The White Geek’s Burden

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“Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth…Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

-Julian Assange, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ 

Why storytelling matters

Storytelling, as a medium, is (seemingly) timeless. The first cave paintings emerged 40,000 years ago in Southern Europe. Ever since, humans have been documenting our world using the forms most readily available: stone, parchment, tablet, canvas, film, video, and now…pixels? What began as an oral storytelling culture has evolved, with language, to include visual and material objects. Text, type, art, symbol, and icons constitute our ever-changing library of meaning-making. What a bountiful spread!

Storytelling matters because stories explain our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Stories allow us to understand the world: the rich tapestry of colors, sounds and shapes of the physical world, as well as the fantastical, dream-like qualities of the worlds inside our own heads. Life is made of cells, atoms and particles, which are also stories. Each part exists because we have a story to tell around its existence. Every death, birth, creation of new or recycling of old is just another story to share and to remember.

What does that mean for the digital age? Jonah Sachs calls it the “digitoral” era – the rise of digital storytelling, where sites like Facebook and Twiter (even TED) have attempted to recreate the Roman fora, the town square, the campfire. Facebook is the absolute monarch of the digitoral era; instead of tyrannical rule over its subjects, though, it commodifies them. A post about a sip of coffee is worth $4. Your story is now theirs. The social contract consists of giving and getting. You give, they get. You get a little too, but not forever. They own your story. Why? Because their own story depends on it.

In this new era of storytelling, whose story is it anyway? Whose story is being told?

Recently, I’ve been reading Studs Terkel, the master of oral history and ethnographic storytelling, and wonder what he would think of this new era. Instead of live tweeting American Idol, or the latest gadget’s release event, what if we live tweeted someone’s memoir? Or a book we’re reading? Or a conversation we had with someone, years ago?

In-depth ethnographic books like Race, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or human-interest documentaries on the unfortunate, are not self-produced works of art. These are stories that have been compiled, edited, and filtered by the author or director– not the subject. The subject is really the object, in traditional storytelling parameters.

Have we begun to invert the subject/object relationship through the rise of social media? One’s story need not have a listener to be told, nor a production team to package it. It need not even be curated as a worthwhile story. Look around, these stories are what sell: cheap, and in the millions, these mass-produced stories make ad executives at Facebook and other social networks rich. And again, who benefits?

At the core, humans want stories to be simple, evocative, to elicit empathy, to depict the human experience. Storytelling is an art, but are we all artists now? A Facebook post is by nature, devoid of context. Unlike a diary or journal, Facebook is outward-facing – the audience silently receives an update, and whether they “like” it or not, it’s there. Meaning cannot easily be derived from this 2D representation of thought. We write into the abyss, hoping someone understands our story, but the medium is already complicating itself. The story has all of a sudden become far less simple than the campfire days, when eager listeners gathered around for a few solid minutes of undistracted wonder. These stories have been stripped of intention, of meaning, and are raw bursts of thought. Collectively, this makes for a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. Can we find the themes that matter?

Storytelling is a rich and important facet of life. In a way, I argue that it is life. We are nothing without our stories. Technology has captured and monetized our stories through film, TV, radio, and print, for generations. The internet medium, however, is borderless: we are no longer hemmed in by physical constraints of old media, yet the inward/outward and subject/object fuzziness makes for a complicated and messy situation.

Where do I start, and you begin? I’ll read Death of the Author and get back to you.

On Nuance, Noticing and the Cult of Personality

A recent Amazon.com visit led me to purchase the bestselling book Quiet: the power of introverts. I thought, this seems like an interesting read, let’s take the Prime free shipping bait and go for it. Little did I know how much of an impact this book would have on me.

The book is full of the rich cultural history of the 21st century American ethos: anecdotes on celebrities, scientists, billionaires and the everyman abound, tied together with the soft and smooth writing of the author. In between these linked stories she reveals what it truly means to be an introvert in a society perpetually fixated on our next 15 minutes of fame. (Woody Allen comes to mind here). Her writing went beyond the descriptive aspect of cultural or psychological studies, to a deeper truth – we introverts are, by and large, wholly misunderstood by society.

