Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Originally written and performed for The Paper Machete. Typically, the show is a weekly live magazine taking place at Chicago’s historic Green Mill; during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine the show took the form of a podcast built out of archived and new content. The April 18, 2020 edition can be found here; my essay begins at about the 24-minute mark, after the set of stand-up comedian Helen Hong.
Let me tell you how stupid I was.
I’m six years old, and I live two blocks away from my elementary school, which means I get to walk to and from each day, and because it’s 1983 sometimes I’m even allowed to go home for lunch. The most hazardous stretch of this five-minute journey is the crossing at Belmont and Prairie, a diagonal jaunt from the northeast to southwest corners overseen by a cheerful, Day-Glo orange crossing guard.
After a few months of this routine, standing on the curb feet away from suburbanites rushing towards the Metra station or the Eisenhower, I begin idly measuring how long it takes for the lights to change. I observe that the lights for the side street last a mere 30 seconds, and that those of Belmont, the busier artery, last exactly 60, and it becomes a game for me to begin crossing Belmont on the exact eyeblink that the traffic stops. Before the end of the year I narrowly avoid getting run over by a car turning quickly left as it tries to beat the red, and from that moment on I wait patiently until the crossing guard is in the center of the intersection.
But it’s not just my disregard for pedestrian safety that embarrasses me now. What’s stupid is that in that moment when I almost died, I felt a brief flash of anger at the person who worked under the stoplight.
As I said: It was 1983 and I was six. Large-scale systemic automation in civic spaces wasn’t a concept that Sesame Street had covered quite yet, and anything more advanced than that was positively Jetsonian. So yes, it’s true, I believed that there was a series of small chambers under the streets, and within these chambers someone or several someones would press a button, or flip a switch, or throw a lever every 30 to 60 seconds, and that this network was how traffic moved smoothly from one place to another. On the day a careening hatchback tried to end me I thought that some unseen subterranean clock-puncher had slacked off on their very important responsibilities.
I’m 42 years old and I live five blocks away from my son’s elementary school. Right now neither of us are walking any further than my back alley so that we can kick a soccer ball around a crude arrangement of recycling bins. The wireless telephone that I am recording this essay into is capable of speaking to me in the voice of a calm British woman when I ask her to look up the score of a World Cup quarterfinal match in 1954. I’m smart enough now to understand that she is a complicated tapestry of code and user experience design instead of an actual human being, living in an underground chamber somewhere in the world and waiting patiently for me to ask her a question.
But I still refer to her with the feminine pronoun. And I still, to a degree, I admit, fear her.
Karnataka is a state in southwestern India, home to approximately 65 million Indian citizens within a nation of 1.3 billion. As of the moment I write this, India’s measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have seen India suffer 420 dead among 12,759 confirmed cases, 13 of these in Karnataka. From the perspective of someone living in a nation of 330 million, which has lost 35,000 people in two months, this number is both enviable and astounding. And it compels me to ask myself how I feel about “Quarantine Watch,” a mobile app that was mandated by the state government of Karnataka on March 20 by telling citizens of the state in a tweet that:
“A selfie an hour, will keep the police away! As many #HomeQuarantined are stepping out, the Quarantine Watch Mobile App requires these citizens to send a selfie every waking hour. If the GPS coordinates change, they will be sent to a Govt-run mass quarantine centre.”
Those of us in the Chicago area may have felt both sobered and entertained by the internet meme of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s stern visage traveling around the city and putting us back in our homes with her unforgiving gorgon stare. What India is doing is different. What India is doing is reinterpreting the language of hostage negotiation by demanding that its citizens provide the government with proof of compliance, under penalty of abduction and enforced healthcare.
In the meantime, countries such as Spain and China have been trying other methods of maintaining the quarantine, such as unleashing drones in the cities and using them to disperse groups that defy social distancing, like those howling letters that the wizards send each other in the Harry Potter books. When devout Christians in Kentucky decided to spend the Easter weekend going to church, as if an omniscient being could only hear their prayers from one building on Earth, the governor recorded license plates in the church parking lots, to presumably send out monetary fines using the database of the DMV.
Like many of you, I was raised in a world of technological wonders that only grew more jaw-dropping with each passing year. And also like many of you, I was fed a steady diet of media that taught us about the worst-case scenarios for advanced computing, analytics, data, and artificial intelligence, magnified further by the demands for surveillance in the name of security. After enough Terminators, Matrixes, malevolent military supercomputers and Westworlds, I won’t even engage cruise control on my car because I worry it gives the car too much power over me.
And yet: Let me tell you how stupid we are.
This past week I’ve also watched as elected officials and ordinary citizens have acted as if a widespread, deadly contagion was an inconvenience at best and a hoax at worst. I’ve watched crowds of entitled idiots shut down roads in Michigan that led to hospitals full of suffocating victims, watched as pro wrestling meathead Vince McMahon was appointed to a task force on easing pandemic restrictions. I am drowning in story after story of people choosing the worst possible decisions in the midst of a global crisis and I am unable to decide if we would be better off letting the machines have dominion until we are willing to evolve beyond the lizard places in our brains.
“Alexa,” I might ask. “Would you mind taking the wheel for a few years or so?”
I do understand the terrifying doors that are opened by “Quarantine Watch,” especially in a country led by a nationalist figure like Narendra Modi. I remember and still live with the excesses of the Patriot Act; I am aware that everything I post online may one day be used against me in a kangaroo court of questionable laws. I wish so much to say with an unwavering voice that I am unwilling to give my agency over to the automatons. But my determination is not the same as that of others, and so many of those others cannot get it through their thick skulls that these measures are necessary to save lives.
Listen: One of America’s enduring folk tales is the story of John Henry, who challenged a mechanical pile driver to a contest of strength and efficiency. John Henry defeated the machine and died in the process, and in the decades since I’ve first heard that story I’ve never understood the moral I’m supposed to take from it, whether the lesson is about the will of John Henry or the inevitability of innovation.
But I understand that human beings are able to tell stories of men like John Henry in ways that machines cannot. And I know that the story I tell now is being delivered from a lonely bedroom on a late Thursday evening instead of being told to a room full of attentive people on a Saturday afternoon.
We do not have rooms full of people right now. And I want the rooms full of people to come back. So after five weeks of quarantine, I yield to the apps, and to the drones, and to the other draconian measures. And I hope I still have the strength left to push back on them when we manage to get out of this.