Friday, July 13, 2018

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."

“If they can make machines to save us labor
Someday they’ll do our hearts the very same favor
The wails of ruined lives brought to a halt
By the serene hum of computers in air-conditioned vaults.”

Thus wailed Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan, in 1999, cresting to an artistic crescendo as the millennium unraveled on their epochal indie album Emergency & I.  It’s a snide sentiment boiled down to pithy punk poetry, rooted in some evenings reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and thinking to himself, “Maybe there’s more than fiction in this science fiction.” 

The rest of the album picks up shards of an exploded dystopia through the laments of a diffident twentysomething caught in the crossfire.  As E&I hurtles towards its 20th anniversary, its themes are only more relevant to a tech-fueled society that is increasingly bemoaning (usually on tech platforms) the fruits of its own progress – all the data in the world, and no happier or more beautiful for it.  While Netflix may have matched up the pieces of House of Cards through aggressive data-mining, and it may transmit its programs in a dizzying chain of 1s and 0s, there’s a reminder here as well that we’ll likely place even more value on the people who can tell an emotionally resonant story throughs words, sounds, and pictures.   Same goes for music: while Spotify can break artists or tailor-make a playlist with algorithms, ultimately Travis had something to say, over 45 minutes and 7 seconds, that defies “trending” or byte-sized encapsulation. 

So for all the prophesying around 2000 about the death of the album and the almost comical designation of “your hard drive” as album of the year in Spin, the album endures, and here’s one castigating “your hard drive” for tearing apart your soul (if not just unceremoniously silencing your heart).  Stand back and marvel at the way disjointed sounds tug oddly at your heartstrings, because with each passing year there is a firmer sad recognition of modernity’s merciless imprint.  Sink into it and marvel at the rueful realization that “a life of possibilities” feels impossibly overwhelming and constrained; two diverging pathways is a Frostian quandary, a million is stultifying. 

Travis Morrison ponders spiders in the snow, memory machines, magician tricks, gyroscopes, and maybe most memorably an anonymous invitation in the mail, and it’s all bound together by frenetic rhythms – flirting with intentional irritation, but inevitably lapsing into naked expressions of beauty.  It’s an album to confront the frustrations of the technotopia while burrowing away into private musical reflection. 

And it’s a plaintive expression of the reality that with recent history’s chance for us to contemplate unprecedented billions, trillions, and beyond, these numbers remind us how insignificant we are in the sea of data:

“If it's a life of possibilities
That pulls you away, that claws and tears
And challenges you to stay, well then
If it's a life of possibilities
That you've gotta live well, don't be surprised
When they don't remember you or simply don't want to”

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Real Social Safety Net in the Technology Era

When my aunt and uncle enlisted me to catalogue an entire basement full of family heirlooms and historical documents in an isolated and leafy part of New York State, I hunkered down and tried to reserve judgment.  The subjects and substance were varied, but a few items clung to memory, including an old op-ed from the earlier half of the 20th century, gently critiquing socialism, because, in essence, “socialism is antisocial.” 

Economic arguments aside (those being more worthy of a treatise with graphs or any entire book), the point was an interesting one to visualize.  A system without socialized redistribution forced that redistribution to take place in a more social setting such as a church or public communal space, whereas socialism could be, in its most desolate form, a small check sent in the mail each month to a lonely inhabitant of a solitary home. 

The challenges posed by the advent of societally disruptive technologies could be assuaged in some regards by redistribution, as widening inequality seems almost inevitable in light of recent trends.  However, a social component must be mandatory in order to preserve meaning in the madness. 

This can take many forms, and many classrooms already insist that cell phones be forbidden during the day, or placed in a plastic bin for certain periods.  What should not transpire is a continuation of the paradoxical phenomenon of people becoming more isolated because of technology meant to provide connection. 

