This month, May, 2019, the UN is going to release a companion study to its harrowing global climate change study, in which a group of of hundreds of climatologists memorialized the obvious. Unless there is a universal and immediate cessation of our carbon-based economy, we'll broil ourselves out of existence by as early as 2100. Bad enough. Worse, is the that report to come chronicles the end of nature. Literally. Let that roll around in your heads. The end of nature.
Not that anyone should be surprised. Thanks to endless technological advances and our unparalleled ability to create viable worlds completely detached and disconnected from natural forces, we've acted like an incurable virus on the Body Planet. It's not just fossil fuel or carbon. It's the fundamentals of how exist as humans as clear pathogens to this planet. Sealed off by wood and stucco. Getting water out of a tap, meat from under plastic and vegetables from a bin--we're completely disconnected from supply, process and demand. Looking at cities and towns from a jetliner, it's not too hard to abstract them into fever blisters on a verdant body--and they're expanding and mestasticizing at a record rate. Bigger is better, more is better--it's in our DNA. The fact that we've devolved into nothing but a consumer species says it all.
Dair Jamail is a well respected war correspondent, who chronicled the climate crisis as if it were a live war zone in his book, The End of Ice. He offered this summary in a recent interview,
“A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things,” Jamail explains. “I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.”
Good for Dair. Seriously. But I haven't.
I'm still raging and working through a deep despair that is at the core of my work these days. It's nothing new for me. When I was 6 years old, I saw photos of whales being slaughtered on whaling vessels and was so horrified, I wrote a letter to complain to President Kennedy (yup, I'm old) and got a vapid response back. This sounds so NorCal, airy-fairy, but I've had a deep, profound and specific connection to nature for as along as I've been a conscious being. Which is painfully ironic given that professionally I've been central to launching all kinds of new technologies that eat valuable resources and reinforce our hostility and otherness to the natural world. Satellite TV. Computers. VCRs. Audio. Digital movies. Video games. The DVD platform. Cable & TV networks. Portable storage and hard drives. E-commerce platforms. AI and VR technologies and platforms. My garage is a museum of evolutionary media.
As I watch personal technology and social media rip through the fabric of our morality and norms; watch people obliviously walk into oncoming traffic and walls with j-shaped, white headsets dribbling out of their ears; listen to billionaire heads of social platforms blink in stunned wonder as to how their global "town square" could be possibly co-opted by bad people for their own ends; and cringe as a two-bit, obvious carnival con Tweets himself into a potential dictatorship of "the shining city on a hill," the disconnect becomes even more clear. Technology circles the globe with the equivalent of capillaries, arteries and veins, but it has no blood. It has rigid algorithmic structures that are built exclusively on binary declarations of on-off, pass-fail, good-evil, but it has no bones. There's no life within, only a relentless metabolism of eyeless and impulsive public expression and runaway commercial sales.
Given my past and present, I'm by no means a Luddite nor is this an apology. In the grand scheme of things, I'm not that important and others have and would have gleefully done the work I did. But it has animated a compulsion to express how I feel about it.
Which is what "Fraught" is ultimately all about. It's about the distortion of technology and our "humanness" us and on the world. I wrote previously that I'm "stuck in ugly" in my work--as much as I'd love to photograph a serenely placid lake, I'm not drawn to it. These are ugly times. And I feel like I'm running out of runway and that I can't stand in the way of this avalanche of feelings that's roaring through me at the moment. If not now, when? If not me, whom?
At the end of the day, my work points to aberration. We don't seem to belong here. Nothing we do or value seems to comport with the values of nature. We crave the naturally impossible. There is no symmetry in nature. No straight lines. Yet we prize symmetrical faces and designs as beautiful and create structures that are rigidly line-straight and at right-angles to each other. We have no natural limitation on quantities or balance. We'll take everything we can get every time, and not leave anything for anyone or anything else. We kill for sport or for no reason at all--others have written about these things more forcefully and specifically than I need to here. We might have 99% of our DNA in common with Chimps and even dogs. But our brains are profoundly different, and so is our behavior.
"Fraught" rips the masks off, and shows the tension. Bleak? Yep. Misanthropic? Maybe. But perhaps there's some redemption in this, some way to connect cause and effect and at least raise some awareness that will let our "better angels" take flight. If we have them...
