouts (LBOs) financed through the purchase of junk bonds.

All it took to go from investing in the industries of the future to embracing overhyped markets and LBOs was a simple calculation about where there was money to be made. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins couldn’t make the point any clearer than he did in an interview after the 2008 financial crisis: “I love bubbles. We made a lot of money in bubbles….You don’t get rich by betting against the market.”

If venture capitalists can’t resist bubbles, they also tend to chase fads. Venture firms are mocked for pursuing the mania of the moment—nanotech, VR, AI, cryptocurrency, cleantech—and for investing in rackets like Juicero and Theranos. But they always made their most celebrated investments in companies that capitalized on technological breakthroughs funded with public money. With the public sector in retreat and the private sector pushed by a multitude of forces to aim for short-term profitability, the current behavior of venture capital is inevitable.

The worldwide decline in corporate profitability in the last half century has led investors to chase easy sources of profit. Sometimes that leads to investment in high-growth technology firms—many of which turn out to be duds or scams, or simply elaborate schemes to lower labor costs in existing industries. But the consistent result, as Robert Brenner has argued, is “a world economy in which the continuation of capital accumulation has come literally to depend upon historic waves of speculation, carefully nurtured and rationalized by state policy makers.” Venture capitalists help propel the waves of speculation upon which our current regime of capital accumulation depends.

In the last few years, early funding for new companies has dropped dramatically, as have the number of IPOs of venture-funded companies. In fact, there are about half the number of public companies in the United States as there were twenty years ago. Venture funds are pouring money into late-stage funding of companies with fast-growing but unprofitable businesses, dumping their pre-public shares in failing companies at a discount in secondary markets, or getting their startups acquired by tech giants like Google.

In an opinion piece on the Comeback Cities Tour, Tim Ryan and a couple of the venture firm partners who traveled with him through Akron and Youngstown and Flint and Detroit claimed the interstate highway as their model for bringing new opportunities to the Midwest. “The interstate of the future,” they wrote, “will connect talent, ideas, and capital as much as the road system of the past connected physical commerce.” It should go without saying that the interstate highway system was a massive public project—one that, incidentally, provided a major subsidy to the automotive and fossil fuel industries.

The paltry funds pledged by investors following the tour indicates how seriously people in regions decimated by decades of capital flight and austerity should take the comparison. We can blame venture capitalists for not taking risks, but recent history has made it clear that the system is designed so that risk falls onto the public, and the rewards go to the people who already have everything. Maybe we should stop outsourcing our dreams to people whose imaginations are bounded by the bottom line.

Nick Serpe is the co-editor of Dollars & Sense and an editor at large at Dissent.


This piece appears in Logic's fifth issue, "Failure." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.


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Dropping Acid

by Shuja Haider

In the 1980s, musicians in Chicago built a new genre out of obsolete machinery. Listeners lost their minds.

A Roland TB-303 synthesizer. Photograph by Alexandre Dulaunoy.

The author has assembled a playlist to accompany this piece. You can listen to it on Spotify.

The Muzic Box was open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, staying closed on Wednesdays and Fridays only to give Chicago’s competing disco club, the Power Plant, a chance to draw a crowd a couple nights a week. If you were a young, gay person of color in the Windy City during the early 1980s, there was no better place to be. The Muzic Box was a sanctuary, free from the judgment of a still-restrictive society that, in the days of panic over an increasingly visible queer culture, inhibited the sense of celebratory pride sorely needed by the local gay community.

Between the Muzic Box’s four walls, dancers were welcomed in the embrace of an idea. As the attention of the mass audience shifted away from disco, and “Disco Sucks” rallies were held at Chicago’s Comiskey Park stadium, these clubs were the only place to hear the music of the future. The songs on rotation in the Muzic Box may not have been categorized in the same bin at the record store, but they all shared invigorating rhythms and futuristic tonalities that suggested a new genre cutting through those established categories. The fearless explorer breaking through the boundaries between them was Ron Hardy, a virtuoso who mixed records together in a spontaneous collage style inspired by New York disco DJs.