One thing that I’ve realized as I get older is that my core dispositions and tendencies are unwavering, even though my behaviors may change. I may move from one city to another, dye my hair a different color, or bury old habits in hopes of reinventing myself every few years, but my true self — my values and beliefs — remain solid. Yet, as the book helped me learn, I never fully acknowledged their importance, weight and value. Ever since graduating college and entering the “real world”, I’ve pushed and scolded myself to be someone that the corporate workplace values: an extrovert.

Plagued by guilt over the fact that I don’t “chase dreams” and “take risks” in the conventional, no-holds-barred American daredevil fashion, over time I ended up brainwashing myself into thinking I didn’t have any dreams at all. Working for corporations large and small, I felt disheartened that I didn’t possess that innate “rah rah” feeling that came from working on group brainstorm meetings, attending large-scale, swag-filled conferences, or aggressively “innovating” in the Silicon Valley sense of the word. Did I not enjoy the work? Was I depressed? No. What I realize now is that I just have a different way of thinking about the world, and this way of thinking is not the normative one. I thrive, but on my own terms. I am not going to be the cheerleader, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be your strongest and most fervent advocate, in my own way.

What I’ve discovered is: an A/B Tester, I am not. I am a thinker. I look before I leap. I notice. I observe. I may not jump on the bandwagon at first, or at all. If my (former or future) places of employment view that as an “area of improvement” or, worse, a weakness, then they aren’t taking the time to get to know me and my strengths. They aren’t investing in me, when I am doing just that to them by being a loyal employee. I may need coaxing, sure, but once I believe in something, I’m loyal for life. I add a lot of value, and contribute in ways others don’t. I want others to recognize this.

I like to notice things, especially the nuances of life: the ironies, the subtleties, the gaps and the pieces that others gloss over. I’m not some freak intellectual: I enjoy socializing, I absolutely love discourse and meeting new people – in certain situations, of course. That’s not a misanthropic sentiment, it’s the fact that as an introvert, I am more averse to novelty. I am what you might call “highly reactive” – I respond to and feel deeply about the world around me. I am not scared or afraid, I am just a little more cautious. I like to evaluate, and you know what, that’s ok!

The “cult of personality” that supposes one must be daring, utterly confident, and a “people person” is a true American phenomenon. It lives within the mantras of “style over substance”, “fail fast” and “do now, think later”. I am not saying these ideologies are wrong, because I do believe there is a place for them. I simply regret that this ideology is the predominant and seemingly only acceptable one in mainstream society.

What Quiet taught me was that I should embrace my true character: as a thinker, lover of ideas, beauty, animals, stories and systems – a person who is deeply sensitive to the human condition. I am an introvert, hear me roar. 🙂

Future of News: Click or Thought Provoking?

Static Page

Ye olde media offline hours.

I often wonder about the future of news journalism. I’ve been a news reader for a long time, and in the past 5 or so years since I gave up my TV, most of my news has come from online sources (a lot from my iPhone). On a daily basis, I might catch a headline on New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, or HuffPost. And who can ignore SFGate, CNN or People.com, places I visit if when I am bored or want some mindless fodder for the water cooler, so to speak. Facebook used to be my go-to social network, but now it’s exclusively Twitter, where I follow journalists alongside comedians, entrepreneurs, educators and celebrities. On a given day I probably spend 2 or 3 hours reading online. When I told my aunt that I read longform pieces on my iPhone, she was shocked. That’s life in the digital age. And just because I do that does not make me a “digital native”. It just makes me someone who likes to read a lot using a different medium.

