While looking for information on several companies I did what most people do, I read the reviews and was surprised to see that the trend for most companies was predominantly negative. Then I was reminded of a phrase of Jaron Lanier, in an interview on NPR, that “Outrage provokes engagement”. We are much more willing to complain loudly than to sing someone’s praises. Think of the last time you had a conversation with someone about how badly you were treated versus the last time you spoke about a kind or loving interaction. Whereas network news once had the rallying cry,” If it bleeds, it leads” that seems to have been replaced by the need to outrage viewers in order to stir them up, get them to tweet, comment and generally justify their existence. It seems that the purpose of media has become provocation and not communication. Twitter and the use of it by our “president” is a perfect example. While a substantive discussion of any issue would be difficult in 120 characters, it seems as though Mr. Trump seems more intent on kicking over the beehive and generating buzz (pardon the pun) rather than inviting a discussion on what needs to be done and how to get there. This is no surprise for a reality star turned politician who has learned that manipulation of the media is easier than manipulation of policy. The beast needs our attention and will do anything to get us to look at it. Perhaps our best response is to turn away from the media’s childlike tantrum and hope that it will someday realize the promises that it whispered in our ears when we allowed it in our lives.
The thought that some things are too complex to be explained simply is one of the reoccurring thoughts in Adam Curtis’ brilliant “HyperNormalisation”. It seems that now we find ourselves in a world where everything must be able to be explained in 140 characters (or better 120 allowing for the precious retweet) and that the idea of complexity must be shunned at all costs. How else can we explain the prevailing descriptions of antagonists on the world stage as, Bad Dudes or Bad Hombres? It seems that our current rush to the latest technology is creating an inverse colorization in our world. We seem to have to take vibrant colorful issues and reduce them to simple almost childlike realities so that we can regurgitate them on our Twitter feeds. And since when did a tweet become an appropriate media for a condolence letter? Have our emotions become so bite-sized that they warrant no more emotional room than a postage stamp? The world is a complex and colorful place and will continue to be so in spite of our tweets full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The world will not reduce itself to meet our small-minded needs and will only leave us behind with a handful of tweets, unable to understand.
As my friend and mentor, Father Charlie is fond of reminding me, the saying isn’t, “The truth shall set you free” but that “The truth shall make you whole”. That idea of the power of Truth or truth is something that kept coming back to me as I read, Marcus Wohlsen’s “Biopunk, DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life” for as fascinating and disturbing as the idea of the next great step forward in biological science would not come from a pharmaceutical company or a university but from people “hacking” biology in their own kitchens, garages and, in one case, walk-in closets. If information is the same as truth then perhaps it really will make us whole. It seems that there is an entire network of DIY scientist hacks working in such complex fields as gene splicing, genetic testing and more. It seems that our next major innovation in medicine may not come from the university or the major drug company but from people creating a cancer drug in their kitchen. As we give people greater and greater access to information, hopefully, we also liberate their imagination and ability to create a world vaster than what we have known. We have all heard the story of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak creating Apple in their garage and transforming the world. Who will be the next Edward Jenner or Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who creates the next wonder drug or engineer the next stage of human development? As Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young and perhaps our resources are squandered on the large institutions that have more interest in maintaining their own status quo than reshaping the world and the way we live in it. Honestly, how does a pink ribbon cure breast cancer or is simply raising our awareness of it all that we care to do? We can be aware of ethnic cleansing in the world but a ribbon or pin will not change that reality. Perhaps our current paradigm is supporting the truth but our information share will make us whole. If ever there were a time for free flow of information it seems it must happen now lest we are left strong in symbolism and weak in action. I believe it is our action that will make us whole.