Indeed education in its elemental form comes back to its own Latin root: “to lead out.”  Education is about getting people out of their comfort zone and out of isolation.  This should be interpreted as broadly as possible – getting kids out of their homes, out of their own heads, out of their families, off their devices, outside the building. 

The arts are key to a real revival of the spirit.  The technification of human existence puts daily life more at odds with irrepressible parts of the human spirit, and in spite of efforts to put robots even in charge of the creation of art, genuine artistic spark will remain a commodity beyond commodification. 

Plenty are crying loudly about the marginalization of the arts in modern education.  Swift action is needed before a generation forgets why it was valuable in the first place.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Mapping through the Uncertain, a 2018 Resolution

A worthwhile New Year’s resolution is the right combination of idealism, practicality, and precision.  Idealism towards a better self (and for the expansive-minded, a better world), practicality in the sense of achievability and measurability, and focused in a targeted proscription or plan.  “Being healthier” is often less effective towards that very aim than “go to the gym on average 3 times a week,” “gain 10 pounds of muscle,” or “eat vegetables every day.”  Even “go to the gym more often” all too frequently devolves from a spurt of January energy to a February malaise.

Truth is, too many of my previous resolutions are too private or embarrassing to post for any public viewing.  Perhaps you’ll allow me to have two for 2018, one for everyone and another for private blush.  The latter are harder to keep, with no friends or family to keep you honest.  But secrets have a way of lingering, and some of these private resolutions have blossomed into reality in subsequent years. 

I could resolve to write an hour a day or an hour a week, or to spend at least one hour per week doing long-term career development.  (Can I have three?)  The first one feels too much like a meta-assignment in a writing series, and the second one may sound generic on the surface.  But I’ll take the career development.  We don’t live in a “company man” country anymore, and even within a single company it’s necessary to map out the waters and make your friends before the forces of realignment unexpectedly appear and force a decision where it was not expected. 

I haven’t read J.D. Vance’s book, probably out of some contrarian impulse, but one vignette sticks with me.  He got to Yale Law School, the most selective graduate law program in the country, and was surprised to find that all his classmates were getting jobs through personal connections.  No one was applying on the website, or if they were, it was in addition having built some personal relationship at that company. 

It’s probably a lamentable sign of erosion of the meritocracy, and a future perpetuation of power as it exists.  But no matter how contrarian and idiosyncratic I am, I’d prefer not to be obsolete.

In a more positive sense, a resolution can be a reflection of gratitude and a commitment to use one’s gifts for the most they are worth.  In this regard, I am fortunate indeed, having US citizenship and a job in an industry with a commanding US trade surplus – the entertainment industry, which, in spite of all the IP piracy in the world, makes material that is a source of joy and meaning for countless people all across the globe.  I work at one of the most storied Hollywood studios, for Sony, a company that makes speakers, televisions, films, television shows, records, video games, and plenty else that has been a consistent source of engagement throughout my life.  I can help connect the dots as entertainment realigns in an unprecedented technological world, and as media serves as a key connective tissue for politics, education, and daily life.  Opportunities will exist in two years that are inconceivable today.  In order to do my current job at its best, I need to be proactive to see what’s rounding the curve ahead.  There are intriguing and eclectic people to be met, wild and winding projects to embarked upon, and a world of crazy stories to be explored, in this sphere and beyond.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Through the Labyrinth with Modern Medicine

It was about the 12th visit to the GP that it finally sunk in: I could get prescriptions for simple antibiotics, tea and genuine sympathy, but not a solution.  The sinus infection from hell would not depart, and I was growing increasingly skeptical of the purported culprits and insufficient remedies offered.  I was finally granted the privilege of seeing the head of the practice, an endearingly daffy Scot, whose words were anything but salubrious: “I do agree you certainly need to see a specialist, an ENT doctor, but unfortunately it will be a minimum 8 to 12 month wait for an appointment with one.” 