Hardy had begun playing at the club in 1982, when it was called The Warehouse, and remained the resident DJ until it closed in 1987. His predecessor Frankie Knuckles first brought the disco DJing style, with its aim of creating a seamless landscape of rhythm, to Chicago from his hometown of New York. However, in spite of its East Coast origins, this approach to mixing music—and the approach to producing music that these DJs would eventually create—took flight in the Midwest. To this day, it bears the abbreviated name of the club where it began its international ascendance. The music had gotten so popular by the mid-1980s that Chicago record stores started giving the records that got played at The Warehouse their own bin, labeled “house music.”

It was on a night in 1985—whether it was Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday is lost to history—that Earl “Spanky” Smith and Nathaniel Pierre Jones entered the Muzic Box with a reel-to-reel tape, containing a track that they had just recorded in Smith’s bedroom. Hardy would sometimes switch from vinyl to a tape reel to play productions by local amateurs, in order to keep up with the developing sound of the genre. House DJs had already begun making inroads into production, thanks to the availability of cheap synthesizers.

Smith and Jones recount the evening they debuted their new track in a documentary for the British broadcaster Channel 4 on house music called Pump Up the Volume:

Pierre: We thought, if anybody would be daring enough to play this, it would be Ron Hardy.
Spanky: He ended up playing it four times that night. First time he played it, people didn’t really know how to react to it.
Pierre: He played it again, people was looking like “Hm. It’s early, I guess he playing some crazy stuff.”
Spanky: The fourth time, they lost they mind. That was the birth of acid, right there.

A new era began that night. The track didn’t bother with song form, melodic development, harmony, or lyrical content; it was an investigation of the infinite permutations of sound itself. Winding through a pounding, jittery beat, an atonal three-note motif wriggled and thrashed, as though trying to escape, for more than twelve minutes.

It did not sound like it had been produced by a musical instrument. Nor did it sound like a pop song, with its structure more akin to minimalist experimental music. Disco had already been moving in this direction, emphasizing texture over song. But this dispensed with the song altogether. It took a forward-thinking listener to see its promise, in 1985, as a potential dancefloor hit. Fortunately, Ron Hardy was precisely that kind of listener.

The producers had called their composition “In Your Mind,” but that may have been too limiting—listeners had lost their minds upon hearing it. The track was not an object for contemplation, but a shockwave that affected the body. Either because of its fluid yet abrasive texture, or because of its tonal similarity to the guitars of psychedelic rock, or because some dancers at the Muzic Box were so blown away that they thought someone had spiked their drinks with LSD, the record became known as “Acid Trax.”

The global phenomenon of rave music would eventually derive everything from “Acid Trax,” which was released as a 12-inch record in 1987 under the name Phuture. A subgenre of house music adopted its name: “acid house,” which would also become the label that rave music went by upon its earliest appearances in Europe. Acid’s abstract quality brought the futuristic nature of house music to the forefront, influencing the concurrent development of techno in Detroit and catalyzing the emergence of drum and bass in England. Today, aspects of EDM are uncannily similar to acid house as it was heard thirty years ago in Chicago.

What made “Acid Trax” so revolutionary was not just its structure or its sound, but its use of the technology that produced it. Jazz, funk, disco, and even rock and roll had emphasized timbre and spontaneity as much as melody and narrative, in the struggle over centuries to adapt traditional musical practices to new languages and new tools. “Acid Trax,” however, did not derive its complex sound from overblown horns or bent strings—or even distorted amplifiers. It was made almost entirely with one instrument or, more accurately, one machine: the Roland TB-303, which generated sound waves from scratch. Then bought for next to nothing at a pawn shop, the 303 has since entered into legend, and now commands thousands of dollars on eBay. Even today, producers of underground dance music try to capture the sonic force it holds.

In the writer Kodwo Eshun’s description, the machine itself shares authorship of “Acid Trax.” “Acid is an accident,” he suggests, “in which the TB-303 bass synthesizer uses Phuture to reproduce itself, to multiply the dimensions of electronic sound, to open up a nomadology of texturhythms, rhythmelodies.” The story of acid house begins in a factory.