I'm not sure why this hit me so hard, but it's one of the saddest statements I've read in this years-long parade of sad and dispiriting statements. It's from an article entitled "New Kids on Block," from the January 21, 2019 issue of Ad Age, whereby the author outlines the hot, new demographic for advertisers: Kids born between 2010 and eventually through 2025. That is, if we're not annihilated by a Trump wag-the-dog war or an environmental holocaust.
The article extolls the virtues of "Generation Alpha" (the irony being in the name of what we learn is likely to be best educated, but the most self-centered, insular, and material generation in history). In other words an advertiser's dream and a societal nightmare. We learn that what Alpha kids (first among equals, ahem) really want is stuff and notoriety. Fitbits, Alexa devices, tablets, phones--if it glows, talks and has animations, they want it. Right now. But wait, there's more.
Ryan, an 8-year old boy from Texas runs Ryan ToysReview, a YouTube channel that attracts 18 million followers and garnered him and his family a cool $22 million last year. He's been an online toy influencer since he was 4. If you thought Macaulay Culkin was a casualty of his early fame, watch what happens to little Ryan when his voice deepens, the world moves on from his ToysReview and he isn't cool any more. Ryan is hardly alone. Ad Age profiles almost a dozen similar YouTube stars who have millions of followers and have yet to celebrate their 10th birthdays.
Who can blame them? Or their parents for imbuing these values? What's the difference between Gen Alphas goals and values and that of our current president and a generation of athletes and Hip Hop artists? In a society where it's nearly impossible not to see someone on a phone in every public place, why would anyone think that alternative, non-technology based behaviors would be encouraged? It's hard to point to one causal factor when there are so many and they're so persistently loud in our culture. Instant, global omnidirectional media, technologies, runaway wealth, sociopathic leaders in politics and business, celebrity worship, lack of contextual education and the ability to deliver immediate gratification for any and all desires, right now, anywhere in the world.
I've worked with cutting edge technology companies and tech visionaries longer than I'm ever going to admit. And to a person, not one of them initially started their company or invented their technologies for the money. The ones that were successful did it out of a sincere desire to improve peoples' lives. The ones that did it to make a killing almost always died on the vine. So it's cruel proof that the road to hell truly is paved with the best of intentions. Because of the massive proliferation of life-changing technologies, all aimed at making us better, more connected and compassionate humans, kids out there are bored by the pure joy of playing with a dog. Fido just can't compete. Pundits say if the trend toward technological dependence continues, we're going to lose our connection with the natural world. Wrong tense of the verb. If Ad Age is right, we've lost that connection with little hope of ever redeeming it.
Would love to spread some holiday cheer at this time of year, but that would be seriously delusional. Perhaps mankind has always lived at the brink of disaster. After all, that's when we seem to be at our best, most magnanimous and creative. But given the seemingly hourly emergence of worldwide cataclysmic events the past few weeks, one can't help but be at least gloomy, if not outright terrified.
We're at a definite pivot point where the ties that bind are unknotted, and common decency and community values are replaced by a hollow mindlessness. Ignorance, and the fear and rage it produces, have been unleashed on every living species (there are 50% fewer of them than there were in the 70s). Somehow, we slog through, unconscious of the garbage (literal and otherwise) we spew, and the very clear consequences that are being visited upon us every waking minute.
For a decade or more, I've been thinking that the explosion in digital technology is far more profound than creating new ways to work and entertain ourselves. I've often thought it is was a biological adaptation to climate change--a deep response to an increasingly hostile biological environment that would demand that we would need to be less physical, less consumptive and differently connected than ever before. Just as birds know when and where to fly to avoid a harsh winter, we somehow know that in order for us to survive the increasingly toxic environment we're creating for ourselves we need to morph into something different.
Setting singularity aside, we seem to be on our way. The Internet took about 10 years to reach global critical mass. By comparison, simpler improvements in technology like color television took 35 years to reach 70% US adoption and CD's took about 30 years to replace vinyl. Think about it. The internet was and still can be a complicated, expensive and unsatisfactory experience. In its initial days, you needed a PC, dedicated modem phone line, an ISP subscription, all for a balky pseudo-static TV-lite experience that continually crashed. No way this would have survived as a pure commercial gadget or new entertainment technology unless something deeper was operating. As crappy an experience as CompuServe and AOL were, they and others like them, stormed the globe like wildfire. Why?