So, back to the States, to navigate through a labyrinthine system of in-network and out-of-network doctors under the umbrella of private health insurance, about as intuitive as a David Lynch movie.  Labyrinth indeed, as one specialist told me I had “labyrinthitis,” a disturbance of the inner ear that was subsequently disproven in testing by another specialist. 

I’ll leave the actual root cause as shrouded in mystery as it was for me during those na├»ve months in England and Scotland, except to say it was not actually an infection, and it was fully solved.  I had quickly learned in the UK that the National Health Service was a reflexive and often inviolable point of pride.  Shortly after World War II, it was challenging to consider it anything other than a national success story, as the supply of medical professionals, prescribed drugs, and more elaborate interventions were all a tiny glimmer of the pharmaceutical empires later to be accrued through decades of progressive research.  Maybe you couldn’t cover everyone for everything, but for most citizens, it didn’t feel too far off. 

Yet at this point in history, there are medicines far beyond mere pills, and an ever-burgeoning landscape of “biologicals” that are thoroughly resource-intensive to create and often complex to administer.  We couldn’t dream of covering everyone for everything even if we decided to have our entire Gross Domestic Product swallowed by healthcare spending. 

Thus we find ourselves in an increasingly vituperative argument about how the bounties of modern medicine will be distributed.  So now, there are more life-and-death decisions about how to respond to each individual medical situation, because there are copious life-saving treatments that did not previously exist.

“Modernizing” both the American system and the European system so each feels rightfully like a source of bounty and pride rather than of enmity for the citizenry is a task that is far beyond the wisdom of 500 words, but I can say this much with confidence and concision: patient choice is as vital as the medicine itself.  If I had been permanently trapped with one physician, or one practice, or even one specialist, it would likely still be nearly impossible to breathe through my nose.  If Goethe was the last man who could “know everything” a couple centuries ago, no single medical professional can even remotely know all of medicine, and will know an even smaller proportion with each passing year.  A truly modern health system needs to focus on enabling choice within itself. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bright Lights, Dead City: Living with the Machine

“Alexa, turn twinkle lights on.”

Alexa gave me light, illuminating a strange enclosed space full of eccentric board games, with cactus-adorned bedsheets for me to sleep on, in Chicago.  You see, the Google engineer with whom I was staying that weekend was tight with Alexa, dangerously tight – I wondered if perhaps she had a role in birthing Alexa, playing with her DNA strands – this remarkable DNA that could be changed after birth.

But Alexa couldn’t turn the other lights on or off, and she couldn’t do their television either.  So I found myself speaking crossly to this lifeless entity, as I’m sure was happening simultaneously to a thousand other Alexas in apartments and houses across the nation. 

And that’s when Alexa’s real deficiencies hit me harder than the glare of the twinkle lights or the prickles on the cacti.  Her companionship was soothingly soft quicksand, endlessly amicable and patient, but nothing human, not at all, once she had fully enveloped your otherwise solitary space.

Blade Runner 2049 had recently offered me a vision of a more emotionally evolved Alexa – Ryan Gosling’s flickering, buxom fantasy, who occupied his futuristically claustrophobic living unit with a coquettishness and bonhomie that I suspect will remain more elusive for the enterprising engineers at Google.  Yet the quicksand of this visionary landscape remained just that, mixed in hues of orange desert, grey expanses of trash, and the ghostly black depths of the nighttime storm-tossed sea in the final standoff.

