A new HBO doc paints a grim picture of the medium’s future as landmarks are torn down and artists move indoors
Last week, HBO debuted Banksy Does New York, a documentary on Banksy’s 2013 residency in NYC, where he debuted a new work every day in various areas of the city, each imbued with his trademark wit and moralistic commentary. Each of his pieces ignited some sort of confrontation, be it another artist painting over his work to make a point, or individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit charging admission to see a section of a wall. In Queens last fall, I got to look at one piece just hours after it was created and moments before it was defaced. The graffiti was of a workman erasing a quote from Gladiator — “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Both the piece within the piece and the work itself would now only be echoes, as a local graffiti artist angrily tagged over it while a hissing crowd pleaded him to stop. The next day, it was painted over.
One early morning this year I was taking the 7 train in Queens, a mostly-elevated line that runs from Flushing to underneath Manhattan. The 7 is a unique vantage into the state of NYC graffiti, where street-level murals meld with larger tags in harder-to-reach places further up on buildings. In fact, it’s almost a museum in itself, with established artists like Klops sharing space with kids who are just learning the art. If you’re lucky on this early train ride, you get to meet some of the artists. At 74th street in Jackson Heights, a group of teenagers got on the train and huddled at the window. For them, it was the first time they were seeing their art the way most people do.
“Oh shit, we got high up!”
They were pointing at a tag that was almost impossibly placed on the side of a building. In the first light of day, they were finally seeing the danger that they had faced during the night before, all in their attempt to have their names echo with the riders of this train. Almost a year later, that tag they put on the side of the building remains, and will possibly stay there until the building is re-painted or torn down.
It’s the tearing down that causes a larger threat to graffiti than even policing. While famous, established groups like T.A.T.S. Cru have set up shop in community centers and been given studio space and walls on which to work, the urban environment itself is presenting less canvas than ever. As the necessary push for density emanates ever outward from the city center, gleaming condominiums have crossed over from Manhattan and into Brooklyn and Queens (one of the few places to still see graffiti in downtown Manhattan, Chinatown, has so far remained resistant to massive upscaling . . . but stay tuned), and quite symbolically, 5 Pointz is being torn down to make way for condos. While graffiti presents itself as an art with a rather low cost-of-entry, works of graffiti are now being absorbed by these massive developments, who advertise their galleries as one day hosting a show featuring the very same graffiti they replaced. The canvas has moved inside the building — to the benefit of developers, a select group of artists, and the architects of the city, who badly want more apartments built on former industrial sites as soon as possible.
So the canvas moves ever outward — not that it ever knew a boundary in the first place. When the MTA finally cracked down on graffiti artists who turned their trains into murals in the 1970s and 80s, graffiti remained on overpasses and buildings, and still appeared in subway tunnels and, every now and then, on a train. But as parts of New York City might finally become the first graffiti-exclusion zones, either by design or by their sheer inaccessibility, one wonders where the push will end. Because we’re not really talking about graffiti at all, but how one can leave their mark on what was home. And, however cheesy, how long that mark can echo.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.
Technology is making us blind:
The rise of smartphones and social media has ushered in a new age of techno-optimism. And that’s a big problem
The technology pages of news media can make for scary reading these days. From new evidence of government surveillance to the personal data collection capabilities of new devices, to the latest leaks of personal information, we hear almost daily of new threats to personal privacy. It’s difficult to overstate the implications of this: The separation of the private and public that’s the cornerstone of liberal thought, not to mention the American Constitution, is being rapidly eroded, with potentially profound consequences for our freedom.
We could say that it’s simply a matter of habit, that we have become so used to using devices in such a way that we cannot imagine using them any differently. Or we could, for example, invoke a tragic fate in which we simply have no option but to accept the erosion of our privacy because of our powerlessness against corporations and governments.
These are, however, retrospective justifications that miss the kernel of the truth. To reach this kernel, we have to excavate the substratum of culture to uncover the ideas that shape our relationship with technology. Only here can we see that the cause is a profound ideological shift in this relationship.
Over the last few hundred years, it has been one characterized by deep ambivalence. On the one hand, we have viewed technology as emancipatory, and even, as David Nye, James Carey and other scholars have argued, as divine. On the other hand, we have seen it as dehumanizing, alienating and potentially manipulative — a viewpoint shaped by historical figures as diverse as William Blake, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Charlie Chaplin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ned Lud, Samuel Beckett and Karl Marx. However, over the last 20 years or so, this latter perspective has largely been thrown out of the window.
