Category Archives: Change

Climate Change

The problem with climate change is that it sounds so innocuous. So the planet is going to warm by a few degrees. To plenty of people in Canada that sounds like a good thing. The oceans are going to rise. Surely we can deal with that. Look at Holland; isn’t about half the country below sea level? Is it really such a big deal?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, climate change is a very big deal, easily the greatest threat we collectively face today. And not only is it grave, it’s a complex problem, highly difficult to contend with. Here’s what Jeffrey Sachs, in the just-published The Age of Sustainable Development, has to say about the complexity of the climate change problem:

“There has never been a global economic problem as complicated as climate change. It is simply the toughest public policy problem that humanity has ever faced.”

Drought in Kenya 2004 Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo
Drought in Kenya 2004
Brendan Cox/Oxfam photo

What far too many of us don’t realize is that the biggest threat from climate change comes from the falling food production which will result. And that falling food production, as the result of higher temperatures, will come in some already unstable areas, like sub-Saharan Africa. (Also in the Mediterranean basin, southwestern United States, and parts of China.)

It’s not hard to imagine that the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, with record numbers of people fleeing North Africa for southern Europe, is but the smallest harbinger of what would ensue with crop yields dropping off by as much as 50% in sub-Saharan Africa, a scenario which is entirely possible, if current temperature trends continue.

A few salient facts, courtesy of Mr. Sach’s fact-packed book: Since the Industrial Revolution, the average temperature on the planet has risen by 0.9° C. If we were to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, because of the inertia built into the natural system absorbing and releasing carbon pollution, temperatures will continue to rise by another .6° C. That’s a total of 1.5 °C. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the air at current rates, the temperature rise will reach 4 – 7° C by the end of the century. An increase of 4° C is where the 50% drop off in food occurs.

It’s all a little unsettling, to say the least. The real resultant danger with climate change is mass hunger, mass migration, and ultimately of course, revolution and war. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman makes that linkage quite explicitly in his recent writings, pointing to the four-year drought which immediately preceded the appalling breakdown of Syrian society that we are now witnessing.

There are other severe consequences to climate change—the acidification and rising of the oceans chief among them—but again, the most dire threat comes with the prospect of wide-scale famine as food supplies drop with increased heat and aridity in already warm and dry areas, areas already historically subject to drought. Our global agriculture and fishing industries are maxed out now (and agriculture especially is contributing hugely to environmental degradation everywhere), so any prospect of growing food insecurity should be taken very seriously by world leaders. Unfortunately our world leaders have twice now agreed to do something about carbon pollution—in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1998—and both agreements have been miserable failures. Total greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing significantly in recent years, largely for two reasons: 1) the burgeoning Chinese economy, with its heavy industrial base driven by coal power, and 2) the political power of the oil and gas industries worldwide. One last interesting fact from Sachs’s book: seven of the ten largest companies in the world are in the traditional energy sector.

At the G7 summit in Germany this year, member countries finally agreed upon the need for a no-carbon economy, but not until the year 2100. It’s a significant step, but no one should feel too encouraged. It’s estimated that to remain within the 2° C ‘safe’ zone of rising global temperatures, current greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by more than 50% by 2050. Sound easy? I didn’t think so.

So the next time you hear the words climate change, don’t think, ‘Coupla degrees warmer. Not so bad.’ Think instead of these two words: food riots.

Rewilding Galiano

When the British writer George Monbiot moved in 2007 to a small town in Wales located on the edge of the Cambrian Mountains, he was excited about the chance to explore this largely uninhabited ‘wilderness area.’ The Cambrian Mountains Society describes it as an “unspoiled landscape with a rich cultural history and vibrant natural beauty.”

'The Cambrian Desert?" Brother Magneto photo
‘The Cambrian Desert?”
Brother Magneto photo

When he ventured out onto this landscape, however, Monbiot instead found what he quickly came to see as “the Cambrian Desert,” an ecological disaster area with a severe paucity of wild animals and a much degraded diversity of plantlife. Where a variety of trees and flowering plants once grew, there was now mostly just heather. Few birds were to be seen; even insects were hardly present. The suburban cityscape Monbiot had left behind, he discovered, was in fact richer in wildlife than his new locale.

Why? Well, animal husbandry, by and large. The area had originally been cleared for crops and pasture lands. Sheep and cattle had replaced the previous fauna, and over time these domesticated ungulates grazed the land into a condition of enduring ecological impoverishment.

