American Gun Culture 1

gun 1

This week, this image features TV, online newspapers, and social media. Yes, this scene captures the tragic moment when a 9 year old girl on a gun range in Arizona handles a gun, loses control of it, and kills the gun instructor standing next to her.

This story reminds me of Richard Wright’s excellent story “The Man Who was Almost a Man,” published in 1961 (You can access the full text here: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR2/wright.htm) . In this story, the protagonist Dave is a black boy, working in a farm in the South. The story begins, as Dave goes to his white master to borrow a Sears catalog. What he wants to see in the catalogue and ultimately purchase is a gun. He wants a gun so badly. And he buys a gun. It is a top secret known only to himself, of course, so he keeps the gun hidden during the day but goes out to the field in the middle of the night to practice shooting alone. Nobody teaches him how to use a gun, and Dave has to learn through trial and error. But his attempt to master shooting ends with a catastrophe. The young black boy misfires and kills a mule whose value on the farm exceeds the one of Dave himself.  Recognizing that he should slave all his life to pay to his white master the value of the mule, Dave decides the leave the farm. The story ends as Dave hops on a train, to leave the town.

I am thinking of this story today, because juxtaposing Wright’s story and the Arizona incident makes it crystal clear how gun possession is totally out of control today. In Wright’s 1961 story, a gun is not portrayed as such a highly threatening weapon. A careful reader of “The Man Who was Almost a Man” will notice the multi-faceted cultural meaning of a gun. A gun represents everything that Dave is not but wants to be: a strong man (not a young boy), a rich person (not a poor farm hand), and a white person (no black in the farm owns a gun, and all men who own a gun are white). Hence, when our black boy misfires the gun and understands that he is more securely enchained to where he is, I read Wright’s criticism of society which prevents a black boy from joining the rank of “white” “middle class” “men.” In this process, however, Wright focuses on the cultural meaning of a gun and pays little to no attention to the meaning of a gun as a fatal weapon. Even when Dave kills the mule, we readers are not led to think that it could have killed Dave. Also, in Wright’s story, all the white middle class men who own a gun all seem to thrive in their gun culture.

This makes a sharp contrast with the situation of 2014 when guns can turn against anyone, regardless of one’s age, gender, and class. I think that guns in 2014 still mean all that they used to mean in Wright’s time, but gun possession becomes so widely spread that the victims of gun use are no longer limited to blacks who want to join white culture, the poor who want to get rich, or little boys who want to prove their manhood. Guns literally can kill anyone.

Rambo the man

Reading about the Arizona incident, I think that this is a high time to seriously think about what guns really mean in our society. Since 1961, the meaning of guns has changed dramatically, to the extent that they even indicate a form of recreation. But using a fatal weapon for a recreational purpose? Where are we?

(To be continued in the next post….)

How is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” Racist?

How is Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” Racist?

In this post, I venture into an unexplored region of my interests: pop music. I rarely listen to pop music (There is nothing wrong with it. It is just not my cup of tea) by national superstars, such as Beyonce, and when I heard that Taylor Swift released a new song, I could not care less. Then, I had to care when I heard that her new music video provoked a controversy about its racism.

Here is what happened. Shortly after the release of the song “Shake It Off” and its official music video, a hip hop artist named Earl Sweatshirt said that Swift’s music video was offensive for reinforcing racial stereotypes. But Sweatshirt’s criticism was not well received, because he said he did not watch the music video and did not plan to watch it, either. When Mark Romanek, the director of the music video, came around a couple of days later to defend his work and to disarm Sweatshirt’s criticism, therefore, the hip hop artist’s not having watched the video was the first thing that he took an issue with. Romanek emphasized that “if Earl Sweatshirt was open-minded enough to take the four minutes to watch it, he might see what the larger, humanistic, and utterly color-blind message was intended to be.”

The lyric of the song goes like this: a woman (Taylor Swift in the music video) dates with many men, none of them is right, and she keeps “cruising,” “shaking it off” every time she breaks up with a man.

I go on to many dates [chuckle]

But I can’t make ’em stay

At least that’s what people say, mmm-mmm

That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

But I keep cruising

Can’t stop, won’t stop moving

It’s like I got this music

In my mind

Singing, “It’s gonna be alright.”

