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When I was in graduate school studying media—before the days of social media—one of my professors always reminded us that whatever technology we chose to use and master, it was important to remember that technologies are tools, nothing more or less. And some of them are powerful, as we have experienced since the advent of the internet and smart phone. And so I am puzzled when someone says, “I don’t want to get into FB, it will consume me.” Unless one develops an addiction, this is patently not true. And most people are responsible. Those that aren’t can easily be un-followed or un-friended. I don't believe in robots taking over the world; the use or the abuse of any technology is in our control

That all said, I do remember my first skeptical reactions to FB, which I wrote about here. The skepticism didn’t last long. Like everyone else I know, I have enhanced my personal and business connections, kept in touch with friends and family very far away, found people I had not been in touch with in a very long time (a college friend, a friend who had moved to Asia) and enjoy posting photographs with captions (one technology inside another). I’m a writer and I write long captions, notes and stories. Why not? I even use the edit option to change them occasionally and/or correct a mistake. Thank you, FB, for this feature.

As for privacy issues, surveillance and all the rest. I try to ignore them. We all know that surveillance is pervasive and will be for the forseeable future. But this is my thinking: we live in a free society, albeit constricted in some ways. And in this democratic free society, it is our mandate to speak with loud, bold voices without fear. Whomsoever wants to drop in on my blog posts and FB posts, please do so. If you have an issue with what I have said, answer it in words. I am listening.

I am thinking about all this today because an ex of my daughter’s, who I have always thought of as a son, is in the hospital. He’s able to use his phone and is on FB all the time. Friends and family are at his bedside, others are on FB sharing stories, joking with him and encouraging his recovery. What a wonderful healing technology, one to celebrate as we enter a new year.  Read More 
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People You May Know

Photo by Carol Bergman
We got stuck in the Air Train at San Francisco Airport for more than a half-hour. Fortunately, we had landed at Terminal 1 and the doors had opened—fresh air. The train was crowded, travelers leaving, travelers departing, many with so many bags they could have filled a hangar at the airport. There were children, old people, middle-aged people, a pilot. The pilot debarked and started barking into his phone. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but he was not happy. There were no trains coming the other way. The trains run on a loop—one breakdown and that is it. Who designed this brilliant system that is run by a computer terminal without any human in sight?

People were quiet at first, then they/we started to talk. Where was the staff, the personnel? (Note the word person embedded in the word personnel.) An electronic voice informed us, every five minutes or so, that we would be moving within ten minutes. And then it thanked us for our patience. How did he/she/it know we were being patient? I had to pee, my husband had to pee, other passengers had to pee, I was thirsty. Should we get off, go to pee in Terminal 1, return to the platform in the hope the trains would be moving and we’d make our flight? Was there any other way to get to Terminal 3? Was there anyone to ask?

We decided to wait it out. We were already weary from a traffic jam over the Bay Bridge, the return of the rental car, and a big bill for gas. No gas station we could see ten miles out—those were the instructions from the rental car company, either a scam or weird instructions. And we had timed our arrival perfectly to buy some food before boarding. No such thing as a decent meal on a plane anymore or a flight attendant to smile and chat and be human when we need something such as a pillow. A pillow? Forget that.

So what are flight attendants these days? Are they persons? Anything more than servers and emergency personnel? How difficult is it to hand out plastic cups of water, for example? I imagine a day will come when there will be totally automated flights—no flight attendants, no pilots. Not far off, I imagine. And with this fantasy I would like to tip my summer straw hat to George Orwell and his novel, 1984. He imagined the unimaginable. Now we are there. Or here.

So I suppose this blog is about the dehumanization of our lives and our selves. All of which is to be resisted and defied by everyone and, particularly, by artists who cannot function without deep connection. When a FB feed tells me that I might know some people and then displays the faces of these people on my screen, I get skittish. There is no way they can know the people I know unless they scan my email. So of course there are surveillance and privacy issues, at the very least. Why would I want to be a FB friend with my mother’s lawyer? How does FB know that I have communicated with my mother’s lawyer? But there is her face on the “people you may know” thread. Is this a thread?