Monbiot is one of the chief proponents of ‘rewilding’ parts of our world, an intriguing concept which calls for the reforestation of large tracts of land and the reintroduction of now extinct megafauna—bison, elephants, wolves, etc. A number of rewilding projects have been successfully carried out in Europe, as well as in North America (the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park is a prominent example; here’s video on that success), but, as you can imagine, it remains controversial. Such efforts in the U.K., for instance, have been effectively curtailed by agricultural interests.

Living on Galiano, I know of what Monbiot speaks. The condition he describes in Wales begins as a result of our hunting the ‘apex predators’ in a region to extinction. Evidence suggests that, as we humans moved out of Africa and into all other areas of the world, millennia ago, we went about eliminating these predators at a prodigious rate, and not always for reasons of safety or the provision of food. We did it because we could.

As I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, on Galiano there are no wolves or cougars, and so the deer proliferate in great numbers. They seem to build up in number until some sort of plague breaks out, they die off in significant numbers, and then the cycle begins again. This because, on Galiano, there is no ‘trophic cascade,’ no predation from the apex on down.

The westcoast rainforest is too vigorous for the deer to degrade in the way sheep have the topography in Wales, but nevertheless, as a gardener on Galiano, I’m fully aware of how limited a vegetative palate can survive their constant grazing, at least not when those plants are small. Nothing like an introduced shrub or flowering plant (with the blessed exemption of daffodils) can survive their appetites, except within a tall fence.

And the native vegetation which survives them is indeed restricted. The leathery leaves and smothering underground creep of salal thrives. Ferns get a severe haircut but manage to persist. But there’s not a lot of variation in the undergrowth beyond that.

Rewilding Galiano with the reintroduction of wolves or cougars, thus to encourage the development of a more diverse ecology? ‘Not likely’ hardly begins to describe that prospect. Cougars have been known to hunt smaller children, of which there are a fair number running about on the Island.

One of the related phenomena Monbiot describes in his book Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life is termed “The Shifting Baseline Syndrome.” It’s a process whereby we judge whatever condition we grew up with to be the norm, the original condition. But, as Monbiot points out, what we grew up with may well already have been seriously reduced. We just weren’t around to see that happen.

Certainly this would seem to be the case with the ocean waters which surround Galiano, where sea life is reportedly not nearly as rich or plentiful as it once was. Regardless, it’s a concept we should all be aware of and appreciate. The sad fact is that, because of our seemingly irresistible urge to meddle in the ecosystem which encompasses us, we are all now living with loss.

Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen. For us, there’s something just a bit too easy about the imaginary world, with its unmitigated creative freedom.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leave them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it. The real thing that is.

Where We Live

“Chicago, on the other hand, was not built for people to come together but for them to be safely apart. Size, power, and the need for privacy seemed to be the dominant dimensions of its architecture. Vast as it is, Chicago ignored the distinctions between freedom and isolation, between independence and selfishness, between privacy and loneliness.”

             Aleksandar Hemon, from The Book Of My Lives

 

Aleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, where he knew his neighbours and they knew him, where anonymity was “well-nigh impossible.” He was stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, so settled there, learning English and before long becoming an accomplished writer. He eventually grew to appreciate Chicago, even writing an article entitled 20 Reasons Why I Do Not Wish To Leave Chicago in 2000, but, as indicated by the passage quoted above, it was not an easy adjustment.

He walked about the city endlessly, trying to know its neighbourhoods, seeking out a connection like the one he knew with Sarajevo, with the residents and the built environment that would help tell him who he was.

Growing up in a small town, as an angst-ridden teenager I couldn’t wait to escape to the anonymity of a big city. I regularly walked about town as well, and I clearly recall finding insufferable the knowledge that, as I walked about, I was constantly being observed by people I knew, either from their passing vehicles, or out the windows of their homes and businesses.

Home version 1 domo k photo
Home version 1
domo k photo

As with nearly all the immaterial conditions of our lives, when it comes to the distinctions Hemon mentions, between “freedom and isolation,” between “privacy and loneliness,” we seek a balance not easily achieved. In Vancouver, the neighbourhood my wife and I live in—that is the zone where we actively know and interact with certain people—is immediate, within a few blocks of where we reside. Beyond that small zone, anonymity is not hard to attain.

