Thursday, January 18, 2018

Well, What Was She Doing There Anyway? (On Buying Cars and Owing Sex)

By now, you've probably read all about "Grace" and her unpleasant encounter with Aziz Ansari. You've likely also read, or at least heard snippets of, the responses, many of which revolve around tried and tired tropes like "Well, why did she go to his apartment if she didn't want sex?" "What kind of mixed signals was she sending?" "Why did she give him a blow job if she didn't want sex?" "Why didn't she just leave?" (Even though she did, um, leave guys. That's literally what she did.) 

Writer Ann Glaviano had a reaction to these reactions that she published on Facebook. The whole post is worth a read, but I want to specifically focus on one part that really resonated with me. Glaviano wrote this:
it sounds to me like she was expecting some sexual encounter to take place, but at a pace that perhaps included her own arousal (!), and with some amount of skill (!). when he made it clear that he wasn't about those things, she perhaps had second thoughts about continuing to have what sounds like objectively terrible sex. (not terrible because of his moves - terrible because of his complete refusal or inability to notice his partner and how she was responding.)
So many of the conversations about whether or not Aziz's behavior was acceptable (it wasn't) or indicative of a larger problem (it was) ignore this crucial point: Grace didn't owe him sex even if she initially wanted to have sex. Grace could have gone into his apartment with every intention of having sex all night long, and that doesn't make what happened once she got there any less disturbing. All those "Well what was she doing there anyway?" questions are really saying, "Come on! She wanted sex!" as if that somehow makes it all okay.

I have been vocal in the past about the problems with analogies that turn bodies into physical property. I stand by those assertions. That said, I'm going to give an analogy here that veers into that territory just because it seems like the kind of thing that might make this understandable.

Let's say I see an ad on the internet for a used car. The car looks awesome. The pictures are taken from just the right angle. It lists the amenities like a sunroof and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system. I decide to go check it out in person and show up at the dealership.

Now, I want to buy a car. I have every intention of buying some car. I might want to buy this car, but I haven't decided yet. I have certainly walked into the dealership in a way that communicates the possibility of buying a car.

The car dealer comes out. He's rude. He's pushy and aggressive and not very friendly. He rolls his eyes when I tell him which car I would like to see and huffs as he goes and gets the keys for me to test drive it. When I get to the car, I see that it is not as advertised. There's a huge dent that those pictures conveniently hid. The sunroof isn't operational. The engine doesn't turn over right away when I try to start it, and the whole thing reeks of cigarette smoke.

At this point, I'm going to leave the dealership. If the dealer cornered me, pressured me, tried to force me to sign a check, he'd be wrong. I am not going to buy that car.

"But why did you even go in the dealership if you didn't want the car?!" "Why did you ask to test drive it if you weren't going to buy it?!"

Do you see how silly these questions are?

Maybe if I really, really want a car and the dealer changes his attitude and starts showing me better cars, I'll stick around and consider a different purchase, but at some point, I'm likely to realize that this isn't the place for me. They don't have the car I want. This whole dealership is full of shitty cars, and I am under no obligation to buy a shitty car.

We are under no obligation to have shitty sex. Even if we have made plenty of indications that we were considering having some sex, we are under no obligation to have this particular sex. We are probably likely to reject this particular sex if the signs start to demonstrate it is likely to be particularly shitty sex.

I'm not going to presume to know what "Grace" intended to do when she went to Aziz's house, but there are plenty of Graces in the world, and there are lots and lots of Azizes. That's the problem. This is a very common story, and our collective reaction to Grace is a very common problem.

We are still operating under some Puritanical ideal that women's virtue is the foundational reason that rape, sexual assault, and rape culture are a problem. If we can demonstrate that a woman was not quite as virtuous as we thought, then we can excuse whatever else happens to her.

Rape culture isn't bad because it sullies virtue. Rape culture is bad because it promotes rape. Rape culture is bad because it violates another person's autonomy and boundaries about what happens to his/her body.

Wanting to have sex is not an obligation to actually have sex, and indicating that you might want to have sex does not excuse anything else that happens after that if it become non-consensual. When we can fully wrap our minds around that apparently very difficult concept, I think a culture of consent might start to emerge. Until then, we'll be hearing a lot more people saying "me, too."

Photo: Michel Curi

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Signs Pointing Toward the Future of Education

Laura McKenna has an excellent article at Edutopia about the shift away from letter grades. Here are some key takeaways from the article, but if you have a minute, you should go read the whole thing:

  • Assessment policies don't match modern workplace demands. "Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration."
  • The changing of the guard will result in major changes to education as a whole. "The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike."
  • The new methods could cause even deeper educational inequities for marginalized student groups.
    "Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities."
Watching what is happening in higher education right now (from the very front row, in fact, you could even say I'm watching it from the stage, and my character is about to get killed off), I have a personal stake in this game. Of course, you can never really tell when you're at a watershed moment until time has passed and you can look back with the clarity of hindsight to connect all the dots, but I have both the sinking suspicion and the cautious hope that this is one for education (and maybe also our economy and our cultural values since those things are pretty tightly braided together). 

Assessment is important because the evaluation of the final product shapes the process by which the product is created. This is what we mean when we complain that standardized testing forces well-meaning teachers to "teach to the test." It results in a school environment where "covering" the material is more valued than "mastering" it. Most importantly, standardized testing leads to standardized thinking. 

If the answer can be boiled down to a multiple choice question on a test that everyone takes, then the information isn't novel or creative or probably very interesting. Most of being successful on standardized tests (and I say this both as someone who is very good at standardized tests and who has spent many years helping other people do well on them) is a combination of short-term memorization and being able to break down language patterns and use process of elimination to figure out likely right answers. 

The type of reading you do when you are preparing for a standardized test is superficial. You spend a lot of time skimming for key words and definitions, thinking like a test writer rather than a researcher. In fact, if you read the text in a way that no one else has, you will fail the test because that means no questions will arrive at your answers. 

The bottom line is that standardized testing makes for standardized thinking and standardized performance. And here's the thing, if the way that you think and perform can be standardized, it can be automated, and if it can be automated, in the next five to ten years, it will be automated. 

