Choice is power. But the illusion of choice renders us vulnerable to exploitation. I woke from this morning’s 20-minute nap with this thought clear in my mind.
I’d been reading an article in The New York Times (a very long-read, as this manifesto before you threatens to be), called “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” Upon waking, I sat down with my notebook and began to write. “I’m having an important idea,” I told my youngest, home from school today because his teachers are striking in support of strong public education. “When will you be done with your idea?” he asked, at last. He wanted me to pour him a bowl of cereal. “It’s turning into a very big idea,” I said. He poured his own bowl of cereal.
I want to use this reflection to pull together a number of disparate thoughts / observations / concerns about choice, autonomy, responsibility and shame. I want to reflect on how the illusion of choice shames us into believing that we are willing participants in our own exploitation, that we’ve willingly consented to give away our private lives, and that we deserve what we get. We might even believe that we prefer it this way. Anyone with a car can drive Uber or Skip the Dishes to earn a bit of extra cash; anyone with a room can rent it out at their convenience; anyone with an internet connection can publish a blog for free; anyone with a cellphone can become an “influencer.”
But it’s this illusion of choice, this illusion of independence and personal autonomy, that makes us vulnerable. It is only when we know we are oppressed that we can fight back. If we are kept in a state of confused distraction, if we feel shame about our personal choices (which may in fact be “choices”), we will remain disorganized, overwhelmed, stressed out, and isolated, even while believing ourselves to be ever more connected. Sure, we’re connected — but to what, and by whom?
I can’t stop thinking about something Trump said while still a candidate for the presidency: “I love the uneducated.” I think he instinctively understands the moment in which we’re living, which makes him especially dangerous. We think he’s joking when we says things like this, but he’s actually incredibly transparent: he’s stating his game plan (and it’s not just his). As citizens of democratic countries, we not only want to imagine ourselves free, our identity relies on it. Paradoxically, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation too; when identity is at stake, recognition of a different version of reality can be too painful to accept. The less we know, the less equipped we are to understand and interpret our triggers, which are attached to our pain, let alone to distinguish between facts and “fake news.”
It’s my observation that the gig economy is a function of this moment in time, too. We’ve been sold the idea that contract employees are willingly trading security for independence. But the gig economy only makes sense if those employed by contract can earn enough to live at a similar standard to those employed in traditional jobs. And it’s clear we can’t. Also clear that the gig economy puts pressure on the individual to support themselves in ways that go beyond their capacity as individuals to fulfill — to negotiate higher wages, save for retirement, etc. Further, the gig economy has the effect of eroding traditional jobs — with labour so cheap, and labourers so plentiful, who can afford tenured professors, for example?
What “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” focuses on, though, is the power that data mining — which feeds artificial intelligence — gives to private corporations, whose interests fundamentally put them at odds with our interests, with the public good. Instead, we become consumers to be activated by “remote control.” Our phones are always with us. (Mine is plugged in beside me right now, ringer on.) We can’t imagine life without this device that only recently entered our lives — I didn’t carry a cellphone on my person till around 2010, yet I went into full-on panic when briefly separated from my phone due to a mix-up this past weekend. What would entertain me while I did chores? And what if someone needed to reach me? I was like a smoker separated from her pack of cigarettes.
Okay, so I’m addicted to my phone. I confess it. Aren’t most of us? Despite surviving the majority of my life without it, I seem convinced that my well-being depends on it. Yet it is this device, according to “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” that makes it so easy for me to be monitored and manipulated — it is an important tool, among many other tools in the “internet of things” that is turning us into robots.
I am writing the first draft of this reflection by hand, in my notebook. The act of writing by hand becomes, in our era, an act of rebellion against the norm. A notebook cannot be surveilled. It is not connected to anything but itself. (Not to mention that my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me.)
Surveillance capitalism traffics in prediction. The better a corporation is at predicting what we want / how we feel, the better it is at telling us what we want by understanding what we’re feeling. We are not, in fact, private autonomous individuals making multiple choices independently every day, we are highly predictable creatures with our inner lives, habits, routines and decisions being carefully monitored and collected digitally — including by facial recognition technology that may be able to know what we’re feeling via “micro-expressions” better than we ourselves do.