On Galiano, our home is secluded, at the end of a long wooded lane; we can sometimes hear but never see our neighbours. Privacy is guaranteed, though, as we move about on the island, we are rarely anonymous. But the balance is off; especially during the long, dark winter months the isolation is too much, requiring an effort to get out and interact, or travel to the city.

Home version 2 p. sebastien photo
Home version 2
p. sebastien photo

One unavoidable factor in this consideration is that we are all the malleable product of our immediate social and physical environment. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but inevitably you will become a different person as you stay in different places. As much as anything, the ‘climate of opinion’ that you are living within will seep through your pores, into your bones, eventually causing you to think, feel and behave differently, if only it is to sometimes remain silent. And this is never more so than it is with children.

Thus it behooves us to think carefully about, and hopefully choose just as carefully where we will live. Especially so if you have, or plan to have children. They will be different beings, depending on where you choose to raise them.

There is a time in your life when it is easier to resettle, and it is earlier in your life, not later. We all know of people who have tried to make this transition at the age of retirement, and how problematic that has been. When you are young, eager to engage socially and professionally, recreationally and vocationally, it happens naturally, as a consequence of that needed engagement.

I like to think that my wife and I have achieved some kind of balance, living both downtown and at the end of a long wooded island lane, but life never stops throwing changes at us, and so it requires constant adjustment. The scales tip easily, and so we have to constantly seek a new balance, a new sense of community. Walking about helps it seems, and that happens for us more often in the city. On Galiano we are more often out of doors, more active in ways other than walking, and that too helps.

Choosing where to live is not so much about choosing the city or the country or both. It’s about choosing who you want to be, or become.

Just Like Yesterday

Meet the new boss.

  Same as the old boss.

from Won’t Get Fooled Again, by Pete Townshend

 

The guardians of the old media have found a brilliant way to exploit the denizens of the new. By dangling the carrot of access to television—a mature industry where recognition and revenue remain solidly in place—the executives who stand at the gates to TV can cause the multitudes who populate the online realm—an industry where revenue is dispersed very unevenly and recognition is highly fragmented—to work tirelessly to promote their exclusive brands. It’s perfect.

In recent times, those clever folks who control TV have evolved the method of the online competition in order to shamelessly advance their corporate brands. Offer those who create content for the web—especially of course those who operate within the social media arena—the chance to create for TV, and those creators will toil doggedly, nearly interminably on your behalf, and they will do so without a cent of actual remuneration, and on the slimmest of chances at success. How great is that?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just concluded a nation-wide contest where 285 comedy creator-teams submitted video ‘teasers’ in pursuit of a single (although lucrative at $500,000) prize of the production of a half-hour TV special. The competition ran over ten weeks, and the teaser was only the beginning of the work demanded of these aspirants. Each week, in addition to the endless amount of online ‘sharing’ these teams were obliged to do—if they were to have any realistic expectation of prevailing in the contest—these teams had to produce a new video ‘mission’ on a specified theme (‘The Do Over,” “The Differentiator” etc.).

Likewise Telus, a corporation with a more regional territory (Alberta and BC), have just run the ‘Storyhive’ competition, where hundreds of applicants chased 15 grants of $10,000, leading finally to one winner gaining $50,000 toward the production of content for Optik TV, the television service owned by Telus.

It’s a truly prodigious amount of work done by talented people on the behalf of others for absolutely no monetary recompense. The competitions are won of course via online voting solicited by the contestants, and don’t think it’s anything like a democratic, one email address, one vote mechanism. No, visitors to the relevant site (where you must of course register) ‘earn’ votes by repeated visits, or, more germanely, online promotion of the corporate site. For CBC and Telus it’s win win win; for 99%+ of the contestants it’s lose lose lose. And, if it’s necessary to drive home the point of this losing game, in the Telus competition, in winnowing the pitched projects down to the final 15, there is not one iota of critical adjudication applied; it is entirely determined by online voting. In other words, at least until that first significant selective step, Telus does not care one whit about the actual creative quality of the submissions; they care only about the quantity of online visitation they are able to achieve.

Let me be very clear about my take on this process. It’s manipulative, exploitive, and vile. The folks behind it should be ashamed of themselves.