There are many areas of culture that witness this shift, but none does so as lucidly as science fiction film. Even when set in the future, science fiction explodes onto the silver screen the ideas held about technology in the present. Indeed, the success of many of the best science fiction films is undoubtedly because they illustrate their time’s hopes and fears about technology so clearly.
Those of the late 20th century clearly suggest the prevalence in American culture of the old fearful view of technology. The 1980s, for example, saw the advent of personal computing, innovation in areas like genetic engineering and robotics, job losses brought about by industrial mechanization, and the creation of futuristic military technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars).
Lo and behold, the science fiction films of the time betray cultural fears of keeping up with the pace of change. Many explore the dehumanizing effects of technology, depicting worlds where humans have lost control. “Terminator,” for example, conjoins fears of mechanization and computing. The human protagonists are powerless to kill Schwarzenegger’s cyborg directly; it ultimately meets its end via another piece of industrial technology (a hydraulic press). Another classic of the era, “Blade Runner,” is a complex thought experiment on the joining of technology and humans as hybrids. The antagonist, Roy, whom Harrison Ford’s Deckard must kill, represents the horrific synthesis of unfettered human ambition and technological potency.
The 1990s was the age of mass computing and the rise of the internet. In response, new technological metaphors were created, with the 1980s’ imagery of hard, masculine technology replaced by the fluidity and dynamism of the network. In “Terminator 2,” Schwarzenegger’s industrial killing machine is obsolete, and no longer a threat to humans. Instead, the threat comes from the T-1000, whose speed and liquid metal form evoke a new world governed by the data stream.
The ’90s also witnessed increasing virtualization of everyday life — a trend reflected by Jean Baudrillard’s identification of the Gulf War as the first truly virtual war. Films explored the loss of the real that virtualization implied. “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix” both involve their protagonists being “awoken” from everyday life, which is shown to be artificial.
However, this view of technology as fearsome is seldom expressed in the sci-fi films since 2000, while it’s also difficult to identify many common themes, or many iconic genre examples. Is this simply because sci-fi as a genre has exhausted itself (as Ridley Scott has claimed)? Or is it symptomatic of something deeper in the culture?
The answer becomes clear when we consider two recent examples that do express fears of technology. “Transcendence” and “Her” join a long line of sci-fi films that portray artificial intelligence as out of control. Both, however, were not huge commercial successes. Was this because they were simply bad films? Not necessarily. While “Transcendence” was poorly received, “Her” was a thematically sophisticated exploration of love in a virtual age. The problem was that both missed the zeitgeist. No one really fears artificial intelligence anymore.
The notion that technology is fearful relies upon three assumptions: First, that technology and humans are self-contained and separate from each other (the old dichotomy of man and machine). Secondly, that technology has its own nature — that it can determine human life. (As legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan once put it, “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”) Thirdly, that this nature can direct technology against humans.
However, the last 20 years have seen a dramatic erosion of all three assumptions. In particular, we no longer view technology as having any intrinsic meaning; the medium is no longer the message. Instead, its only meanings are those that we give it. For us, technology is a blank slate; it’s cultural matter waiting for us to give it form. Allied to this has been a new sense of intimacy with technology: a breaking down of the boundaries between it and us.
Perhaps the key driver of this has been technology’s centrality to the foremost pursuit of our times: the quest for the authentic self. This quest tasks us with finding ways of demonstrating to ourselves and others what makes us unique, special and individual. Technology has become a powerful way of doing this. We see it as a means of self-expression; it allows us to fully be ourselves.
The smartphone is the exemplar here. The cultural understanding of the smartphone was initially driven by BlackBerry, who positioned it as a corporate tool. Such meanings have long since lost resonance. Now, smartphone brands position their products as central to relationships, creative expression, play and all the other things that apparently make us authentic individuals. Apps are important: The customization of experience they allow helps to make our smartphones unique expressions of ourselves.
This association of technology with ideals of the authentic self is not confined to smartphones, however. Many researchers into artificial intelligence no longer aim to create ultimate intelligence; instead they replicate the “authentic” qualities of humans through creating machines that can, for instance, write music or paint.
Only recently, at the launch of Apple’s smartwatch, Jonathan Ive claimed that “we’re at a compelling beginning, designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal,” signifying a new frontier in the quest to eliminate the boundaries between ourselves and technology.