The music video translates this romantic “cruising” into the woman’s cruising of different types of dance, such as ballet, modern dance, cheerleading, and twerking. And the director assures us, in filming the video, “we simply choose styles of dance that we thought would be popular and amusing and cast the best dancers that were presented to us without much regard to race or ethnicity.” So, what’s wrong with that?

Well, what’s wrong with it is that the music video activates all the racial codes that are at work in American society and transports them to the video in their intact form and without any critical awareness. In other words, when the director “chose styles of dance and cast the best dancers,” these choices are not innocuous aesthetic choices, as the director leads us to think. Instead, the director’s choices are already racially charged ones. When he decides to portray ballet in the music video, for example, this decision, in turn, invokes an interest in twerking. If ballet is a white middle class’s cultural form (note that all the ballerinas in the video are white women), it will be nice to show some black cultural form, such as twerking, as well. Doing so would emphasize the “cruising” of the lyric, on the one hand, and on the other, make the music video look more colorful and more inclusive. In fact, this is what a lot of us think about the racial diversity or equality of our society: “let’s be respectful of minority cultures. Let the blacks in.” The director’s statement cleary reflects this line of well-meaning but highly problematic, racist thinking, which regards black culture as a subculture that should be tolerated.

See they are all white women?

See they are all white women?

Now, some may ask, “what’s wrong with respecting minority cultures? Are you saying that we should stop caring or portraying black culture all together?” Unfortuantely, this interlocutor totally fails to see that the problem is not with respecting or not respecting minority cultures but with how we understand minority cultures to begin with. When black culture is conceived as a foil to white culture or a subculture that should be tolerated or brought into the centre, as it is in Swift’s “Shake It Off” music video, we define white culture as the dominant, core culture of American society and subjugate non-white cultures to it. What we have, then, is, speaking crudely, a nice boss treating his inferiors with kindness and respect.

If you’re not quite convinced by my argument, I suggest that you watch Swift’s music video, paying careful attention to where Swift’s eyes land in each scene. In the much discussed twerking scene, Swift is looking up from under the legs of twerkers and sniggers, as if to say, “wow, these guys are really something.” The white woman is the seer and the twerkers are the seen. Swift is touring. Or she “cruises” through black culture, to “shake it off” eventually.

Wow, these guys are really different.

Wow, these guys are really different.

Let me conclude by answering the question in this blog title. Yes, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is racist, not by heavy-handedly denouncing black culture but by reinforcing the existing racial hierarchy which places black culture under white culture, waiting for recognition and uplifting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfWlot6h_JM

The Importance of Asking Questions

The Importance of Asking Questions

question1

I have not taught freshmen writing courses for the past two years. But I am back to them this semester. I took out my old writing class syllabus from the shelf, dusted it, and read it again. And one section that was always there but never intrigued my curiosity before got my attention today: course objectives. The college provides generic outlines for this section, and in my syllabus, I dutifully copied and pasted them. For example, by taking my writing class, “students will use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating, and identify purpose and rhetorical strategies employed in texts.” Sounds very good. But what does that mean really?

What I would like to say for the course objectives is as simple as this: “students will learn how to raise questions.”

I would like to start by sharing with you an anecdote from my undergraduate days. When I was an undergraduate, I had a chance to take a graduate seminar in the philosophy department. The professor allowed me to take the class but asked me not to say to everyone that I was an undergraduate from outside the philosophy department. I am by nature docile (I mean it!), and I tried to sit quietly in one corner of the classroom. One day, I did not quite understand one thing that the professor explained in the class, and after the class was done, I grabbed some graduate students and asked them what she was talking about. The first unni (in Korean, this is how you call a female colleague who is your senior in age and experience) said she actually did not understand it, either. Okay, let’s move on. The second unni had no idea, and so did the third one. I kept asking, until I was convinced that no student in the room had a clue to what the professor was talking about. But that’s not what surprised me. What surprised me was that nobody asked a question about what they did not understand!

Nobody understood it!

Nobody understood it!