Tau Zero photo
Tau Zero photo

But, as with so many of the changes wrought by the digital revolution, neither is this obnoxious game about to go away. The television executives who have invented it have mined gold for themselves, and they could care less about the fact that almost all of the losing contestants have nothing good to say about them or their contest. Those losers are simple collateral damage in the winning war for online traffic, and thus advertising dollars.

It’s odd and slightly unsettling that (as described in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine) KingBach, a top star on Vine, an online video site where content episodes last a sum total of six seconds, dreams of making it on TV and in the movies, where fewer people will watch him.

Welcome to the new world of mass media, which looks altogether too much like the same old world. The ‘young adult’ demographic still watches far more TV than they do online video. YouTube will make less than $4 billion in advertising this year; CBS will earn more than $8 billion.

Pete Townsend’s prayers may well have been in vain.

Interstellar Dreams

In a recent article in Aeon magazine, Elon Musk tells us that he figures it will take about a million people to properly colonize Mars. He has in mind a design for a giant spaceship, the “Mars Colonial Transporter,” to facilitate the task.

8577726421_2a363387c1And lest you think that Mr. Musk is just another techno-geek keener with a shaky grip on reality, no. This is the guy who sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion, then went on to successfully compete with corporate behemoth General Motors by designing and marketing the Tesla electric car. Currently he heads up SpaceX, a startup dedicated to said colonization of Mars, a company that has a contract with NASA to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. He’s the real deal.

Musk sees the colonization of the red planet as a stepping stone to exploration of the rest of our solar system, and ultimately interstellar space. He imagines the million colonists in place within a century, the first bunch taking up residence there around 2040.

As a species, we have been journeying out beyond the horizon for about as long as we’ve been mobile. Always willing, despite obvious dangers, to explore unknown territories, then ‘settle’ them, before allowing others to move on again, into the alien. This urge to migrate, to reconnoiter strange lands and then inhabit them is one of the true hallmarks of humankind. No other species has spread so far and wide on the planet, and done it with such aplomb.

And so, for us, outer space is of course “the next frontier.”

The obstacles this time are no less considerable than they were on terra firma. Mars once had an atmosphere; probably surface water too, but these days it’s a distinctly harsh environment; exposed to it you’d last less than 30 seconds. Colonist’s quarters there will be close, and extremely stress-inducing. It will be a bleak, constricted adventure, and very few will care to go, given that it’s a one-way ticket.

Getting there, however, is relatively easy, compared to interstellar space travel. The nearest star, called Alpha Centauri, is four light years away. Sounds encouraging—if we can even approach the speed of light the trip might take less than four years for the astronauts to arrive, if Einstein was right about speed shortening time. The problem is the energy needed for the journey; it seems it is physically impossible that the spaceship could carry enough onboard fuel. Scientists have imagined ‘solar sails’ which will capture the streaming energy of the sun, a solar wind, if you will. Then there’s the need for enough food for the trip, the immense psychological pressure of isolation lasting that long, the health problems that come with weightlessness, the difficulty of communication with home, exposure to hazardous radiation, and more. Again scientists have ideas to meet all these challenges, but they are highly theoretical. None of them are anywhere near practical realization.

And of course there is the possibility of robotic exploration of space, but that’s not the same is it. Where’s the adventure in that? No robot can ever be a hero, not without a lot of misplaced anthropomorphism.

No, for all intents and purposes, our days of exploration are over. There are no more truly wild places left upon Mother Earth, and our chances of sallying forth into outer space, at least for the very indefinite future, are essentially nil. As William Gibson has pointed out, no one will speak of ‘the twenty-second century’ the way we used to of the twenty-first.

It’s a necessary, perhaps mythic shift in consciousness with consequences yet to be determined. Obviously it behooves us to take good care of the planet, given that it’s the only abode any of us will ever have. But it also suggests that we should better appreciate the miraculous coincidence of life on ‘the pale blue dot.’ Just as interstellar travel may never happen, so too we may never discover life elsewhere in the universe.

This is it folks. We’re staying home tonight, and likely forever. Fate will find us where we are.

 

Change

Dick Cavett Nick Step photo
Dick Cavett
Nick Step photo

Dick Cavett, the former [brilliant] talk show host, tells the story of working as a writer on the Jack Paar Show when he learned that Peter Ustinov was to be a guest on the show, and that his segment would last all of nine minutes. Ustinov was legendary as a talk show guest, “the best ever” in Cavett’s words, and Cavett proceeded to throw something of a hissy fit with the show’s producers, arguing that Ustinov should be given the entire show, that the other three utterly forgettable guests should be punted. “Oh no,” replied the producers, “People like change.”

