|Please Step Out of Your Vehicle;
Technology, Mindfulness, and the Radicalization of Togetherness
A tree makes a beautiful transmission tower, especially if the tree is old, broad, and easy to climb. For sometime we’ve been hosting dinners, across the country, wherein our table conversation has been recorded and broadcast throughout the neighborhood that we’re eating in at the time. In late December, San Jose, John scaled the tree outside of Zach and Kuniko’s house, with a weird jigsaw puzzle of PVC pipe in hand, coaxial cable trailing it. (Months later, as Gabriel and I parked outside the house, Gabriel mentioned a theory of a friend of his, that trees are affected by the use of psychedelic drugs by the humans around them. Gabriel thought this tree had seen a lot.) John climbed the old tree. It was very dark. The light from the front room of the house kicked off the sides of his sneakers as he scaled further up the trunk. I was impressed when he reached a perfect section of tree limbs to place the antenna, about twenty feet off the ground, in such a short amount of time. He’d continued to climb trees well after I’d stopped, I thought to myself. (I was secretly proud, when months later, I was complimented on my spontaneous tree climbing acumen.) Placing the antenna securely in the tree, nestled between strong limbs, John descended. We followed the coaxial cable back into the front room of the house where Zach had cobbled together two long tables for us to eat dinner at. On the mantle of the fireplace the coaxial ran into the transmitter, a digital recorder was wired up to its input jack, recording the room.
These gatherings, which we had been calling Revolutionary Table Dinners, had occurred in a number of people’s homes, from Portland, Oregon to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, since late in 2006. The idea was to augment the role of ones typical dinner conversation, both literally and figuratively. In the literal sense: the conversation at the table is recorded and simultaneously broadcast around the neighborhood via a short-range radio transmitter that we’d bring along. Dinner guests would write out notes inviting neighbors to listen-in prior to our eating, and distribute them around the block before the meal. Figuratively: in each home in which we would eat, the conversation itself would be augmented more so than it might on a typical night, as we would propose a topic, or ask our host to do so. Each dinnertime conversation topic would be relevant to the house in question and loosely focus on the idea of how one may encounter notions of “revolution” within their everyday lives. Vagaries abounded, with nuggets of information and insight appearing and, often, quickly diverging with each new dish to come to the table, each new glass of wine poured. The dinners were thoughtful, pretentious, quiet, raucous, inquisitive, and at times, contentious; in May of 2007 I lost a friend to a dinner. After I hadn’t heard from her in the weeks after the meal I was worried, wondering if she was feeling all right. Apparently I’d argued my points to vigorously. According to her, I’d been an ass.
The transmitter that we bring along to these dinners is not that powerful, but if you were scanning the dial one night, a block or so away from its source, you’d find it. It’s this technological immediacy that I find endearing; if you hear it, we’re close by. Come and find us. It is also inexpensive. Anyone could have a radio station for their block for well under two hundred dollars. (If you were willing to learn a little soldering, far less than that.) Every block should have their own radio station. Imagine a summer day, late in the afternoon. It was hot earlier, and as the sun begins to set lower on the horizon you and a friend ride your bicycles, a small boombox strapped to the handlebars, from neighborhood to neighborhood in your town. From one street to the next, without even having to change the frequency, you pick up the sounds of hip-hop, home gardening tips, issues to be addressed before tomorrows city council meeting, Smoke on the Water. And, if you heard something you really liked, something that you wanted to learn more about, you could knock on anyone’s door and ask, “Who’s the DJ on right now?”
Red76 was asked to come to San Jose in the fall of 2007 as part of a commission to work with the CADRE Media Laboratory at San Jose State University, specifically on a project which would look into the possibilities of Second Life; the online platform in which one can create a Simulacrum of ones self – visually, or possibly, having the embodiment of a fox’s head and tail, and the body of a stripper, solely in ones movements and choices1. The player (?) can interact with millions of other users, in real time, build structures, and navigate a world constructed by countless others interested in a myriad of ideas and theoretical constructs. Users can buy land, and trade and sell their property and goods. All of this – this virtual manifestation of interaction, this endorsement of the ever-malleable sense of self and personal identity (and personal responsibility?), this fluid acceptance of a monetary construct with a seeming disregard towards the flow of capital - in light of the philosophies that Red76 is usually pegged as endorsing, made any association with Second Life seem wholly antithetical to our groups mission. It seemed that CADRE understood this very well. As did I. (It sounds exactly like all the ways we’ve screwed up in the real world, right?) Naturally, I was interested. Having dinner with my friend Michael in Seattle soon after discussions on the project began, he told me I was an idiot and a sellout. Things were looking good.