I spoke to our pilot as we exited the plane. He was at the cockpit door waiting for the passengers to squeeze their way down the too-narrow aisle, all PR smiles in his crisp white shirt, slightly disheveled blond hair and beer belly. He hoped we enjoyed our flight. He hoped we would fly the friendly skies again. I interrupted his script when I asked if he was the pilot I’d seen on the stuck Air Train. He said no, he wasn’t, he’d flown up from San Diego in his own plane. And he didn’t seem to know or care about our little ordeal on the Air Train. He avoided eye contact. He had no empathy. He was a robot.  Read More 
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Welcome to the Dragnet

Julia Angwin, an award winning former Wall Street Journal reporter who now works for the independent news organization ProPublica, signs the flyleaf of her recently published book: “It’s an honor to be caught in the dragnet with you.”

Like several investigative journalists these days, she is concerned for the safety of her sources, many of whom are whistleblowers who may very well lose their jobs if they talk. The safeguards for Federal whistleblowers are nearly non-existent so Ms. Angwin is constantly searching for unorthodox ways to set up meetings. She sends snail letters, buys burner phones, uses secure electronic drop boxes and Duck Duck Go as her search engine.

Snail mail is cumbersome and problematic for a reporter working to deadline. On a recent trip to Washington DC, some sources didn’t answer her burner phone because they didn’t recognize the number. Several appointments fizzled. And this is one of many frustrations for journalists since dragnet data collection and other new technologies have outpaced our understanding of their damaging effects to the free flow of information in our democracy.

And what does this data collection consist of? Everything and nothing. And this is a paradox, of sorts. We release information to the cybersphere but have little knowledge of the day to day lives of many in our neighborhoods, in our country, and elsewhere. How many Indians know about the poor people behind the retainer wall next to the airport in Mumbai? There are 90,000 of them, collecting recyclable garbage from the airport hotels. It took a reporter, Katherine Boo, to expose the corruption and disdain of the Indian government in her Pulitzer Prize winning book: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I am just reading it now. I had no idea. I was blind and ignorant of this horror on the other side of the world. So, yes, drag the net and collect data—which costs billions by the way—and then--is it asking too much?-- do something with it for the common good.

Should all writers be concerned? The answer is yes. Should all citizens? Yes.

These rhetorical questions were addressed on Tuesday night at Fordham Law School by Ms. Angwin and a distinguished panel moderated by Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center. Unlike other in this series, “Balancing Security and Social Justice,” the audience was a bit sparse. True, the weather was balmy, spring in the air, but I worried that the 24-hour-news cycle’s interest had waned. It would pick-up again if Edward Snowden returned to the US, was arrested and indicted. Hero or traitor? The arguments on both sides are fraught and heated. But at least we won’t be tossed into jail for arguing.

And that is the point, or one of the points, so far as I am concerned. Now that dragnet surveillance of both our trivial and important “information” has been exposed, we are able to talk about it, write about it, and attend panel discussions. For this basic human Constitutional right, we have to thank our Founding Fathers, and Benjamin Franklin, one of our first whistleblowers:

http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/benjamin-franklin-americas-first-whistleblower/.

Venceremos.  Read More 
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Pussy Riot At The Olympics

Photo from the New York Times

I met Pussy Riot’s lawyers at an event at the NYU law school last spring and was inspired by their story. Now these brave women—protest performance artists I would call them-- have recovered from their incarceration and are in Sochi demonstrating against the autocratic Putin regime. Though their staged events may seem silly, their intention is deadly serious. Hopefully, it won't kill them.

Whenever I hear about a police state suppressing artistic expression, I have nightmares. The fear of such suppression—self-censorship—gives me even more nightmares. There is no reason for us to be timid, none at all, yet fear of exposure is a constant in a writer's life even in a Great Democracy such as ours. And we do have to remain vigilant in a democracy, despite our Bill of Rights. Thus, all the necessary conversation right now about surveillance.

Students arrive in my workshop—and I will have a bunch of new students next week—eager to find their voices and their subjects. It is their mandate, I tell them, to speak loud and clear about whatever interests or moves them, and to shuck the editor on their shoulder telling them not to write about this or that. We don't live in Russia. We don't live in China. We are as free as we dare to be.  Read More 
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