Similarly, the Internet of Things promises to make us the center of our worlds like never before. This is a world in which we will know about medical issues before we have even felt the symptoms, be able to alter the temperature of our home from wherever we are, and be warned in advance when we are running out of milk. It is one in which it’s claimed technology will be so in tune with our needs that it will anticipate them before we have.
Thus, we now view technology not just as empowering but as self-actualizing as well. Because it’s positioned as key to our authentic selves, we are newly intimate with it. This sounds utopian. It seems as if technology is finally reaching its potential: It is no longer the threat to human freedom, but its driving force.
Undoubtedly, there may be great pleasure in this new utopia, but this does not make it any less ideological. As Slavoj Zizek points out, ideas can both be true and highly ideological insofar as they obscure relations of domination. Indeed, it is the wrapping of technology in the “jargon of authenticity” (to borrow a phrase from Theodor Adorno, another critical theorist) that makes this new “ideology of intimacy” so seductive.
In the past, it was easier to critique technology because the dichotomy of man and machine clearly kept it separate from us. As such, we were able to take it as an object of analysis; to hypothesize how innovations might affect our freedoms for better or worse. This becomes infinitely more difficult in a context that has conflated ourselves and technology. We struggle to achieve the distance needed to critique it.
The result is that we become blind to technology’s dark side — its potential to be misused in ways that encroach on our privacy. How can we see the privacy implications of our smartphones when we see them first as the key to the authentic self, or the Google Car when it looks so cute, or Google Glass when we believe that it will allow us to transcend our bodies to allow a new mastery of the world.
It is, though, a question not just of blindness but also of will. The injunction to treat technology as an extension of our authentic selves encourages a kind of narcissistic love: We love technology because we love ourselves. In Freudian terms, the ideology of intimacy incites us to invest our love in the technological object through presenting it as key to the pursuit of our ego ideal. Thus, we do not want to really separate ourselves from technology because doing so would be experienced as a traumatic loss, an alienation from part of ourselves. Perhaps this is the true power that the ideology of intimacy holds over us.
Yet somehow we need to take a step back, to uncouple ourselves from the seductive devices around us. We need to end our blind devotion and rediscover critical distance. This way we can start to view technology as it is: as both the key to our freedoms, and also their greatest threat. If we don’t, we may discover too late that the new technological utopia is actually a poisoned chalice, with profound implications for our privacy.
The Great Deporter’s new executive order for a “sweeping overhaul of the immigration system” deserves no praise. If there is anything “sweeping” about President Obama’s immigration policy, it is his six years of deporting 2.4 million immigrants, his repeated lies regarding his so-called legal incapacity to issue presidential executive orders to mitigate the horrors that immigrant communities have been subjected to, and his total failure to pursue anything resembling “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What Obama did do, as with his all-pervasive surveillance system, was to order the implementation of a vicious program to criminalize immigrants in order to jail or deport them at will and to spend countless additional billions to militarize the border to keep them out.
Obama made clear that his executive order was “no different than all previous Democrat and Republican Party presidents over the past half century.” This statement alone immediately conjures up the heinous “bracero programs” of decades past, when strictly controlled cheap or near slave-wage labor was systematically imported from Latin America to serve the needs of the nation’s major agricultural titans and their associated industries.
The price to be extracted by Obama’s “promise” to refrain for three years from deporting undocumented immigrant parents of children born in the U.S. is a requirement that all such immigrants officially register their names, addresses, employment records, wages, salaries, and other data with the government, thus subjecting them to immediate persecution or deportation if they don’t pass Obama’s muster. Those with previous felony convictions or perhaps lesser “infractions” of America’s racist system of “law and order” remain subject to immediate deportation.
Obama’s decree, purportedly affecting four to five million undocumented immigrants, was described by administration officials as prioritizing the deportation of “felons, not families,” as if the remaining seven to eight million immigrants not covered by his plan were little less than dangerous criminals. Indeed, immigration officials will be instructed to prioritize the hunting down and deportation of so-called “gang members, felons, and suspected terrorists.”
“Today our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it,” Obama said. But Obama’s “fix” to date has been to deport more immigrants than any and all previous U.S. presidents combined!
Obama’s order supposedly offers those who qualify the chance to remain in the U.S. temporarily for three years, as long as they pass background checks and pay back taxes—to be determined, no doubt, by tax collectors who will have the final word. Not a single immigrant will be offered a “path to citizenship” nor will any be eligible for federal benefits or mandated health-care coverage.