My interest in news is not due to the whole FOMO phenomenon, where I might only seek out news to satiate my growing hunger for connection or to suppress my fear of not being part of something ‘important’. No, it’s really about curiosity and learning. I enjoy reading, learning new things, exploring new topics and generally discovering trivia bits along the way (especially movies and TV – thank you, IMDb). Another reason is pertinent to my identity as a cultural observer. I like to observe what goes on in the world and make connections, form links from one news item or event to the next. “Systems thinking”, if you will. Shutting off access to news would really only help me in the short-term. Ultimately, I feel that understanding the world, and all its craziness, is a fundamental part of the human experience, and media is both a facilitator and corrupter of this process.

Why a corrupter, you ask? Anyone can tell you the devolution story of the once-heralded nightly news anchor, now represented by derivative, 24/7, MSNBC and FoxNews drones/talking heads. The privatization and commodification of news, along with the consolidation and merger of media companies, have together created a monolithic, giant news monster machine, churning out content to reward advertisers and punish our eardrums. Yes, these companies need to make money, but their nosedive into cynical broadcasting, which implies that their viewers are dumb, gullible, and shallow, is a much more sinister tactic. The idea that news is just a bi-product of the crusty layer of sugary, salty junk food otherwise known as ratings, makes us into its mindless consumers. Shop till you drop? How about Watch till you go blind! We are none the wiser. Ok, maybe I am getting a little too Network-y here. But still, you get the point. It’s a mess.

Broadcast media aside, what lies ahead for online news? Writers of headlines have long perfected the SEO amygdala hijack to seduce clicks and garner eyeballs on the page. Is online news a click factory – where clicks and time-on-site are the new ratings – or is there space for thoughtful journalism? Well, it’s a mix of both. As Micah Sifry so poignantly put it, the media are the “immune system of democracy”, and yet misinformation [I’ll add in fatuous content], much like bugs and viruses, is “with us to stay”.  We can try to diet, filter and block it – treat the problem like most medical problems are treated, after the fact. Or, we can prevent it through strengthening the health of the systems from the get-go. We can’t remove the Honey Boo Boo’s from the world, but we can perhaps mitigate our exposure to them by seeking out content that is thought provoking, critical, in-depth, and validated, or by spreading ideas that break down “common sense” myths while creating new paradigms. This cycle can’t go on forever. Clicks, ratings and dollars will cease to flow if the cycle continues to oppress those who feed it. The public deserves better.
The future of news could be a far cry from what it portends today. As a reader, I’m hopeful.

Bodhisattva, the iPhone and You

Recently, I was able to attend a mediation class at Spirit Rock, a famed spiritual center that teaches Buddhist mediation, mindfulness lifestyle practices, and hosts high-end spiritual retreats. During the Dharma talk, our guide mentioned the ‘points of intervention’ along the cycle of ‘dependent-arising’, or what we might call the cycle of habits (good and bad). The cycle is straightforward enough: we approach life with certain dispositions and behaviors – conscious and unconscious – which, over time, manifest into habits by being repeated over and over again, birthing new cycles of habit along the way. The cycle is unavoidable, but how we react can change the cycle from one of dependance to one of spiritual liberation. Pain is part of life, but suffering is an option: this theory of mindfulness is profound, yet simple in its resonance. Breaking the dependency cycle is a choice, and requires one to be mindful of its existence in order to change its course.

As Newton’s famous third law of motion goes, ‘every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This is true in the physical world as well as the spiritual, emotional and metaphysical worlds. Life happens, and we react to it. This law explains a lot about our internet worlds, the spaces where our identities are symbolically attached to physical forms, even if through a few letters strung together with an icon – what we call avatars. Newton’s law occurs constantly, in the ether and in ‘the cloud’. An echo-chamber-like reaction is created, birthed, and destroyed alongside every article, TV episode, tweet, text or post that is released into the world. Our mediated lives are constantly bombarded by images, texts, sounds and energy particles that are generated by these reactions: comments fuel diatribes, anger begets violence, speculation creates fear, fear shapes ideology, and so on. Wherein lies the discourse? Wherein lie the pauses, the time for reflection, meditation, and questioning? The dependency cycle of our internet age is self-perpetuating, and appears to be accelerating at an unsustainable rate. Where’s the stopping point? And more important, to what end does it benefit having rapid-fire access to information, even the most tedious and uninteresting kind? Are we pushing ourselves towards a greater purpose, or seeking to touch the darkest, most visceral parts of the human experience? Which reaction are we really aiming for, and which parts of the spectacle really matter?

