There was always that one guy in High School (at least when I was in high school) who would go to the mat to try to make you believe that Paul Mc Cartney was dead. True to form, the urban legend states that in 1967 Paul McCartney had been killed in a traffic accident while driving along the M1 motorway. While there was no real proof, only rumors, and hazy evidence, the rumor persisted and still has its followers today. The insecurity of the past, the idea that we can’t be sure of what really happened can take many forms, from a false memory, where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it happened but the idea is taken to a whole new level around 2014 when a concept “The Mandella Effect” began to take hold. It seems that some people remembered Nelson Mandela’s tragic death in a South African prison, prior to late 2009. (In this reality, Mandela died in 2013.) The idea being that someone had gone back to tamper with the past and re-set our experience of it. While we have often spoken of cyber truth in this blog, this idea seems to take the idea into a much larger and more terrifying realm. While a computer could easily erase our bank records we like to think that we have some memory of what happened and that other people could confirm our story. However, the more terrifying reality is that we could find ourselves in a George Bailey like fate, alive and remembering a world in which he never existed. As we continue to hear more tales of data being stolen, do we not see that the true goal may not be just our data but the very fact that we ever existed?
While our Janus’ face is often turned to the future, it took a brief look back to an old Burger King ad when we heard the news of a study that showed that Robots could create twice as many jobs as they destroy. It seems a bit optimistic of the World Economic Forum which says while machines and computer algorithms could displace 75 million people it could create 133 million jobs. Of course, we realize that new technology always creates in its wake social unrest and disruption. The printing press as a prelude to the Reformation, newspapers to the rise of unions, television ushering in the era of civil rights and protests that launched the end of the Vietnam war and started woman’s rights movement. While all of these innovations both technological and social have made people’s lives better, there are always those who are caught beneath the wheel of progress. And while we have no doubt that the rising tide of progress will raise many boats, what happens to those whose skills don’t fit exactly in the last lifeboat. Perhaps, social media has brought reality into our lives with an immediacy that television couldn’t match that perhaps is calling us to forge a new more compassionate version of democracy. One in which the winners don’t always have it their way, as Burger King commercials used to say, a new world in which the high tide raises all boats, not just the ones of the rich or famous.
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.
Detroit has a special place in my heart. While performing there I had a lot of downtime in my schedule and as the days turned colder, I found myself spending many of them in my smallish downtown hotel room. My own strange fascination with poetry lead me to read Shakespeare and later, Whitman s “Leaves of Grass”, out loud to myself in the quiet of my hotel room. My fruitful isolation was not unlike our current hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the many ways that the internet will lead us all to be social misfits who can’t handle being with others in the world or worse. The same was said to be true of television, that it would lead us to become isolationists, unable to relate to one another or the world. We needn’t look too far into our collective imagery to find examples of people who hide in books to escape a world. It seems that in this instance our new media is just the opposite of the book, while the book is static, the internet is constantly presenting us with new vistas, real and imagined. With Google Earth, I can see places that I may never be able to see in person. I frequently chat with several friends with whom I have never met and only know each other through email. Is that friendship any less valuable or is this just another example of the glorification of a first world problem? We find ourselves more obsessed with inane tweets than the situations that caused them. As long as we allow this to happen, we are creating a greater isolation by turning away from the events of our world and focusing on the distribution of content. Perhaps we need to look at this new technology as the gift that it is and if we choose to, we can turn our eyes from the projections of the blue light on the cave walls. Indeed, we are truly all connected to one another and neither cell phones, or books or anything other media can ever change that. The true delusion is thinking that we are anything other than connected, to each other and to our environment. Perhaps all we really need to do is have faith in our ability to change our world, knowing that it takes more effort than a swipe of the finger.
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.
Some time ago there was an article in the BBC about the legal status of robots which we commented on in this space. One aspect of the article which we did not go into was the idea that robots could come with kill switches, that is the ability to shut down the robot if necessary. It seems a curious question when the idea of doctor-assisted suicide is still unresolved that we should consider giving an artificial intelligence a greater right than those of us who created it. We fear to lose control of the creatures we create when we seem not to be able to control ourselves.
Gorilla Coffee is one of those places etched in my memory of Brooklyn, great coffee and a great place to hang out with people. I was getting the former to do the latter when I noticed the tattoos on my Barista (this makes me wonder if Barista is gender specific Is there a Baristo and a Barista? But I digress). In the crook of each elbow there was a bird pierced by an arrow. This unusual tattoo was mirrored on the other arm and I had to ask the meaning. “ They commemorate sailors lost at sea” was the reply. Now, I don’t know about you but I don’t think there are all that many sailor lost at sea these days, but, alas, there holding my coffee I was proved wrong.
Of course people get tattoos to mark life’s passages, entrances and exits yet we don’t seem to carry this physical reverence to the digital world. In the electronic world there is nothing more to mark a passing than pushing the delete button and emptying ones recycle bin on the desktop. An e mail love letter, a Facebook friend or an electronic diary can be deleted with the push of a button. Do we think so little of our digital memories that we see them as worthless and make no notice of their passing? Have we no sense of morning in our digital world? Bertol Brecht once said, “A society is judged by what it mourns”. If that is the case we must hold our digital reality in such low esteem that like smoke rings they can be wiped away with just a wipe of our hand with no thought to their passing or existence?