This deeply affecting lament for a disappearing way of life, as flesh and blood is replaced by automated machinery, may come from a group billing itself as Spirit of the West, but it’s pure, Celtic-influenced East Coast all the way.
Released in 1988 on their very fine album Labour Day, Dark House is about the replacement of human lighthouse keepers with electronic devices that could perform all the necessary functions. This was back when lighthouses themselves were still necessary, before the advent of GPS made beacons that mark dangerous reefs and shoals all but irrelevant, taking the process to its logical conclusion. Some of these coastline sentinels still exist, even to this day, but surely they’re not for long, except maybe as historic monuments, and anyway there won’t be any people in them, tending to the gears, polishing the lenses, and looking out over the ocean with a care for the sailors who might find themselves in peril. It’s over with that.
You could argue that looking upon such progress with sadness is merely sentimental nonsense, pointless nostalgia for an inferior way of getting things done, but the group is giving voice to the very human sense that there’s something deeply, existentially threatening about this constant erosion of tradition, and the elimination of living, breathing people from so many roles and functions. It’s not just about paying jobs. It’s about dignity, and purpose. When robots staff the production lines, bank machines serve as tellers, cashiers are replaced by self-checkout stations, cab and truck drivers are kicked to the curb in favour of vehicles that drive themselves, retail outlets disappear as our on-line orders are filled from warehouses staffed by more robots, who might soon send the things to be delivered to our doorsteps by drones – when soon, artificial intelligence answers our questions and even lawyers and doctors may find themselves supplanted by machines – what, then, are we all for? What gives us the feeling that we make a contribution? And will the displaced be looked after if they can find nobody who needs them?
A lot of this was still in the future when Dark House was released, but it seems that Spirit of the West saw it all coming. It won’t be long, now, before the ships that the lighthouses used to warn won’t have any people on them either. Yes, times change. Must they change for the worse? Must we be castaways on a push-button planet, where progress is measured by how much we lose?