And yet from the vantage point of the 1980s the original Blade Runner had offered its own wildly inventive, more neon-infused image of what 2019 would be in Los Angeles, replete with flying cars, and putting artificial intelligence right at the core of its narrative.  Somehow we haven’t made it there in the real world, but rather than offer an apology for its inaccurate prophesies, BR 2049 came just in time to affirm that aesthetically, philosophically, spiritually, and emotionally, the original movie had offered both lasting and chilling insight into a world where machines had gained more gravitational pull than humans. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

You Can Have It All (Not the Oprah Version)

Placing a disproportionate amount of emphasis and emotional energy on work is nothing new and nothing purely millennial – it remains a militantly expressed national trait.  In fact, according to Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, it dates back to the era of populist forebear Andrew Jackson: “The glorification of work came to the fore during the Jacksonian era, when people were classified as ‘do-somethings’ or ‘do-nothings’” (from Huntington’s book Who Are We?  The Challenges to America’s National Identity).  He then points to a 1990 International Values Survey of industrialized nations, asking how much pride the respective citizens took in their work.  USA: 87%.  Great Britain: 83%.  All the rest: under 50%.

A fair amount of millennials came of age at the wrong time for their career dreams, with the most severe recession since the Great Depression decimating approximately 9 million jobs (according to the Department of Labor) and not offering as many entry points to the generation attempting to enter the work force with limited skills.

That, combined with the strictures of a labor hiring system highly tailored to prior experience, and further combined with Millennial Entitlement Syndrome, sounds like a mental health nightmare.

“Expressing gratitude, achieving short-term goals, and achieving long-term goals” – all great, no complaints here.  However, unsurprising to anyone who’s been reading here, I first and foremost recommend the arts: watching, hearing, doing, dancing, reading, laughing, crying, rolling your eyes, and nodding your head.  Not because they inherently offer happiness – many masterpieces, quite the opposite.  No, they rather offer context, shape, and inspiration, and when they do elicit joy, it is with an amplitude and verve that transport us to vantage points that our careers will likely never take us.

The French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once remarked that if he had an adequate supply of books, records, and tickets to the cinema, he could live out the rest of his life happily.  For the countless millions who have oppressive or unfulfilling jobs, and for the increasing share of the population that may have no work at all, it’s going to be vital.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Same Time, Another Place: Old-School Becoming a Man

I spent all 13 of my schooled years as a minor in a small and, on the grand scale, dwindling contingent of pupils: single-sex school students.  On the few occasions I meet someone else who has made it through such a program, there’s a nod of acknowledgement – yeah, that was different…  but here we are in the normal world.

I can’t speak to the dynamics when this was the prevailing way of most top-tier schools in the US, especially in the Northeast, but I can say that for the few remaining, er, bastions, again mainly on the East Coast, calling them distinctive would be an understatement, and often a euphemism as well.  There was another all-boys school in Boston, and we shared a sister school between us, for the few encounters we were allowed with the opposite sex, namely a glee club performance once every season and a play, if you were so lucky as to be cast in it.  Perhaps fitting that the arts provided the principal setting for coed communication: the area of learning where ideas were most grounded in emotion.  

There are a thousand observations and/or generalizations I could make about it, but I’ll spare most of them for the same reason that moment of mutual acknowledgement was usually just a bemused nod: we’re still a bit bewildered by the eccentricities of where we learned and feeling askew trying to reconcile it to everything else.  What hovers above in the memory is the sheer intensity of the experience: the unbridled competitiveness, and, in the land of the Pilgrims, a puritanical view of one’s adolescent years as a passage of suffering in pursuit of later-life greatness.  However, the abrasive directness and uninhibited bawdiness of the male domain stuck out to me in a way that they didn’t in my limited time at our sister school.  The fun parts were akin to an extended South Park episode.  The less fun parts felt somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and A Separate Peace.

And then in adult life most of us learned what a civilizing counterpoint the opposite sex could be.  I don’t know if veterans of all-girls schools would say the same of their own emergence into dual-sex adult life.  Even so, most of my high school classmates joined fraternities in college, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least a few hours of the week could descend back into the vernacular of their former lives.

And sometimes, I wonder who I would be if I had had a normal upbringing.  I wince a little reaching back, mainly from an unmistakably male authoritarianism that made most of us feel insignificant or inadequate.  Some of these things don’t fade away when the setting shifts and the sexes are mingling – they’re subtly etched inside us.