We don't need to produce human cogs for the machine anymore because we now have robot cogs for the machine, and they don't need vacation time, sick days, or overtime pay. They don't get distracted from the task because they are in a fight with their sister. They don't get tired because they were up all night with a sick baby. They do routine tasks better than we do with more consistency while costing less. We cannot compete. 

Some schools (*cough* I'm looking at you STLCC), see the change coming and are reacting by doubling down on standardization. They're turning higher education into course-in-a-box cookie cutter classes that can be easily automated. Eventually, they'll likely replace (or at least greatly reduce the need for) flesh-and-blood teachers and turn to automated grading software and self-paced courses that require very little teacher interaction. I can't tell if this motivation is made in earnest and they really think this is the wave of the future or if they are just short-term thinkers who are trying to make as much money as possible while the making is good. Either way, it's a bad plan for all the reasons pointed out in the Edutopia article. We're going to shift away from standardization and automation in education, not toward it. 

I'm going to make a prediction. If schools don't operate with some foresight and reject standardization and automation as the models for their underlying philosophies, we will soon see a complete de-coupling of credentialing from institutions. 

Think about it. The students coming out of these course-in-a-box programs will not have the skills necessary for the only jobs available, jobs that require creative thinking, flexibility, and independence. When those doing the hiring recognize (as many already have) that a college degree doesn't mean much in terms of matching the skills they're seeking, they'll turn to in-house training and accepting more and more non-traditional methods of demonstrating "education." 

The rise of unschooling homeschoolers, online class platforms like Udemy, Outschool, and Coursera, and a host of other fledgling trial runs demonstrate a likely future. People will be able to get educated in whatever way they see fit: online classes, one-on-one instruction, apprenticeship models, etc. All they'll need to do is demonstrate that they have the skillset necessary for the job, and when the transcript full of A's doesn't do that anymore, the employers will stop asking for it. 

I think it is very likely that we're entering a period where educators will all become independent contractors. The adjunct crisis is already a sort of model for this, albeit one that was arrived at through cruel exploitation rather than innovation. Adjunct instructors, who now make up the bulk of the higher education workforce, have very few formal ties to an institution and instead are free to take their skills anywhere (or to several anywheres simultaneously). If the decoupling of credentialing and institutions continues, we will soon return to an education model much like the Ancient Greeks. We'll all be Plato or Quintillian standing outside the gymnasium trying to convince people to train with us. Except now we'll have Facebook and YouTube to help us.

Photos by Vita Marija Murenaite and Steve Halama 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Postpartum Depression: The Recovery

A friend of mine shared one of my old posts today, and when the page views made it pop up in my blog stats, I re-read it and thought back on the experience that led to writing it.

It was this post about suffering from postpartum anxiety and depression after the birth of my son a year and a half ago. It made me think about what my life has looked like since writing that post, and the truth is that it took a long time to stop feeling the way that I felt the day I described there: 
Even as it's happening--the panic, the shaking, the breaths that catch in my throat--there's a part of me that's outside of it all, watching it. There's a part of me screaming, "This isn't a big deal! Get it together!" But I can't hear her. In that moment, I feel like I am in fight or flight, but the threat is me. How do you run from yourself? 
With a quick glance or in the right light, I still seem like myself. I still make wry jokes and plan to meet with friends. I still smile. I still love and enjoy both of my children. 
But like a copy of a copy of a copy, if you look closer, the picture isn't quite right. I'm not quite me. The edges break down and the lines start to blur.
In the first weeks following my son's birth, I felt like this all of the time. Every single thing in my world overwhelmed me. I was particularly frustrated with myself because my son was such an easy baby (especially compared to my high needs daughter who, for the first four years of her life, never slept more than an hour or two at a time).  This newborn was sleeping for three hours, waking up to nurse, and going right back to sleep for another four hours. He was the infant that they use to write those parenting books that make all the rest of us feel like we're failing at everything. Even when he was awake, he was just as happy to coo quietly in a bassinet as he was to be held in my arms or swaddled up in a carrier. He just went with the flow.

And I still couldn't handle anything.

The microwave would beep and I'd fall into hysterics because the thought of dealing with finishing lunch would be too much. I'd have to call to pay a bill over the phone, and it would feel like someone was asking me to climb a mountain barefoot while juggling fishbowls that I couldn't spill. Everything was just too much.

At the worst moments, I would fall into a heap on the floor and sob until I had nothing left to sob. At most moments, I walked through my day with my muscles tense, as if I were permanently braced for a blow that never came.

It got better . . . slowly. It was like a pendulum swinging wider and wider with each arc. My normal was on one end, and the terror of being completely consumed by daily living was on the other.

At first, the pendulum would swing from one to the other every couple hours. Eventually it would swing back and forth only a few times a day. Then a few times a week. Then a few times a month. Then once a month. All told, I have only felt like the swinging stopped (fully rooted in my normal world) within the last few months. Part of me wonders if it is really done or if it is just on a particularly long arc.

As time went on, I learned to treat the anxiety like a monster that would sometimes escape a cage but that I knew couldn't actually hurt me. I just had to let it wear itself out until it was too tired to resist being led back into the cage. It was always there, waiting and growling from the darkness, but as long as I could keep it contained, it couldn't ruin my day.

Looking back now, I think the thing that hurts the most is that it feels like time lost. My memories of my earliest weeks with my wonderful son are of terror punctuated with tiny moments of love and joy. I am so glad that I have pictures and videos from his earliest days now that I can look back on them with a clearer mind, without a monster snarling in my face.

Postpartum anxiety and depression is very common. The chances are high that someone you know and love has suffered through this roller coaster of emotions . . . even if you don't know about it. The fear we have about being open and honest about our mental health holds us back from getting the help and support we need.

Monsters are strongest in the dark. Once we turn on the lights, they never look quite as terrifying. Let's make sure we shine them brightly.