Transistor Rhythm

While house music’s sonic textures drew from both African-American music’s corporeal funk and European synth pop’s electronic sheen, it only crystallized as a genre and production practice after some help from Japanese technology. The Roland Corporation, founded by Ikutaro Kakehashi in Osaka in 1972, unknowingly provided the final ingredients for the futuristic dance music that would emerge in America over the next few decades. In 1980, Roland’s TR-808 Rhythm Composer, the “TR” designating “Transistor Rhythm,” became one of the first synthesized drum machines to become available to consumers.

Early synthesizers were as complicated—and as large—as electronic manufacturing technology. But Roland’s instruments were appearing in a new context. Before the widespread extension of electrical power to residential areas in the 1920s, machinery under capitalism had been an instrument of labor. In Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” he remarked on the place of technology in the capitalist mode of production:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry: natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand: the power of knowledge, objectified.

Over the course of the twentieth century, consumer electronics dispersed scientific knowledge further still. Beyond being a tool that workers used in the factory, electrical machinery became present in the home. Automation took on a presence in everyday life as well as within the means of production. The amplification of sound was inextricably linked to this process, with the development and distribution of electricity tied from its origin to telephone communication and radio broadcasting. By the mid-twentieth century, most homes had radios, making their operation familiar to a far broader population than expert telegraphers.

In the mold of consumer devices like the portable stereo, the TR-808 was built for home use. Its target audience was musicians who needed accompaniment for practice sessions, and its interface more closely resembled a stereo than a circuit board. In the late 1970s, however, the TR-808 began to migrate from the home to the recording studio. It started to appear on pop records—Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is a famous example—many of which may have been played by Knuckles or Hardy during their expansive DJ sets. Its rigid, aggressive drum sound may have driven professional musicians crazy, but its mathematically precise rhythmic divisions were perfect for DJ mixing, a process of matching up beats by adjusting the speed of rotation on turntables.

In 1982, Roland engineer Tadao Kikumoto designed a new machine as a supplement to the TR-808: TB-303, the initials standing for “Transistor Bass.” For $400, the 303 could be used as a supplement to Roland’s drum machines, giving a solitary musician in a domestic setting the experience of playing with a band. “Electric” is not to be confused with “electronic”—while a bass guitar amplifies sound that is produced acoustically, the 303 was triggered by a voltage-controlled oscillator cued by a one-octave keyboard, with knobs and switches to manipulate the timbre.

A traditional instrument like a bass guitar makes waves. What fluctuates in these waves, in the case of acoustic instruments, is the air surrounding a vibration in or around part of the instrument’s material body. When two frequencies occur simultaneously, they affect the shape of the wave, creating the effect that musicians call timbre—the character of sound that differentiates separate instruments playing the same note. While a pure sine wave creates a tone so pure as to sound lifeless, the sound produced by any instrument is complex, with a fundamental tone altered by harmonic overtones.

The early electronic synthesizer broke the relationship between the shape and substance of a physical object and the sound it produced, allowing for the formation of a waveform through a mathematical formula instead. There are two kinds of complex tones that formed the palette of electronic synthesizers like the 303: square and triangle. The square wave produces only odd-numbered harmonics of the fundamental tone, with a sound comparable to a clarinet. Though the wave looks like a square, it is in fact produced by a series of sine waves, embedded like a fractal set. The sawtooth wave produces both odd and even harmonics, making it sound something like a violin. The triangle wave resembles the square wave, but with less complexity.

The 303 had six knobs, reading TUNING, CUT OFF FREQ, RESONANCE, ENV MOD, DECAY, and ACCENT, controlling the parameters of the sound’s tone and articulation. This was not a conventional instrument like a clarinet or a violin, but more like a manufacturing tool, the kind that was being used on the increasingly automated assembly lines of the industrial factories then dominating the economy of the American Midwest.

As robotic instruments were incorporated into the manufacturing process, labor became oriented towards their operation and maintenance, rather than hand assembly. In a concert hall, an instrument is to be played; on a shop floor, it is to be worked on. The 303’s interface blurs the distinction: while it holds a portion of a piano’s keyboard, its primary mechanism is operated by means of knobs and buttons. Like a robotic arm, it is programmed as much as it is played.