These unnis were getting Master’s and Ph.D degrees in philosophy, and they were all afraid that their asking questions would be construed as a sign of insufficient knowledge in the field of study. So, I said to myself, “I am the one in the classroom who knows the least about philosophy. Let me ask damn questions.” I became courageous and asked all kinds of questions. After all, as the only undergraduate among the crowd of experienced graduate students, I had no problem passing for the dumb one.

This small incident from my undergraduate days taught me the valuable lessons that first, it is a privilege to be able to ask questions, and second, it takes intellectual trainings to ask questions. I understand the unnis. When you’re getting a doctorate degree in philosophy, you’re hard pressed to demonstrate that you already know a lot or, if you ask questions, you ask “good” questions. When you’re a teacher, the pressure is even more intense.

But an important point is that it is not just graduate students and teachers who are hard pressed not to ask questions. We’re all under the same pressure, because, very often, asking questions are mistaken for a sign of ignorance and even weakness. To this, I add intellectual indifference and laziness to explain the prevent tendency of not asking questions. However, I argue that what determines your intellectual caliber is not the depth of your answer to a given question but the depth of your question. In other words, what questions you raise is a lot more important than what answers you give to the question. Let’s talk about the Ferguson incident, for example. It is easy to condemn American racism and to criticize police personnel’s abuse of their power. A valid and important point to make, but it does not require rigorous, painstaking thinking to come to this point. What problems do you see? Are there other population segments that we are programmed to see in a certain way and get abused as a result of our programmed perception of them? If so, how are those groups and African Americans similar to each other structurally? From this structural similarity, what insight do you develop about the way American society works?

These are some of the questions that I want my freshmen students to ask. Like my unnis and most of us, my freshmen students think – wrongly – that declarations are smart, and interrogations are dumb. Hence they enthusiastically proclaim in their essays that marijuana should be legalized, the drinking age should be lowered to 18, and in case of some thoughtful students, racial profiling is stupid. All good points, but these “answers” will not serve them in the long run, because the questions they raise are not deep and far-reaching enough.

Intellectual laziness to ask questions becomes more pronounced when I teach a literature class. Some of my students read a fictional text but come up with no question. When I invite them to ask questions about the text and develop an interpretation of their own, they ask me, “well, it happened in a story. And I agree with your interpretation. What other question do you want me to ask? What other interpretations are there?” I hear different variations of these questions all over the place. About Ferguson, people say, “yeah, it is wrong to discriminate blacks. I agree. But what else do you want to talk about? What other questions are there?”

It is not just given that you see problems where there seems to be no problem. Instead, you should make conscious effort to develop intellectual acuity. To articulate in clear words what you don’t know is a surprisingly difficult task. Try hard. Also, you may not have an answer to all the questions that you have, but keep asking questions. Some day, you will get an answer. And remember, the more profound the question is, the deeper the answer is.

Hey, I basically wrote my lecture note for the first day of my class!

My Advice for Friends Looking for a Husband

Bryce Orri engagement 068

This weekend, I had the honor to host an engagement party for one of my best friends. Not anything elegant or extravagant, but just a simple get-together with her family and friends. While I prepared the engagement party, I googled “engagement party games and activities,” because I don’t know why but some people like playing games. Yet, many of the engagement party games and activities that I found were either silly or objectionable. I ended up keeping just two ideas from my google search: trivia questions about the engaged couple, and an advice jar for the almost Mr. and Mrs.

Advice Jar

Advice Jar

In order to clarify what the guests were expected to do about the advice jar, I volunteered to be the first person to offer advice to the couple. I grabbed one sheet of paper, and I began to think. What’s my advice for them?

I am married for less than 5 years, and I am learning about marriage life myself through trial and error. For a relatively short duration of my marriage life, I doubt I am well-suited to give advice to an engaged couple. Still, I had to write something for my friends. What shall I advise them to do? I was thinking and thinking, and I came to remember one thing that was always on my mind when I was..um…man shopping.

When I was man shopping, I looked for a man who would break up elegantly.  Yes, I know it sounds weird, but from the first day that I met someone, I tried to imagine how he would behave on the last day of the relationship. What I was trying to determine was if this guy would let me go, with due respect for all the days that we had spent together and with best wishes for my future life.