Photo: Shannon Kokoska 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Every Episode of Black Mirror Season 4, Ranked

I thoroughly enjoy Black Mirror both as a general concept and in the execution of its individual episodes. While there are a few duds and the series is a bit ham-fisted with its moralizing much of the time, it ticks a lot of boxes for the criteria I use to judge a television series. It's entertaining, balances out optimism and pessimism, examines the crucial intersection of humanity and technology, and provides talking points for very real ethical dilemmas.

I just finished Season 4, and here is my ranking for all six episodes. (Spoilers, obviously.)

6. Crocodile- 

My least favorite of the season was overwhelmingly "Crocodile." In fact, this is the only one that didn't make it into the positive category on my "is this good?" initial test.

I'm not alone in my distaste for the episode. David Sims writes: "I don’t know if I’ve ever been as frustrated by an episode of Black Mirror as I was by “Crocodile,” a miserable hour that left me both emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled. . . . It is, undoubtedly, relentlessly depressing. And yet it also didn’t seem to have much of a deeper point."

That pretty much sums it up for me, too. Crocodile opens with a couple drunk driving through open countryside when their car slams into a cyclist, killing him instantly. The male driver of the car convinces his female passenger to help him dispose of the body in a nearby lake despite her insistence that this is a terrible plan. Flash forward 15 years later, and the woman (Mia) has made an incredibly successful life for herself as an architect as well as a nice family with a husband and son. When the driver from the past accident shows up in her hotel room to tell her he's going to anonymously write to the widow of the man he killed, she freaks out about the possibility of getting tangled up in the murder investigation that would likely follow. To avoid the possibility of being discovered as the accomplice to vehicular manslaughter nearly two decades in the past, she murders her friend with a display of brash (and completely unrealistic) violence.

The technology part of the show doesn't make an appearance until it's well on its way, and then it takes a long time to fully reveal itself. We see an insurance investigator who is trying to find out the details of a crash involving an automatic pizza delivery car. To do this, she uses a standard-issue device that reads people's memories, subjective data that she uses to piece together a more complete picture of the accident in order to help her company with lawsuits and assigning blame. Mia had witnessed the accident right after she killed her friend, and the insurance investigator eventually finds her, hooks her up to the machine, and sees the memories of her murder.

Mia, completely terrified that she will now get caught for that murder, ties the investigator up in her shed, tortures her with the fact that she will also hunt down her husband and kill him, and then bludgeons the investigator to death with a log. She vomits, which I guess is supposed to show she doesn't like beating people until their brains are exposed, but she drives 50 miles and breaks into the investigator's house to quietly sneak up on her husband and beat him to death with a hammer. Then she notices their infant child and murders her, too (off screen, thankfully, but probably with the same hammer).

The twist is that she forgot to kill the guinea pig, and we see police hooking it up to a memory machine just before the episode ends.

I don't have a problem with gore or nihilism, but this episode fell flat in so many ways. Mia's motivations made absolutely no sense. There was no development of her character before or after she snapped that would give us a lesson from her actions. On top of that, I'm pretty sure that murdering four people with your bare hands in the span of two days is the kind of thing we can already investigate and prosecute pretty well, and that's without the help of memory machines that makes every passer-by who might have driven past your car as you made this 100-mile round-trip murderous trek into photographic evidence.

The plot feels lazy, and the end reveals that the child was blind, a line that felt like it was supposed to be packed with meaning that they forgot to write (or maybe got cut out in editing). Finally, the guinea pig felt like a glib joke in the middle of what was otherwise played as a pretty straight, serious piece of writing. It just didn't work. Any of it.

Entertainment value: 1/5
Ethical exploration: 1/5 

5. Arkangel- 

I already wrote a post analyzing Arkangel as a piece of commentary about modern day parenting and the constantly renegotiated boundaries of privacy. I won't re-hash the plot summary and analysis from there.

It was a little surprising to me that this episode ended up so low in my rankings because I really did enjoy it. It was meaningful and interesting, and I felt invested in the characters and their stories.

The message was often a little too shoehorned into the plot, but overall it was relevant, if not particularly groundbreaking.

In the end, this was just an okay episode, and there are much better episodes, so "okay" lands it in fifth place.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 2/5

4. Metalhead

This episode was the most thematically striking of the bunch. Shot in black and white, the entire feel of it was darker and less playful than all of the episodes (expect perhaps Crocodile, but I'd rather just pretend that it didn't happen, so I'm going to ignore it in comparisons).

In Metalhead, we're introduced to three characters who are on a mission to get some very important but unknown object from a warehouse. They're in a post-apocalyptic, barren landscape where cars and buildings are abandoned and falling apart, a clear sign that whatever terrible thing happened was widespread and pretty thorough. Our protagonists are discussing other people to whom they hope to bring comfort, so it's clear that there are survivors, but it seems like more of a hanging-on-by-our-teeth kind of survival than a rebuilding-society kind of survival.

When they get to the warehouse, they toss a rock at a van to make some noise as a test but leave the keys in their ignition, so we know right away that whatever villain exists in this dystopia isn't human. When they find the box they're looking for (contents still unknown to us), they accidentally trigger a "dog," a robot that has been designed to serve a surveillance and protection role. And by "serve a surveillance and protection role," I mean kill anyone it encounters. It is really, really good at this. It is nearly indestructible, able to open any door lock with a its universal passcode abilities, and able to hunt down people both by shooting tracking devices into them and by using clues like blood, sound, radio waves, and heat. In other words, once you've triggered a "dog," you are very likely going to die.

To underscore this fact, two of our three protagonists are killed pretty much immediately, leaving most of the episode as a tense, well-paced suspense where one woman tries to escape one robot. They both take a lot of damage. It loses a leg; she digs the tracker out of her thigh, leaving a gaping wound. She runs its batteries out; it recharges and keeps hunting. It loses its shooting capacity, so it finds a knife instead. It's like the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons but with a lot more emotional investment in one side.

The thing I liked about this episode is how much I was rooting for the woman and rooting against this machine, to which I most certainly ascribed agency and intention. This was an evil robot. I hated it. The sight of it making a comeback made me angry.

I was treating it like a villain. A human villain. A sentient villain. But it wasn't.

It was just doing what it was programmed (and left behind--forever?) to do.