I’d like to connect the NYT article to a program that aired on the CBC’s Ideas on Friday evening, which was so compelling that I didn’t turn it off, even after I’d finished the dishes. It was part 2 in a series called “Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto.” Bell observes that it is legitimately becoming more difficult for us to find trustworthy news sources, especially at the local level. (Note that the two sources I’ve used for this post are The New York Times, which is probably the biggest independent newspaper in the world; and CBC radio, a public broadcaster funded by the Canadian government.) As anyone who works in journalism knows, the industry has suffered massive job losses and cuts over the past decade; we also know that bloggers are no replacement. A journalist without independence (or without adequate independent funding) is not free to do their job. “Influencers” are an example of personal journalism that is manipulated, easily and cheaply, by corporate interests. Why? Because an individual is personally vulnerable. An individual lives on a knife’s edge. She has children to feed, her reputation to protect. Freelancers need to get hired again, and again, and again.
This is what the gig economy thrives on. It’s the illusion of choice that I flagged way back when, at the beginning of this very very long essay.
An individual will sacrifice a great deal in order to feed her children, keep a roof over her head, and ensure she’ll get hired again. And she’s exhausted. There’s only one of her. How can she afford to anger the rich and powerful? When I worked as a sessional lecturer, I talked to a department chair about the insecurity built into the system: she tried to explain that I was fortunate to be given courses for two consecutive terms. That’s eight months of work. The standard for contract lecturers, in my experience, is to be given a contract for a single term (four months of work). And then you have to reapply, or perhaps you’ll be offered a contract again, seemingly out of the blue. There is no stability. I was trying to explain, in return, that this made it very difficult to plan ahead. And she explained that the budgeting system made it impossible for her to make better offers. As I sat in her office, I thought, We are two human beings trapped in an inhumane system. How many people at the university were employed as contract lecturers, I asked her? And she said there was no data available on that. She suggested I could find it myself, contact fellow adjuncts and contract lecturers and try to organize, to protest. I was flabbergasted. I was one person. I had limited resources. I was exhausted.
The NYT article suggests that protection for individuals requires stronger laws, supported by the slow but certain democratic impulses of a population; this may be the solution. But is it too late? As Emily Bell points out, large data-mining corporations now possess more information than any single government. What would regulation look like? Who would enforce it? Who has the power? I fear totalitarianism by stealth. I fear all that we are accepting without question.
“Who will write the music, and who will dance?” writes the article’s author, Shoshanna Zuboff.
I can think of a number of policy changes that would help. A living minimum wage would go some distance toward reducing inequality. Strong public education with well-paid teachers is foundational, too. (“I love the uneducated.”)
But in Shoshanna Zuboff’s words I hear something else, too, that’s already within us — it’s our capacity for creativity, our capacity to write the music, real music, not computer generated music. Algorithms are inherently boring. They are designed to predict the future; in other words, they’re predicated on predictability. It’s why I find Amazon’s suggestions for books I might like so boring — what I want is a human being who loves reading, in a bookstore, handing me a selection that’s a bit off the wall and unexpected, something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Human beings have the capacity to surprise ourselves and others. An algorithm is predicated on the opposite of surprise. In surprise is delight. An algorithm offers, instead, a solution. But our brains don’t necessarily want solutions and efficiencies — we want absurdity, we want to be able to laugh and to weep at what we intuitively understand is not fixable. We crave mystery, though it can be difficult to recognize that — a page-turner, I would argue, takes us toward a solution, but we read it because we love the process of getting there.
Here’s a good example: Little Women is a beloved and much-read book not because of its tacked-on happy ending, but because of its imperfections — because we know the happy ending feels tacked-on (as Greta Gerwig’s film’s version brilliantly subverts). If Jo and Laurie had married, Little Women would not still be read, and relevant, today. We love the Little Women for its complexity, for the messy emotions it evokes in us, and because it reminds us of our own imperfect lives. When I was a kid, I read it over and over again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — how it could have turned out differently for Jo, how unfair things were, how it lit in me a longing for a different ending, and yet how I had to accept it, nevertheless. This is the pleasure, the delight of the “wrong” solution, the solution unknown to the algorithm.
