He said he was going through some papers in his mother’s house and found it, a postcard I had sent him years before when I still lived in New York. It was the Empire State Building and a brief greeting scribbled on the back- how I was working (or not) and sending good thoughts to a friend in Italy. He scanned it and sent the image to me saying- “Remember when people used to actually sent messages with pen and paper?” As I looked at the image, the sepia-toned memory was quickly replaced by the buzz of my phone announcing another post on Instagram and it made me wonder, what really has changed. While we used to send letters we now send emails and postcards have become Facebook or Instagram posts. We seem to be exchanging one devil for another constantly shedding the shell of the old for the perceived new. As Virginia Heffernan writes in her brilliant “Magic and Loss” we seem to be heralding back to a Victorian age where children are to be seen and not heard. indeed, she suggests that now we produce children only to produce images to spawn more likes and shares, their images frozen in electronic amber. People now scale construction sites and buildings to post images from these heights, now known as rooftopping possibly giving up their lives for a like. Yet if we lose our life in this pursuit our digital legacy will live on. Our digital artifacts will outlive us and one day might be museum pieces, like stereoscope or view-master slides holding us all captive in an electronic eternity.
It was an honor just to be asked. I was a first-year masters student in the opera program and a very well respected accompanist asked me to sing on a recital of the songs of Hugo Wolf. The songs had been selected and I was ready for what was to become a pivotal event in my musical education. Among the songs was one, Abschied (there is a link to a performance below) that described a critic coming to the poet’s house and criticizing everything from the shape of his nose and going on from there. The poet listens and nods until finally he has had enough and on showing him out, kicks him down the stairs as the music turns to a waltz celebrating the speed to which the critic rolled down the stairs. This uninvited criticism has been on my mind for while with the incidents of body shaming that seem to be everywhere on the internet. Now, I firmly believe that everyone has the right to express themselves and if that means putting a large body into a very small swimsuit and posting pictures of myself on the internet- that seems to be my choice and by putting myself in the public sphere, I invite public discussion. However, discussion seems to be beyond the pale when people suggest that for my act of public exposure that I should instead, kill myself or be so horrified by my own existence, that I should somehow know better than to allow myself to be seen or exposed. How did we get to this point where everyone seems to have the right to say exactly what they feel whenever they feel it but no one has to take responsibility for their actions. It seems that we can say all manner of hate speech but that it is negated and indeed made all better when we apologize or in the case of 45 keep saying it more and more forcefully until it takes on the mangy robe of social media truth. Have we come to a gradation of truth- truth with a small t that can be altered with the shift of a hand like a magician making the ace of spades disappear. Indeed, perhaps we are at blame to give anyone’s words the mantle of truth. In the works of the Burton and Learner song, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” perhaps we must take everything with a proverbial grain or block of salt, believing only what we can confirm either in person or by volume of critical sources. Maybe the best approach is that taken by Wolf (and by extension Eduard Mörike the writer of the poem) that while we allow such comments to come in the front door- we also have the choice of which window to throw them out of.
It has been interesting watching the Janus faced march of the internet; on one hand offering us a new world of information and entertainment as well as the possible downfall of our democracy our social order and our idea of privacy. It seems that we have forgotten that each new innovation has both positive and negative aspects. And in the case of the internet, we seem to be shocked at each new turn- how can our wonderful new technology allow our elections to be hacked, our private information made public, our companies brought to their knees by cyber attacks. While computers work in a world of 1’s and 0’s we seem to have clung to that worldview also, being stuck in a worldview where things are either all good or all bad. We can’t seem to tolerate any variation on our singular thinking. You are either all for us or all of us- there is no common ground. Any deviation from the zero or one is not acceptable and must either be ridiculed or shunned. Recently, the term non-binary (NB), is a catch-all category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction and we can begin to see colour where now we only see black and white not only in our future but in our relations with each other. Perhaps we are bound to live in a world of gods and monsters forever be chasing innovation in technology and as human beings with torches and farm implements until we discover the diversity between the zeros and ones.