Obama failed to mention that these same immigrants have often had state and federal taxes deducted from their salaries or wages by merciless employers while simultaneously being denied benefits supposedly mandated to all taxpayers! Obama’s order will demand the extortion of back taxes but there will be no retroactive back payment to immigrants for their exclusion from the benefits of paying these taxes. Obama’s program is worse; it will now demand that back taxes be deducted from those who register to comply, while all benefits will still be denied.
To demonstrate his fidelity to his Republican “critics,” who will undoubtedly appreciate Obama’s supplying corporate America with a steady supply of cheap, no-benefit labor who will be required to pay enormous sums in “back taxes” for future corporate plunder, the president issued his decree in condescending and threatening language: “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
But Republican “critics” were nevertheless more than willing to partake in the great American charade that passes for real politics. “Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a YouTube video released before the president’s speech. “The president has said before, that he’s not king and he’s not an emperor. But he’s sure acting like one.”
In truth, what Obama “unilaterally” proclaimed was likely what the twin parties of capital had previously agreed to during their multi-year “debate” on immigration legislation. All sections of the ruling class understand well that cheap labor with zero benefits is a prized commodity. Obama’s supposed three-year reprieve from government deportation is little more than existing policy, in which immigration officials, in collusion with corporate America, selectively determine who will be deported and who are still urgently required to service corporate interests.
This unofficial selective persecution and deportation policy serves capitalism well. Lower wages, if wages are paid at all via employer pre-planned deportations arranged before pay day, to immigrants always exercise a downward pressure on the wages of all U.S. workers, including and especially union members. The wage differential also serves capitalism’s need to divide workers by race and legal status, with the ruling class ever placing the blame for unemployment not on its failing system but rather on immigrants who “illegally” take the jobs of “Americans.”
Government-promoted reactionary patriotism is routinely employed to scapegoat the most oppressed and exploited. Obama’s spokespersons took great care to stress that the new plan was both temporary and subject to cancellation at any time by any president.
“Deferred action [that is, postponing deportation punishment] is not a pathway to citizenship. It is not legal status. It simply says that for three years, you are not a law enforcement priority, and [we] are not going to go after you,” said one senior official. “It is temporary and it is revocable.”
Working people have nothing to gain by faint praise or other attributions of support to Obama’s racist and anti-immigrant policies—in this case, a policy likely announced with great fanfare to crudely manufacture Obama’s future “legacy” as a humanistic president concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed.
All “reforms” extracted from corporate America are derived from the independent self-organization and fightback of working people. To date, the growing immigrant rights movement has increasingly demanded an immediate end to all deportations, immediate amnesty and legalization, full benefits to all undocumented workers, and an immediate end to the militarization of the borders. The unity of the broad working class in defense of full rights for immigrants is a prerequisite to winning real victories for all the oppressed and indeed, for all workers.
Subordination of this critical struggle to support for “The Great Deporter,” or any other posturing politician, only furthers illusions in the credibility of the racist capitalist system.
The massive mobilizations in virtually every U.S. city, in which people expressed their rage against the racist grand-jury decision in the case of the police murder of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was an important step toward awakening the American people to the real source of oppression in the United States.
Similarly, the five million immigrants who struck nationwide in 2006 against the racist immigration bill proposed by Republican Congressmen James Sensenbrenner and Peter King entitled, “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act” offered a living example of the power of mass opposition and protest that raised the level of political consciousness of all. It is no coincidence that Obama’s executive order employs Sensenbrenner-type language—“terrorism, border protection, and immigration control.”
Obama’s fake decree was nothing less than a ruling-class effort to set the stage for the next round of electoral debate, in which the “lesser evil” will be once again counterposed to the so-called greater evil. But the massive 2014 election abstention rate of Latino workers—and indeed, the vast majority of all the oppressed and youth—was a stinging rebuke to Obama’s across-the-board policies of austerity, racism, environmental destruction, endless war, and atrocities against immigrants.
There are no capitalist “saviors.” The gap is narrowing between the growing hatred of capitalism’s brutality and the still modest number of acts of resistance. The prospect of explosive events that can bring millions into the streets and into the political arena—making use of a new fighting labor movement, mass organizations of struggle, and independent working-class political parties was significantly advanced when tens of thousands took to the streets nationwide to express their solidarity with Ferguson’s Black community and to condemn the inherent racism of corporate America and its militarized police-state-like criminal “justice” system.