Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Society and Technology

I read an interesting blog post today by Dominic Basulto, "Are we building a techno dystopia?" in Washington Post's ideas@innovations. Basulto explores the phenomenon that as U.S. poverty rates continue to rise, most Americans, regardless of income status use advanced technologies.

Back in 2002, I was a writer for the technology section of Black Issues Book Review. In the section we focused on the use of the Internet in book publishing, which was a new frontier at the time.  For an article, I interviewed Alondra Nelson, then a graduate student in the American Studies Program at New York University, and co-editor of the anthology, "Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life." At the time, the Digital Divide was significant for many people of color who did not own PCs or have access to the Internet. The goal of "Technicolor" was to illustrate that although the Digital Divide existed, people of color still were innovative in other areas of technology.

Ten years later, the Digital Divide has narrowed. Basulto mentions in the blog this narrowing might be due to more affordable, accessible technology, like smartphones, yet the economic divide and the War on Poverty still exists.  He offered our society might be moving toward "techno dystopia," a term coined by science fiction writers in which he states, "...individuals find themselves marginalized and alienated from society at the same time that digital technology surrounds them."

Techo dystopia reminds me of the theory I studied as a Media Ecology student at NYU called “technological determinism,” which affirms technology steers the social structure and cultural values of society. In short, technology is inherently the dictator of human activity. Think Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," the creation taking over the creator.

One can argue that we've allowed technology, namely the Internet, to dictate our retreat from print publishing, for example. As someone who has worked in both book and newspaper publishing, I've seen and experienced the drastic change first-hand. However, I don't peg technology as negative. I like my smartphone.

What we need to do with digital technology is use it for what the primary purpose of all technology should be -- to make life better. Not better in the sense someone can have over 300 "friends", but for something like offering free-online classes on social entrepreneurship that can be accessible through a hand-held device.

In my opinion, social media is not really a social experience, it's a tool for sharing information, product promotion or self-promotion, which is why social entrepreneurship makes sense. Though, the War on Poverty in America needs to be fought from every angle. We also need to do what the editors of "Technicolor" did and focus on innovative technologies, other than the Internet that can produce job growth.


Friday, July 20, 2012

'Music From the Big House'

Award-winning Canadian blues singer Rita Chiarelli

Last night I attended a screening of Cache Film & Television’s “Music From the Big House” directed by Bruce McDonald, at Muvico Parisian 20 and IMAX at City Place in West Palm Beach.  It’s a documentary about a blues singer, known as "Canada’s Queen of Blues," Rita Chiarelli, who in her journey to find authentic blues music along Route 61, discovered it at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many men there serving life sentences for crimes they committed at a young age, are participating in a music program and finding redemption.
The cinematography by Steve Cosens is very well-done. The film is shown in black and white, which Chiarelli, who spoke with us after the screening, shared was originally filmed in color, then the color removed. In my opinion, this gave the film the appearance of a sharp, crisp black and white photograph.
Chiarelli decided to perform with four of the musical groups formed in the prison touching the genres of country, R&B/Jazz, blues, and gospel. Many of the men were musicians, singers, even a former radio DJ, now only performing within the prison walls due to the violent crimes they committed.  
“In Louisiana state, life means life,” Chiarelli said. “The parole board can reduce the sentence, but that rarely happens.”
For peace of mind, many inmates turn to music and their spirituality. Music making has a long history at the once notorious penitentiary and former slave plantation, going back to the 1920s. Leadbelly was pardoned from there, for example.
The stories of those performing with Chiarelli, most appearing to be in their 40s and 50s, reflect their willingness to change. One inmate serving a 30-year sentence explained the positive change as a “moral maturity.”  He said they learned if you begin to make moral decisions you'll see your life change. Which made me think, would their lives, the lives of victims and the families of their victims be drastically different if someone cared enough to instill morality in them at an early age? Perhaps someone did, but poverty, racism, mental illness, drugs or alcohol were the deterrents. Or, maybe some were simply not good people.
An inmate named Ray, at the time of the filming, had been imprisoned 30 years serving out a life sentence for murder. He attributed drugs and alcohol to his downfall. During his time at Angola, he’s found Christ and a call to ministry. He runs the inmates law library, and is sort of a mentor to the inmates within his reach.

Chiarelli speaks with audience following the film.

“One good choice I made is Christ as my Lord and savior,” Ray said in the film. “Love, peace and joy, money can’t buy it.”
As you watch the documentary, it’s evident the faith Ray and many of the other inmates have found, as well as the ability to perform music, gives them hope each day, necessary to survive. But, the thought then quickly becomes, what about their victims?
You have to think about the victims, too, Chiarelli said. These men did commit crimes, forever changing the lives of the loved ones left behind. Though, she also added, there comes a time for forgiveness and keeping people angry and resentful at those who commit crimes affects all. For her, being a part of the film was a lesson in forgiveness.
After the film, myself and a few others talked with Chiarelli about how the men had potential for good in their youth. One women appearing in her 60s said she is the mother of three sons and expressed we need to care for boys, “…they’re a lot more fragile then we think,” she said.
Today I learn moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. attending a 12:05 a.m. showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” were either a witness or victim of murder at the hands of alleged 24-year-old gunman James Holmes, who I’m sure if convicted will face a life sentence.  Similar to how the men shown in “Music From the Big House” were in their 20s, morality isn’t a part of Holmes’ being. Will it ever be? Only God knows.
I do think “Music From the Big House” is effective in showing what can happen to criminals or anyone who ventures on a lengthy journey to redemption and a life of faith; young men are indeed fragile; and music has the ability to uplift, minister and heal, Chiarelli has a nice voice by the way. Though I believe we should see the humanity in all people, incidences like in Aurora, Colo. reinforce we should never forget about the victims. I’m leaning hard on my faith today, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families in Colorado.