Monthly Archives: September 2013

Acts of Recording (Part II)

I write/draw, therefore I am.

It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.

Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.

I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.

As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:

For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.

And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.

Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And also:

We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.

Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.

Is this documentation rational?

Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?

This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.

Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.

So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.

If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.

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The Secret Happiness of Strangers

Or: Why People (Don’t) Steal, and how many slaves work for you.

Today I lost my phone. Clean, shiny, heavy with photos and text messages (and all their attendant memories) barely four months old. I realised its absence only when leaving the cafe, patting my back pocket only to feel that familiar cold nausea spread across my skin. Half walking, half running down two blocks to State Library, that most beloved, trampled intersection of paths, we swept our eyes over the bench and surrounding concrete, quite hopeless.

Minutes later a young man approached us, and asked what we were searching for. Is it a phone? Tell me what it looks like. What colour is the case? What is the wallpaper? Pretty soon you know it’s a test. Nope… not blue. No, sorry, that’s not correct. But his eyes are laughing! He’s having fun, but this isn’t fun. Not quite. What’s going on… PLEASE….! I’M DESPERATE.

He motioned for me to follow him to the entrance of the library, where he withdrew my phone from his bag. Indeed, the case is blue. (Of course it is, I’m the one who bought it.) I collapse into happy, inarticulate, nervy gratitude, the sort that shakes and is generally unattractive. His name is Asif and he is a Hazara from Afghanistan. We talked some more, and I learn some interesting facts, like how his grandmother is from Mongolia and he liked my wallpaper (stick-figure girl next to a poem in curly Arabic writing).

As D and I leave, savouring the delicious feeling of escape from some feared, certain outcome, one thing we cannot stop reflecting on out loud is how unbelievably LUCKY we were. That a stranger would pick up my phone, safeguard it from other random strangers, and watch over the space for hours. Unbelievable, right?

And this all makes me think…

…What makes us do things for others – what possibly makes us care about the happiness of strangers?

Is it for recognition, for some potential reward, or merely for the warm glow from acting kindly?

As some person once said, it is easy to empathise when your friend hits failure or sorrow – it is far more difficult to be happy when he succeeds…

But with strangers – somebody whose emotional wellbeing you have no personal stake in – what makes us go, ‘yes I’ll wait’ or ‘no I’ll steal it’? Given the choice to either absolutely contribute more happiness or more sadness to the world – who would say no? And yet people do, time and time again so that it is the norm – the norm to expect never to see a mislaid coat in a dodgy restaurant again as someone has ‘most likely taken it’. It is also institutionalised, in our policies, our politics, our calculi of efficiencies.

It must depend on variations in family upbringing, socialisation, but also this: how involved you are in the situation – relative or absolute.

Where you absolutely stand to gain from selling a phone on the black market and making a few $000s, self-interest and competition may drive ‘finders keepers’ behaviour. Rational self-interest is so to-be expected it bores me. As you can tell I’m more interested in the other situation.

When we are relatively (never absolutely) removed from any gain in either outcome of a choice, are we naturally primed to act to make strangers happy? Or the alternative – apathetic? Most of us will at some point find ourselves playing small to hugely instrumental roles in shaping strangers’ lives, and making such choices on a day to day basis. Actively. Deliberately. Lazily. Rejecting loans. Screening transfer/job/visa/marriage/asylum seeking applications. Ruling on child custody/appeal/life sentences.

And more often that not, these choices WILL remain insignificant to us, one ‘task’ out of a hundred others; periphery to our own busy, individual lives. But sometimes they do not.

I think it largely comes down to a theory of abstraction. The higher the degrees of separation between you (or often your computer screen) and your object of action, the more legitimately excused you are of empathy. From sitting in a stuffy office – to consuming as an innocent (in all other interpretations of the word) consumer in a rich country. Or so it seems. When are we ever truly innocent?

Consumerism and its ethical consequences is THE greatest moral challenge of our time. Slavery Footprint, an interactive tool that calculates how many slaves work for you – yes you dear reader – provides a somewhat forceful nudge back to this fact.

It also offers up casual, terrible facts such as these:

How do I look in this dirt?

Every day tens of thousands of American women buy makeup. Every day tens of thousands of Indian children mine mica, which is the little sparklies in the makeup.

Shrimp Cocktail, Anyone?

Bonded labor is used for much of Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, which supplies more shrimp to the U.S. than any other country. Laborers work up to 20-hour days to peel 40 pounds of shrimp. Those who attempt to escape are under constant threat of violence or sexual assault.

Dig Out. Plug In.

Coltan is an effective capacitor found in electronics. A U.S. State Department official was interviewed about Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, “The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.”

School’s out for cotton.

1.4 million children have been forced to work in Uzbek cotton fields. There are fewer children in the entire New York City public school system.

This wonderful interactive methodology combines facts with a plan for action – nothing much here to critique – but the one thing I do have beef with is this.

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.23 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.40 AM Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 1.11.50 AM

Is this line of comfort supposed to feel genuine?

After all – when are we ever truly innocent?

Individually, maybe yes. Collectively, historically though – no way. Guiltily gilded guilt. But here’s the thing. What counts as collective, and what counts as individual? Are consumers a shapeless, irreducible group or is each consumer directly accountable to the consequences of his/her own consumption?

I think our need for innocence, for assurances of non-guilt which naturally graduates into a sense if entitlement, both intellectually and materially – is the greatest toy the Politician can have. All of them – I say the Politician to represent multinationals, the Establishment, anyone who stands to gain more than the average Joe from the status quo. And boy is it working – because it always has. Until now.

The ironic, despairing truth is that the existence of each of us is, to varying degrees, a configuration of guilt, shame and complicity. Advertising – glitzy, soothing, indulgent and always affirmative – dulls this reality.

But the rapidly expanding, dizzying freedom of information that is flowing in from exploited corners of the world – anarchical and held down by no one – pierces through all this bullshit. In broadcasting photos of bloody, fuming carnage from Syria, or breaking down the average number of slaves that work for you, we are no longer allowed to lounge around in a fog of comfortable ignorance. And hallelujah.

Miller said that ‘in this age of information, ignorance is a choice.’

This declaration that I hope, no I am sure, will become increasingly less true as information pervades every millimetre of our social consciousness.



*Just as an elucidator: My number was 52.

photo (19)

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