Technology and Information: Part #5
I have devoted a large portion of the last few years of my life to writing about music. I really came of age as a music blogger while working on a series entitled The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History. This series looked at the stories behind 500 songs compiled by Rolling Stone Magazine, along with radio station KEXP FM from Seattle. Writing the five hundred posts that made up this series took some time but it was a whole lot of fun. One of the best things about doing such a project was the interactivity I enjoyed with my readers. Since these were some of the most popular and important songs ever recorded in modern music history, many of them resonated with readers who, in turn, happily shared their own stories relating to each song. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments that came after each post was published just as much as I did creating each post in the first place. By the time the countdown was nearing its conclusion I had decided that I wanted to share the conclusion of the series with those who had followed along and contributed so much. So, I contacted the twenty five readers who had made the greatest number of comments throughout the series and asked them to nominate their own favourite song. This song would become known as an Honourable Mention song. The only conditions I put in place were that the nominated song couldn’t be one that I had previously written about during the countdown and that I wanted each person to tell me a little bit about what their song meant to them. One of the twenty five people that I reached out to was a woman from Vancouver named JoAnne Teal. The song she nominated was “Round Here” by The Counting Crows. *(You can read that post here. In that post I describe how JoAnne and I came to know each other and what having her in my life meant to me). JoAnne has been a treasured friend for over the past fifteen or so years. She is someone who I considered a mentor as well as a muse. She was a gentle soul and a truly lovely person. Yesterday I discovered that she had passed away. Today’s post is a tribute to someone who made the world a better place simply by being herself. But her death is also a cautionary tale that has much to do with technology and how we live so much of our lives online these days. God Bless you JoAnne and thank you for taking a shine to a meat and potatoes writer like me. I miss you tons. Here is what happened.
I have spent a lot of time this past week writing about social media and the dangers inherent in investing too much of ourselves into the products created by companies such as Twitter and Facebook. With Twitter and Facebook, I have talked a lot about how they operate using algorithms that track your habits and interests and then tailor content for you. In doing so, you don’t get to see all of the available content being created by those you follow. Instead, you get a version of reality that is tailored for you. One of the things that happens on Facebook in particular is that, every now and again, you will notice that certain “friends” that you follow have stopped appearing on your feed. The reason for this is that what they are posting doesn’t match your algorithm formula and, consequently, they drop off of your feed. With that in mind, in the past week or so I found myself thinking about JoAnne. Specifically, I had begun to notice that she didn’t seem to be interacting with me anymore. I felt that this was odd but, Facebook being Facebook, I figured that she had fallen off of the feed as people sometimes do and that was all there was to that. JoAnne had recently retired from her job with the Alzheimer’s Society in British Columbia and had taken up the popular puzzle game Wordle. Much of our recent interactions had been related to how we had each managed to do with the daily Wordle puzzle. Yesterday I decided that enough was enough and that it was time to click on my friend’s name and see what she had been up to lately and drop in for a Facebook Messenger chat.
So I logged into Facebook. I went to the search bar at the top of the screen and began typing in her name. I was expecting her name to appear on the list of names that appeared on the drop-down menu as soon as I typed in the letter “J” but such was not the case. I spelled her name completely out. She was nowhere to be found on the search list. I re-typed her name using different variations of JoAnne i.e., “Joanne” and “Jo-anne” but no luck there, either. I called up my own “Friends” list and scrolled through it from top to bottom. She wasn’t listed. That was odd. I took her absence from my own list to mean that she had unfriended me (which would have been devastating in its own way) or else that JoAnne had already done what so many others have been thinking of and had closed out her account. In order to check to see if she was still on Facebook, I selected the name of a mutual writer pal and friend named Kern Windraith. Surely JoAnne would still be on Kern’s list even if she wasn’t on mine any longer. But she was nowhere to be found on Kern’s list either. This led me to try one last ditch maneuver which was to follow my own advice from yesterday’s post and stop using Facebook as a middleman in my search and instead, go directly to JoAnne’s own fabulous blog. Once I clicked on the link to her blog (that you can click on if you read the Counting Crows post from above), I found that her blog had changed from containing all of her beautiful, beautiful writing into something that now was an apparel website called JTealWriter of all things. I tried to find her using the Google search engine, all to no avail. Now I began to fear the worst. So I circled back to Facebook and contacted Kern about my concerns. It was Kern who broke the news to me later that night. Our friend was dead and gone. The most disconcerting thing about it was what happened to her legacy.
