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What makes human beings interesting is the notion of sense making. Specifically, that humanity has evolved into the primary sense making species seems a pressing question for social critics. Further pressing on this issue, the evolution of humanity into the sense making species becomes even more interesting when the institution of technology is infused into the conversation. As computing machines, technology works to process elements of our environment. Technology thus becomes a necessary area of study—the main question being: if technology helps us to process elements of our environment and externalities, what differentiates us as human beings?
This question is of supreme importance. At its essence, this question penetrates the differences between humans, animals, and technology. The music of singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe addresses this question through a combinatorial meaning system. Monáe has had multiple releases throughout her record career, but the series that is of most interest to us here is her Suite trilogy. Her first EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and her second studio album The ArchAndroid (Suites II & III) comprise her Suite trilogy. The Suite trilogy tells the story of Cindi Mayweather. The Mayweather character is a messianic cyborg sent back in time to save Metropolis from The Great Divide (a clandestine organization attempting to suppress love and happiness).
Monáe’s Suite trilogy works well to address the sense-making question amongst humans and technology in a combinatorial meaning system. The trilogy closely follows the grammar of dystopian sci-fi texts. Specifically, Monáe draws both narrational and aesthetic cues from the Fritz Lang classic film Metropolis. As one of the base dystopian sci-fi films, Metropolis has clearly set a grammar for the genre future dystopian texts. Consequently, Metropolis’ affect on the Suite trilogy cannot be understated. Monáe combines the symbolic resources of the established form of the dystopian sci-fi film genre, the established form of r&b/funk/neo-soul music, cinematic technologies, and others into her mediated brand.
This combinatorial process has profound implications for sense-making abilities implicit within the evolution of humanity. Monáe’s Mayweather character addresses Clark’s notions of software vs mindware, and directly engages the issue of humankind as “meat machines.” Further, the invocation of messianic themes brings tension to the idea of the brain as a device. By combining these symbolic resources in a media form Monáe questions the innate differences between human and machine, while simultaneously demonstrating that humankind has evolved into the sense-making species.