Something else. When we can buy anything and receive it instantly, we are denying ourselves another pleasure, that of anticipation, of weighing our desires against our needs, of imagining what the wanted thing might give us. We have been lulled into believing that the easy path is desirable. Yet we know in our bones that everything we care about deeply is hard. Parenting is hard. Love is hard. It aches. But it brings us to life. That is what we are losing. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everyone is staring at their screens? And they glance up and their eyes are blank and they look numb? The men who design the tech that would manipulate our every decision are very smart at efficiencies, and at making us want more and more of whatever is being sold; but what makes life worth living? There’s a basic immorality at play in the systems they create — or any system created to maximize profit: an indifference to what’s being destroyed. And what’s being destroyed is the humanity of the humans lured into and trapped in these systems.
I gave up being a contract lecturer not exactly because I didn’t like teaching, but because I despised the system, and could not support it, if I could afford to choose otherwise. So I chose otherwise. But the truth is that I didn’t really want to be a tenured professor either; I could see that their roles were untenably uncomfortable too, in many ways. It makes me wonder what to wish for.
The problem with systems designed for maximum efficiency is that these systems almost invariably fail to count some losses as actual costs; the only losses that count are the ones found on a ledger. The loss of an individual’s security is not counted as a cost. Nor is the loss of an individual’s creative life. Nor the loss of pleasure, relationships, community-building when an individual is stretched to the limit just to survive, or when an individual has as colleagues other individuals who are treated as second-class.
We are not machines. We can’t live like we are. We won’t thrive. Here’s my own personal proof: I’m close to completing a project that I started a year ago in February, which I call “The Hourlies.” Each month, I’ve taken a 24-hour period and drawn a cartoon depicting each waking hour. It’s laborious, time-consuming, very dear to me, and completely non-monetizable. It’s also an enormous accomplishment in which I take great pride.
Drawing a cartoon is an act of creative rebellion. And each act of creative rebellion is an antidote to the paranoia, despair and fear that we’re being fed daily.
You know, Trump is half-right in his paranoia and fears — we are being monitored and many news sources are untrustworthy; he’s tapped into real fears and that gives his message currency and power. It’s just that he’s also the logical conclusion of what happens when we let paranoia, disinformation, ignorance, gossip, fear, greed and self-interest become our guiding principles. So let’s not do that, even though we could, even though we’re being pushed to. If we become like Trump’s example, we will live only on the surface of our lives, sating our base desires, but cold to the best of ourselves, which includes our openness, generosity, curiosity, and our imaginations, where images live.
Images can be used to manipulate us, too, of course; Trump knows how to draw a crude portrait that calls out our basest emotional responses — disgust, envy, greed, rage and fear. But images nevertheless remain my personal source of hope.
I think we can fight images with images.
Visit with your own personal imagine. Images can become stories, poems, drawings, songs. Images can be made into something that helps us see and know that we are human, we are alive, we are not machines. Let the joy of surprise and creation pull you away from your devices and screens, at least for a little while, every day. Call it your own personal rebellion against the surveillance economy. Get a cheap composition notebook and a black pen, and let yourself be led.
Maybe our creativity will disrupt the cruelty of efficiencies. Maybe policy will follow.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom.
My word of the year is MANIFEST.
I chose this word despite feeling discomfort about its complexity, and despite recognizing that I don’t completely understand its multiple meanings nor how the word will be useful in shaping or framing my outlook this year.
Sometimes a word just wants to be used. This word kept coming up. I kept seeing it and hearing it. And it arrived with a clear image. A manifestation is what’s visible. To make manifest is to show. Within the word is its reason for being, its implicit shadow: everything that is latent, hidden, unconscious, unseen, unknown and mysterious under the surface. The image I see is of surfacing. I’m in a deep body of water, carrying an offering to the surface. My offering is small, no bigger than a grain of sand, and I have a long way to go from the ocean floor to the open sky. But I enjoy the work. I’m swimming happily toward the surface with my grain of sand. When I pop through, I’ll float on the surface for a little while, resting, holding my grain of sand up to the sky in case a bird wants to carry it away. It won’t be long till I dive down to the bottom, again, to find another grain of sand.