Our brains are often referred to as ‘supercomputers’. We need to ‘download’ the data off our brains in order to rest our hard drive, and reboot our systems. See how easy that was to comprehend? Science likes analogies, and the public needs them in order to understand our complex and complicated world. And yet, in the endless quest to ‘optimize’ our lives and progress to a better future, we are left with a shell: the calcified outer layer of society, protecting, guarding and safekeeping our cultural mores in a solid structure resembling the simplest forms of nature. What about what lives underneath this layer? What about mindfulness, of truly understanding the impermanence of our human existence? The bodhisattva, or enlightened being, is not treated as sacred; it pales in comparison to the relationships we have with our iPhones, popular culture, and societal ideals around family, wealth, and happiness. What we call life equates to the physical and material world, and yet we ignore the spiritual and metaphysical worlds that shape our experience.

Where is the space for mindfulness, when our iPhones serve as physical and emotional extensions of our minds and bodies – a beep, chirp, buzz or swoosh elicits reactions from our brain that we, up until recently, would only associate with a whimper, cry, scream, or nervous laugh. With emerging products like Google Glass, Kinect, or brain-controlled computers, we have leapfrogged toward a new era of man and machine. The bodhisattva isn’t going anywhere, yet our failure to recognize and embrace it may result in us losing way more than we have ever thought possible.

Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.

Our Web 2.0 Legacy

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas. Photo courtesy of my iPhone

Last year I took a trip to Peru, a visit sponsored by the volunteer organization I was working for. In addition to seeing our sites in Cusco and Urubamba, I had a full day to explore Machu Picchu. It was like everything I’ve read or seen, and more: the wonder and beauty of the lost city of the Incas – ineffable, pure, silent – was breathtaking.  It had a ‘Disney attraction’ feel as well, unsurprisingly: I arrived at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday to an entrance chock full of tourists and hikers. Student-led archaeological excavations were peppered throughout the site, alongside whispered rumors of its imminent closing due to erosion from constant foot traffic. Machu Picchu was transcendental and cliched all at once; I had seen the famed entrance so frequently in pictures that viewing it in real-life was somewhat anticlimactic. But seeing its entirety made for a wonderful, memorable experience.

I left thinking, how did 500 years go by without any knowledge of its existence?

Which brings me to this post about our legacy in the digital world. If stunning feats of stone and carvings can be hidden and preserved for half a millennium, what does that say about our digital artefacts?  What is our legacy, if it’s housed entirely within servers, algorithms, code and hard drives? Will HTML in the Web 2.0 world be what hieroglyphs were to ancient Egypt?

If millions of years of life, death and evolution can create what we know as Earth’s greatest natural resources, the blood of the earth – carbon-based gas, coal, oil – what will the data server swamps hold for life beyond the 21st century? We cannot grow or harvest life’s organisms from data housed in black sheaths of metal and plastic. How will the terabytes full of digital content compare to the physical wonders of the world – Machu Picchu, Atlantis, the Acropolis? Whose legacy are we creating, and does it matter?

Imagine if there existed a Roomba-like bottomfeeder for the Internet’s lower depths – its main task was finding and consuming the dead and rotting Web 2.0 artefacts: abandoned blogs, disposed Twitter handles, soured April fool’s jokes and decayed user profiles laying on the server’s dank floor, accumulating into hardened plaque-like layers of data sediment, adding to the polluted ecosystem every minute. At present, we view discarded data as harmless, inconsequential or irrelevant: a bi-product of what marketers taut as “our right” to produce and consume as much as we please. This ideology – that we as humans have the right to gluttonously gobble up all the data we want, blind to the consequences – is as insidious as the claim that we have ownership rights over the Earth, its natural resources and its inhabitants.