Machine Music

The TB-303 didn’t sell. It may have been because the advent of sampling technology made it possible to reproduce recordings of other instruments directly. Or it may just have been, according to Peter Shapiro in The Wire, because Roland accidentally forgot to ship out manuals to English-speaking countries. Either way, the machine was devastatingly unpopular for its intended purpose.

In the early 1980s, a handful of inventive pop musicians did begin to feature the 303’s unrealistic sound as a novelty. Still, the machine lapsed out of production in 1984—a year before the arrival of “Acid Trax” heralded the invention of acid house. Earl “Spanky” Smith bought one at a secondhand music store for $40—sans manual—knowing it was what Jesse Saunders had used for “On and On,” the earliest foray into house music production in Chicago. He programmed a beat into his Roland drum machine and called his friend Pierre:

Spanky: Well basically, we started using the 303 just to try to make bass lines, because when we first started making music, it sucked. So I made this rhythm…
Pierre:…and it’s just playing straight, and he said, “I can’t figure out how to work this thing,” and he’s still doing this weird sound. “I don’t know how to program it,” he said, “maybe you could figure out how to program it, ‘cause it ain’t come with a book.” So instead of trying to program it, I just started turning knobs. I was like, “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo.” And he was like, “What you doing?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I’m turning these knobs!” And he said, “Keep doing that!” So we was just sitting there for thirty, forty minutes, just turning knobs, going “I like that, I like that!

In a 1988 interview, veteran Chicago house DJ Farley “Jackmaster” Funk explained  that before “Acid Trax,” the TB-303 was “an obsolete, old-fashioned piece of technology that no one had ever thought of using that way before.” House DJs had already begun to resist the conventional distinction between production and consumption in consumer society by turning the playing of records into the playing of music as a creative process. Pierre and Spanky extended this intervention in a way that called for a redefinition of musical sound.

Since the TB-303 was built to emulate an electric bass, its real-world referent was specified. If you were to imagine a visual representation, you might picture someone playing the instrument, albeit one that looked a bit weird. But by playing the 303 itself, through manipulation of its electronic interface, Pierre transformed his virtual instrument as the track progressed. The image would have to exist in an amorphous dream logic, as though the instrument were a shape-shifting mutant: a violin, then a trumpet, then a flute, then a timpani, until it could no longer be associated with a recognizable correlate. As Pierre put it in The Fader, while the 303 “was supposed to be copying a bass guitar, [the way we used it] doesn’t sound like any previous sound you’ve ever heard before. And you can only describe it as being acid.”

“Acid Trax,” with its extended texture, was truly a track rather than a song. In fact, it was more than one; trax, in the plural, its name also describing every succeeding installment in the genre it created. In the late 1980s and early 90s, acid house spread like a virus. New records proliferated—not just by Phuture, but by other local producers like Adonis, Lil Louis, Mike Dunn, and the teenage prodigy Armando. Armando’s 1987 classic “Land of Confusion” epitomizes Kodwo Eshun’s contention that the 303 was a collaborator in the production of acid house. Its composition was described by Mike Dunn in Chicago’s 5 Magazine as based on the machine’s settings. “If you take the batteries out for a minute and put them back in,” he recalled, “that’s the first bassline that will come up.”

By the end of the 1980s, the style had become influential not only in Chicago but in Detroit, where a similar kind of dance music, called techno, had been emerging. Juan Atkins, the founder of techno, had begun to fuse the experimental qualities of funk and progressive rock with the rhythmic structure of contemporary dance music. His friend and collaborator Derrick May, after taking frequent trips across I-94 to visit his mother, had been “baptised” at The Warehouse. May established a link between the cities, even buying Frankie Knuckles’s TR-909, the successor to the TR-808, to produce his own records. Techno emphasized the space-age qualities of synthesized sound over the disco and gospel influences that characterized house. But if a line separates the sound of the two genres, acid house sits directly on it.