Something that is manifest is readily perceived by the senses; it is what’s shown.
A manifestation can also mean the spiritual made real.
There are things that are declared, or announced, before they spring into being; to make manifest is to bring into being that which did not exist. My life’s work, I think. Because I also believe that what isn’t yet seen does exist, just not in tangible form. My life’s work is to go underground and surface, again and again.
When I frame my work as a spiritual quest rather than a career, it makes sense in a way that soothes and comforts me. It makes sense in a way that other framing does not and never has; I’m left cold and anxious, seething with envy and practical concerns, when I try to frame my work as a career, something that is transactional in nature, something I do in order to receive something in return—money, success, fame, or even simply a decent living. Nope. That’s asking my work to be something it fundamentally isn’t.
Accept what is before you. Be led. Open pathways for others, but don’t be angry or worried or dissatisfied if the path you see for them is not the path they see for themselves.
A story should call us, should lead us, we should follow it; if we’re dragging that story behind us like a dead weight, we know it’s not alive. It makes sense to me to visualize and live my life, as much as is possible, in this way—being called, following where I’m being led, whether or not it makes sense or is logical or dutiful or practical or immediately rewarding. I can’t know what I’m making. I can’t know what I’m doing in the moment of doing it. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming toward the light carrying this little grain of sand.
Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
My word-of-the-year group met last week for the last time in 2019. My word this year, SPACE, was resonant and practical, and has met me where I’m at in terms of my goals and aspirations. Essentially, a year ago, I determined that I wanted / needed / craved more space, specifically more space to write. Space and time are inextricably linked. They can’t be separated.
But so are space and discomfort. (As far as I know, Einstein didn’t weigh in on this theory.) Let me explain.
What I’ve come to believe is that I am the source of my own space. If I feel crowded out of my life, it is because I have chosen to be a person crowded out of her own life. I am the biggest obstacle in the path to my own contentment, and enlightenment; conversely, I am also the person capable of removing said obstacle. The expectations of others are not holding me back — my own expectations are the source of my unhappiness. What I’m sparing myself, by building a life that is crowded and that crowds me out, is discomfort.
Anything I give space to will cause me some discomfort, and the opposite of feeling discomfort is so often, instead, feeling resentment. It’s something we don’t think about much. But the fact is, we are much more comfortable feeling resentment (and anger, annoyance, irritation) because it is an outward emotion — we can send it toward the object of our resentment. Discomfort is an interior emotion that asks us to be responsible, to accept the cause of our discomfort as our own choosing.
Any choices I’ve made that I value have caused me to feel discomfort. Giving space to listen to opposing positions — discomfort. Saying no to people and opportunities — discomfort. Waiting with a writing project as it forms and develops — discomfort. Allowing a child to wrestle with their own problems — discomfort. Taking a leadership role and being responsible for decisions that affect others — discomfort.
What I’ve learned this year is that when I allow myself to focus more fully on what I’ve named as my desire — time and space to devote to my writing — I also have to confront my insecurities, which come crowding into all this open space. It’s uncomfortable. I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Teaching was easy to talk about, pretty much universally understood and accepted as a positive and recognizable undertaking. The ambition of developing an ongoing career as a literary fiction writer in a market that is facing serious existential challenges: not so easy to talk about. Even that sounds like an excuse, as I read it over. And so I’ll revise: It’s not so easy to talk about my ambition to continue developing my craft as a literary fiction writer in the absence of new publications. But it’s true to what I’m doing.
And I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to name that desire, and pursue it, at least for the time being. I do feel discomfort being here. But I know discomfort is here because I’ve given it space to be here. In a sense, I’ve actively invited discomfort to be my companion. I also know that I wouldn’t feel better in the throes of resentment, overwhelmed by commitments, wishing and longing to pursue my deeper ambition; I would feel different, yes, running on fumes, exhausted, stretched thin, maybe full of certainty and outward purpose, maybe not; but definitely not better.
In conclusion, my year of making space has somehow turned into an examination of discomfort. And I’ve realized that I’m unexpectedly comfortable with discomfort. I have a pretty high tolerance for feeling it. I think, if deployed under the right set of circumstances, this might even be a super-power.
