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.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Puritan Virtues and Millennial Entitlement

This question hits right at the passive aggressive Cold War that seems to be the pivotal point of conflict between millennials and the elder superiors, and the very reason the term “millennial” is intoned by many of the latter with a flourish of grand distaste.  Millennials want too much from their jobs, and are entitled to the point of having a deleterious effect on the workplaces they inhabit.

I have to confess, when I was first invited for my writing to be featured in this millennial bloggers series in Huffington Post, I was concerned about branding myself with a near synonym for this haze of entitlement.  But as a matter of numbers, even though I’m towards the beginning of this birth era, most definitions of the term would label me one.  So here I am.

The most trumpeted origin of this entitlement is the self-esteem movement in education.  My headmaster delivered a fiery denunciation of said movement, and his vision was certainly reflected in the school environment.  Over 350 years after the Puritans had founded this New England school, the upholders of their hard-won virtue did not flinch –they let us know that any ounce of exaltation would come only after a full pound of debasement through labor, whether on the sports field, in the classroom, or elsewhere.

The disadvantage of this approach was a claustrophobic adolescence.  The advantage was that anyone gazing back on it from adulthood inevitably said everything afterwards was comparatively easy.  

The greatest sense of meaning and fulfillment usually only comes when an achievement is genuinely substantive and valuable to others – in a way that not too many other laborers are offering.  Yes, a sense of daily joy and interpersonal engagement can facilitate the heavy lifting, and many products that are valuable in society may not feel deeply meaningful to produce.   But some combination of talent, refinement, and hard work is fairly indispensable to the ability to achieve in the first place.

I’d like to move some boulders in my career – and not the Sisyphean type.  But I’d prefer to do it around people with a sense of humor, and the spark of wit that connects a process and a product to the human experience on the other end.  The sum total of all the above is, alas, hard to find.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Fire Is Spreading: Popular Music and Rebellion

The death of Chris Cornell this past week may not have been the kind of national front-page news that resulted when Bowie or Prince passed, but for students of rock history and enduring fans of one of the greatest expressions of rebellion in modern music, it was another acutely unsettling epilogue to a story that had largely been assumed finished.

Grunge was one of the most improbable musical forms ever to have reached mass recognition and popularity.  Popular music was about romantic relationships, and if it veered into dark territory, it was generally about the end of a love affair.  Grunge was about rage and dejection in nearly everything except love, and a blood-curdling cry of a generation's youth that their frustrations would be heard.  It was at once apolitical, in that songs rarely aimed to bolster specific partisan causes by name, and vastly political, in the sense that this searing screaming broadly encompassed the anger of the youth across party lines and across a range of ideologies.  There was something populist in the way scruffy kids largely from a city people hadn't paid much attention to could grab the microphone and let the whole nation know they had real concerns, too.

The biggest five grunge bands were Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots.  Of those five, the lead singers for four of them have now died of suicide or a drug overdose.

While there has been a recent surge in popular music addressing issues of race, ethnicity, and identity issues -- an expression of political unrest that will surely have a prominent chapter in musical history -- there is nothing akin to grunge.  While many millennials dance the nights away to The Chainsmokers and Kygo, the lack of a broad-based populist wail inflaming the imaginations of a new generation may stand in counterpoint to the political activism that is indeed happening by day.  Yet there is more escapism than confrontation.

Bob Mould, one of the key forefathers and innovators that helped create grunge and alternative rock, once remarked in an interview about his parents' generation's musical revolution, "They sat in the park and sang with folk guitars.  We take electric guitars and blast the ---- out of them over and over again until the message sinks in...  We're not going to be passive.  We'll fight back our own way."

Will there be another revolution?  Perhaps it has not happened yet, but it still may.

Cornell's darkness might just be too much for another generation to swim into:

"Pale in the flare-light
The scared light cracks and disappears
And leads the scorched ones here
And everywhere no one cares
The fire is spreading
And no one wants to speak about it"

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cuts, Filters, and Voids: What's the Technological Future?

It’s a rare lazy morning at work, and I find myself watching another video on social media about the detrimental effects of social media.  An impassioned scruffy pundit tells me that real life relationships and a meaningful job take patience and dedication.  The video is edited in a gently frenetic style, with cuts every two seconds – presumably with a goal of crystallizing the most substantive comments in a lengthier one-on-one interview into a streamlined bite-size illumination, but with the unintentional result of reinforcing the very lack of patience that is being decried.

It’s popular now to call it the echo chamber because of increasingly political and cultural bifurcation in America – but sometimes it seems like the most resounding echo is that of mutual solitudes.  Social media enshrines moments of togetherness but also thereby draws attention to their relative rareness compared to the percentage of our daily lives spent ultimately interfacing with screens small, medium, and gargantuan.  When we interact with people online, we are afforded a frequency of interactions that is often impossible in the physical world, but those interactions are presented through a number of veils – or literal “filters” – that can ultimately accentuate the distances between us.  

And, if a tree falls on Facebook and no one “likes” it, did it really fall?

I’m grateful for the ways technology connects the aspects of me that are uncommon to the distant things and people in the world that are matched to my idiosyncratic tastes.  My career has one foot in the digital realm of streaming TV and one foot in the resolutely old-fashioned but ever-vibrant world of live theater.  Yet even in the latter space, the vast majority of promotion and transaction happens online, and lavish musicals and pioneering plays make use of effects and staging that would have been out of reach to the first generation of Broadway.  Surprising to some, but Broadway is booming, as people seek a lavish night out and something to discuss with those who accompany them there.  But then again, TV’s booming, too.

All of this while I’m in a cubicle, trying to sort through a maddening phone tree and a computer system that seems to make it impossible to complete the tasks to enable the arrival of a new intern.  In an ideal world, technology would remove the unpleasant labor from our lives and free up our time for community, and for imaginative pursuits of a wide variety.  Perhaps the economy will shift to fulfilling new roles for everyone and a superior standard of living.  Or perhaps we will find our confused spirits launched out into the capacious voids that comprise most of the universe.