As the year inexorably winds down to the orgies of consumption I sometimes call the holydaze, I find myself unaccountably nostalgic for the “old daze,” when my parents, grandparents, and perhaps an aunt, cousin or guest gathered around the table at my childhood home in Connecticut. Along with my parents and theirs, five of my twelve first cousins have since departed to their final destinations. Of the survivors, one of us lives close at hand and she’ll be with us on Thanksgiving, hopefully with stories. Her mom was a fabulous cook who threw large dinner parties I well remember that I’ll never upstage, even with Peking Duck as our main course. (Don’t ask why. It just happened that way.)
“The walls here are like a daily newspaper, trying to make us get off the couch and roam the streets demanding all that is written on the walls.” — Níkos Tρavvós
Breathlessly stumble down the western flank of the Athenian tourist destination Mount Lycabettus and soon you’ll find yourself slack-jawed, taking in a part of the city that looks and feels a whole lot different from the tourist haunts just blocks away. You’ve entered the twilight zone, a compact triangular enclave called Exarcheia, home to artists, poets, intellectuals, immigrants, communists and anarchists, a creative churn of radical visions, defying authority, making its own rules, perpetually decolonizing itself. Wikipedia tells us that in Exarcheia:
Spring has sprung, the crocuses are in bloom, and the sparrows are making a racket.
Here in New England, the gray winter days are gone but a lot of grayness remains on the streets. Not the pavement; I’m talking about automobiles. A few weeks ago it struck me that most of the cars I see driving, parked by the curb or filling parking lots are essentially colorless. Around here at least I’d say close to 90% of them are painted in shades of white, gray, and black. The darker ones may have a tint to them, but you need strong light to tell what it is. The most popular color seems to be blue, followed by red. The gaudiest ones are the primary-colored jeeps, but they’re far outnumbered by cars in formal attire. Now, of the ten cars I’ve owned, none were black, one white, and the rest mostly earth tones (if Puce is an earth tone). So either tastes have changed or colored cars are harder to come by these days. Take a survey, next few times you’re out and about (thanks to the weather and the vaccine). Are colored cars as rare where you are? What do you make of this car conformity?
Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.
The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.
Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff (W.W. Norton, 2019, 256 p. hardbound), ISBN 987-0-393-65169-0, $23.95. Also available in eBook and audiobook formats.
The entities called computers were originally human beings, people like the accounts clerk Bob Cratchit in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In the mid-20th century, computers were (mostly) women who worked calculators and slide rules, tasked with tabulating data and solving numerical problems. Nowadays, says Douglas Rushkoff, computers run us as extensions of applications that abuse us for fun and profit. Rushkoff has had it with the soul-sucking “innovation economy”; to retrieve the human agency and dignity that technocracy has usurped, he proposes not a revolution but a renaissance of pre-industrial, even pre-enlightenment, societal values. Rushkoff emerged as an early member of the digerati, but has since been a longstanding critic of those who control digital media and manipulate its users, not to mention capitalism itself. Now a professor of media studies (CUNY Queens), public intellectual, and podcast host, he’s quietly assembling an army of change agents. Their mission is to “challenge the operating system that drives our society” by organizing the (better-educated) masses to throw off their (block) chains by imagining and building human-scale alternatives to giant financial institutions, public corporations, and their enablers. Given how overarching and well-wired global capitalism is, that’s a tall order, but Rushkoff asserts that the battle can be won if we stick together.