Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Happy with Machines?


I had the good fortune to hear author Zadie Smith speak last night. I’ve enjoyed her books, but the big pull was to connect with the person who inspired my granddaughter’s name. She proved to be an eloquent, charming, funny and thoroughly educated person with multiple perspectives across class, race and culture (born to a Jamaican mother and British father in working class London and now teaching at NYU in the U.S.). She’s conversant with a wide range of authors while still grounded in Dickens and Shakespeare and other dead white guys.

In talking about the inevitable impact of Facebook and fast-paced media (“most of my students confess they can’t make it through a novel”), she came to this simple conclusion: “The question is whether these machines are making us happier. If yes, enjoy! If not, stop.”

Which prompted me to wonder, “Are they making me happier or more miserable?” And the answer of course is, “Yes.” Today, the wireless cut out on me a dozen times. Half of them at school and half at home. It’s a pleasure to post these blogs, it’s great to announce workshops and such and e-mail has certainly become the default way of contact from the frivolous to the profound. But it would be interesting to chronicle the number of times a stranger entering the room would find me cursing at a screen. That can’t be good for my health.

The cliché is that technology is neutral and it is we who use it for good or bad. As anyone who has done their homework and read Marshal McCluhan or Neal Postman can testify, that’s only partially true. Each technology accents different parts of the psyche at the expense of another. The difference between radio and TV, for example, is profound.

And we all have different deep-seated longing that certain technologies promise to fulfill and then fall short— like mistaking a Facebook friend for a real friend. We have deep-structures in the brain that stay alert for flickering motion for survival’s sake and seduces us to keep looking at a football game we couldn’t care less at in a sports bar instead of attending to the scintillating conversation of our friend at the table.

But in terms of what we watch, how much we watch, how and where and with whom and for what reason we watch, yes, we still can choose all of the above and that makes all the difference in the world. The Youtube video of the two twin babies talking out of context is pure entertainment, but when shown after a scat-singing exercise in tandem with Jazz Dispute and having read the book The Singing Neanderthals, it carries a greater meaning and weight.

Today we showed the 6th grade a remarkable artful short on Youtube about rhythm and life in a Mali village. We used Apple TV and an i-Pad while admiring people who still work with their hands, pounding millet, cutting a tree to make a drum, forging an iron bell, tuning into the rhythm of language sprouting into song— in short, people who were not walking around with i-Pads in their backpacks surfing Youtube. At the end, the narrator pleads for the continuity of their way of life— which has something to do with keeping the i-Pads away. Irony piled on top of irony.

In the 8th grade class, the machines were extremely useful in framing the long, convoluted and just plain weird history of the minstrel show, the granddaddy of Broadway musicals. We saw Al Jolson sing Mammy and then dug deeper (on the i-Pads) to uncover things about Daddy Rice and Jump Jim Crow, Ernest Hogan and his unreapeatable hit song, Clorindy and the Origin of the Cakewalk. Modern technology used with a purpose and a point of view. So hooray for the chance to make these points vivid. But we could have arrived at a similar place through books or storytelling. Or maybe if we all were just out living our lives, hanging out with the kids I see out the window building a fort from milk crates, we could finally forget about the sordid history of just about everything and just enjoy being together on this bountiful earth without a single screen to mediate. Might that make us happier? Just wondering.

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