What’s interesting about this episode, from the perspective of our advanced ADD age, is that the Jack Paar Show ended its run in March of 1962 (Johnny Carson would take over). In other words, the media emphasis on fast paced change has been with us for quite some time.

Despite the “idiocy” Cavett describes in his story, it’s undeniably true that many people do in fact enjoy change. My wife likes to periodically rearrange the furniture in our home. It gives her a sense of renewal, a small but unquestionably positive energy bump. Me, I’m more prone to leaving things where they seem to work best. Sure, move the furniture around a few times when the configuration is new, but once the optimum arrangement is discovered, that’s how it should stay.

My wife is the daughter of a Dutch diplomat. Growing up, she lived a life of continual change, as the family moved every few years to a new foreign locale, often exotic and stimulating, places like Kobe, Japan or Capetown, South Africa. I, on the other hand, grew up in one home, one town for the entirety of my young life. In wondering why my wife prefers change, and I don’t, my initial theory was that, having grown up with this usually enjoyable and invigorating level of change, she preferred to maintain it wherever she could, if only on a micro level. I, having grown up in an unchanging environment, not so much.

But then one day I was talking with my brother, and he described the regular incidents where, returning home from a long day at work, he would encounter his teenage daughter excitedly hopping about on the front step, keenly eager to have him help rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. My niece too has grown up in an entirely stable situation, one house, one town. To this day she lives just a few blocks from her parents.

So much for that theory.

The mystery persists. Is it then a gender thing? Certainly it is quite a fundamental rift, this gulf between those who embrace and those who avoid change. All I can suggest at this point is that, like the inclination to be on time or late, the desire for change is both learned and somehow genetic. Lasting too. In any given individual, the need for change, or not, is not likely to change.

Which is not to say that Dick Cavett was wrong, and his producers right. Far from it. We live in a time of unprecedented change, within a veritable vortex of technological transformation, and so, for us, change is anything but a scarce commodity. It’s the long-form article, or uninterrupted period of quiet which has become today’s uncommon resource, and therefore the thing of value.

But more than that, what we’re losing, as we feel the obligation to welcome change, and so throw our arms of awareness wide, is the simple distinction of quality. Which is of course what Cavett was pointing out to his producers. Peter Ustinov was indeed dazzling at what he did as talk show guest, funny, trenchant, witty and articulate. (Watch him here in a compilation of interview clips with Michael Parkinson of the BBC.) He was the best at what he did, and Cavett’s producers couldn’t have cared.

Today the best is often lost among all the electronic noise. Our attention is fleeting, the audience fractured. The news cycle completes its turn in just one day. It may have been going on since 1962 and before, but the embrace of change will always come at a cost, and so today’s accelerating change comes at an accelerating cost. No one should lament the loss of exclusive access to the media, or decry the democratic power of the internet. What we should do is remember to celebrate excellence, and to give it our sustained attention.

Fact Not Fiction

“The cool kids are making docs.”

                                            —David Edelstein

When I attended film school, back in the ancient 80s, there was not a single documentary program to be found anywhere across the educational landscape. We attendees were all keenly intent upon becoming the next Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppola; those most successful fictional moviemakers from the first generation of film school brats. Documentary film was seen by us as slightly dusty, quaint, more often suited to arid academia than the edgy dramatic territory we meant to occupy.

Otrocuenta Desarollo photo
Otrocuenta Desarollo photo

These days documentary programs abound in film schools everywhere, and documentary film is seen as a highly relevant form aggressively focusing our attention upon social and economic issues of immediate concern to all of us.

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

Certainly the greatly increased availability of production and post production technology (think cameras and computers) has a lot to do with it. Today’s media audience maintains a more forgiving expectation of documentary ‘production values’ (the quality of the sound and picture) than that expectation which remains for dramatic film. In the documentary world, content rules, and so if you have captured a terrific story using a comparatively cheap digital camera, then edited on your laptop, you may well be good to go in the marketplace. Searching for Sugarman would be a prime example. Not so much in the dramatic sphere, where a low-budget look is still likely to prevent you from ever hitting the theatres.

