Everything we know about tech we learned from Kraftwerk

By Rob Cox
April 11, 2012

At 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday there was no more coveted piece of New York City real estate than standing room in the Museum of Modern Art’s Marron Atrium. And so it shall be for the next seven nights as Kraftwerk, the German electronic outfit from the 1970s, plays to a scant crowd of about 450 lucky souls. That this quartet, which includes just one of its original members, can command a showcase like MoMA – and sell out in a drumbeat – provides a useful lesson into technology’s risk of obsolescence.

It would be easy to dismiss Kraftwerk as a relic from the dawn of the digital age and its ardent fans a weird cult in turtleneck sweaters and 3D glasses. But MoMA’s eight-night retrospective of the band helmed by Ralf Hutter provides surprising insight into why some innovations fade and others flourish. Ultimately, success in technology – as in art – is derived from the expression of big ideas, not simply a mastering of its circuitry. It is an example that businesses, too, can learn from.

Kraftwerk is best known for harnessing new gadgets, primarily synthesizers like the Minimoog, to create industrial rhythms and electronic drumbeats that broke new ground in pop music. Kraftwerk’s sounds have been copied, built upon and sampled by artists from Afrika Bambaataa to Pink Floyd to Jay-Z. Today’s auto-tuned pop stars owe a direct debt to the musical sequencing that Hutter and his former partner Florian Schneider pioneered at their Kling Klang Studios in Dusseldorf four decades ago.

Yet funky sounds alone fail to explain how Kraftwerk’s four musicians – looking more like engineers in Tron-era spandex suits – can rivet the attention of New York’s cultural elite for an entire week. That speaks more to the larger concepts embraced by Kraftwerk, chiefly the power of technology – specifically computing, transportation and communications – to transform human relationships and, particularly in the German context, erase the scars of a dark past with visions of a unified, harmonious Europe.

Take Tuesday’s performance of the 1974 breakthrough Autobahn. The song, with its signature electronically modified vocals, “wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn,” against a rhythm of padded drumbeats, is sonically unforgettable. But so, too, is the song’s message – enhanced at the MoMA by 3D screens looming behind the stage – of a peaceful Europe where new highways cut through green fields and the edifices of a modern industrial complex compete with church spires in the middle distance. Like the space-agey sounds emanating from Kraftwerk’s instruments of the era, the limited torque of a 1973 Mercedes diesel sedan might seem obsolete to us today. Yet the freedom of the open road remains an eternal longing.

Similarly, the electronic arrangements of 1977’s Trans Europe Express may sound old-fashioned to 2012 ears. But the song’s message, that modern transportation (in this case high-speed rail) offers the possibility of stitching together a continent that just a generation before was at war, is timeless and transcends the music.

Kraftwerk’s biggest ideas, of course, stem from the all-pervasiveness of digital culture in everyday life, best expressed in 1981’s Computer World. While it may sound quaint in the iPhone era, the song suggested that computing itself would change how man viewed “business, numbers, money, people,” and reshape “crime, travel, communication, entertainment.” Kraftwerk couldn’t have been more right on these matters.

Indeed, it’s a useful reminder to those innovators, such as the hot tech companies of the moment, that may regard themselves as cutting-edge in the way many once saw Kraftwerk in the realm of music. Obsolescence is always just around the corner. Take the cellphone business, where Palm begat BlackBerry, which begat Nokia, which begat Apple. Or consider electronic games, where it’s possible to draw a distinct line from Atari to Zynga, with a cemetery full of defunct champions in between.

The only constant is that today’s avant-garde technology will be tomorrow’s also-ran. Like Kraftwerk’s lunar sounds, inventive products and companies will come and go – and their makers diminish – but the fundamental urge to communicate, play and connect will never die. The success or failure of their creators will depend on their ability to adapt and continue to capitalize on these larger human impulses. The surprising revelation from Kraftwerk’s continued relevance is that technology is but a small piece of the equation.

PHOTO: German electronic band Kraftwerk performs on stage at the T-Mobile INmusic open-air festival in Zagreb, June 24, 2009. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

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Serious musicians had been sequencing since the 1950’s. Indeed, although I was a teenager in the 1970’s, Kraftwerk always sounded to me like a pale imitation of some of Morton Subotnik’s works. Nothing new here, I concluded. Which, I remember, irritated me even then, as I thought there were thousands of electronic idioms out there just waiting to be discovered.

If the late and slow osmosis of electronic techniques into pop music tells us anything, it’s that it doesn’t really matter what your product is like – it’s all about marketing

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