In the end, the woman finally destroys the dog, but not before it fills her face and, most importantly, throat full of trackers. There is no way she can remove them without slitting her own throat, and so that's exactly what she does, killing herself rather than face the doom that's on its way to her. As the camera pans away from the house she's in, we see several dogs quickly but also somewhat mundanely and routinely marching across the barren landscape. The final scene takes us back to the warehouse where the box they wanted so desperately, the one that contained an item that would bring some measure of comfort to a never-seen but obviously-hurt companion, was stored. Its contents had spilled. It was full of teddy bears.

The implications of this episode are on protectionism and the way that capitalism has taught us to value possessions and profits over human lives and compassion. Those dogs were programmed by someone to protect the contents of the warehouse, and though the humans who care about such things are long gone, the dogs remain, wreaking havoc on every tiny bit of humanity that remains with them.

It's a solid episode that didn't really teach me any new lessons but made me reflect on ones I already knew in a more powerful way. The tension was palpable throughout, and the tone (though bleak) was even and consistent.

Entertainment value: 3/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

3. USS Callister

This one seems to be coming out as the fan favorite of the season. It's getting high praise from people like David Sims, Darren Franich and Charles Bramesco.

This is the one I have seen discussed most often, so I'll keep my recap brief. It opens with a terribly corny Star Trek spoof where the crew of a spaceship fall all over themselves to fawn over their captain, Cole (a man who looks like he would come in fourth place at a local Matt Damon lookalike contest). It was a jarring way to start the new season because the throwback film quality and the obviously tongue-in-cheek acting as well as the overall jovial but completely nonsensical plot (they're hunting a bad guy with a jewel or something) didn't feel like a Black Mirror episode at all.

Because it wasn't.

That was a glimpse inside a video game where the "real" Cole is co-founder of a gaming smash hit but garners no respect from his employees or partner. Instead of standing up for himself in the real world, he secretly collects the DNA of the people surrounding him and replicates their consciousness into the game so that he can torture them at his leisure. His character is played perfectly with equal parts pitiable stooge and sadistic dictator, a dangerous combination when he's handed God-like power.

Like many episodes of seasons past and present, it explores the ramifications of consciousness being separated from the bodies that we assume hold it. The "real" versions of these characters continue on in the "real" world with no knowledge that a version of themselves is being tortured day after day. This episode adds a particularly interesting twist when an uploaded character manages to communicate with her real-life self, further throwing into question what identity and consciousness really mean.

The imprisoned crew hatch a plan with the help of their newest member that allows them to escape the clutches of Cole by plunging themselves into a black hole update patch. They think this act will merely "kill" the code and eliminate their existence, but it instead strips away the modified version of the game and gives them an eternity to act of their own free will within the online version of the game, interacting with actual players from the outside world.

Perhaps the most interesting to me from a moral standpoint is that I (as I suspect is true for most viewers) felt that Cole got exactly what he deserved when he ends up trapped inside the game as his modification deletes itself, his real-life body left limp and unresponsive. What does this mean about my own moral code? The crew didn't know this would happen to him, so it wasn't a premeditated killing, but even if they had, they would have acted out of completely justified self defense. Still, the "people" he tortured were just lines of code. Does everyone who has removed the door from a burning house on The Sims in order to watch them die deserve such a grisly demise? What turns a line of code into a being deserving of justice or revenge?

The episode is at times overwhelmingly silly and at other times horrifyingly sad. It's an impressive roller coaster of emotions to pack in. In places, the pacing feels a little off, and some of the acting left a bit to be desired, but overall, it was a very fun and thought-provoking episode. I can see why it's shaping up to be the favorite, but there were two other episodes that outshined it for me.

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 3/5 

2. Black Museum

I had a hard time arranging my first- and second-place picks. One packed a harder punch when it came to ethical exploration, and the other packed more entertainment value. They are both superb episodes.

I went into Black Museum cautious because I had seen rumblings online that said it was a very disappointing finale for the season. Caroline Framke says the end "isn't quite good enough to hold the episode together." Charles Bramesco gives it only 2 out of 5 stars. Zack Handlen calls it a "dud."

Most of these critics fault it on technical lines. The set up was too complex (it has two dense mini stories leading back up to our frame story). The plot connections were overly contrived. The required level of suspension of disbelief was too much.

I can't disagree with them on any of these statements. I will agree that it is not the best episode in terms of technical execution. The seams tying the stories together are much more like the oversized stitches holding together the body parts of Frankenstein's monster than the streamlined precision of, say, Metalhead.

But I don't care. I'm giving it second place anyway.

This episode opens with a young woman (Nish) pulling into a deserted charging station. The scene mixes a 60s feel with modern technology as she pulls out a solar panel charger for her vintage-looking car. She's stuck there for a few hours while it fills up. Looking bored, she wanders to an abandoned-looking building titles "Black Museum."

This is (apparently, though I didn't know it at the time of watching) a reference to a real museum. Scotland Yard's Black Museum is full of real-life artifacts from famous crimes. My first thought (especially since Nish is black and the setting has a 60s feel) was that it referred to race. I had assumed it was a reference to George C. Wolf's The Colored Museum. After I watched the show (still not knowing about the Scotland Yard museum), I assumed that the "Black" in the museum's name referred to Black Mirror itself. This is because the museum, like the real-life one, is a collection of criminal artifacts, but they are all crimes from the Black Mirror universe. Several of them are recognizable as objects from previous episodes. The implication that all of these terrifying technologies have strung together in the same reality (and that somehow that reality is still more-or-less functional) is sobering.

The museum is owned and operated by Rolo Haynes, a superbly acted conman type who puts on a magnificent performance that mixes slimy salesman with cold-hearted capitalist and unattached scientist.

As Rolo takes Nish around his museum, she stops at two particular artifacts, the catalysts for the aforementioned mini stories. The first is a mesh net that fits on someone's head, a device that allows a doctor with an implant to feel whatever the wearer is feeling. At first, this gives him the remarkable and altruistic ability to diagnosis very difficult medical cases, and we are sympathetic to his willingness to put himself in excruciating pain to help his patients. All goes awry, though, when he wears it through a death, turning him into a pain-seeking sadist who first slices himself to ribbons trying to seek his next high. That doesn't give him the mix of pain and genuine terror he craves, though, so he turns to drilling through the head of a homeless man to get his fix. This leaves him in a vegetative (but ostensibly eternally blissful) state.