All of us….you as well as me….have all slowly but surely have allowed technology to become intertwined with the very core of who we are. Just think of all the email messages we have saved online or the family photographs that we store “on the Cloud” for safekeeping. Consider all of the social interactions you have had with friends and family because of things you have posted on Facebook or Instagram or some other social media site. And if you are someone who writes for a living or as a hobby, consider the amount of your work that only exists in digital form on a website like Facebook or a writing site like WordPress. I have written almost 900 blog posts since I have retired. None of them exist on paper in the real world. They are all archived digitally through WordPress. In the case of JoAnne Teal, Kern was not sure if it was via wishes left in her Will or simply the actions of family members left behind but, all of JoAnne’s social media presence was deleted and scrubbed clean. All of her wonderful stories on her blog have been removed. Her Facebook account was closed and all posts and comments erased. I cannot even find an image of her online to place in this post of remembrance. The extent of the erasure of her online presence even extends to the comments that she left on my posts over the years. This includes the one she left on the Counting Crows post thanking me for including her in the countdown and talking about why “Round Here” mattered to her. All of her supportive comments that she gave to me over the years with regard to my own writing have disappeared too. Poof! Just like that! Gone! If I found myself on the witness stand in a court of law and had to prove that my fifteen year relationship with JoAnne was real, I would be hard pressed to be able to do so. I never met JoAnne in person. We never shook hands or hugged. I never spoke to her in real life so I don’t even know the sound of her voice. I don’t know if she wore perfume or if she was shorter or taller than me or the same height as me. For all intent and purposes as you read these words, it is as if JoAnne Teal never existed. Maybe she didn’t. Maybe this life I think I am leading is actually just like the movie The Matrix and I am really laying in a pod plugged into some machine that siphons away my life energy to fuel other sentient beings. How else can I explain how someone who seemed so special and to whom I gave my friendship and respect could so completely and utterly cease to be?! I believe that JoAnne was real. But my belief is shaken or as we sometimes say in my house, I am shooketh.
The bigger picture lesson to take from this is how easily someone’s identity can be erased and eliminated. Because we have all invested so much of ourselves and our lives into our online existence, we find ourselves precariously close to losing everything we value with a few clicks of a computer mouse. It clearly shows just how fragile our grip is on the lives which we think we are leading. Let’s take this a step further and say that Facebook and the Federal Government continue to be at loggerheads and Facebook were to threaten to lock out Canadian account holders from using their platform. How much precious personal information or photographs or correspondence would you lose in a heartbeat? How would you ever get it all back? Do you have hard copies of your family photographs anymore? We could extrapolate this out to show how easily hostile governments/leaders could control your identity, too. I am sure that my lovely friend JoAnne was a real person who lived and breathed and talked and slept but I am at a loss to prove that to you today because of what has happened to her online presence which is completely gone.
This brings up two additional points. On a related but different note, you may be aware that there is a new Beatles song that has just been released called “Now and Then”. There is a video that I will link to at the bottom of this post that describes how the song came to be known as the last Beatles song. The short strokes are that the song was created using a demo cassette tape that John Lennon had recorded on a homemade tape recorder after he and Yoko Ono had moved to New York City. The tape was not a professional endeavour by any stretch. However, with new technology that was available today, Peter Jackson (who directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the Beatles documentary called Get Back) was able to lift John Lennon’s voice off of this cassette tape, polish the sound quality up and mix it into new recordings of other instrumental parts recorded this year by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and, just like that, the world has a “new” Beatles song to enjoy. I know that for many fans, being able to hear John Lennon sing again will seem like a treasured gift. However, as Goerge Harrison says aloud in the video for this song, “We might be opening up a can of worms” by taking a snippet of someone’s voice that was never meant to be heard and turning that into new music in that person’s name. What I think of the quality of the song is not as important as how it was made. I agree with Harrison that the use of technology to create new realities is frightening. Just like the way the Internet initially was a wonderful step forward to society, what was done to create the new Beatles song could, if used by bad actors, create a whole myriad of problems in the future. History can be rewritten on a whim. Whole new portions of history can be altered to seem real. US Presidents could be made to give speeches espousing the benefits of slavery, for one small example. Anything is possible with the technology used to make a simple song come to life. It is truly a case of Frankenstein’s monster. And we know that didn’t end well.