When it comes to online communities my back arches a bit. I am already quite suspect of how many people bankrupt, or all too often, profit off of, the activity surrounding real world communities. Their online counterparts seem just as susceptible, often far more inclined, to proffer the idea of “connectivity” as a vehicle for cashing in. The public, wooed by the possibilities, avoids the conversation wherein they have to come to terms with how their very involvement within the mechanism turns their conjoined activity into the cog that makes the wheels go’round and the cash come in2. With this in mind, the thought of generating gatherings within Second Life in a hermetic sense - for Second Life, of Second Life - didn’t appeal to me. A desire to collectively consider what the platform had to offer that could be extracted and repurposed, rather than singular and in unto it self, seemed more appealing. But, one thing that is hard not to come up against is the emotional divide between those that embrace technological activity, and those that shun it (or at least feel that they do). At our dinner in San Jose the table seemed begrudgingly at odds between those “In,” and those “Out,” of world - be that Second Life, World of War Craft, Facebook, or even their cell phones for that matter – while we all simultaneously agreed that it is both ridiculous, and increasingly bordering on dangerous, to think that there is either an inside or outside at all3. The thought of a model that desires to “bring people together,” seemed inherently futile to some if you could not feel, hear, see, or just sense the presence of those involved. For others, the medium seemed as if it was the starting point for them (everyone) to really get involved4. One got the feeling that, for these people, the thought of the activities constructed within Second Life being enacted in the real world seemed anathema at first, only because the very thought of those activities in the real world brought about so many vulnerabilities: the possibility of really getting hurt, feeling it.
Though these are all relevant concerns, it’s certain that we’re going to have to meet in the middle or be trampled by the coming storm of technological advancement. The whole-hearted embrace and the panicked scream and shunning; neither are the way to go. As we are increasingly beholden to our gadgetry it is ever more important to discuss and engage technology in reference to how it allows us to communicate. Though it may seem like Chicken Little to so say, it is extremely dangerous not to engage this thought vigorously. Consider this simple example: a few months ago I received a letter from an old friend who had moved away from town. A hand-written letter. I cannot remember the last time I received an “actual” letter that didn’t come in the form of a Christmas or Birthday card. It was great to receive. I loved remembering what it was like to get a letter in the mail, opening it expectantly. That said, I still haven’t written Daniel back. In the time between the arrival of his letter and now I have written hundreds of e.mail’s. None of them eliciting a response in me near similar to that of Daniel’s letter. Now, I do hesitate to state any sort of value judgment here, though it is difficult not to. My story is quite common. What’s more important to the situation is black and white in nature: How often do you receive letters in the mail? And how often do you send e.mail? The answer is mostlikely to be, “Not too often,” and, “Quite a lot.” The nature of these two forms of communication is radically different. The forms, in and of themselves, define the correspondence – and the means in which we corresponded with one another formally, greatly defines how we interact within one another informally. So, with long, hand written letters you have a society engaged in long thoughts, sentences, paragraphs. This is not to say these thoughts, because of their length, are inherently more intelligent. But a strong case could be made that more intelligent thought is benefited from prolonged exposure to ideas. With e.mail’s and text message, time is of the essence. Correspondence is short and to the point – We’ve got more to do! Thoughts fly here and there, each one with the same amount of urgency, or the same amount of disregard, as the one previous. Though it is too soon to come to any definitive judgment, I can’t tell you how many people I now encounter – especially those in their early twenties, who can barely form a complete sentence. More importantly in this whole scenario is that the means in which we communicate singularly (face to face, person to person) greatly informs the means in which we choose to communicate to the group, the whole of society.
