State of the Race

sunsetWith polls close in the Presidential Race of 2016, and with the media wheels spinning the outcome of the first debate, a moment to reflect.

I will admit to feeling a certain despondency of late. The race is draining my hope in humanity. At least, it’s been a practice in emotional detachment.

But reality is never far away.

And as I sat here trying to formulate my thoughts, my frustration grew…so instead, I deleted a few hundred words musing on the candidates, and decided on something different.

The sun rose and set yesterday, and for this I am grateful. There was plenty of oxygen to breathe. I ate three meals, and some snacks in between.

I decided to go for a swim after work at the neighborhood YMCA. I am grateful to live next to a gym, and grateful for physical health to be able to swim. I am grateful for the means to afford access to such a nice facility.

On the walk home from the gym, the setting sun lit up the clouds. The weather is cooling the desert air just a bit. Just enough to notice and appreciate the changing of the seasons.

When I returned, clean water flowed from my faucets.

Not everyone in my community can brag of these niceties. As a matter of fact, on my walk to and from the gym, I passed several homeless members of my community.

These individuals cannot brag of running water and three squares per day. Sometimes I drive past them on my way to work, listening to NPR, pondering the presidential race.

The other day a homeless person in New Jersey found one of those bombs in a dumpster. He found it in a backpack, took it to a safe place, and called the police.

He was hailed a hero. Got written up in stories for the newspaper. Someone wanted to honor this hero and started an online donation page. Within a week, the man had an apartment and job interviews lined up.

The man turned from a nobody to a somebody.

Maybe we are all, already somebody. Maybe we are all deserving of a place to live. Maybe we are all worthy of recognition.

Maybe the “big-picture” is not what it seems to be. Maybe life is not a race or a competition. Maybe life is a lot simpler than what it sounds like on the news.

In any case, life goes on.

Rage Against the Machine

likesI’ve written this tune before.

So have others.

64 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut, in his first novel Player Piano, wrote about the problematic march of technology. A “player piano” is a piano that plays itself. Mechanical music.

The protagonist in the novel finds himself fighting for his livelihood in an automated world where the machines do all the work. He’s trying to land a job as a tech engineer.

In one scene, he prepares to play a game of chess against a chess-playing machine. His friends place bets on the game. They all bet on the machine. Our hero wins the game, but only because the machine short-circuits. All of the losing betters protest the victory. But it would have won, they cry, if it had worked properly!

Late in the book, after successfully infiltrating and destroying a cache of machines, the main character likens the operation to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. One small triumph against an inevitable tide. Like the white man would inevitably destroy Native American culture, so will technology destroy human ingenuity.

***

Every day you can find a new article about the next injection of technology into our lives.

Like digital software that measures speech patterns in kids, in order to predict the onset psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder.

Or the use of a robot to kill a suspect in Dallas.

You might not be surprised to learn that more than half of the country gets their news from Facebook.

The race is on for the fully automated car. Next up: trucks, planes and drone-deliveries.

The Economist recently put out a story about the “post-truth” world. The gatekeepers of old media gone, everyone becomes a publisher. Experts don’t matter, anymore. Evidence doesn’t really matter, anymore. We all have feelings, which can be confirmed by our social media echo chambers.

As Trump has figured out, “people are saying” that anything can be true, because once you say it, people will be saying it, which, in the current state of affairs, makes it true.

***

We live in a post-privacy world as well. Imposed by social norms: Sharing is caring. A proposal. An anniversary. New dog. New baby. New baby gets new outfit. Vacation. Visit with a friend. A political whim. An insight. A rant.

Our personal lives and our personal time are no longer sacred. Alone time is connection time. Our phones are never far away. Our experiences are not ours alone, but for others to experience as well. We become our own paparazzi.

The whole thing enabled and egged on by billion dollar corporations seeking to monetize our interactions.

In a more recent novel, The Circle, author David Eggers imagines the far extents of this new kind of world. In the Circle, everything is shared. If you don’t want to share it, you must be hiding something.

Politicians are pressured to live-video feed themselves, 24/7. Just to make sure nothing is going on behind closed doors. Concerned citizens can tune in whenever they want. Soon, everyone is sharing their lives, live-feed, for anyone to see. If you turn off your feed, you must be hiding something.

Since everyone is on the Circle, why not make democracy more efficient? In the Circle, the majority rules. Real-time online voting allows this to happen. Should we pass this new healthcare law? Should we bomb this country? Let the people decide.

Essentially, society has turned into a cyborg.

***

The other day a friend I hadn’t seen in months invited me to a football game. Unlike many other people I know, this friend does not use social media. No Facebook, no nothing.

So I was completely unawares what he had been up to, lately.

We spent only a few hours together: drove to the game, stayed for a half, then drove home. But I realized afterward that, during our short time together, I felt more connected to this person than pretty much all my social media connections, even those who post every day.

It was nice.

***

DISCLAIMER

The Obligatory Qualifying Statement:

Yes, I appreciate certain benefits of the technological takeover of everything. I’m publishing on a blog, after all. Rapid and widespread dissemination of information can be a positive thing. I listen to podcasts on my smartphone. I enjoy certain aspects of social media.