My take is that the Internet is the antibody to an increasing virulent and toxic natural world. It eliminates physicality--just ask printers, book publishers, musical instrument makers, bricks and mortar retailers, bankers, you name it. It eliminates geographical distance. Companies in the US compete for contracts in Brazil with companies in Romania and Taiwan. The web distributes and flattens expertise. Everyone knows everything--or can find out within a couple of clicks. There is no premium for exclusivity, because if something can be digitized, it's no longer yours, it's everyone's. Including your privacy and most intimate moments. Finally, it's an ongoing, perpetual process--we're archiving ourselves 24/7 with every key stroke.
Again, why? Because we know on a profoundly deep subconscious level that without profound change, human life (and tragically, our plant and animal friends) are not viable in their current state. I can think of no better explanation for the inexplicable times we're living in. The emergence of shrieking nationalism and religious zealotry is on the fight side of the pendulum; the rapid adoption of text messaging, Instagram and new digital vocabularies that are replacing body language and the written word are on the flight side. I'm admittedly freewheeling and academically way over my skis here, but the trend is compelling and hard to miss.
If history is any predictor, this change ultimately will be breathtakingly rapid and likely bloody. If the US Government's recent climate report is at all accurate, we have about 20 years before things really hit the fan, with no consensus or political will to begin to effective tackle the myriad challenges we're facing. Which leaves us with the Trump Circus, Kardashians, kittens and the Darwin Awards--of which all of us seem to be viable, yet unwitting contestants. Happy New Year!
John Oliver got this right last week: "When fake groups hire fake experts and fake crowds to shape the outcome of real events, it can cause real damage."
He wasn't talking about the "fake news" meme, and at the time of the taping, Reality TV star, Omorosa's SCUD missiles hadn't hit their mark at the West Wing. He was talking about Astroturfing, which is a form of live trolling that is effective in building fake public support for causes that the real public usually doesn't want. Astroturfing is a kind of propaganda led by phony special interest groups stood up by unseen corporate interests, "experts" who are actors paid to read specific talk points, and fake crowds which are hired, wardrobed and rehearsed to look like concerned citizens who support a given cause. The worst part is that it actually works. It shapes city ordinances, pushes bills through legislatures, gives tax breaks to the powerful and is yet another polarizing force that sets us against each other.
Astroturfing works because it gives us a sense of belonging and fuels our outrage against "the other." We want to believe. We seem to have a collective itch that only public adulation and constant acknowledgement can scratch, which makes us vulnerable to every con that comes down the pike. Narcissism, vanity, and self-interest have always been a nasty part of the human condition and probably existed when we lived in caves. But amplified by second-by-second universal, free access to a global audience, these are the only things that seem to matter, so we're an easy mark, easily stampeded. Which partially explains why we have the leadership we have in D.C.
Those of us who are following our politics minute-by-minute are living on the knife edge of a helpless cognitive dissonance. It's excruciating. I can't turn it off because I have to stay vigilant and aware. It's the most patriotic thing I think I can do--stay aware, be informed, and try to be a force against the institutional gaslighting that turns black to white, freedom to slavery, and peace to war--which left unchecked, could ultimately result in another civil war or turn America into the next "shithole country."
At the same time, it's poisoning my art, my photography and my general outlook on life. My series, "Fraught" was so-named because of it represented what I saw as the collective anxieties of others confronting the subconsciously stressful situation of air travel. Turns out, it's not my subjects that are fraught these days. It's me.
Whereas the original set of images flowed from an organic, authentic place, the ones I've developed over the past 18 months are much more tortured and difficult. They can't seem to be nasty enough. They're artificial and contrived, not because they contain a hard truth, but because I don't think they're finished until they're truly monstrous. Before, I knew when to stop and when the story was complete. Now an image isn't done until it's uncomfortable and horrifying.
I've never shot for peaceful beauty--that's not in my DNA. I've sought some glimmer of human truth in everything I've tried to do, which means my work is among the least likely to end up in a dentist's office (nothing wrong with beautiful, calm images, BTW!). But if my images are the mirror to my soul, I need different input, not just a vector to my mounting rage and sorrow for where we seem to be headed.
I'm stuck in ugly.