You can already see the effect of this metamorphosis in communication in regard to the state of today’s news coverage. To paraphrase Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, what function does a nightly news program serve if the public is getting updates at work on their computers, on their cell phones, throughout the day? It’s simple to say that now the public is more informed, but that is not entirely true, the public has access to more information, available in small doses, ready for consumption, but now the analysis of that information is widely dispersed and often devoid of the nuance that elicits true collective dialogue. The aggregate, which in the past would have served as the hub, the distribution point, for that information is now so widely dispersed as to create an information vacuum; a popular universe wherein news goes to die. The Fourth Estate serves as our de facto watchdog, the public’s surest means of representation when ultra-politics goes by the wayside. What happens now when everyone is his or her own news outlet? Who’s listening when ten million voices are speaking at once, all with different, and at times opposing, things to say? Currently this point weighs most heavily when it comes to the reporting of the Iraq War. While not the most even handed when the war began, with the mainstream media too afraid to be cast out as traitorous and unpatriotic, the coverage of the war, at this point in time, is at least “fair and balanced.” But it seems too little too late. No one is listening. We are so inundated every second of our day with “news,” coming from all directions, that the public can’t help but have their collective head spin. It is none too surprising that the country at large seems generally apathetic when it comes to their complicity in the war, and its current state, when the news they receive is equal parts Housing Crisis, War, Paris Hilton, and shots of Britney Spears appearing crotchless and dumbfounded while exiting a hummer. When everything is newsworthy, nothing is important, nothing lasts, everything is ephemeral, expendable, and the same as what came before it. A truly dangerous situation when US soldiers are dying, or are killing countless Iraqi citizens for the privilege to come back home with their bodies, if not their souls, intact.
It’s often said that we are at a stage wherein we have democratized the news, but the truth of the matter is we’ve democratized content and data. “News” is the process of filtering information, not the content therein. When all “news” has equal footing no news holds any weight. Take for instance June 5th 2007: Paris Hilton is met by the LAPD at her home and carted to jail. A media circus ensues. All three broadcast networks cover her arrest as their top story on the evening news. All the cable networks follow suit and have a field day, of course. On the same day an event occurred that I was waiting to hear about on the news. A major event concerning… something. I can’t quite remember what. I waited through the entire program for coverage of this incident in question. Nothing. At the time I remember beginning to write an e.mail to CBS to tell them how ashamed I was of their coverage: giving nearly a quarter of that nights program to Paris Hilton and not even mentioning this thing that was so so important. And that’s it. That’s what happens. I remember all about Paris Hilton. I remember the cops aimlessly waiting for her to leave her house, milling about her cloistered driveway. I remember her crying in the back of the police cruiser. I remember that the photo on the front page of the New York Times the next day was taken by Nick Út, the same AP photographer who took the photo of Kim Phúc, the little girl whose clothes, burnt off by a US Army Napalm attack on her village, ran down the road screaming, naked. But I don’t remember the absence of news that day. I believe it had something to do with Alberto Gonzalez lying to congress and attempting to get John Ashcroft to sign off on an illegal wiretapping scheme just hours after Ashcroft had gotten out of Gall Bladder surgery. An incident that even ultra-conservative, and baseball enthusiast, George Will called something akin to, “a thriller set in a banana republic.”
Now, let’s end all this doomsday jargon, as there is obviously hope. And that hope resides in mindfulness. A Mindfulness in regard as to how we live our lives, and the means in which we gain, access, and respond to the information we encounter. The information that is most vitally important to us, as individuals and as a country at large. The possibilities of today’s available technology are staggering to say the least. Our problem is we treat the technology like babies play with toys, picking it up, putting it in our mouths, and generally only using it for its intended purpose by accident. While we are now all “journalists,” we are using the tools of journalism that heightens nothing, and only negates it potential energy. We need to be more mindful of how we use the tools available to us. An incident that I find quite telling, and inspiring, though only half effective, occurred in a computer lab at UCLA on November 14th 2006.
