Devo on the fate of the world--and Chatroulette (Q&A)

At SXSWi, two band members tell CNET that Chatroulette is a natural home for Devo and note that the Net is a lot cheaper than TV for promoting a big project.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--The world is a lot like the Mike Judge film "Idiocracy," according to the two leading members of the famed '80s band Devo, who showed up at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival Tuesday to unveil their new-media plans for a true 21st century relaunch.

But the duo, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, also expressed their concern for the planet in a public question-and-answer period at the end of the frenetic, hilarious presentation where they unveiled the full reach of their ambitious Devo 2.0 plans.

Mothersbaugh and Casale--clearly a pair who have spent a great deal of their lives thinking not just out of the box, but in the next area code over--are inspired by a lot of what's online--and fear it, too. They know that much of the culture jamming that has such a natural home on the Internet has more than a passing resemblance to the philosophies they used to promote when they were one of the biggest new wave bands around. And they're ready to exploit that, tongue diligently inserted in cheek.

At SXSWi, Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, discussed plans for a new-media launch of the next Devo album and associated products. Here, Mothersbaugh autographs a fan's inflatable dinosaur. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

On Tuesday, after their presentation--and a half-hour of signing autographs and drawing cartoons on fans' laptops and other items, Mothersbaugh and Casale sat down with CNET News for a short interview. Among their tidbits: Chatroulette is a natural home for Devo and the fact that the Internet is a heck of a lot less expensive for promoting a big project than television.

Q: Somebody mentioned the other day that there may be 400 million Facebook users, but that since there are about 7 billion people on the planet, each of those users can still be considered an early adopter. What do you think of that idea?
Casale: That's actually been pointed out most recently in the new Time magazine. They had "10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years," and they're challenging all the conventional wisdom and they point this out. And they point it out even in the context of another fact that [Mothersbaugh] and I talk about, which is that there's getting to be too many humans on the planet, and it's multiplying at an obscene rate, like a virus, which is impacting all other living species on the planet, and obviously the planet's health, in terms of water, air and soil. And where it's all going is kind of frightening, because exponentially, things are rapidly changing and falling apart.

You talked about the idea that we're already living in an "Idiocracy" world, and I have to say, I know things are bad, but I don't think we're there yet. Do you really?
Casale: I don't know. I know there's some great, smart people, and I get to meet them and talk to them. But I don't think they're really determining the direction. They're not in the driver's seat. There's too many mean-spirited, dumb people, and it's just an overwhelming death by a thousand cuts, is what it is. And it happens every day, and so the good things seem to get buried, and beaten down. Or as the Chinese say, the nail that sticks out gets pounded.

Do you see hope for things getting better? Or is it irrevocable?
Casale: You're asking the wrong guy.

Mothersbaugh: I think you're talking about the population culling itself, either naturally or unnaturally.

Casale: That's our only hope.

Mothersbaugh: It is--if you want to see things change. We've reduced all the other species on the planet to a level where it's now uncomfortable to be a human and have basic dignity of life. We've got 7 billion people, and that's a great idea, but maybe spread out over a 200-year span of time instead of all being concentrated in this year, right now. You're not going to be able to feed them all.

Casale: Here's the other thing, and I'm sure you realize this. If you look at the intelligent, educated people in Western society, they're very self-limiting. They're limiting their breeding. They're having less and less children, as a matter of fact, and the other part of the population is very...uneducated and has no access to normal health care or decent food, and they're breeding like rabbits. So what you're breeding is a species of unloved, uncared-for children who are growing up into very angry, messed up--physically and mentally--teenagers whose only motivation at that point is to bring it all down.

I have to bring us back to technology. The Internet, it seems to me, is a tool for spreading information, and information gives people the power to at least have the tools to improve their lives. Do you see it that way?
Casale: When people are idealizing the function of the Internet, that's certainly the company line. But the Internet can only be a neutral tool, and once it's in the hands of human beings, human nature takes over. So the Internet can be used to spread gossip, panic, and fear quicker than they were ever able to do that before. At the same time, it can spread useful information quicker than you could ever do it before.

Mothersbaugh: It is not nuclear bombs we must fear, but the human mind, or lack of it on this planet, and that applies to the Internet.

Casale: The Internet is a neutral tool that reflects the living, breathing community of the human organism. So it can only do the human's bidding ultimately. This isn't like Hal [from "2001: A Space Odyssey"].

You're using it now, though, for a new Devo 2.0. Why use this tool?
Casale: Well, because we can't afford broadcast.

Mothersbaugh: I mean, if you inspire people to use tools, if anything inspires people to use tools in a positive way, that's the weird thing about Devo. Although de-evolution sounds like we're cynics, the reality of it is, we always thought humans had the ability to change things, to make things better. If the Internet makes people think they can make things better, then more power to them.

I saw a fantastic video today of a guy playing piano and singing songs on the fly about what he sees on Chatroulette. Please tell me you'll do a video like that.
Casale: I think we should, absolutely. When I first found out about Chatroulette, I was really inspired immediately. I checked it out, and it's great.

And you said [in the panel] that Chatroulette is more Devo than Devo?
Mothersbaugh: In other words, our aesthetic was getting at things like that a long time ago. If there had been Chatroulette, Devo would have been on it. Then you see it. And that, in practice, is what our aesthetic was about.