Ever since my mother received her smart phone, she has constantly been coming to me with numerous questions about how to use it. She has such a difficult time adapting to how it works no matter how many times I show her. No matter how much she uses the smart phone, I don’t think she fully connects or pays attention to it in order to learn. She cannot learn how to use the smart phone if she does not open herself to learning how to use it. Half the time when I am showing her what to do, I am not exactly sure what I am doing myself; I am figuring it out as I go along based on a set of knowledge I have learned already from smart phones and just playing around with it. I try to work with the phone based on how it might move or based on the signs it gives.
Sometimes, I think she sees technology as a magic device that will just do for her and she doesn’t want to take the energy to work with it, to move with it. Sometimes, I think that she thinks of God in that way, too. God is somewhat detached from herself as much as the technology is and she lets it remain that way. This experience with my mother stirred my thoughts on our interaction with God (or higher spirit) and technology. Maybe we should see God (or higher spirit) much like the character Lauren Olamina does in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. If “God Is Change,” I have to learn its fundamentals and adapt with it. I have to interconnect with it as if it is a part of me, as if we are extensions of each other, that I have to attach it to me and bend it to my image to survive and grow as much as it bends and changes my image. As for technology, it should be looked at in a similar fashion. It adapts to you as much as you adapt to it.
A few days ago I witnessed a twitter battle between astrologist Sam F. Reynolds and Science Nerd/Blogger Rai Elise on November 5th (click on view conversation to read her tweets) over the legitimacy of astrology and the conversation highlighted some important and common conflicts between art fields and science/math/technology fields. Reynolds says some key things in his argument that I wanted to spotlight (I rearranged the tweets):
“Science is only as good as its tools, like everything else…The tools of science have their limits like anything else. People seek astrology for meaning. Science may do that less for ppl.”
“I don’t have a hope of an objective reality. Even with our scientific tools, we see the cosmos as we are…It’s not objective reality we’re talking about. It’s consensual reality…We’re not talking about tools of science, but what inspires them and the net meaning derived from them”
About electricity: “That’s still a consensual use of a force that most of animal kingdom has no use for. Not free of subjectivity”
“You say it’s not true, but do we have independent & known perceptions of things from other species on this planet?”
“Astrology ultimately comments on behavior using planets as references…Astrology isn’t about studying nature, but the study of human nature as symbolized by celestial phenomena…The natural world has its motions, but how we assign meaning is the province of all other arts. Are they less important? …Astrology is poetry applied to celestial events. What’s to prove with poetry?”
This morning I heard that communication companies are attempting to rid us of phone landlines and replace them with wireless service only, and it reminded me of the two films I saw last night, Leah Gilliam‘s movie Apeshit and Wesley E. Barry‘s The Creation of the Humanoids.
Gilliam spoke at the showings of the film about her use of “obsolete technology” in creating a film using 8mm reduction film print of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the hosts of the event finding also spoke of finding the rare print of Barry’s film. But the old technology also correlated with the themes of obsolescence in both films.
As mentioned here, Gilliam’s use of old film formats and technologies, including silent film dialogue cards, created a conversation around political ideologies and rhetoric that are now out-of-date, such as the ideas of tolerance, inferiority of different beings and assimilation.
Barry’s film, instead of having the humans and the alienness of humanized apes, has it between humans and androids. After an atomic war kills of over 90% of the humans on the planet, the humans left begin creating robots to compensate. But there is an antagonism between the androids, who are disparagingly called “the clickers,” and some of the humans. But the twist at the end is that some of the humans who think they are humans, are actually androids. They found out that there has been a secret process to transfer the memories and experiences of the humans left into robotic bodies through a “thalamic transplant” to keep them living because human bodies are becoming “obsolete” after the atomic bomb.
Where was Black Girls Code when I was younger?! Event today, black women make up less than 3% of the STEM industries and other women of color is lower, less than 1%.