So I'm swearing off "he who shall not be named" for a while. I'll stay vigilant, but I'm done writing even tangentially about him and the effect he's had on the decline of our experiment in democracy. Not that he cares or will miss it. He gets enough ink, after all. My bet is that when Mueller and the NY District Attorney's office get close to his money, which they inevitably will, he'll declare his presidency, "the best in American History" and resign. He'll take his "base," which is essentially a target audience of about 10 million fools and fascists, ring up his buddy, Steve Bannon and start the most noxious media network since Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. Then it's truly "game on," and I'll have to hit the streets again.
Until then, I just can't.
Ten dead in Texas today. Shock. Grief. Outrage. The handwringing sanctimony, sobbing parents and the earnest pleadings of jowly law enforcement officials will fade into the gauzy glaze of Harry and Meghan. It won't last 36 hours. And the sickness of whateverthefuck America has become will just shrug and wait for the next dozen kids to be gunned down in their US History Class or 3rd Period Geometry. If you talk to these kids as I did at the March for Life in San Francisco a couple of months ago, you'll find out that "live shooter" drills are as much of a fact of life as their Instagram pages. They're certain it's going to happen to them. They'll even tell you they have some probable suspects. The guy who's just not right, who no one really knows or wants to know. "It's a matter of time," they'll tell you. Helluva a way to grow up.
I recently worked for a marketing firm headquartered in Las Vegas, and was at a company meeting about 10-12 days after the shooting on the Strip that killed and injured hundreds of concert goers, their final moments spent enjoying a breezy evening listening to their country music favorites. I remember that night last October. What you heard first were the horrendous numbers. Then body camera and iPhone footage of people scrambling over bodies, not sure which way the bullets were coming or which escape route was safe. The footage of the hospitals and shaken reporters who had no words for the horror they'd seen. Then the analysis, the experts, and finally the decline into the entropy of the gun issue: Nothing will happen. Owning firepower is a God-given right. It's the price of freedom. Shit happens--bar your doors and get a gun so you can be the one of the good guys the next time. It's become as formulaic as episodes of The Batchelor.
Except that in real-time, human reality, it isn't. I went to the memorial on the Strip to pay my respects. A woman was there who visited her friend's marker three times a day. It was nearly two weeks after the tragedy but her wailing anguish was as fresh as the day she first heard about it. There are no words. The shooter was more than a 1/4 mile away from his victims. He shot from the Mandalay Bay, over Las Vegas Blvd. into a crowd of thousands. It's impossible to fathom how powerful his weapons were and how incomprehensible this whole event was until you stand there, look up at the hotel and see the sheer distance between the shooter's window and the killing field. There are no words.
No sane person standing on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Hacienda Avenue, seeing how much distance there was between crime and perpetrator, can rationalize the legality of weapons of that capability. No one. No sane person can rationalize looking through the sight of a semiautomatic weapon at 6-year olds and pulling the trigger. Yet these atrocities are normalized--not just by NRA money--but by us. Because as socially and intellectually aware as we might be, as much as we might march and protest, we still accept the narrative and the mini-series of tragedy every time this happens. There needs to be deeper connection than text and Tweet, than marathon coverage on CNN. There needs to be an angry rejection of thoughts and prayers over events that are 100% avoidable. Change has to happen one person at a time. Until we pull our heads away from the screen, even for a few moments a day, and have real conversations with real humans in real time over issues that really matter, there will continue to be fewer of us.
There are no other words for the state of our nation these days. No matter which ideological stripe you might happen to wear, unless you're an anarchist, every headline brings with it a sadness, a relentless sense of loss. America, as we know it was shot in the head about 40 years ago, and it has been flopping around, out of control, without reason, direction or a philosophical and moral center.
It's being laid to rest one outrage at a time. A wrecking crew of opportunists, led by one of the most venal human beings to take power since since Caligula, is dissolving not just the fabric of this country, but its foundations. The hatred, corruption, arrogance, incompetence and ignorance of an acidic non-ideological game show huckster puts us all at mortal risk. Literally.
I'm pretty sure this guy is owned lock, stock and barrel by Russian oligarchs, if, for no other reason, with six bankruptcies under his belt, no reputable, legitimate bank would fund his businesses. All of this might be capitalism's ultimate cosmic joke--the tragic backwash of a banal business deal, the consequences of which could truly be catastrophic.
