Punk pioneer Exene Cervenka talks tech

Technology is “dragging us, kicking and screaming, into a brave new world order,” punk legend Exene Cervenca told students and community members at Pitzer College’s Benson Auditorium last Tuesday.

Ms. Cervenka painted a bleak picture of the present, in which the earth has been spoiled by man-made ecological disasters, toddlers play with iPads instead of blocks and a cocktail will set you back $20.

Her vision of the future is even bleaker.

Technology is being weaponized, she warned. Humanity is being replaced by artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation. And the masses, distracted by the opiate of pop culture, are being enslaved by the global one percent bent on wealth, power and immortality.

“The goal is trans-humanism, living forever with mind and machine,” she said. 

Ms. Cervenka’s 90-minute discourse—part of Pitzer’s ongoing Technology Changes series—was sprawling, but her premise was simple: The human race is on the road to self-destruction, thanks to “relentless progress.”

Ms. Cervenka is not your usual college lecturer.

She dropped out of high school at 16. She encountered musician John Doe at a poetry workshop when she was 21, and they became romantically involved. Fatefully, he asked her to join his band, X.

In 1980, the quartet was signed to Slash Records. Former Doors member Ray Manzarek produced X’s debut album, “Los Angeles,” adding his wildly oscillating keyboards to the band’s blend of rockabilly, punk and country.

Los Angeles’ searing and poetic lyrics, co-written by Ms. Cervenka and Mr. Doe, transcended the usual punk fare.

“Tomorrow night may be too late. Both moons are full—dirty night dying like a lovely wife,” they sang in intermittent harmony and discord, with Exene’s keening voice twining around Mr. Doe’s minor-key extemporizations.

The album went on to sell more than 60,000 copies and placed X at the forefront of the first wave of American punk rock. Rolling Stone magazine includes Los Angeles on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Thirty-four years and six studio albums later, Ms. Cervenka continues to perform with X as well as with the folk/rockabilly ensemble The Knitters, which also features John Doe and X drummer DJ Bonebrake. She has also pursued an array of other artistic endeavors, from collage to spoken word.

As befitting someone who has spent decades espousing rebellion, Ms. Cervenka took the Pitzer audience on a wild ride.

Her talk ranged from widely acknowledged concerns such as contamination from the 2011 Fukushima meltdown to topics often dismissed as conspiracy theories. The development of super soldiers, turned into killing machines via over-deployment and robotic prostheses. Pop singers like so many pied pipers, using illuminati imagery to lead young people into a new world order.

It all sounds a bit far-fetched. Many of Ms. Cervenka’s assertions, however, are based in fact.

Take the super soldier scenario. The destructive capacity of a disturbed soldier has been demonstrated in occurrences such as the 2011 incident in which Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours, opened fire on two Afghan villages, killing 16 civilians. And two years ago, a British soldier who lost his arm in an Afghanistan grenade blast underwent an innovative procedure in which his limb was replaced by a bionic arm wired to his nervous system.

When Ms. Cervenka says that the world’s power brokers want to live forever, it sounds like the aim of a fictional arch-villain. And yet, Google has recently acquired a biotech company devoted to combatting aging, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and author of The Singularity is Near, is a proponent of trans-humanism. He co-founded Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank with the goal of empowering leaders “to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

Mr. Kurtzweil believes technology can extend life indefinitely and enhance the human mind.

“When you talk to a human in 2035, you’ll be talking to someone that’s a combination of biological and non-biological intelligence,” he predicts.

Underscoring some of Ms. Cervenka’s assertions is the fact that emerging technology is now reminiscent of sci-fi, from tiny drones the size of radio-controlled aircraft to glasses equipped with an Internet connection, web-browsing software and a camera.

But some in the audience found Ms. Cervenka’s presentation depressing.

“I just don’t feel like you’re giving us a lot of hope,” one young woman expressed during the Q & A following the talk. “It’s like you don’t trust our generation to make things better.”

Others attendees, like Pitzer biology major Michelle Suarez, were less fazed. Ms. Suarez, whose older sisters introduced her to X when she was in junior high, considers Ms. Cervenka inspiring.

“I grew up in LA, so I’ve seen X play lots of times,” she said. “Exene is one of the first female punk singers I had seen. She’s an amazing artist. She’s an icon.”

Robin Young, a local music promoter who has been an X and Knitters fan for 30 years, said there are many people who consider Ms. Cervenka to be “bat-sh** crazy.”

She has a different perspective.

“I’ve watched her grow and change and be set back and bounce back again,” she said. “Her talk resonated with me because of my own experiences and that of too many of my friends.”

Despite her pessimism, Ms. Cervenka believes that society’s ills can be combatted by a wide-scale revolution of the soul. It’s this possibility that motivates her to keep speaking out.

What if everyone said, “We’re hip to this,” and refused to go to work or school or shop, she asked? What if everyone stayed home and turned off the lights and lit candles and made popcorn? Countless stars and planets would be visible.

“Everyone would go outside and say, ‘Wow, this is real!’”

And being real matters, according to Ms. Cervenka.

“I’m 100 percent human being,” she said. “I hope all of you stay human. I hope someone out there has a monkey wrench to throw into the machine.”

—Sarah Torribio



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