Last Thursday, I attended the showing of the Black Girls Code short documentary and fundraising event. Already having taught over 1500 girls across the country, the organization wants to change those statistics above and hope to reach one million all over the world by 2040, maybe earlier, 2020.
The organization’s founder, Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer, created the non-profit after noticing the lack of women, specifically women of color in these fields, and recognizing that her daughter, Kai, was using the technology, but not creating it. Besides that, with computer classes costing thousands of dollars and lack of computer science in grade schools, it is difficult for younger children from lower class backgrounds to obtain that knowledge. Through summer camps, one-day.one-topic class, 6-7 week Saturday classes, mobile labs, and working with other organizations and schools, they want to open the doors of opportunity for them.
Parliament – “Children of Production”
Recently, I read Therí A. Pickens‘ pieces about Kanye West’s “Monster” and it inspired my own thoughts on “Monster” from the view of Frankenstein, which led me to listen to songs from Parliament’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. I wondered how all of these strands of ideas fit together.
These stories reveal the fear that we as humans have not only of the other, but the fear of our own creations and further the fear of our own selves as creations. For creation, and by association knowledge and technology, is ambiguous in that it is both constructive and destructive to our lives. Creators can be seen as both heroes and rebels, both creators and creations. But its how we confront that which makes the difference.
The story of Frankenstein was originally called The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus in Greek mythology is known as a trickster god who is credited with creating humans and bringing them fire, the spark of life. As a trickster god, Prometheus deviated from the norm by rebelling against Zeus and through creation of a hybrid creature who is part god (breath, fire, knowledge or spirit of god) and part human (made from physical matter, clay or dirt of earth). In Biblical stories, both Adam and Jesus can be considered hybrid figures as well (Jesus as well can be considered technology or a technologist). Other trickster-creators include Isis (she put Osiris back together after Set dismembered him and created a hybrid child, Horus) and Anansi (is sometimes credited with creating sun, moon, stars and agricultural techniques).
A couple of weeks ago, I attended Movies at Bryant Park with my friend Jane, who I interviewed in another post. On the train, we had a short discussion about film, photography, memory and the spookiness of it. One of the ideas we discussed was the belief that photography steals your soul. My answers reminded Jane of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I still need to read. However, other works influence my thoughts as well, such as Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the film Dark Mirror, and the musical The Total Bent, which is partly about a singer who strives to make another record like the hit record he had at 11-years-old. I also read this “Photo Myth Study” article about the relationship between mirrors and photography and the religious beliefs behind the topic of photography “stealing souls.” These works provided a base for the thoughts I have been having about all types of recording technology. They all have their haunting elements to them. Basically there are ghosts in these machines.
“Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face” – Faith Ringgold
What do we think of when we think of science and technology? Living currently in our hi-tech, digital world with computers, the Internet, techies, and laboratory scientists, many of us separate ourselves from science and technology as if they are not part of our everyday lives. Do we think of things like a mask as technology? I want to explore that idea.
A few weeks ago, I began reading Tempestt Hazel’s Black to the Future Series in which she interviews artists and intellectuals about afrofuturism and afrosurrealism. While reading some of the answers of the interviewees, I recognized a subtle framing of and at times distancing from afrofuturism based on electric and digital technology of the 20th and 21st century. Saying phrases like “I’m not a techie” in a sense undermines how much science and technology are embedded in the creation of our lives and that they have existed longer and have a wider reach than we normally think. As the aesthetic movement of afrofuturism gains recognition, we need to break down the boundaries of what we describe as science and technology.
A few weeks ago, Melissa Harris Perry gave a segment on her show about the political, economic and historical significance of transportation in the United States. Transportation for Black communities, as well as other marginalized communities, historically have been modes of displacement and transcendence, and the lack of transportation for these communities has meant entrapment. For transportation, social mobility and social freedom go hand in hand.