The second object is a stuffed monkey. It turns out that the monkey still contains the uploaded consciousness of a woman who was hit by a car just as she was starting a happy new family with her partner. Her partner visits her weekly while she's in a coma. She is able to answer yes or no questions with a light up device attached to her brain, but she is otherwise unable to see or interact with her partner or son. Rolo (who worked at the hospital and was responsible for finding "volunteers" for devices like this one and the pain connector above) offered her partner the chance to download the woman's consciousness into his own mind. She could hear, see, and feel everything he could, but only he would be able to hear her. As you might imagine, this turns out to be a miserable experience for both of them. He can't get any privacy and has a constant nag in his mind. She has no agency and has to watch her whole life from the background. She starts referring to his body as "theirs," and he is clearly not on board. He eventually upgrades to a way to pause her, allowing her to only be "on" on weekends so she can see their son. When he meets a new woman, though, it becomes too much, and she is finally uploaded into the stuffed monkey, a monkey that can only respond as happy ("Monkey loves you!") or sad ("Monkey needs a hug!") Her son tires of this toy almost immediately, so she spends her life (which appears to last an eternity) as a discarded and disembodied being with no way to physically interact with the world.

The most chilling part of this whole episode to me is the throwaway commentary Rolo gives for why the woman still inhabits the monkey and what makes it count as a "crime" artifact. He says that it is now illegal to upload consciousness into anything that doesn't have at least five emotional responses, and it is also illegal to delete her from the monkey. That means that the technology itself is still alive, well, and legally regulated. It also means that uploaded consciousness is akin to immortality, at least from a legal standpoint.

In the end, these two pieces of technology come together as we find out Nish is not who she seems to be. Rather than a random tourist who needs to charge her car, she is a hunter on a mission of revenge. Her father (or, rather, his hologram consciousness) has been trapped in the museum and tortured until he is a slobbering vegetable. A man wrongly accused of murder, his actual body was put to death by electric chair. Rolo convinced him to give up his consciousness in exchange for financial security for his family after his death (something I assume was a lie). Visitors got to throw the switch on the man themselves, keeping a permanent copy of his consciousness in the moment of the most pain as a keychain with his hologrammed, agonized face screaming for all eternity. Nish poisons Rolo, uploads his consciousness into her father's hologram, mercy kills them both, and keeps a keychain of Rolo's final moments as her own keepsake. Then she rides off into the sunset with the monkey by her side. At this point, we learn that she actually has her mother's consciousness uploaded into her own brain, so her acts of revenge were a team effort.

My love for this episode is not in its technical execution. The critics are right that it is a bit sloppy and overwrought. However, what it lacks in that arena it more than makes up for in ambition and purpose.

Zack Handlen writes, "Squint enough, and you could mark Haynes as a satiric version of Charlie Brooker himself; or at least, a version of the writer the show’s most vehement critics often conjure up."

Scott Beggs takes the same observation one step further and suggests that this episode is Brooker calling for help:
In short, why do we watch this show? 
That’s for each of us to decide, but if Nish represents us, Rolo represents Brooker, and the Black Museum represents Black Mirror, it says a cursing mouthful that Nish poisons Rolo and lets the museum burn.
Are we complicit in the same kind of torture that the museum visitors inflicted upon Nish's father when we watch the show? Or does it at least point to this same sadistic impulse within us that would make us those kinds of monsters given the right technology?

The racial overtones (including a set up that feels a lot like the way slave artifacts are displayed for voyeuristic consumption across real America) and the fact that they bring back an electric chair (as the way Nish's father is actually executed in the real world, not just a prop in the museum) point to the true depravity of human beings. We're terrible to one another in the flesh. We hurt, we kill, and we justify it through notions of utility and vengeance. The question isn't what could we become. The question is what are we already. What have we always been?

Entertainment value: 4/5
Ethical exploration: 5/5

1. Hang the DJ

I'm ending on the fun one. This was by far the most enjoyable episode to watch, but that's not the only reason that it gets to be my top-place pick. It packs a meaningful punch as well.

In Hang the DJ, we're introduced to a futuristic dating landscape where people are coached by a device as they are matched up with a partner for a predetermined amount of time until the machine's algorithms gather enough response data to find a "true match," something the creators claim to do with 99.8% accuracy.

I spent a good chunk of this episode frustrated and incredulous. We're introduced right away to two people (Frank and Amy) on a date. They find out that their "expiry date" is only 12 hours away, so (despite their obvious chemistry and attraction for one another) they part ways and begin meeting their other potential mates. Some they end up paired with for only a few hours. Others they stay with for months and months. Frank, in particular, is tied to a terrible match for a full year. While matched, a couple must live together and, at least as far as we can tell from the show, spend all of their time together. One of the things that bothered me is that these people seem to have no other purpose. They don't have jobs. They aren't shown with friends. We don't even see them talk on the phone. They are sometimes reading while lying next to one another and sometimes jogging alone while waiting for their next match, but otherwise their entire purpose seems to be to date, knowing full well that their relationships will end, and mostly being miserable in the meantime.

It becomes clear that this world has some kind of dystopian authority hanging over everyone's heads. The "matched" characters in the background seem cult-like and wooden. There are guards with tazers to keep people in line, and people aren't allowed to be together once their time is up. When Frank and Amy finally decide to run off together because they know they're truly in love and will find no one better by waiting for their "true match," they climb a literal wall in a scene that is every bit as silly as the climax of The Truman Show.

Then comes the twist. Frank and Amy weren't real people. They were the uploaded consciousness of real people sent to play out a simulation to test their compatibility. We see that the versions we watched were actually the 1000th iteration of such a simulation, and 998 of the versions had rebelled to be together. This triggers the real-life Frank and Amy to both get notifications on their phones that they are near a 99.8% match, and they look up and smile at one another.