I am a big fan of Ernie Kovacs an amazing pioneer in Television who really shook up the visual medium of early television and make people look at in a whole new light. I am thinking about Ernie and all the other pioneers who have played with the boundaries of any medium Picasso, Schoenberg, James Joyce, Rod Serling even the recordings of Ken Nordine or Nichols and May. I wonder what will we do with this new medium of social media that we have created. What new horizons are we waiting to be explored and what creative outlet will we find with all this senseless technology or have we lost the ability to have fun? Where is the court jester of this electronic Camelot?
Recently, the news has been filled with the FDA’s approval of a drug that carries within it a small sensor that documents that the pill has been taken. Essentially the pill, once taken, would be sent to a patch worn by the pill taker and then the data would be sent to one’s cell phone, announcing that the medication had been taken. While it would take between thirty minutes and two hours for the pill to report that it had been taken it still has the ability to transmit information. While at this time it would only be the fact that the pill has been taken but what about other information that it could transmit. While it may seem silly now, what if it could transmit our location so that marketers could target marketing to our us possibly based on what we had eaten or if it has been a while since we ate.
By tracking our location we could be inviting big brother to know our every move. What if this pill also created a trackable response in us perhaps it makes us hungry or ill after a certain period of time and only a certain product would relieve the hunger or pain. While it may seem crazy, it wasn’t too long ago when we found that cigarette companies were knowingly creating products that could kill us but still went ahead and added addictive chemicals to increase their addictive nature and their bottom line. While I believe technology can be a great tool, we seem to have the habit of dropping it into the wrong hands and then being shocked when we find we have let ourselves be taken advantage of by those we believe to have our best interests at heart. Surely we can’t be naive forever.
If I remember correctly, in the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. Now, while the quote goes on, I find it interesting this idea of somethings Self-evidence; the idea that something is known to be true by understanding its meaning without proof. It seems self-evident that people have rights though we may argue as to the breadth and depth of those rights and that machines, as non-human, non-feeling entities do not. This notion was challenged when I saw an article in the BBC about the appearance of a woman robot in Riyadh Saudi Arabia at the Future Investment Initiative conference. Sophia, as she is known, was given Saudi citizenship but she was allowed to appear without the traditional headscarf and abaya, the cloak that Saudi women are obliged to wear in public. Of course, social media pundits leapt to their keyboards noting that not only had this electronic “woman” not only been granted citizenship but had rights that Saudi women only dream of. Here was a woman speaking alone on a stage where under the Saudi Guardianship system every woman must be accompanied by a male companion who has authority to act on her behalf. It seems as if Saudi Arabia had become the Manor Farm for the day where all women were equal except that those women who were silicon-based were more equal than those of a mere carbon base.
While it may seem laughable now, it is not impossible to imagine that we could create a world in which computers would have more rights than some or maybe even all people. We seem to delight in ways that we can segregate and remove ourselves from those who we deem somehow different or less than us but now we seem to have taken that talent to a whole new level. We could create machines to look down on us- maybe outsource our racism so that we would be free to pursue more noble goals? While it may seem absurd, there are some of us who remember when the idea of an actor as president was a punchline and not a reality.
Occasionally, I see a post about a confused use of LOL. Someone thinks it means Lots of Love and sends it in response to the news of a death or illness. While simple misunderstandings are the basic stuff of comedy it can also hide an underlying tension. While technology now allows us to communicate with each other, it assumes a common base of knowledge and understanding or common ground. It seems that more and more we are caught in a place where we think someone has a similar frame of reference that doesn’t exist for them. You may remember the instance of the sick passenger of colour in “Airplane” who couldn’t communicate to the flight attendant his illness until another passenger stepped up and said, “Excuse me, but I speak Jive.” While it is a joke in the movie, what happens when we no longer have a common language or set of experiences to draw from. The internet can bring us an awareness of the world outside ourselves as all media does, but what happens when we have no common ground with which to agree (or disagree)? Perhaps it would be a world of Gertrude Stein, where every element matters as much as any other. This democratization of language, with every voice having an equal value, seems to rob us of the common intellectual space to speak and be understood.