The second and final aspect of how modern technology impacts identity and history can be found in the existence of an entity many of you will be familiar with and that is our friend, Siri (or Alexa, if you are a Google customer). You may know that Siri is the automated virtual assistant who exists within your computer. Many people like to consult with Siri about such things as what the temperature is outside or how to spell a word or if Siri will start a certain playlist of music for them. As a virtual assistant, Siri/Alexa appear to be tools that we can summon and dismiss as we see fit. But have you ever wondered if Siri is spying on you? I am pretty sure that Siri’s technology is actively listening to everything that goes on in my home. There have been dozens of times when, as a family, we have been eating dinner or watching television together and chatting away as we do. Suddenly, without any of us having our phones, iPads or computers up and running, Siri will self-activate to join our conversation. In each of those instances, we have never summoned Siri nor mentioned Siri’s name. We were just talking between ourselves only to have Siri join us in a manner that is appropriate for our conversation which says to me that Siri was listening all along. On the one hand, this is a gross invasion of privacy that has been foisted upon us because of our reliance on technology to do so many of the everyday things that we do. That we willingly bring listening devices into our homes and freely disclose our personal information in front of these devices seems crazy to think about. But we all do it, every day, all of the time. The other side to this situation is that if, in fact, Siri/Alexa are recording every single utterance being made 24/7 in our homes then somewhere in the world exists a precious historical record of each of our lives. I am not sure why someone in a basement office somewhere would care about archiving the making of the MacInnes Family’s grocery lists or our discussions about how school went that day but the possibility realistically exists that this information has been recorded and is being kept somewhere by someone for purposes unknown. It would be wonderful to get a print out of our lives together with the ones we love. That book would be a thick one for sure!
In the case of my friend JoAnne and The Beatles and with Siri/Alexa, the history of our lives is rife for manipulation and abuse. I would like to be optimistic and say that it is also set up for positive purposes such as the celebration of a life lived with dignity and grace and purpose like that of my friend JoAnne, too. For now, we have to anticipate the worst case scenario of having our memories erased at the click of some benevolent overlord’s computer button or else having our memories and information held for ransom by cyber thieves. In these cases, it behooves us to take steps to ensure that we have our own hard copies of those photos, certificates and other documents and conversations that have value to us and to those who love us. I know that Facebook enables you to download your history which, I hope, includes actual transcripts of conversations you have with friends and family, videos clips, photos and so on. It might be worthwhile checking out. As for me and my writer pal, JoAnne. I don’t have much to show for our friendship except the feelings I have in my heart. I can picture her thumbnail image in my mind but I know that in time even that will fade and become clouded until such time as her image disappears entirely and she is truly gone. I wish I had known she was sick. I wish I could have acted to save the evidence of our friendship. Most of all, I wish she was still here. But she is not. My friend is gone. Technology is what enabled us to have known each other in the first place so I am grateful that such things as computers and interactive message boards ever existed. Believe it or not, I am thankful that facebook exists because it allowed the two of us to stay connected after our writing community disbanded all those years ago. However, the threads of those connections have proven to be tenuous at best. In times like these, the old adage of holding close to the ones you love applies. But even more to the point, don’t rely on others to protect your relationships and your identity for you. It is up to all of us to do that ourselves. If I had known how JoAnne’s life was going to end, I would have taken steps to have saved our conversations and her comments as they held great value to me. Rest in peace, JoAnne. Thanks for being part of this world and of my life. I am better for you having been there. May Peace Be With You now and forever more.
The link to the video for the making of the song “Now and Then” by The Beatles can be found here.
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