(Before I start the next paragraphs, I would like to add a disclaimer. Please read what follows carefully. My husband and I are happily married. I am discussing my philosophy of marriage in general and not describing any marital problem in my own marriage.)

I believe in divorce. That is to say that I believe in happy marriage. If you’re not happy in your marriage, I think you should be able to get out of it. Nothing binds you to your marriage, except for your desire to stay in it. I believe that divorce is not something to be proud of, but it does not constitute some shameful flaw of your character, either. One day, you make a lifelong commitment to someone, but if the conditions on which you initially made the commitment have changed so much as to make it impossible to keep the commitment, and/or if you don’t see how to reconstruct your commitment to your spouse based on the new conditions, alas, the marriage should end. Needless to say,  you should do your best to work through your martial problems.  It’s cowardly to take the easy way out. But if you, after mountain moving effort to salvage your marriage,   face the futility of all the effort,  you need to courageously move forward, planning another fulfilling life on your own or with a different partner.

“Well, isn’t that pretty to think so?” You may wonder. And you’re right. In reality, so many people get upset and angry when they get through divorce. We’ve all heard about couples whose divorce processes get degraded into nasty litigation which drags on for years, because they don’t come to an agreement on the terms of divorce. I have no intention to accuse these couples. I am sure I will also get very, very angry if I have to divorce my husband. I have a bad temper (ask my husband. Hahaha!), and I would probably say to him, “you’re divorcing the best wife in the world. You won’t find a better woman than me. Know that!” Even worse, I may try to blame him for our divorce and make him regret his decision to divorce me. But that’s exactly my point: I would feel like sending him away with my worst wishes, but I shouldn’t. While I am married to him, I should enhance the strength and stature of my character, to the effect that on my last day with him, I prove to myself and to him that I am capable of wishing him my best sincerely.

We all grow over the course of marriage life, and people change over time. Nonetheless, I wanted to find a man who had the aptitude to break up with grace and respect. In my bachelorrette days, therefore, I tried to find a man who would say farewell with “thank you so much for everything. I wish you best of luck for the rest of your life,” as opposed to “you f@#$ b!@#$. Go to hell!” I was convinced then that preparedness for a good divorce would provide fuel for a happy marriage. Simply put, if he’s going to be an asshole in divorce, he’s going to be an asshole in marriage as well. I thought that only a man who could break up well would be able to work with me to construct a mutually supportive and respecting marriage life. As of today,  I still hold this conviction.

So, what did I write on my advice sheet for my engaged lovebirds friends? Did I write what I write in this post? Hell, no. This is damn too long and complicated to write on paper. Also, I cannot say “prepare to divorce well” to an engaged friend, without running a high risk of being unfriended. But those of you who read this far and carefully will know that I truly believe that a mutually supportive, happy marriage is not possible with someone who would treat you like shit on the last day of relationship. I dedicate today’s post to my dear friends who allowed me the privilege of hosting their engagement party. Two cheers to them, and I wish them many, many years of happiness TOGETHER.

Two cheers to my friends

Two cheers to my friends

We just don’t like him

For the past week or two, some of you might have heard the name Steven Salaita. He was to be appointed as a tenured professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But the university revoked the job offer, because it determined that his vehement criticism of Israel that he published through his tweeter was inappropriate.The University’s decision to rescind the job offer became big news online, and many people already advanced brilliant, well-developed defenses of Salaita’s right to be faithful to his intellectual conscience and express what he believes is right and true. Meanwhile, one interesting article caught my attention. This article “An Appointment to Reject” is written by a senior faculty member at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in order to defend the university’s decision to rescind the job offer to Salaita. (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/08/08/essay-defends-university-illinois-decision-not-hire-steven-salaita)

“An Appointment to Reject” turned out to be a revealing piece to me to understand various issues that surround the Salaita fiasco. The author Cary Nelson is a senior faculty member, and he uses an elaborate, sophisticated language to defend the university’s decision to revoke the job offer. Nonetheless, he gets quite honest at times, to bring under intense light what’s really at the heart of this incident. Let me quote Nelson directly: he says, “although I find many of his [Salaita’s] tweets quite loathsome, I would defend without qualification his right to issue most of them…But his right to make most of these statements does not mean I would choose to have him as a colleague….Faculty members are well within their rights to evaluate someone as a potential colleague and to consider what contributions a candidate might make to the campus community.” Please allow me to translate this statement into layman’s language: “We don’t like this guy.”

