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!”
While taking a break from the news of the day, I found myself reflecting on the amazing changes that have been happening in our world and how much technology has changed our lives. It was then that I felt the rising tide of skepticism that seems to seep into every aspect of our thoughts. It seems that every new triumph in technology is greeted with a chorus of naysayers prophesying the end of civilization at the hands of technology. as if everything we create is hell bent on destroying us. While it is true that everything poses a risk, what ever happened to the joy of discovery, the excitement of what the future might bring? Growing up, I remember seeing the Jetsons and the promises of the new frontier while being too young to know the menace of Hal or those damn dirty apes. If we see what we look for, maybe we could look once again for the sheer wealth of amazing in the world. When things look the worst, perhaps that is the moment to take a step back and realize that, yes the world is full of challenges but with each challenge, we create new wonders with which to solve them. I believe it was Charles Kettering who wrote, “there will always a frontier where there is an open mind and a willing hand”. As we approach a new frontier- let’s not forget that the journey can be fun. Remember, the Jetsons was a comedy.
I never liked the whole idea of the Ralph Lauren polo shirts or anything with someone else’s logo on it. I guess if there was going to be something there- it should be my initials or an image of my choice though in the latter case probably better not. That idea of not being a walking billboard for someone else’s identity has never appealed to me but it seems that we are willing to trade that precious real estate with no tangible compensation. That discrediting of our value of personal value seems to approached hagiographic heights with the new service from Blippar. By installing their app. – the selfies you take will have installed around them a “halo” (Their word, not mine) that can be branded either to sites that you have an interest in or to advertisers that they prescribe for you. It seems that we have no idea of the value of our own image or digital assets and are willing to do anything for our 15 minutes of internet fame even giving our image and our data exhaust for the privilege. It seems that as Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, “men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about themselves”. It seems that we will sacrifice anything on the altar of social media for our fifteen minutes of binary notoriety, for a like or perhaps a connection.
Readers of this blog will know the high esteem that we hold Ridley Scotts “Blade Runner” and then will not be surprised that we stopped to read the article about dolls being given a formal funeral service at a funeral parlor in Japan. It seems that in Japan, many still hold to longstanding Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that all things have a soul, and so in “death” they are given the respect of a passed living being, with an acknowledged soul and spirit. While Blade Runner deals with the human looking robots possibility of having a soul, what about the items that we use every day? Many of us spend more time with our phone than we do with other people, either one person or many. My laptop has been with me for a number of years and is considered a trusted friend. When it is no longer usable, what obligation do I have to it? How often do we say, my phone or laptop died when the battery runs out? When will we learn that we have a responsibility to ourselves but also to what we create and what we create relationships with? If we didn’t, why would Britain be debating if kill switches were necessary or worth discussion? We seem to go to great pains to respect human birth (seemingly disregarding them afterward in many respects) and when and if other people do and deserve respect because of it, but what of the things we create that are not exactly like us yet. How will we react to the human robot that begs for a merciful death, will we toss it away or respect the role that it has had in our lives and inherent dignity. Perhaps we will finally be compassionate beings in the digital space when we treat a computers demise with the respect and awe that we treat the launch of the newest tablet or phone.
It was surprising to me to hear when a friend of mine had taken a job driving for Uber. Now there is nothing wrong with driving for Uber, I was surprised as my friend and I had met in college and I thought him a smart man and good student, talents not so much in demand as an Uber driver. It seems this electronic revolution, will have the same effect as the industrial revolution only on a larger scale. While the industrial revolution took skilled laborers and reduced them to a cog in an assembly line, this computer revolution seems to be doing the same for every worker. It seems that there is no skill that cannot be replaced, revised or in some way significantly downsized by computers and automation. Just as skilled craftsmen and blacksmiths were relegated to endlessly executing the same task, now college educated people are finding their jobs behind the wheel of the cars that the first revolution made possible.
They say now we are teaching our children skills for jobs that do not yet exist so that they can be ready for what is to come. Let us hope we are not giving them all driving licenses for an age of driverless cars.