In James Whales, Bride of Frankenstein, a character toasts the idea of Dr. Frankensteins creations saying, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”
It was an odd conversation though maybe not considering that as a part of a choir from a Midwest Lutheran college staying with a born-again Christian host family on a choir tour in the mid-80’s. It was a discussion of faith and the line went something like this, There is a tightrope across two buildings and Jesus pushes a wheel barrel on the tightrope from one building, across the tightrope to building that you are standing atop. He says to you, “ See how I have walked from one building to another across the tightrope pushing this wheel barrel? Now, why don’t you get in the wheel barrel and I will take you back to the first building by walking the tightrope.”
Now while I enjoyed the idea of Jesus on the tightrope, the thrust of the argument was that if you just saw Jesus walk the tightrope with a wheel barrel, shouldn’t you have faith to trust that he could make the return trip with you in the wheel barrel. While we trust the other person to do something alone, when we are involved it seems to be another matter. This also seems to be the issue with the current discussion on self-driving cars – in a recent Washington Post article, Seventy-eight percent of respondents to an AAA survey said they would not want to ride in a self-driving car. While we can trust our credit cards, our social security numbers our addresses and other personal information such as emails and texts to the internet even trusting planes to autopilot, we dare not get into the car with an electronic stranger. Equifax has the falsely earned idea of our trust, but we can not entertain a computer piloting us through city streets. Strange how so much of our society can claim unswerving faith in a deity that will save our soul but have no faith in something that affects every aspect of our lives on a day-to-day basis.
While the events in Charlottesville have had major ramifications both politically and socially, and while the violence is terrible and abhorrent, I was surprised and strangely pleased to see the reason for the rage was something physical. Monuments built long after the Civil War to reinforce the idea that the idea that white rule is still a force in the south and elsewhere deserve to be removed and put in a proper historical context. We still can’t view Disney s “Song of the South” because we can’t seem to find a way to put it in a historical context, as a moment in time that we may not be proud of or wish to replete. This is a topic whose time has more than come and it deserves to be examined. Yet, in an age where the only discourse seems to be over memes, tweets, and posts, it was almost refreshing to see action and rage over something in the physical world. While I am too in no way condoning violence, it is good to see people taking action in the physical world- that we understand live action is still an option and perhaps the only way to make real change in the world. We can overcome, but perhaps not by tweeting.
For those of us who still remember “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, from our typing class days, (Its a sentence that has all the letters of the alphabet which one would type endlessly for touch typing practice) the idea that we may no longer need to type to input information into our computers sounds like a good thing. It would mean an end to all those hours of finger drills on the keyboard or typewriter, helping us learn the skill of typing. New technology is moving forward the next level is access, making sure that everyone has the ability to meet the real or imagined need for Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. The move toward a visual and voice based manner of interacting with the computers and the electronic world would open the next billion to the 21st century as we see it. This poses questions that we will be looking at over the coming weeks, one of these being the continued lowering of the bar to access. While there are no doubts that voice command or push button input would make life easier, I wonder, how easy do we need things to be? At what point will we not need to make any efforts at all and have everything being automated and done for us. The only glimmer of hope that we are beginning to see that too much automation makes a good case for our own extinction. Self-driving cars may eliminate five million jobs or more and the question quickly becomes, what do these people and what do we need them for? We are even looking at a universal basic income so that we can give those people whos jobs have been eliminated money to buy the products they used to make. Perhaps it’s not the jobs being eliminated that we have to worry about, what if we eliminate the need for ourselves?
The story that Facebook had shut down computers that had begun to talk to each other and were creating their own language made me stop dead in my tracks. While the concept of computers learning and speaking their own language is amazing I was equally stunned by the fact we seem never to learn. We shut down the computers as they had begun to speak in a language that we could not understand but the computers could. It seems that no matter how much we think we know, we never learn the lesson, as Ian Malcolm states in Jurassic Park, “life finds a way“. We think we can master nature and make it do our bidding only to find that it has a will of its own. Even now we seem oblivious to the grating roar of waves slowly taking back our cities and coastline. It is easier to think global warming an alternate fact than to accept the consequences of our actions. Like a child, if we ignore the problem we think it will go away or think that once the genie is out of the bottle we can control it and put it back when ever we choose. Anything we create at some point takes on a life of its own, a life which will find a way. Perhaps it’s time for us to acknowledge our creations and treat them like the new Adam and Eve that they have become.