There's so much that we don't know in this episode. Were all 1000 simulations the same scenario, or were virtual Frank and Amy put through the test in multiple venues and circumstances? Are there an infinite number of these virtual selves paired with literally every other participant in the program, or is there some kind of initial screening that only puts likely matches through this rigorous test? Are the virtual selves deleted after the simulation, or are they left holding hands at the finish line for all eternity?

What makes this episode work so well for me is that Frank and Amy have such genuine on-screen chemistry that I was truly rooting for them. The unfairness of being ripped apart in the name of some algorithmic decision-making was visceral for me. Machines don't know more about love than people do! Of course, when they run off together, I felt vindicated in that belief, but then they turned it all around to tell me that maybe I was wrong and machines do know more about love than people do; they just had to use the very human system of narrative and storytelling to get the information.

That's what ultimately makes this episode my top pick. In a (usually very bleak) reality where technology shows us the very worst of human nature, this (like San Junipero before it) gives a more optimistic outlook on the merger of humanity with technology. In both cases, though, that successful (and not horrifying) merger is dependent upon the humanities: storytelling, the mess of human emotion. Algorithms can work to make our lives better, but first they must be rooted in the stories and meaning of what it is to be human.

Entertainment value: 5/5
Ethical exploration: 4/5

It's no coincidence that my top three picks all deal with the same basic theme: what happens when human beings are exported out of their bodies and given consciousness beyond themselves? This idea absolutely terrifies me. The thought of not having control over my body is my biggest fear, and the scariest future I could ever imagine is being trapped without the ability to respond to the world around me. The cookies in White Christmas or the monkey in Black Museum point to the absolute horrors of these possibilities, but even the feel-good versions in San Junipero and Hang the DJ chill me to my core even as they offer a more optimistic outlook.

If we enter a world where people's consciousnesses can be turned into transferable code, what's the difference between spending an eternity living your best life like in San Junipero or spending an eternity suffocating by your own mouthless face like in USS Callister? Why, the difference is simply what human coder has control, and history doesn't bode well for how that will eventually turn out.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Black Mirror's Arkangel: Privacy is Relative

This post contains spoilers for "Arkangel," Season 4, Episode 2 of Black Mirror.

I just finished watching "Arkangel," and I had some thoughts about it.

First, the show does an excellent job of making the mundane and ordinary moments of terror in daily life come through in a pitch perfect way. The episode opens up with a shot of a mother giving birth, but all we can see is her head and torso as the rest of her body is blocked from view (from us and from her) by a sheet. On the other side are men apparently poking and prodding as a female nurse peers over the curtain. They're testing her numbness to make sure they can proceed with a c-section. She turns to the nurse and apologizes, shamefully, for not being able to push anymore.

The episode is not at all subtle in the territory it treads. This is a look at modern parenting that shows us from this opening moment that the guilt, sense of competition, and desire to do it "right" are setting us up for failure. By playing on the idea that women will feel guilty if they don't give birth in the "right" way, the show establishes from the opening shot that this woman (and by extension, all of us trying to navigate the barrage of expectations of modern parenting) are doomed to fail, if for no other reason than one person's right is another person's wrong.

There are a few terrifying moments where the baby appears not to be breathing, and the shots of the mother's face capture that true terror very well. The baby starts to cry, and all is well. The doctor's hand her over, and the pure love of a mother cradling her newborn fills the screen.

This opening scene turns out to be a precursor to the episode's premise. The mother's terror was rooted in what she could not see. The curtain blocked her view of the c-section that brought her baby into the world, and then--while she was immobile on the operating table--the bodies of the doctors blocked her view of her daughter's first few moments of life. Shrouded in the unknown, the terror of the worst possibilities fill the scene.

The little girl (Sara) gets older, and when she is three, she follows a cat away from the playground while her mother is preoccupied chatting with another mom. The screams of Sara's name from the whole neighborhood joining in a search once again pull the very real terror of a very common occurrence to the forefront. Yes, this is a regular thing (that usually turns out just fine), but it is also a terrifying one (that could turn out in the worst way imaginable). The what-ifs, the unknowns, the imagined horrors of the world are the ones that haunt us all, but they haunt parents in ways that can be paralyzing.

Obviously impacted by this scare, the mother elects to have her daughter implanted with a chip called Arkangel that tracks her location, gives her mother access to her daughter's field of vision and audio, and grants parental controls that block out scary images and sounds based on the child's biological responses to fear. As a result, little Sara grows up under constant surveillance from her caring and loving mother but also unable to interact with her peers the way she would like.

The show skips ahead to her pre-teen years, and we see her trying to fit in with a crowd that is obviously a little more rough-and-tumble than her bubble-wrapped existence has allowed her to become. In particular, she is enamored with a boy named Trick.

Our introduction to Trick shows him watching incredibly violent videos online of people beating one another. Of course, Sara can't see these images because of the filters. Her friend is grossed out by the images and tells Trick she wishes she couldn't see them either, but Sara doesn't have that luxury of arriving at her own ethical boundaries. They've been put in place for her, and they are therefore artificial with little meaning. Trick agrees to describe the images to her, and she becomes fascinated with the idea of blood, which she's never seen. When she draws an image of a beaten body with blood spewing and then subsequently cuts her own finger to see it bleed, her mother becomes concerned and takes her to a psychologist who tells her that the Arkangel system has been banned in Europe and was never approved for full-scale use in the U.S. He says there is no way to remove the chip, but the mother can simply throw out her monitoring platform. Sara can still have a normal life with appropriate peer interactions if her mother is willing to give up her window into her mind.

Sophie Gilbert has a post up about this episode, and she points to the interesting potential exploration of the mediated material kids in the show's world (and, by extension, our own) can access:
Acting out is a normal part of human behavior, it preaches, and parents who deny their children the freedom to experiment will end up losing them. Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear. But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.
Gilbert's desire for a more nuanced exploration of how mediated reality can impact developing minds is a valid one, and the show definitely seems to have a ham-fisted goal of taking on parenting choices, but I still think that it packs a little more subtly into the conversation than this criticism gives it credit for.