When we think of transportation, human rights and freedom, the first image that comes to mind is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, these ideas reach further back in time and outside the boundaries of the United States. Being “carried across” or “carried away” is a sentiment that is embedded within the Black Atlantic, and humanity in general. For example, in Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, he recalls his own abduction:
“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board…I was now persuaded that I gotten into a world of bad spirits…”
For Equiano and other enslaved Africans, transportation resulted in a lack of agency and freedom. Yet they tried to reclaim it in two essential ways- the spirit and the feet. The runaway slave was person who took agency in carrying themselves away, not a piece of property suffering from what masters in the United states called drapetomania. If anything the madness was caused by their enslavement and they were escaping to find healing.
The most famous example is Harriet Tubman, our favorite afrofuturist navigator, who led the enslaved away on a secret network of paths and safe-houses called the underground railroad. Artist Sanford Biggers described her as “an astronaut, traversing the south to the north by navigating the stars.” But she did not do it alone. If we look at the spirituals, the enslaved were constantly creating codes and sending messages on how to escape. Songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Wade [walk] in the Water,” “Steal Away,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “The Gospel Train A-Coming” gave instructions on how to travel by land, water and vehicle.
Not only did the United States have runaways, so did the Caribbean, from where my family comes. They were called “maroons.” The word comes from the Spanish word for runaway, “cimarron,” which literally meant “living on moutaintops.” From Queen Nanny in Jamaica to Gaspar Yanga in Mexico, they would escape to hills and other hard to access areas.
Although spirituals existed in the United States, in both the States and the Caribbean, African descendents achieved a transcendence beyond their boundaries through spirit possession. For instance, in Haiti Voodoo, the participants in the possession are described as being ridden like a horse by a spirit, or Lwa. Instead of being carried away by an oppressor, they were carried away by a spirit.
As transportation and society changed, so did our relationship to transportation. At the beginning of the 20 century with inventions of the steamship, train, airplane, car and spaceship, migration and migration art also rose in popularity. Throughout the 20th century, the great migration in the United States of African-Americans to cities, to the north and to the west was an effort to escape the harsh Jim Crow racism of the South and find better jobs. Migration for a better life was also a desire for many Black people from the Caribbean and Latin America
The invention of records also led to the popularity of transportation songs, most notably in blues and r&b songs. Many of these songs expressed the notions of these vehicles taking people away to another world, whether it was heaven or just another part of country. During the Civil Rights Era and Black Power Era, these songs also expressed the desire to transcend boundaries. One early example is in 1927 record of Reverend Nix’s “White Flyer to Heaven” and the “Black Diamond Express to Hell” sermons, which could be controversial in his use of colors.
Some other examples include Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” about going to a Sugar Hill in Harlem; Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” was about the singer’s love for traveling as a means of escape from the world’s problems; The Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” was about boarding a train to heaven; Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary was a boat that went to other side of town; Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” was to the land of funk; and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia,” was a woman joining her man on a train to another world, Georgia. To bring this full circle, my favorite Parliament song, “Mothership Connection” alluded to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” connecting religious mythology of god coming down in a chariot from the sky, transportation and Black freedom, and alien spaceship during the space race era of the 60s and 70s.
The rise of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s also was affected by transportation. Robert Moses’ project for the the Cross Bronx Expressway displaced several U.S. Black, Caribbean and Latino communities as well as took away funding for subway infrastructure. In some ways the subway became a new type of underground railroad, but more as a way for youth to voice their discontent with music and graffiti in the underfunded subway system. The car cultures of West coast and Southern hip-hop came with spinning rims and hydraulics that bounced cars up and down so high to the point that they might blast off into the air. Bay Area hip-hop popularized “ghost-ride the whip.” Hip-Hop continued the fantastical and speculative approach to transportation as a form of free expression for poor, disenfranchised communities.
As we have entered the 21st century, how will our transportation stories change? The infrastructure in the United States is crumbling. In disaster areas, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2004, poorer communities lack of access to transportation leaves many trapped and left to die. Reverse migration stories are happening as some Black communities are moving back down to the southern United States or back to home countries. We will just have to see where the next voyage takes us on this wandering rock.
Kanye West’s “Spaceship”