Sonic Synthesis

Acid house’s dissociation of sound from physical presence is now a fact of our sonic environment. For those who came of age after its emergence, acid has permanently altered our relationship to aural experience. Tones that might previously have been limited to sound effects in science-fiction cinema, intended as representation of alien objects, we now hear as musical in themselves. “For some, I guess, ‘synthesize’ means ‘duplicate,’” Juan Atkins told Wired. “But for me, ‘synthesize’ is synonymous with ‘create.’”

Today, contemporary pop music has fully incorporated acid house’s sonic range, if not its production method. Producers used it as a starting point for the sound of R&B and hip-hop in the new millennium—in 2000, Timbaland’s backing track for Aaliyah’s “Try Again” used a TB-303 for its bass line, inspiring countless producers to imitate the sound on other synthesizers and computers. For his part, Pierre sees something prophetic in the name that he and Earl Smith chose for their work: Phuture. “Twenty-six years later and acid is still going strong,” he said in 2011. “You can see the proof of this when platinum-selling groups and artists like LMFAO and Skrillex are putting ‘acid’ in their songs.”

But while the sound of acid has become incorporated into the output of what Adorno and Horkheimer called the “culture industry,” the act of its creation was a rupture of the equivalence that term assumes. Acid house was born in a space between the cultural and the industrial, between social life and the relations of production. It is here that we find not only art, but political action. Acid house relocates industrial sabotage from the factory to a domestic setting, allowing for creative acts that expanded the consumer sphere of the disco community to the practice of house music production.

In this sense, acid house fits into the spectrum of an ongoing struggle. In his 1963 book Blues People, Amiri Baraka traced the origin of jazz to the use, by African-American musicians in the nineteenth century, of unfamiliar tools. These musicians, lacking formal training, “developed an instrumental technique and music of their own, a music that relied heavily on the non-European vocal tradition of blues.” The result was a musical practice that used European instruments to achieve “the altered timbral qualities and diverse vibrato effects of African music.” On a guitar or trumpet, a fretboard or valve system provides an interface for producing tones corresponding to the chromatic scale of Western harmony. But through physical intervention, they can be made to deviate from that limited use. Acid house directs this intervention towards consumer devices, drawing altered timbres and vibrato effects from machinery.

This practice disrupts the presumption of autonomy between the spheres of art, consumer society, and industrial production—a presumption that was also investigated in Marx’s critique of capitalism. Italian political theorist Paolo Virno, in his essay “Virtuosity and Revolution,” shows that Marx had already addressed cultural production in his notes for Capital. Marx distinguished between two kinds of intellectual labor: “commodities which exist separately from the producer,” like paintings or books, and those in which “the product is not separable from the act of producing,” like the performing arts. As Virno argues, within the context of the service work that dominates advanced economies, “activity-without-a-finished-work moves from being a special and problematic case to becoming the prototype of waged labor in general.” The artist is in the same category as the service worker, in other words: “virtuosic activity comes across as universal servile labor.”

In this light, an artistic practice in itself does not escape the boundaries of the capitalist mode of production, which has included service work and the dissemination of cultural phenomena since the days of the printing press. Speaking to The Fader, Pierre pointed out that the sound of the TB-303 itself has now become subject to imitation by an arm of the culture industry. “I think since people have made all these clones of the 303,” he says, “to me that’s just like other manufacturers making bass guitars or lead guitars, or pianos.” To his ears, much of the electronic music that has followed simply repeats an old formula: “Even dubstep, as crazy as that stuff sounds, has sounds that are connected to a previous instrument—it’s still copying something in some kind of way.”

The real legacy of acid house may not reside in its sound, but in its method. Acid shows us a new way to relate to the machinery that increasingly populates our everyday lives, one that shifts our experience from the passive mode of consumerism into the realm of creative activity. The knowledge we share as operators of this machinery has the potential, as Virno puts it, to “affirm itself as an autonomous public sphere,” but only “if it cuts the linkage that binds it to the production of commodities and wage labor.” Acid house teaches us that the potential for a radical practice of culture may not lie in making a certain kind of sound, but in something more fundamental: not doing what it says in the manual.

Shuja Haider is an editor at Viewpoint Magazine and Popula.


This piece appears in Logic's sixth issue, "Play." To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.


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