That’s it. What Nelson is ultimately getting at after defending Salaita’s academic freedom or all those lofty things that exist in principle but criticizing Salaita’s “sophomoric, bombastic, or anti-Semitic tweets” is simply, “we don’t like this guy.” And there is a fancy word for saying “we don’t like him”: collegiality.

Collegiality is, crudely put, a word for a group’s preferences and tastes. As an individual can take a liking to someone, a group can also take a liking to someone. Just as I want to become friends with some but not with others, a group can feel connected to someone but not to others. And this is what I want to talk about today: what preferences are and how they work. I want to focus on two aspects of preferences: preferences are blind and effective.

Preferences are blind, because people often present things like preferences, tastes, penchant, disposition as something that cannot be analyzed, defended or criticized. Passing for innocuous things,  they instead ask to be taken as they are. For example, when I say, “I don’t like pink,” I don’t have to give reasons for my not liking of the color. I just don’t like it. And nobody will say, “you political reactionary scum, why do you not like pink? You should like purple instead!”

"You don't like pink? I can't believe it!"

“You don’t like pink? I can’t believe it!”

The truth of the matter, however, is that not many things in our life are simply a personal taste. What passes for a personal taste is most of the time a socially inflected, politically charged decision. When I prefer a fresh salad with homemade raspberry dressing to a McDonald hamburger, for example, it is not just my personal taste. My preference for the salad is determined by my social location as a middle class woman who can afford the luxury of time. But when I say, “I just like salads,” I render my class privilege invisible.

Precisely because preferences look detached from politics, however, they work as an effective tool by which convince one’s position. Put differently, because presenting one’s personal preference obscures political conditions that give rise to that preference, the person gets unwarranted amnesty from having to explain or defend potentially problematic beliefs or thoughts.

Let’s go back to the Salaita case. When the university members decide that they don’t like Salaita, they allow the reasons why they don’t like him to remain submerged under the water, never to be openly acknowledged and discussed. I would argue that the reasons that remain hidden behind their claim of Salaita’s collegiality or his lack thereof include, but are not limited to, the university community’s desire to maintain the status quo. They want to remain who they are and keep their dominant order. They don’t want to accept a newcomer who radically disagrees with their long-held ideas. They might have already foreseen, perhaps correctly, that Salaita would refuse to just fit in. Even worse, if something happens within the university, he might be the first whistle blower.

Once their preference is established, they can easily find multiple reasons to justify their preference. When you decide to like someone, you can find 100 reasons to like him/her. If you decide not to like that person, however, the same 100 reasons can be turned into reasons for not liking him/her. It is not surprising, then, that Nelson defends Salaita’s academic freedom in principle but also finds reasons why his academic freedom should be compromised.

At the end of the essay, Nelson says, “this is not a political decision but an academic decision.” What Nelson misses is that an academic decision IS a political decision and that this academic decision tells a lot more about where academia stands with its preferences than who Salaita is.

The Bard Music Festival

The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

So, I noticed that over the weekend, the number of visitors of my blog dropped to a single digit. Geeze. I almost shed tears of sorrow. It is necessary to rekindle the burning enthusiasm for Kimchi for Thought, therefore, and I would like to share with you an interesting experience that I had over the weekend.

One of my good friends went to Bard College, a small liberal arts college about 90 miles north of New York City which holds an annual music festival. Each year, the Bard Music Festival is dedicated to one composer, and in 2014, it is dedicated to Franz Schubert (1797-1828). My friend, who used to sell books and CDs at the festivals in his undergraduate days, got informed of Bard’s celebration of Schubert this year and invited me to join him.

My friend was one of these young ushers/booksellers in his undergraduate days.

My friend was one of these young ushers/booksellers in his undergraduate days.