With every shift in technology, there are losses and gains. Over time, technological gains have been positive, at least in terms of material well being.

It’s possible my concerns are overwrought. It’s possible I will re-read these words decades from now and laugh at my naivete. What a worry wort.

Maybe computers can effectively diagnose mental illness. Maybe that’s a good idea.

***

The tide is inevitable.

I think there are boundaries, though, that need to be defended vigorously.

Personally, the mental battle is waged daily. Small losses each time I check my phone at a traffic light. How many insights have been lost in passing time, replaced by a glance at headlines on a news feed? It’s impossible to quantify.

How many hours lost on a glowing scroll could have been spent listening to music? Or reading novels? How would this have changed me, as a human being?

It’s impossible to measure the trade-offs. At a certain point, though, the costs exceed the benefits.

Human ingenuity can still be preserved. But not without a fight.

A Fly on the Wall

rally-phoenixA couple weeks ago, a political circus came to Phoenix. The Republican Nominee wanted to clarify his thoughts on immigration — his signature issue — and decided Phoenix would be a fine backdrop for the message.

Phoenix. Where 84 year old Sheriff Joe, known for discrimination against Hispanics, just won a primary election in a landslide, despite being investigated for violating a court order telling him to stop discriminating against Hispanics.

Primetime. Downtown. Governor Ducey. Sheriff Joe. Mike Pence. And the main event: The Reality TV Show Host himself.

Excitement in the desert.

Leading up to the event, the Republican Nominee had been waffling on immigration. What about the Wall? Would Mexico pay for it? Could Mexican immigrants actually be —gasp– decent human beings, after all? Might a Trump administration not round up and deport 11 million people?

So many questions left unanswered.

Confusion heightened during the day of the event. The Donald flew his plane south of the border for an official “quick — look presidential!” meeting with the leader of Mexico.

During Trump’s speech in Mexico, he acknowledged that Mexican immigrants should be recognized for their virtuous attributes. Hmmmm. Maybe he was striking a different tone? Maybe different from his 13 months of hateful rhetoric toward the same group of people?

No doubt John Kasich and Jeff Flake were on the edge of their seats.

This was it. The immigration policy speech of the century. All the cards on the table.

As I rolled up to the Phoenix convention center on my bike, the first thing I noticed was a sign being waved by a supporter outside the front door: Don’t be a pussy — vote for Trump. So much for subtlety. As I walked inside, a shirt walking in front of me referred to Hillary Clinton as a bitch.

Immediately, I felt tense. Who were these people? On any other day I might be unaware, shopping next to them in the grocery store. But now, with red hats all around me, there was no question about it: I was surrounded by fierce supporters of a man whose popularity could very well be a sign of the apocalypse.

The feelings got stranger as I walked through the metal detectors and into the crowd on the floor of the convention center. People were laughing and talking. Seemed normal. You almost forgot what the reason for this gathering was, until a vulgar shirt or sign reminded you what was going on.

A woman with a baby in a stroller wore a shirt that said “Fuck Racism.” I interpreted this as a protest against the rally, but she was left alone by the security team.

One by one, speakers arrived at the podium to scream about how Mexican immigrants were terrorizing our communities. The crowd approved: “Build that Wall!”

Sheriff Joe arrived at the podium to deafening applause. Think of the lawlessness, said Joe (who has already been found guilty of civil contempt), if we don’t crack down on these people. At the first mention of Clinton by the Sheriff (who is facing criminal charges for contempt) the crowd erupted: “Lock Her Up!”

Later, a group of parents whose kids had been killed in robberies and drunk driving incidents took the stage. One after another, they detailed the horrific ways in which their kids lost their lives by the hands of undocumented immigrants. It took at least 40 minutes. After each story, the parents blamed an entire race of people for the tragedy. The crowd would chant: “Build that Wall!”

I wondered if any of them knew, or cared, that undocumented immigrants commit far fewer of these crimes than U.S. citizens.

Finally, after some surprise guest appearances — Oh my gosh! Another white politician screaming about Mexicans! — from Jeff Sessions and Rudy Giuliani, the main act finally appeared.

Before his speech, the megalomaniac reminded the crowd: This will not be the usual rally speech. This will be an official speech on immigration policy. Thanks, Donald.

By the time he started yelling about police raids and deportation task forces and spreading fear into Latino communities, my heart felt sick. I left early. Apparently he went on like that for 70 minutes.

Luckily, my faith in humanity was restored the next morning.

Arriving at work, dozens of non-threatening Hispanic teenagers greeted me with hellos and good mornings. Some of them forgot to do their homework, but I told them to try to remember tomorrow.

We discussed the current event in each of my classes. We talked about executive orders and what a president can actually do about immigration. For many of my students, their futures and the stability of their own families will depend on the outcome of this political process.

There are various approaches to immigration reform. The solution is not easy.

One thing should be easy, though. It’s not OK to scapegoat ethnic groups.