But there’s more to it than that I think. Today’s generation of film school students is far more determined to effect change then we ever were. We were interested first of all in making films; today’s doc filmmakers seem first of all interested in making a difference. Where filmmaking was an end for us, it is a means to them. Caught up as we were in the countercultural ethos of 70s ‘anti-hero’ movies like Scarecrow or Straight Time, we were willing to focus our lenses upon the downtrodden, the misfits, but we were rarely inclined to take direct aim at problems we nevertheless knew were all around us, problems like air pollution or economic inequality. Contemporary docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Inequality For All show no such reluctance.

And let me be perfectly clear; this change is much for the better. We humans have a ravenous need for stories, and one of the reasons for that is because we understand, sometimes unconsciously, that stories offer us ‘life lessons.’ They offer us insights into how we should or should not behave in the face of common human problems. To a lesser or greater degree mind you. Some stories are so simple minded that whatever insight they may offer is utterly generic, if not banal.

And documentaries, by their very nature, offer us better insights than do dramas. As good as the storytelling is in a dramatic series like Breaking Bad, for instance—and it is very good—it doesn’t necessarily hold any greater relevance to real life than does your typical comic book movie. Walter White is only marginally more real than is Spiderman.

Not so with Michael Morton, the Texan who spent 25 years in prison before finally being exonerated on all charges, and is the protagonist of a documentary entitled An Unreal Dream. Morton is the real deal, a genuine American hero.

Conventional TV broadcasters operating right now have badly dropped the ball on the burgeoning audience interest in documentaries, as evidenced by a recent Hot Docs study. Despite that fumble however, because of the rise of the internet, and because of their own commitment, the film school students of right now who are drawn to documentary are likely to succeed at making an impact, at changing the world, however incrementally. They are perhaps not entirely typical of the current generation, but they undoubtedly represent a new, different and very worthwhile slice of that generation. And more power to them.

Let the Machines Decide

The GPS device in my car knows the speed limit for the road I’m driving on, and displays that information for me on its screen. Nice. Nobody needs another speeding ticket. But what if my ‘smart car’ refused to go over that limit, even if I wanted it to? You know, the wife shouting from the backseat, about to give birth, the hospital four blocks away, that sort of thing.

David Hilowitz photo
David Hilowitz photo

It’s a scenario not far removed from reality. Google’s robotic car has inspired many futurists to imagine a computer that controls not only the speed of your car, but also where it goes, diverting your car away from congestion points toward alternate routes to your destination. Evgeny Morozov is among these futurists, and in a recent article in The Observer, he suggests that computers may soon be in a position to usurp many functions that we have traditionally assigned to government. “Algorithmic regulation,” he calls it. We can imagine government bureaucrats joining the unemployment line to fill out a form that will allow a computer to judge whether they are worthy of benefits or no.

Examples of machines making decisions previously assigned to humans are already easily found. If the ebook downloaded to my Kobo has a hold placed on it, the Vancouver Public Library’s computer will unceremoniously retrieve it from my e-reader upon its due date, regardless of whether I have just 10 more pages to read, and would be willing to pay the overdue fine in order to do so.

But Morozov’s cautionary critique is about a wider phenomenon, and it’s largely the ‘internet of things’ which is fuelling his concern. The internet of things is most pointedly about the process which will see digital chips migrate out of electronic devices, into those things which we have until now tended to consider inanimate, non-electronic objects, things like your door, or your mattress. It may well be that in future a computer somewhere will be informed about it when you don’t spend the night at home.

Maybe you spent the night on a friend’s couch, after one too many. Maybe you ate some greasy fast food that night too. And maybe you haven’t worked out at your club’s gym for more than six months now. The data gathering upshot of this at least arguably unhealthy behavior is that you may be considered higher risk by a life insurance company, and so proffered a higher premium.

Presumably there is a human being at the end of this theoretical decision-making chain, but I think we’ve all learned that it’s never safe to assume that digital tech won’t take over any particular role, and certainly whatever the imagined final decision taken as to your insurance risk, certainly it will be informed by data collection done by digital machines.

The most chilling note struck in Morozov’s piece comes, for me, when he quotes Tim O’Reilly, technology publisher and venture capitalist, referring to precisely this industry: “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.”

Now isn’t that heartening. Corporate insurance as the business model of the near future.