I love Schubert almost all my life, but the Bard Festival allowed me to appreciate his music in such a special and unprecedented way. In order to discuss what’s so special about the Bard Festival, I want to compare it to other famous summer music festivals. Salzburg, Tanglewood, or Verbier may be names that come across people’s minds. The Bard festival is differentiated from these big name festivals in that Bard does not invite star performers. Forget about Yuja Wangs or the likes. Instead, Bard invites lesser-known, but highly qualified and promising young musicians. This is a tremendously important point which establishes, at least in my mind, the special meaning of the Bard Festival. Back in 1993, Edward Said advanced an acerbic criticism of the Salzburg Music Festival: it “hardened into routine and became unabashed touristic promotion,” informed by “alienating opulence” and “dominated by Herbert von Karajan’s imperiousness and cold arrogance” (“The Bard Festival,” from The Nation. January 25,1993). Said did not discuss what caused this deterioration, although he obliquely mentioned the need of an orchestra or an opera company to generate an income during the musical off-season. What I think is – at least partially, if not mostly – responsible for this negative transformation is the star system. In another music criticism piece from 1986, Said asked, “you might be lucky enough to hear a marvelous recital, by, say, Murray Perahia at Aldeburgh. But what are you to make of a performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at Tanglewood by Seiji Ozawa and Alfred Brendel when you know that Brendel will perform the same piece a week later at Edinburgh with a different orchestra and conductor but in more or less the same way? (“Pomp and Circumstance” from The Nation. August 30,1986)

Bard seems to have made a different – and I would argue wiser – choice by shifting its focus from star performers to its audiences. The word I would use to characterize the Bard concerts I attended would be “educational” or “interactive.” This is to say that their programs are uniquely designed to deliver and animate Schubert’s music in rigorous interaction with audiences. For example, the first program of this year on Schubert was called “The Legacy of a Life Cut Short.” In this program, we experienced Schubert’s music career in entirety in condensed three hours. In three hours, we heard Schubert’s songs, his early orchestral work, his symphony of mature ages, a string quintet, and a four hands piano work (about which my dear husband said, “can you play something that my wife cannot play??” But this is beside the point…). Multiple musicians appeared to feature a small corner of the 3 hour program, but they collaborated in such a way to enact a Schubert universe in 2014 and invite the audience to it. Another concert we attended focused on Goethe’s influence on Schubert. Schubert set to music poems and prose by 100+ writers, but he kept returning to Goethe. The Bard Festival demonstrated Goethe’s influence on Schubert in a creative method: in one concert, the singers sang Goethe songs that were composed prior to Schubert’s time, songs contemporary with Schubert and composed by Schubert and other composers, and then songs composed posterior to Schubert. These chronological and synchronological approaches to Schubert’s work, coupled either with a pre-concert talk or in-concert commentary at each concert, and the thematic arrangement of Schubert’s music throughout the whole weekend are the highlight of the Bard Music Festival that I haven’t experienced anywhere before. Put succintly, Bard enabled music listening to be not a passive action but an active, intellectual engagement between the composer, the performers, and the audiences.

The 2015 Bard Music Festival is dedicated to Carlos Chavez. I would like to conclude this post by inviting you to consider the 2015 festival, on the one hand, and, on the other, by giving you a few practical tips, assuming that I persuaded you into considering the 2015 festival. First, book tickets as early as possible. The Bard Music Festival is popular, and tickets get sold out months before the festival. People get bused from New York City.

. bard 1

Also, early booking ensures good seats. We were late this year, because of my incorrigible procrastinating habits. As a result, we got seats from which we gained a unique view of the stage. To be honest, I liked my seats precisely for this reason, but if you’re not particularly interested in observing the tops of musicians’ heads or a high heeled pianist’s delicate pedal work, early booking would be in your interests.

From my seat, I had a full view of how a high heeled pianist pedaled.

From my seat, I had a full view of how a high heeled pianist pedaled.