I wonder what our legacy holds if it is no longer physical, preserved or intact as in eras past: the diaries of authors, the film reels of cineastes, and the stone carvings of felled empires. When we are told that life has never been more accessible, transparent or discoverable, what lies beneath the search engine’s trough? What about that which will never be discovered?

In praise of niches (and cults)?

Oftentimes when I hear the word niche in a sentence and feel it’s an excuse for not thinking deeply about the trend or product it’s attempting to describe. Like, anything that is new, different, or fanciful is a niche. (Lace! Wooden Sunglasses! Zoey Deschanel!) If it can’t fit clearly into an existing movement or market, it’s niche. Or, it’s synonymous with “hipster” – you know, Etsy. Mustaches. DIY. Portlandia. That kind of niche. The hole in the plank you fill with an approximate wedge of wood found on the forest floor – it doesn’t look right, but who really cares? To me, the niche is a community – small, insular, self-contained, inclusive yet deterministic. Not really fit for everyone, it’s own etymology suggests an everlasting fear of growth and deep need for sanctuary.

Compare that to cult. According to my Netflix queue suggestions, cult films include stoner classics (Half Baked), short-lived comedies (Arrested Development), and campy or kitschy one-hit wonders (Ed Wood, anything John Waters). What’s the difference between cult and niche? Well, like the marginal differences between off-brand and generic products from brand names at the drugstore, cults don’t vie for greatness, per se, but are also not derivative from the source – it’s not all pastiche and sass. Yet, people describe cults in the same way they do niches: they’re a way to classify a wholly underrepresented, misunderstood and underrated legion of people who harbor tastes that don’t equate with mass consumption. Folks in these groups may shop at Target, but they wouldn’t be caught dead at Walmart, or Sizzler, nor do they own dozens of flannel shirts. They are somewhere in between.

I would also like to suggest that we separate fandoms and nerd uprisings from niche and cult movements. While it may be that BSG, Stars (both Wars and Trek), Harry Potter, ComiCon, even Glee, have huge followings in “cult”-like ways (an unshakeable fealty, for one), their ubiquity and place in popular culture are signs that well, the nerds are the jocks now, and they are everywhere.

So who really represents cults and niches in the post-postmodern world? It’s not Miller Lite, and it ain’t PBR, either. Marketers will continue their quest to bottle and sell the ever-elusive viral video formula, hoping that a niche bud will soon blossom into a go-to market strategy worth millions. But niches will resist that, otherwise, they won’t continue to thrive in their own worlds of wonder, beyond the caverns of YouTube, beneath the jungle floor of Facebook. To create an aquifer system that pumps the beauty out of these rich ecosystems into the “truly unlimited” meta-world reminds me of FernGully, and I’d rather leave that memory untainted, hopeful that it can outlast even the fiercest green monsters.

I can’t quit you, internet

The internet and its device, my computer, are the nerve center of my life.

It’s my telephone, my typewriter, my television.
My news source, my megaphone, my playground, my water cooler, my entertainment.
My memory box, social calendar, diary, scratch pad.
The amassed accoutrements of previous decades, worth their weight in paper, yet invisible outside the small 11-inch screen of glass, pixels and light.

Shutting it off means forgetting all that lies behind it, within it, and beyond its small frame. It’s my window to the world. My portal, my telescope and camera. My travel book. I collect and store things for safekeeping. I browse, I shop, I purchase, I decide. It empowers me. Text, images and videos educate, disturb, scare and delight me. How is it possible that this all can funnel so swiftly to my eyes and ears, with ease?

How is it that by facing this device, I face the world?

Does it watch me? It feels my fingers pressing and prodding its keys one at a time. Furiously and softly all at once. Click, tap, tap tap, click. Inanimate object, or dutiful accomplice?

As we mirror computers after humans, whom do they seek? Are they merely just extensions of physical beings, of the human experience?

If we quit them, they wither and die. Life shuts down for both of us.