For those of us who may remember Jack Benny the comedian on radio and later television, whose persona was that of a miser who, for the sake of comedy often found himself at the mercy of a robber who would say to Benny, “Your money or your life!” to which after a long silence, Benny would reply, “I’m thinking it over”….The idea of money having value is so simple to grasp that the idea of something not so tangible having value still gives me pause. This was never more apparent than when I saw that the buzz from Nike’s Kaepernick campaign was worth more than $163 million in media exposure. While the stock price of the company, its physical manifestation dropped, the It seems that just the idea of our looking at something has value and by extension, our consciousness, when focused on something must also then have value. It would seem then that the sheer fact of us allowing something into our consciousness, could become a monetized action. In the way that we now pay for content, perhaps at some time, we would be compensated to turn our attention on something as to raise its economic value. While we have often thought of the monetization of our data exhaust, perhaps the real money lies in what we see or allow ourselves to look at. Our gaze already affects companies bottom lines, why are we then not being compensated? Perhaps, we are being robbed without thinking about it. Maybe its something we need to think over.
The church choir that I am section leader for has been invited to Carnegie Hall to sing a concert featuring a new choral work by Dan Forrest, LUX: The Dawn From On High (Lux being Latin for Light). While I won’t be going to Carnegie, for many reasons, having sung there before among them, I have loved learning the music with my choir. The crux of the piece talks about the importance of light, light as a blessing and a spiritual end result from a life- an abundance of light as a heavenly reward. The text of the piece from religious texts and comments on the end of one’s life being surrounded by light. It makes me think of a pre-electric age the importance of light and the power of the darkness. Restoration theaters had candle wick trimmers whose job it was to keep the candles burning throughout the performance. In New England, on the 19th of May 1780, is known as New England’s Dark Day where candles were needed from noon to midnight, so heavy was the cloud cover. Perhaps we still harbor that childhood fear of the dark and bathe ourselves in light to protect ourselves from the unknown. Is that the reason for the preponderance of light in the religious texts describing heavenly bliss? What would be better in the afterlife than the things that we lack in this life? With that thought in mind, it makes me wonder what would be the valued thing would be that would greet us in a contemporary afterlife. What would be our final blissful reward in heaven? In short, what would be the final reward to a culture that has reveled in abundance and immediacy in everything?
It has been disturbing to me to see the acceptance of the most informal of communications, texting, and tweeting, have become acceptable forms of communicating and I was hear that the French legal system said that the texting of a last will and testament has no legal value. Indeed, the court decreed that a texted will or texted changes to a will, had no value in a court of law. While there may be those that remember the outcry when Genesis frontman Phil Collins divorced his wife via fax, it seems that now we react more with what Conan O’Brian calls a horrorplause, the reaction in which the audience responds initially in disgust and shock to a joke and then gradually comes around and laughs and applauds. It seems with this media driven political arena we have embraced the horrorplause. We will be horrified by the statements of our political leaders only to come around and applaud and laugh as if the sitcom we had been watching had come to a close and the credits were about to roll. Perhaps the midseason elections will be the newest version of the midsummer replacement tv shows when we decide that what we are seeing is no longer interesting and that a change is no farther than a tweet or text away. People text or tweet condolences, or announcements of personal importance, but whatever happened to such a personal announcement being worthy of more than 140 characters, or at best 120 characters for the cherished retweet. Or perhaps, in our digital age popularity has become more important than sincerity.
