A textual collage exploring inspiration, technology, and identity.
On Wednesday night I finally saw “Fruitvale Station” (not out in Australia, at least not yet). A phenomenal film; an imperfect one, yes, but then perfection is a meaningless concept outside of abstract mathematics anyway. Some reviewers have come in armored with preconceptions, that this is a Message Movie, or else so programmed by the preponderance of anti-hero narratives that they find a deeply flawed, but fundamentally decent, human being to be saint-like – but these are not so much faults as resistance, an unwillingness to submit to the central truth of the movie: Oscar Grant was a human being, killed by the powerful for no reason. This is what we have wrought in twenty-first century America.
Had the movie been released at a different date its detractors might be less suspicious of a Message, but the film opened alongside the Zimmerman verdict, and against the crescendoing grief and anger of a nation writer/director Ryan Coogler has done something tremendous. More than anything else “Fruitvale Station” is a testament to Oscar Grant’s humanity, and if the Trial of Trayvon Martin demonstrated anything it is that too many twenty-first century Americans have yet to merge blackness and humanity in their consciences. Once named thug a black body becomes a dispensable thing, in this schema, this deadly (but somehow never racist, how dare you!) perceptual arrangement. Grant was not perfect, nor even particularly heroic – the most telling and character-defining moment in the entire film is when he drops his young daughter at day-care and smuggles her an extra fruit snack pack, against the wishes of her mother and his girlfriend; this is a young man, twenty-two the day he was shot to death by a public employee in full view of a train of onlookers, struggling in his expectations of adulthood, more likable than he is responsible. He lost his job for showing up late to work; he is quick to anger; he flirts with strangers; he loves his girlfriend; he adores his daughter; he can’t make rent; he wants to take care of his mother but also wants nothing more than for her to hug him and make his world right; he is twenty-two. The movie takes his name from the BART station where he was killed and Oakland, the East Bay, is threaded throughout the movie, another character, an inescapable realism – an obligation – for those of us who call this place home. When the movie was over I took BART back to my brother’s.
There is a movement now in education to integrate digital technology into the classroom, to bring education into the twenty-first century, such as it is – the century of Jobs and Gates, not Zimmerman or Mehserle, the century of the digital and the frictionless, the post-racial. In East Oakland I had a student whose oldest sister was dead from gun violence, another older sister shot and in a coma at five months pregnant. The student was eleven years old but with an iPad in hand she could be limitless, running wild on the Internet, conquering pixels upon pixels. At the end of the day, of course, I had to collect the iPad and my student went back to her regular life, a life untransformed by her futuristic sojourn – one sister still dead and another still in the hospital. There’s so much made of the “disruptive” potential of digital technology, or its “transformative” effects, but it’s mostly bullshit. Skill at navigating Angry Birds is not going to get kids into college, and Wikipedia democratizes access only to those already interconnected. If you want to learn a language, don’t spend your money on Rosetta Stone (you won’t actually learn much of anything, studies not sponsored by Rosetta Stone show) but on lessons with an actual human being or better still a plane ticket, to interact with as many actual human beings as possible. Digital technology is trendy but the spending on it is a woeful and misplaced priority, for the most a computer can ever really teach is how to use a computer. The best classroom technology is still a good teacher.