The mother does indeed turn off the filters and hide away her monitoring device in the attic (a clear sign that it will be making a comeback later), and for several years Sara develops just fine, even with exposure to hardcore porn and violence on her friend Trick's screens.

Later, we see Sara and Trick enter a sexual relationship, and Sara (a virgin) uses the pornographic language she saw in his videos. He tells her she doesn't have to talk like that for him. With this, the show dances into the territory of questioning what impact this access to mediated realities has on children, but it also seems to close it up pretty neatly. It might give them a warped sense of the world, but they'll figure it out pretty quickly, the show suggests.

What happens next, though, is a very clear critique of overprotective parenting. When the mother realizes that Sara has been lying about her whereabouts to be with Trick, she dusts the device off and starts secretly monitoring her, witnessing her having sex and snorting a line of cocaine. She then confronts not Sara, but Trick, threatening to turn him into the police if he doesn't cut off all contact with Sara. She also makes it clear that she'll be watching Sara's every move, so he can't even tell Sara why he's ignoring her.

When Sara, as teenage girls are wont to do, breaks down because of his rejection, her reaction tips her mother off that she is actually pregnant--something Sara doesn't even know herself. Her mother slips an abortion drug into her smoothie, and when the side effects send Sara to the doctor, she finds out what has happened and that her mother has been watching her. Understandably upset about finding out not only that she's being constantly monitored but also that she was pregnant and has unwittingly had an abortion, the confrontation with her mother turns violent. Sara beats her mother with the monitoring device until the filter that keeps her from seeing the harm she's doing shuts off. At that point, she flees, leaving her mother bloody and the device non-functional. We see her hitchhiking away when a truck stops for her on the highway. Her mother wakes up, realizes she has lost her daughter and cannot use the device to track her, and breaks down sobbing. The end.

The obvious lesson of this show is that children need privacy and the freedom to make mistakes and learn their own boundaries. While she isn't in many scenes, we have Sara's friend to act as a counterbalance for a child who has boundaries without technological enforcement of them. The friend sneaks off to make out with boys at the lake, too, but she gets caught the old fashioned way (by not being where she said she'd be when she said she'd be there) and has to face her parents and the consequences. Sara has no such experience, and I can't imagine a very happy ending for her hitchhiking adventure, especially since she has very little worldly experience and spent most of her life literally blocked from seeing the worst the world had to offer.

A more interesting lesson to me, though, is about the relativity of privacy. Sara has a hard time fitting in not because her mother sees her every move alone, but because her implant makes her an anomaly. Her mother sees her every move, but the other kids' don't have such a burden. Privacy is a relative term, and you tend to notice how much you have or don't have in relation to the people around you.

This is something we see in the real world with the rise in social media. The sharing of pictures, thoughts, and life events that seems commonplace among my generation (and even more so those younger than me) feels like an affront to privacy for many people older than me. The concept of privacy didn't change, and I think that younger people still value privacy. What changed was the boundaries around what constituted privacy in the face of shared experiences.

In some ways, the breaking down of privacy can be a good thing. When we remove the barriers to sharing about common experiences of being human (say, having anxiety or depression or the gross but totally normal bodily responses to childbirth) we empower people to open up about their own experiences, seek medical attention where they might otherwise have been ashamed, and otherwise feel more comfortable in their own skin.

That only works if the majority are on board, though. A breaking down of privacy for a select few while everyone else gets to keep their boundaries firmly in place creates an imbalance that makes privacy social capital.

This isn't to say that I think the Arkangel episode would have been a happy tale if everyone had microchipped their children and spent their days staring at a mediated version of their minds instead of actually parenting them. It's a creepy concept that would have damaging effects on everything from ethics to parenting itself. Can you imagine how much mom guilt and the mommy wars would grow if you could literally demonstrate to other parents what your child was thinking? Your responsibilities to be a "good" parent would be beyond overwhelming! No, I definitely think that the message against the Arkangel is a good one.

But it's not just a good one for us to think about individually. The lesson is not simply to make sure that we give our own children freedom to explore their world and make their own mistakes. It's also a lesson to carefully monitor and push back against attempts to change the overall definitions of privacy and acceptable breaches of it. It's not just our own participation at stake; it's the overall norming of privacy itself that has to be protected.

Photo by Siarhei Horbach on Unsplash

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Loss at STLCC is a Loss for St. Louis

Two weeks ago, I got the devastating news that I would be among the 58 faculty members laid off from the community college where I work. I wrote this post at the time, saying I wasn't ready to talk about it in any concrete way. I'm a little more ready now. 


St. Louis Community College just lost 58 full-time faculty members. This means there will be fewer teachers, counselors, and librarians for the thousands of students who attend STLCC. This loss is tremendous for the individuals who were informed they would be laid off through the controversial Reduction in Force, but it is a loss that will be felt most keenly by the students that STLCC serves, students who by-and-large come from and will remain in the St. Louis region. The loss is all of ours, and the response should be, too.

I was one of the faculty members laid off last week. Half an hour before I was scheduled to meet my students for their final class period of the semester, I received a call scheduling a meeting to hear that my position was being eliminated.

The first person in my family to even attend college, I worked hard and rose through the ranks of academia to attain my PhD, and I knew early in my professional career that I would dedicate my life to teaching at-risk and vulnerable student populations. To me, it would be a testament to the teachers who had made a difference in my own life. These were teachers who saw through the statistics telling them that I, a child on food stamps in a single-parent household in rural Missouri, wouldn’t have much chance at academic success. Those teachers gave me every opportunity to succeed by providing challenging learning environments and an unwavering system of support. I knew that all students deserve exactly what I got: the chance to learn anything they want from teachers who believe they can do so. Before STLCC, I worked with low-income and underrepresented minority students through Upward Bound and the McNair Scholars Program. Through these experiences, I realized that my true calling was in the classroom.

In 2012, I started my career at STLCC as an English teacher specifically hired to teach developmental writing classes. I teach at the Forest Park campus, which serves one of the most diverse student populations in the state. I have worked with students who are homeless, students who were just released from prison, students whose families do not approve of their efforts to earn a degree, students who are going to college for the first time in their 60s, students who report never having read a whole book before, and students who graduated with high grades from their high schools.