I’ve typed, deleted, and typed anew the first sentence. The problem isn’t that there’s nothing to write about and reflect on. The problem is there is so much! And I’m struggling to identify the theme that would bind these disparate aspects of my week together.
On Wednesday, we held the open house for the second season of The X Page workshop, which will begin in January, 2020. It was an emotional evening, a familiar team of women gathering to meet new candidates for this collaborative, cross-cultural project. I was reminded of the small miracles and many challenges behind and before us. The energy felt familiar: a bubbling sense of adventure, curiosity, wondering, nerves. The desire to hear each other’s stories. To connect on a deeper level. Wondering what we would make together? Wondering, also, where we might go wrong, would we say the wrong thing, make an assumption that would be hurtful, misunderstand one another — this, too, is part of the project, part of any project that transports us out of our comfort zones. This may also be the greatest intrinsic potential in the project: that it may teach us how to sit with discomfort, express it, feel our way through it, forgive and be forgiven, and learn from being challenged, because we often (unconsciously) try to avoid all of this, in our ordinary spheres of reference, our primary contexts.
On Thursday, my emotions were at a low. I felt unworthy in all aspects of my life; I’m not saying it was rational, only that it was what I felt. I mention this because I want to be honest about the ways my emotions can bottom out, sometimes. I was feeling profound despair, weakness. Thankfully, instinctively, I didn’t cancel plans/routines and hide away, even though I wanted to. Friday morning, I got up early to run. I went to visit a friend. Two poultices for my spirit: exercise and friendship. My emotional trajectory could not help but rise.
On Saturday, I received an award that five years ago would have been unimaginable — I was named Youth Coach of the Year for the district in which my team plays. To be honest, this was one of the things I was beating myself up about on Thursday; I didn’t feel deserving of this recognition. I kept listing all of my limitations as a coach. And then, on Saturday, it came to me — my limitations have been my strength as a coach. Or perhaps, more accurately, awareness of my limitations has been my strength. I prepare for practices diligently. I do my homework. I ask lots of questions. I’ve surrounded myself with assistant coaches whose technical skills are stronger than my own. I’ve benefited from thoughtful mentorship and coach’s education. I was very green when I first volunteered, and I’m grateful to the club for trusting me to learn and grow alongside the players. More clubs should do this. Give moms the benefit of the doubt, the vote of confidence, the support needed to volunteer.
I’ve invented my idea of what it means to be a coach almost from scratch, because I didn’t play competitive sports as a kid — I didn’t have a role model in mind. (Here’s an exercise: picture a coach. Did your mind conjure a red-faced man pacing beside a field, square-jawed with tension, or yelling at his players?) There were almost no women coaching at my soccer club when I started, and there still aren’t many. I wonder whether a lack of role models actually gave me freedom to develop my own coaching style. It’s not punitive, it’s not authoritarian, and it’s definitely not angry. Honestly, it’s kind of goofy. My approach is light. I think out loud, ask questions, admit when something isn’t working the way I’d hoped, ask players for feedback to see whether we can figure this out together. I enthusiastically admire players’ creativity and technical skills. I try to highlight moments when a player has pushed herself out of her comfort zone to try something new — regardless of whether or not it worked. What I want to create is a collaborative learning environment for everyone. I think and hope this creates an atmosphere of trust and shared knowledge, where players are comfortable saying if they don’t understand something, where they can ask for help, even just tell me that they’re having an off day and they don’t know why.
I want to be the kind of coach, the kind of leader, who is also a participant, a collaborator.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that strength comes from (not despite) vulnerability. I believe that trust is earned by working through challenges, being human together, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. I believe that knowledge is not fixed and top-down, but ever-curious. I believe that almost all of what we know can be learned only by experience: experience is the source of expertise. It’s also painful, and hard, and sucks sometimes. So we need each other to remind each other of our potential, as individuals, and as a team. I believe we should be seen for who we are, not asked to change ourselves fundamentally to fit in. I believe it’s the coach’s job to position players for success, to see and believe in them, so they can see and believe in themselves.
I believe that your team needs you to be you. And my team needs me to be me.
Last but not least — it’s not worth it if isn’t fun. That’s the glue that sticks all of this, all of us, together.