On the date in question Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a UCLA Undergraduate, was doing school work in the computer lab of Powell Library on the UCLA campus. A member of the library staff asked for him to show his school ID. Tabatabainejad had mistakenly left his ID at home, and informed the staff member of the fact. At this time he was asked to leave the premises. Tabatabainejad refused, stating that he had more work to do. Subsequently the campus police were called. By the time of their arrival Tabatabainejad said he would leave, but the campus cops would have none of it, stating that he was under arrest and coming with them. Tabatabainejad refused to go with the cops, saying that he would leave the library. During the next seven-minute interval the UCLA campus police tasered Tabatabainejad six times. After each tasering he was instructed by the police to get up, or that they would taser him again. Exhausted from the shock, unwilling or unable to rise up after the police command him to, he’s tasered again, and again, and again.
A fellow UCLA student had a camera phone and taped nearly the entire incident. A phalanx of students had quickly surrounded the officers, pleading with them to let Tabatabainejad go. The seven-minute cell phone video was disseminated through YouTube (as of April 23rd 2008 the clip has been viewed over 830,000 times). The power of one cell phone to be able to capture such an extreme abuse of power is exhilarating to say the least. But the aftermath was a bit of a disappointment. Though the video quickly spread around the UCLA campus, and far beyond, not much of an uproar was heard. Though caught on tape – and it is an incredibly disturbing video – the clip didn’t move many people to action. At the time, when I asked my friend Ava - a PhD candidate at UCLA, and an inventive artist and activist in her own right – what the reaction was to the incident on campus she said there was barely a response.
Due to the disturbing nature of the video, and the obvious overzealousness of the police caught on tape, I truly doubt that the public that saw the clip was not moved. But in this case, with so many outlets for distribution, the intensity dissipated. Nothing happened. With the wave of fatal taserings by Police across the US, Canada, and elsewhere recently, a video such as this, in another era, could have served as a rallying cry for action. But in this case, at this junction of traditional understanding media and its outlets and the production of The News, it had nowhere to go.
In the coming years it will be vitally important for us to learn how to use the tools available to us properly: that is, experiment with them, toy around, play with them, find new uses askew from their creators initial intent. As communicative technology becomes more and more invasive to not do so would be equivalent to self-censorship, at the very least, we would be giving someone else control of the collective volume knob. At this moment we are applying new tools to old models of distribution, and vice-versa, old tools to new models of distribution. If we are to truly expand the possibilities of emerging technologies we need to need to think of them as expansively as possible. In an environment that encourages this type of investigation, and extols experimentation conducted to benefit the whole of us, we are bound to come up with startling uses for the tools we use everyday. We need to rip up our available technology, tear it apart, and see how it fits into the lives we want to lead, not the life the technology is urging us to live. Without this sense of investigation, without this everyday mindfulness, without a desire to dig deeper, all of us, we might be deeply fucked. It’s true. Sorry.
1 Since late Fall of 2007 the Portland, Oregon
based arts collaborative Red76 has been working on a series of projects
with the students of San Jose State University’s CARDE Media Laboratory.
In taking the name ToolShed Days – a nod to the musical tradition of
wood shedding; the process of going out, alone, to investigate your
craft more deeply – the group has set about to investigate how one may
utilize existing technological forms askew from the creators initial
intentions. In this circumstance the goal being to highlight a means for
the use of readily available, often free/or cheap, technology and media
as a means to create new frameworks for historical inquiry and
sociopolitical action. All the while the importance of creating
hybridized platforms that suggest transparency, and the possibility for
anyone – no matter their skill set – to hit the ground running and apply
their interests and desires was key to the groups working process. As
their tool of choice Red76 and the CADRE team went about considering
alternative possibilities for the online collaborative platform Second
Life. With this in mind three discrete projects were considered for this
experiment under the ToolShed Days moniker: A mock recruitment center
created as a geographically unspecific site to help in the strategic
planning of counter-recruitment actions, the recreation of a now defunct
Washington state quasi-utopian anarchist colony from the 1890’s, and a
simple user-group site developed to connect Second Life Architect’s and
Public Defense Attorney’s as a means to provide dynamic dramatizations
for the defense of indigent clients.