At Forest Park, most students have to take developmental coursework. Some of them are returning to school for the first time in decades and need the courses to help refresh their skills and memories. Some of them were not adequately prepared in high school. Some of them are trying to turn over a new leaf after missing opportunities earlier in their educations. All of them come in with big dreams and hopes for the future. Developmental students are those who do not pass the entrance exams placing them in college-level classes. Before they can enter English 101, they have to take courses designed to fill the gaps in their education and provide preparation. Without this opportunity, these students would not be able to complete any degree.

During my layoff meeting, I was informed that there would be adjunct positions I could apply to in the future. In addition to being an incredible personal insult (with what would amount to a 70% reduction in my salary and complete elimination of my benefits), this is also a loss to the students. To be sure, adjunct faculty members serve an invaluable function in our educational system, working tirelessly for what often amounts to minimum wage pay to provide students quality courses. However, they do so without the stability, compensation, or institutional support that gives them access to all of the tools necessary.

As a full-time faculty member, I hold a minimum of thirteen office hours a week, time where I meet face-to-face with students to discuss their work, their goals, and their challenges. Adjunct faculty members are required to hold one such office hour per class, and the fact that they often have to work at multiple campuses to make a living means that their availability is often limited. Full-time faculty members are given professional development funds, funds that I have used to take additional training beyond my doctoral degree specifically geared toward teaching developmental students and toward conducting research in the field. I made developmental writing the focus of my doctoral research and completed a dissertation about the history and theory behind teaching these classes. Full-time faculty members also serve on committees across the district. I have worked to redesign curriculum, train incoming faculty members, and create programming for students outside of class.

An elimination of full-time faculty is more than an elimination of the jobs for the people who served in those roles. It is a systematic deconstruction of the support for our most vulnerable student populations. Chancellor Pittman’s previous position at Ivy Tech and his own strategic initiatives for STLCC point to a future that will rely heavily on online coursework and automated content. While this kind of education may sound efficient and cost-effective, this vision does not serve developmental students, thousands of whom come to STLCC specifically because of its open access admissions policy. Many of these students have nowhere else to go and cannot get their needs met with disconnected online classes.

Of the 58 positions cut, 14 were in English and 9 were in Reading, by far the hardest-hit disciplines, and two-thirds of the disciplines that serve developmental students. The teachers who were cut are among those who are the most passionate about and who have the most training and experience in developmental education. Falling enrollment numbers have been cited as the justification for these layoffs, but of 29 developmental writing courses offered at Forest Park this past fall, 13 of them were already staffed with adjunct faculty, and 12 more of them were staffed with faculty members who received layoff notices. It’s obvious that the students’ need for these classes already exceeded the resources given to meet them, but now those limited resources have been decimated to make way for administrative raises and flashy new building projects to house those administrators.

St. Louis Community College does not exist to provide cushy administrative positions (complete with housing and car allowances) on the taxpayers’ dime while the people who do the work of actually serving students are eliminated. It exists to provide opportunities for education to the people in our community—all of the people in our community.

The current vision for St. Louis Community College is orchestrated by a Chancellor and approved by a publicly-elected Board of Trustees who answer to us, the citizens of the districts served by STLCC. Our classes are full of our future nurses, chefs, police officers, small business owners, lab techs, and childcare providers. They are filled with the future of St. Louis. It is up to all of us to make sure that we communicate loudly and clearly to the Board of Trustees what kind of future we want to have.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Anti-Consumption as Personal Moral Failing: Dixie Cup Knows Best

I recently threw my daughter a birthday party that involved a lot of paint, some decorate-them-yourself cupcakes, and a house full of busy, happy children. It was a lot of fun and generally went a lot smoother than I expected.

I typically don't buy disposable dishes, but I did buy some for this party. In particular, I purchased some Dixie cups to put the frosting in to make the cupcake decorating less of a free-for-all of licked spoons being dipped into a communal tub of sugar.

While I was getting the supplies out for the day, I noticed something interesting on the side of the box of Dixie cups.

It says, "Dixie everyday cups are versatile and affordable, so you can focus on your day and not the dishes.
Be more here"

I was curious, so I looked into the campaign and found a few commercials with the same slogan.

The entire campaign centers on the idea that dishes are distracting us from the more important things in life. We are implored to "be more here" by engaging in conversations and family experiences rather than dishes.

I take issue with this on several different levels.

First, let me be clear. I hate doing dishes. I am not here to defend doing the dishes. It's a miserable, endless, thankless task that I did tonight, and yet magically when I go downstairs in the morning, the sink will be full of dirty dishes. This despite the fact that all the people who use the dishes will have been asleep upstairs all night. It's a mystery. I can't explain it.

Anyway, even though I really hate doing the dishes, I still don't feel the need to be pressured into a constant supply of disposable products to avoid them. For one, someone still has to wash all those serving bowls and utensils and cookware that produced the food on those plates, right? The dishes are a-callin'.

Secondly, even though the campaigns don't overtly gender the would-be dish-doer, I think it's pretty clear that this is tapping into mom guilt. You already waste so many of your precious moments away from your children. Are you really going to miss out on the chance to help with homework just so you can wash that plate? Well, are you, Susan? And whose fault will it be when little Timmy gets a C?

Finally, this campaign suggests that being "here" (a call upon the general trend toward mindfulness in our lives and specifically in consumer practices) is a wholly individual, self-centered thing. My being "here," according to Dixie, means in my own home, focused on my what is right in front of me.

But the drive to use fewer disposable products (the drive I am sure Dixie is reacting against with this campaign) is also about being "here." They just define the "here" in a broader, more collectively impactful way.

People who refuse to buy more than they need do so often with an eye toward reducing the negative impacts of consumerism, particularly on the planet. They are "here," too.

This meme sums it up pretty well:

Dixie's attempt to make doing your own dishes a source of guilt over missing out over life's better moments is shameful. I understand that this might be a challenging time, ethically, to sell disposable products, but this kind of doublespeak about the motivations behind efforts to consume less isn't helping.