While watching the news report on our president, the image of Raphael’s, “Sistine Madonna” came to mind. Now bear with me for a moment, as this painting is probably best known for the cherubs at the bottom of the image. The thing that made me think of them was not their cheeky demeanor but the fact that the cherubs are downright chubby. Like many representations of cherubs in paintings of the time, they are notoriously well fed. Later I discovered that the reason for that was that in a time when most people were starving the idea that there might be more than enough food in heaven did add a certain level of interest that a blushing Madonna’s or pious saints wouldn’t have- the elusive robustness was to be valued, prized even idolized. In this time when we think of social media as a new form of religion, why are we surprised to see the parade of characters cast before us every waking moment? From the earliest days in television, we were presented with ideal visions of family and life that were far from anything most people had known or were even possible. Today we watch the Kardashian’s in the hopes that we could also be famous and valued for absolutely no reason. We watched “Friends” living in an absolutely amazing New York apartment with they paid for with jobs and paychecks that they never seemed to work for projection a similar fate might be possible for us too. Perhaps we should not be surprised that we have projected our most precious desires into a world that seems real and yet attainable only through a miracle or some miraculous transformation. It seems we look to these media icons to allow us to dream a world that we cannot or don’t live in. A world where we will be fed to the point of plumpness, rewarded with adulation and attention for no reason, or be able to act and say whatever we want, no matter how hateful, contradictory or detached from reason. Perhaps it conceals a certain desire in all of us to act as if our actions had no consequences, other than those that would be resolved by the final credits. I mean, wouldn’t we all like the opportunity to act like children – even if only chubby children with wings?
I have a fondness for Whitman’s, “When Lilacs Last Round the Dooryard Bloomed” and primarily the first section with the line, “I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. The idea of mourning was one hard to get away from in Whitman’s time, in the closing days of the Civil War, where an estimated 620,000 men lost their lives. I think of the idea of mourning and have come back to it recently and what it means in this our electronic age. Of course, everyone has had that moment of rage when a document or spreadsheet we have been working on disappears into the vapor and not to say that it is not a loss (believe me- I’ve been there) but what happens when so much of where we spend our time can be simply wiped away? We can swipe away a potential mate if we don’t find them attractive or dispose of the digital remains of a relationship with the touch of a button. No more going through letters or books from ones we have loved, the therapeutic tossing of clothes out the window, or destroying the once cherished item left behind from the one who once was so dear. Do we lose something therapeutic when we lose a tactile part of loss? Has our loss of physical mourning created a loss in our ability to mourn and perhaps feel as deeply as we have in the past? Perhaps the blue light of the computer has ceased our song and left us with a different and perhaps poorer lustrous face in the night.
The First Canto and a section of the Sixteenth Canto of “When Lilacs Last Round the Dooryard Bloomed”
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
and from the 16th canto…
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.
While it seems that we seem to closer and closer to making artificial intelligence that more and more human it seems that we only want to create this sort of perfect version of what we can be. We assume that the robots that we create won’t forget to turn the stove off or where we left our car keys. These shiny new versions of ourselves would be the perfect versions of what we can be. With that in mind, there was a bit of schadenfreude tossed about when we learned that Sophia, the humanoid robot, had arrived in Ethiopia for an appearance missing a few of her parts. It seems that a bag containing some of her parts were lost in the airport in Frankfort. While it does raise questions; we give a robot citizenship but does it fly in coach or in baggage. How are we going to manage these new ”humans” when we can cant figure out how to deal with differences that we have between people today. But most of all, what is lost when we make a robot to be like a human that has none of the flaws that make us human?
I woke up with a start, thinking of the corner on the NW corner of LaSalle & Monroe in Chicago, which is the Datum point for the city, the point in which of known or assumed coordinates from which calculation or measurements may be taken. In this point the intersection is the point from which all heights in the city are measured a point of common departure. I thought of this early that morning after an evening of talking and arguing with people of different ages and experiences than me.
We struggled at times to find a common ground or more frequently a common frame of reference in our experience. While people my own age could laugh at a reference to Gilligan’s Island the Love Boat anyone a few years younger had no idea what we were talking about. With people say 5 or 10 years older they had references that we could not begin to understand. It occurred to me that with media increasing our appetite for content we seem to digest information so fast that each generation may have its own vocabulary and may end up living in a constant state of now. As the current situation of immigrant child detention at the US border brought up references to the Nazi Holocaust, there may be a time when a reference to the Obama administration will have as much resonance as the Norman Invasion.