But that's a conversation for another time and place.
I'm more interested in digging into the "why." Why we're so nonchalant as to not be outraged by a con artist who has decided unilaterally that it's right to deprive 23 million American of healthcare, threaten the viability of the planet, and transfer our life savings to an predatory class of corporate oligarchs. It's not that we've become a docile society. Polarities, passion and protest are at their highest point since the late '60s. It just doesn't seem to matter.
There are a multiplicity of villains here, too numerous to mention. And while it's convenient and true for the left to point their fingers at a concentrated power-grab by the right, fueled by the daily bile of Limbaugh and Fox News, fact-free fear, Koch money and gerrymandered districts, it's also convenient and true for the right to cite liberals' air-headed identity politics, finger-wagging academic complacency and perpetual economic entitlement,
But all of that seems to miss the much larger point. We're in the midst of a profound pivot. Our current state of being seems to be a confluence of technological "progress" on the one hand and of the stark, perhaps unconscious realization that this planet can't sustain all of us. This is truly an "adapt or die moment," not just for American democracy, but for the world.
There are no clear cut "winners and losers" in a game that is yet to be defined, despite our leader's proclivity to proclaim such designations. The Rust Belt voter who thought Trump would be a "man of action," got that right. It's just that his actions have no chance of solving their problems. Worse, his actions catastrophically cloud and delay our ability to truly address the real problems that underlie this mess to begin with.
Because the factory jobs Trumpsters lost weren't because of bad trade deals, or even global capitalism. They were lost to technology. To automation that increases productivity at the cost of peoples' families. To an Internet that not only connects once separate markets, but that eliminates physicality and geographic distance with every keystroke. Paper, pencils, heavy machinery, photographs, CDs, film, movies--thousands of everyday products are gone and with them, whole industries that capitalized on them like brick and mortar retail. Not to mention national and cultural borders that up to now, have defined who we are and how we're distinguished from "others."
Which leads to the ultimate question, "Who are we?"
It's one of the most difficult questions asked of us in virtually everything we do. Beyond the need to make a living and support ourselves and families, why do we work in the fields we've chosen? Why do we choose our friends, our life partners? Why do we choose the products we buy and political parties we support (these days, they're kind of the same)?
For photographers, the question is persistent. Why trip the shutter at that particular moment? Why choose to emphasize a particular person in a crowd as opposed to someone else? Why choose color instead of black and white? Why make photographs at all? Certainly, a quick flip through Flickr or Instagram will tell you that the world doesn't need more photos. The question of "why" is bottomless, particularly in a post-factual, image saturated world.
By profession, I'm a strategist helping companies, both for-profit and non-profit, navigate radical change. For more years than I'm going to admit, I've lived at the razor's edge of the most profound period of transformation in human history since the Industrial Revolution. As a "digital immigrant," I remember three TV networks and the "clicker." On my desk at my first job as a journalist was an IBM Selectric and carbon paper. Magazine type was set, put down on with wax and edited with X-Acto blades. My first mobile phone made Maxwell Smart's shoe phone seem petite. I shot bricks of Tri-X with a Nikon F2.
The journey from quaint analog to genomics and emerging A/I and Augmented Reality defines my life path. I've been personally digitized not out of jobs, but out of professions. At least three, to be precise. So I'm fascinated -- no, to be more accurate -- obsessed with trying to make sense of this consequential period of time. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Which is driving what I'm choosing to photograph these days. Like many others, I'm overwhelmed by digital overload, and crave the ritual simplicity and handmade authenticity of less technologically infected cultures. I'm not alone in that, given the explosion of "adventure" travel and the crush of tourists in previously undisturbed places like the Mekong in Laos (ok, I'm guilty of Bourdain envy). At the same time, I'm drawn to the infusion of universal digital culture into every nook and cranny of our conscious lives. And when those two things cross in our politics or in places like New Orleans, Southeast Asia or Istanbul, the compulsion to make photos is overwhelming. To document an era that will clearly pass, as well as shooting the tension of what is and what will be.
So this space will be an attempt to add some color commentary and context to the images here. A way to work through at least some of the "why." And it might very well become a place to rage when circumstances dictate. Given the current state of affairs, probably more rage than commentary. Stay tuned.