The gist of what is alarming about the prospect of digital machines taking increasing control of our lives is that it suggests that the ‘depersonalization’ we have all been living through for the last three-plus decades is only the beginning. It’s “day one,” as Jeff Bezos likes to say about the digital revolution. It suggests that we can look forward to feeling like a true speck of dust in the infinite cosmic universe of corporate society, with absolutely no living being to talk to should we ever wish to take an unnecessary risk, diverge from the chosen route, or pay the fine instead.

For all the libertarian noise that folks from Silicon Valley make about efficiency and disruption, let no one be fooled: the slick algorithmic regulation that replaces decisions made by people, whether government bureaucrats or not, may be more objective, but it will not bring greater freedom.

The Age of Surveillance

“Today’s world would have disturbed and astonished George Orwell.”                                        —David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Queen’s University

When Orwell wrote 1984, he imagined a world where pervasive surveillance was visual, achieved by camera. Today’s surveillance is of course much more about gathering information, but it is every bit as all-encompassing as that depicted by Orwell in his dystopian novel. Whereas individual monitoring in 1984 was at the behest of a superstate personified as ‘Big Brother,’ today’s omnipresent watching comes via an unholy alliance of business and the state.

Most of it occurs when we are online. In 2011, Max Schrems, an Austrian studying law in Silicon Valley, asked Facebook to send him all the data the company had collected on him. (Facebook was by no means keen to meet his request; as a European, Schrems was able to take advantage of the fact that Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, and Ireland has far stricter privacy laws than we have on this side of the Atlantic.) He was shocked to receive a CD containing more than 1200 individual PDFs. The information tracked every login, chat message, ‘poke’ and post Schram had ever made on Facebook, including those he had deleted. Additionally, a map showed the precise locations of all the photos tagging Schrem that a friend had posted from her iPhone while they were on vacation together.

Facebook accumulates this dossier of information in order to sell your digital persona to advertisers, as does Google, Skype, Youtube, Yahoo! and just about every other major corporate entity operating online. If ever there was a time when we wondered how and if the web would become monetized, we now know the answer. The web is an advertising medium, just as are the television and radio; it’s just that the advertising is ‘targeted’ at you via a comprehensive individual profile that these companies have collected and happily offered to their advertising clients, in exchange for their money.

How did our governments become involved? Well, the 9/11 terrorist attacks kicked off their participation most definitively. Those horrific events provided rationale for governments everywhere to begin monitoring online communication, and to pass laws making it legal wherever necessary. And now it seems they routinely ask the Googles and Facebooks of the world to hand over the information they’re interested in, and the Googles and Facebooks comply, without ever telling us they have. In one infamous incidence, Yahoo! complied with a Chinese government request to provide information on two dissidents, Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, and this complicity led directly to the imprisonment of both men. Sprint has now actually automated a system to handle requests from government agencies for information, one that charges a fee of course!

It’s all quite incredible, and we consent to it every time we toggle that “I agree” box under the “terms and conditions” of privacy policies we will never read. The terms of service you agree to on Skype, for instance, allow Skype to change those terms any time they wish to, without your notification or permission.

And here’s the real rub on today’s ‘culture of surveillance:’ we have no choice in the matter. Use of the internet is, for almost all of us, no longer a matter of socializing, or of seeking entertainment; it is where we work, where we carry out the myriad of tasks necessary to maintain the functioning of our daily life. The choice to not create an online profile that can then be sold by the corporations which happen to own the sites we operate within is about as realistic as is the choice to never leave home. Because here’s the other truly disturbing thing about surveillance in the coming days: it’s not going to remain within the digital domain.

Coming to a tree near you? BlackyShimSham photo
Coming to a tree near you?
BlackyShimSham photo

In May of this year Canadian Federal authorities used facial recognition software to bust a phony passport scheme being operated out of Quebec and BC by organized crime figures. It seems Passport Canada has been using the software since 2009, but it’s only become truly effective in the last few years. It’s not at all difficult to imagine that further advances in this software will soon have security cameras everywhere able to recognize you wherever you go. Already such cameras can read your car’s license plate number as you speed over a bridge, enabling the toll to be sent to your residence, for payment at your convenience. Thousands of these cameras continue to be installed in urban, suburban and yes, even rural areas every year.

Soon enough, evading surveillance will be nearly impossible, whether you’re online or walking in the woods. Big Brother meets Big Data.