The tops of musicians' heads

The tops of musicians’ heads

bard 3

Lastly, I suggest that you find classical music loving friends and rent a cabin or a house with them, instead of booking a hotel room. I, my husband, my friend and his wife rented a nice cabin in the middle of the Catskill State Park. This turned out to be a big money saver. Because we got the cabin, which we should have done anyway and costed as much as getting a hotel room, my friends bought concert tickets for us. Because my friends got the tickets for all of us, they got a free lodging. And, because we brought all the food with us, we saved expenses for eating out, which add up quickly when you’re on vacation. Most importantly, lovely Schubert concerts followed by lovely BBQ in a tranquil natural retreat. And nice friends and gastronomic indulgence. Who does not like that??

We ate a lot.

We ate a lot.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger

Facebook Messenger Logo

I am a totally uneducated ignoramus in the field of technology. In fact, I thought that it would never happen that I discuss in my blog a topic related to technology or computer stuff. But life is full of surprises, and one thing that happened yesterday prompted me to explore the untrodden path.

I installed the Facebook messenger app on my mobile a couple of months ago and used it for a while. At that time, I was vaguely and mildly aware of some privacy related concerns over using the Facebook messenger. But so vaguely that it did not stop me from using the messenger. And I noticed that I could do without the messenger app everything that you could do with the app. For example, without the app, I could still know if someone sent me a message, because a small square balloon appeared on the top menu bar on the phone to alert me of the new message. “Why clutter the phone,” I thought, and I deleted the messenger app.

It was not until yesterday afternoon that I realized that Facebook introduced a new change. I could no longer access my private messages unless I install the messenger app. And this prompted me to learn more about what I previously knew only vaguely: the danger of privacy invasion. The following article  written right after Facebook introduced the new change shows you what you’re agreeing Facebook to do,  when you install the messenger app: for example, Facebook can acceess all the information on your phone,  send a text without your permission,  and also take a photo with your phone camera without your knowledge. (Visit http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/reports/news/a28527/facebook-messenger-app-spy-record/)

Also, it is a widely known fact that government agencies control and monitor citizens with dissent voices. According to the documentary called Terms and Conditions Apply, there are a few key words, such as “terrorism,  and “anti-America,” and Facebook posts which include these words come under careful scrutiny.

Some of you may think, “I don’t support government agencies monitoring my personal messages and activities. I think it is morally objectionable. But I still have no problem using the Facebook messenger, because Big Brother won’t find anything interesting in my Facebook activities anyway. I am not involved in terrorism, I am not cheating on my wife, and I have nothing to hide.” I agree. I also have nothing to hide. But my objection to the Facebook messenger focuses not so much on revealing some information that I would rather hide but on something, I would argue, more profound and far-reaching than privacy invasion.

I am talking about reducing myself into data that can be analyzed. Or making myself predictable.

Let’s take a short detour and talk about Amazon for a bit. Most of us shopping at Amazon would have noticed that Amazon “recommends” stuff based on your shopping history. Based on your shopping history, Amazon constructs an understanding of who you are. At the beginning, it is a pretty rough sketch, and to make a more detailed, complete picture of you, Amazon suggests what it thinks is missing pieces of a puzzle. Often, we find Amazon recommendations helpful. When I purchased a Mozart piano sonata CD, for example, yes, I am also interested in Chopin nocturnes. But it does not mean that I am not interested in a contemporary pianist who deconstructs Mozart’s piano sonata form. I am interested. Nonethless, Amazon would not know my interest in this pianist and would never recommend his/her CD to me. Instead of allowing me to branch out and explore new interests, therefore, Amazon encourages me to repeat my past pattern of behavior and discourages me to develop new thinking, new habits and new preferences.

This is also what Facebook and the Facebook messenger are getting at, I think. By using the apps and allowing Facebook to basically own my phone, I submit voluntarily information on where I mostly spend time, who I hang out with, which places I visit, what I am reading, and what subjects interest me. All in all, Facebook will construct a pretty accurate picture of who I am. As a result,  Facebook will suggest friends that I actually find nice and show me  newspaper articles that I actually find informative or persuasive. But “nice” and “informative” as defined by my thinking of yesterday.

As I am encouraged to act according to what they think who I am, based on what I was yesterday, and as Facebook accumulates tons of data on people with whom I share similar backgrounds and similar dispositions,  someone will eventually be able to predict what I will be like 30 years down the road. And the scarier part is I might really live up to that expectation!