It might seem disingenuous to call teachers “technology” but those with longer historical views define the term much more broadly than we commonly use it now. An anthropology professor would tell you that one of the most truly “disruptive” technologies of all time is not the Internet or the factory but language. Technologies are tools, invented, and their functions expand far beyond the patentable. The perniciousness of racism seems immune to the song of zeroes and ones but in a narrative framework common humanity can emerge – storytelling is one of the most transformative technologies humanity has yet come up with. I live in the Bay Area, ground zero for the fetishization of the digital, a temple of self-congratulation and purported “meritocracy” wherein market-based validation becomes a justification of intellect and wealth and selfhood. But it’s insular and ignorant, really, an industry wherein those who seek meaning in history or literature or the arts – those who find value beyond the quantifiable – are lesser beings, financially and intellectually, with no place in their Darwinist closed systems. But as any defender of scientific rationalism knows, the earth is not a closed system, and ours is an entropic jungle. At some point, the math to describe it all collapses under its own weight, or retreats into elegant oversimplifications like the Theory of Everything (which is about much less than everything, after all) or the iPad: simulacra of simulacra of simulacra, magnifying disconnections with each iteration. A former Caltech classmate commented on my recent Salon piece that it could not be called “well-written” because it did not properly cite sources. This individual thought his argument logical and airtight, a blow of the rational against the hysteric, but even a simple Googling would have informed him that requiring annotations of one’s personal experience is a tired and trite derailing tactic, as well-recognized a fallacy as ad hominems and straw men. No logic is bulletproof, but the best are at least humble. The less we confront our own biases, the more certain we become, but it’s easy to think oneself victorious when really one has only gone unchallenged – and the digital technology of connection is also the digital technology of siloing and self-selection, of the expanding echo chamber.
Tech workers – programmers, engineers, web designers – are well-paid, sometimes even exorbitantly so, ostensibly because their skills are specialized, as rare and earned as an MD. But sixth-graders teach themselves programming all the time, and not just the geniuses. "A trained monkey could do this job,“ a tech worker commented on a blog, where the job in question was a BART station agent. The statement is false, of course – monkeys enjoy throwing their feces far too much to ever be effective in customer service – but if eleven-year-olds are writing code before they can make their own dinners or drive their own cars then maybe the truly "meritocratic” solution is for chefs and busdrivers to earn six figures. Or maybe the most rational conclusion is that the whole idea of meritocracy is a myth, more often than not – most successful people have worked hard, it’s true, but the hardest-working demographic in the entirety of American history were African-American slaves and the market rewarded their efforts with brutality. Owners became rich, because they were wily and exploitative and self-justifying, and yet they all were certain that they deserved their wealth, that they had worked hard for it. The market, the system which rewards programmers and slavedrivers alike, is just another technology, one which we can choose to reject just as we’ve moved on from VHS and cassette tapes. It is a technology biased towards maximizing efficiency. But who ever said that efficiency was the best thing? Besides “the market”?
I’ve recently developed a hobby around wild edibles, indulging a childhood enthusiasm inspired by my landscape architect father and too many readings of “My Side of the Mountain.” It’s remarkable how many wild foods are around us, how many have been deemed weeds – purslane is pulled from millions of lawns across America each year and it’s arguably the healthiest damn thing you can eat. Growing and eating food has become dominated by market-based technologies, industrial features, and billions of dollars are spent each year on subsidies and processing and food stamps and diets and obesity treatments. Interventions are literally growing wild around us but we lack the capacity to recognize them; we lack the technology. Not the industrial or the digital – there’s a smartphone app to help identify edible wild plants; it has a library of around one hundred plants, a miniscule slice of what’s possible – but the human technology, the knowledge our forebearers shared amongst themselves, generation to generation, in order to survive and thrive. Silicon Valley claims to have connected us more than we’ve ever been before, but there’s connectivity that’s been lost, the simple and obvious technology of language mediated now through screens and sites and Google ads and NSA wiretaps where it once slipped only through the air around us. The food movement isn’t just about food, although optimizing our basic animal nourishment, the thermodynamic inputs of our bodies, is a large part of it; it’s not about primitivism or anti-capitalism or ludditism or pastoralism or all these negatively defined dismissable movements. It’s about recovering alternative technologies. It’s about teaching your neighbor what purslane looks like.
