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!”
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.
Some time ago I was listening to America’s Test Kitchen radio program which had a story on the Brothers Grimm and their obsession with food. Of course, the stories were written in a time of famine so finding gingerbread houses or finding yourself eaten by wolves, indeed the subject of food would be of the utmost importance and fascination. In the discussion the phrase, “we crave what we lack” jumped out at me and stuck in my head. Looking at our media obsession in this light it seems that as a culture we must all feel invisible and anonymous-why else would we do outrageous things, video them and put them online only to hope people will notice us, watch us and tell others to look at us too or take photos of our food begging for others approval or adoration. Like children on the playground, we seem to need our every action, triumph, action or foible observed, noticed and commented upon. With this craving, the advent of social media must have seemed like manna from heaven. We seem to have created an all-seeing, Mother’s eye, constantly observing and hopefully responding, filling the empty space in our live we must so desperately need. Now if we can only get her attention….
I have been following the Facebook controversy where a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror after a napalm attack in an iconic Vietnam War photo. The controversy began after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper said he had received a demand from Facebook to remove the photo, which was in an article posted to his page. Within 24 hours, he said, Facebook removed the photo and the article itself. While there is a question of nudity, there is also a question of our tailoring our view of the past and possibly the future to suit our wants. I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, a character from Dickens, Bleak House, rich socialite obsessed with helping the neglected children in Africa while neglectful of her own children. Dickens describes her as having wonderful eyes that could see the starving children in Africa while unable to see the condition of her children at her feet. If we can remove a picture as it is, inappropriate due to nudity, what other reasons are there for us to remove content. Perhaps we would find pictures from the Holocaust too disturbing to be seen or video of Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster who committed suicide on camera too much to be online. While the latter has been removed due to the family’s wishes, there are many sites that will tell you the details of the incident while withholding the images. We still have a visceral appreciation of the event even if we don’t see it. But what about those images that contribute immeasurable value to our understanding like the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl. Is this what do we do with things that are too difficult to see, will we also remove those images and posts or websites, in a way denying their existence? Could we become an electronic Mrs. Jellyby, seeing only the things that we want to see while ignoring others?