Modernity moves in many directions, but not all of them are progress. Not all contemporary technology is overrated (I know where I’m posting this, after all). But the most disruptive innovation in modern medicine is not chemotherapy or CAT scans but hand-washing. We talk about ourselves so euphemistically – as consumers or job-creators or Hispanics or college graduates; we grant speech rights to corporations, as though they are somehow equal to ourselves; we speak in statistics and demographics even though almost none of us really understands either – but we’re all just people, at bottom, human beings, and the more we can convince one another of that fact then the closer we come to the seemingly intractable problems of prejudice and poverty and hatred and heartlessness fading away. Contemporary technologies, the digital and the industrial, can be powerfully liberating but more often are tools of dehumanization and enforcement; even the great intrinsically democratic world wide web has been co-opted by corporations and governments. All technologies depend on those who wield them – language can inflame as easily as it can persuade – but as we lionize the titans of the Internet Age, praising their dynamism, it’s worth remembering that we are only echoing the songs of sixty years ago, when the men of Detroit were the heroes of American capitalism, ushering in a new age of global prosperity.
We can “gamify” education and scrub it of all human inspiration and we’d churn out plenty of narrowly-skilled individuals, whose skill sets may or may not match those currently in vogue (these things change so fast, you know) – of course the kids in East Oakland would be working on slower and older machines than the kids in Marin County and so they still wouldn’t be up to Stanford-snuff, not likely, not really, but we’ve brought the technology of the marketplace to bear on education and somehow think the poor might come out ahead, as though efficiency is a solution to inequality. Northern California smirks at Michigan because the tech industry is an efficient one but the automotive unions brought broader and more real prosperity than anything out of an IPO. A computer in the house is nice, sure, but a house itself is even nicer.
Detroit is bankrupt now, its unions decimated but still somehow to blame for the ongoing decline. San Francisco could be bankrupt too, one day, all too easily; the future is a murky place, murkiest to those with mathematical models in hand, attempting to suss it out. Besides, cars were never Detroit’s most lasting technological contribution anyway. Their bleeding economy belies the thriving gift of Motown, permutated into hip-hop and dominant beyond what the market can capture. Hip-hop might be the most effective technology of the past thirty years, Internet be damned, its sampling a reverse colonialism and its encroachment into every angle of culture and society a careful reckoning with America’s dominant whiteness; hip-hop is our hottest export, the source of our ongoing, around-the-globe cultural hegemony. Movies, television, pop music all blasting now a signal call of black ambition and black talent, which is why it matters that our president listens to Jay-Z (unlike, say, Clarence Thomas, whose distaste for hip-hop can stand in for so much more). Marco Rubio apparently was a fan of Tupac back in the day but the Florida senator neglected to speak out on Pac’s behalf when residents of his home state decided that Trayvon Martin was a thug, and therefore somehow less than human: thugs want only what the rest of us want, a place to spend their quiet nights, to rest their head, to get away from the pressures of daily living. "Thug Mansion"; it’s all there, laid out. All you have to do is pay attention, the technology of listening even older than language.
It’s a sci-fi dream that the mechanical could become convincingly human. It’s also a dream of Kanye West and Janelle Monae, or at least an appropriation that they toy with in their music, ambivalent and uncertain. The digital has invaded so many realms of human experience by now – not just music but all of the arts, politics, sex, even churches interrupt their solemnity and sublimity to project hymns on artificially bright screens – that it can be hard to hear the humanity amongst all the electronica. "Fruitvale Station" has no computer effects, no post-production overhaul, no spectacle. It’s just a day in the life of a person. The digital technology with which it was filmed and distributed serves the narrative, the human scale, the connective impulse. It’s integrated; it’s humane; it’s rare and moving, stunningly so, all the more so for its rarity. The mechanisms by which it achieves such effect, by which Tupac achieved his lyrical force, are not complicated, not mysterious, not reducible, and not encouraged by market technologies. They rely only on our common humanity, as easily accessible as purslane and dandelion, rambunctious and untameable weeds in the carefully maintained garden of the marketplace; easy to know, if only we should seek it out and speak.
Coding – or any effort of the digital or the industrial – when done with exceptional beauty is likened to poetry. But Rakim is a better poet than Steve Jobs ever was.
More on some of these ideas in the coming weeks.