Awakening

I

They had returned to the Saunders’ home in Sarah’s car.  Mrs. Saunders had been riding shotgun, and the poor woman kept glancing back at her son, as though he might vanish if she were to take her eyes off of him.  It was understandable given what they had been through, but to Sarah it seemed entirely unnecessary.  Mark’s presence was, if anything, abnormally imposing.  Even though she had dutifully kept her eyes on the road as she drove, and even though he hadn’t said a word, she could feel that he was there.

Continue reading Awakening

Growing Up Around Social Media

This would probably surprise many of the friends who know me as the guy who tweets a thousand times a day, but I began my adult life feeling very wary of social media.

When I was in high school, LiveJournal was the ruling social media of the day (though we spent much more time on AIM and forums, which fall outside of what is currently called social media).

There were plenty of fun aspects of LiveJournal, but as a bunch of teenagers it was mostly used as a tool to create drama, or amplify the drama that was already going on when we were on the physical premises of the school. Some people were pretty blatant—calling certain people out, being insulting or catty. But I was that particularly charming and admirable flavor of teenage boy that is a coward and also thinks he is incredibly clever.

So outright insults or saying what I was thinking wasn’t really my thing; instead, I insinuating with the approximate subtlety of a hydrogen bomb. But I thought my messages were very veiled and coded! The most blatant instance involved having feelings for a friend’s girlfriend. Instead of saying so, or talking to her or him or both of them, I waxed poetic on my LiveJournal any time she and I spent time together. Some part of me thought that I had some kind of weird plausible deniability when the guy clearly saw what was going on, but another part got a contrarian’s (and coward’s) enjoyment from rankling him in this manner.

They have words for the equivalent on Twitter and Facebook these days, but, in short, it was typical teenage nonsense.

By the time Facebook came to George Mason University, I had grown well beyond this, or liked to think that I had. Rather than frequenting forums, I read blogs and had a blog of my own. I believed that part of the value of blogging was that it was imminently ignorable—I wasn’t getting in anyone’s face, I wasn’t imposing my point of view on anyone who didn’t make a conscious choice to seek out my writing.

Facebook, which stitched us all back together in a common space again, I feared would bring out that untactful coward from my teenage years. I joined because my other friends did, but I didn’t quite get it while I was still in undergrad. I deleted and recreated my Facebook account no less than four or five times before finally buying into the thing for good.

What caused me to finally “get” Facebook was when my first good friend got married in the summer of 2008, and my friends who had been there, as well as the other members of the wedding party, began posting pictures a few days later. I friended the people I had met at the wedding to see more pictures, and shared the pictures that I had taken. I had had a great time at the wedding, and cared a lot about the people involved, so I really enjoyed being able to relive it with the pictures.

I decided it was time for me to grow up and start using this Facebook thing like a normal person my age. A few weeks after the wedding, I sent a relationship request to the girl I had been dating for a little while, just before my family and I would be going to Miami for a couple of weeks. Relationship statuses are a thing people do, right? That’s normal. I should do that.

It was shot down in flames, for the very prudent reason that this girl (to whom I am now married) did not believe in broadcasting her relationship status on Facebook. Being 23 years old and by no stretch of the imagination a teenager, I took this as maturely as you would expect—by becoming extremely despondent and assuming that I had ruined what little chance I may have had with her. When we got to Miami, we were staying somewhere without an Internet connection, and I wallowed in my despair for days.

When I finally managed to check my email and various accounts on a cousins’ computer, I discovered that Catherine (the girl I was dating) had left me a very friendly message to the tune of have fun on vacation, look forward to seeing you when you return. This immediately lifted me from my dour state, and imbued with with a fresh love for life and all of God’s creatures.

2008 was also the year I got into Twitter, and it quickly became the most rewarding social network I’ve ever joined. I have made so many friends, and solidified connections with friends made elsewhere, on Twitter. I have had so many interesting conversations, with so many interesting people.

At the end of 2008, Catherine started a blog on her neighborhood in DC called U Street Girl. Though I did not participate in the DC blogosphere myself, she introduced me to it, and the wonderful community that had grown around it. Twitter was and is the main hub of online activity for this community. Twitter also had the benefit of including individuals like myself who did not contribute blog posts but participated in the community in other ways. Now that we live in New York, it—along with Facebook and Tumblr and other places—has remained and excellent way to stay connected to those people we care about from that community.

At our wedding last year, we had five guests that we had originally met over the Internet. One of them we didn’t meet in person until that day!

At this point, social media has simply blended into my daily life. Twitter and Facebook were exciting new things when they sprang up, but now they’re as commonplace in my experience of the world as chat, email, blogs, and the hardware through which I access them all. Like the venues for web conversation and content that predate them, modern social media have matured to a point where they are taken for granted.

I’d like to think I’ve matured as well, in my relationship with them. But we’re not the best people to judge ourselves, I suppose.

Becoming Violence

He did not think that he would get to use his new found power so soon. Certainly, living in the largest city in the country, it must mean he must also be living in the highest concentration of misogynists. But before the incident that had precipitated all of this, he had never personally encountered it in all the years he had been there.

So he was surprised when, less than a week later, he found himself on a packed subway car in plain view of a guy’s hand as it touched the woman in front of him. Like a real New Yorker, she took none of it. “Keep your hand off my ass you prick!” She shouted immediately, turning to face her molester and giving him a good shove. He was a great deal larger than her, however, and he and his friend just started snickering about it. The whole car was focused on them; people here would not put up with this kind of crap.

Anthony felt their hostility, felt it wash over him. He slowly made his way through the crowd. People mistook it for simply heading for the door, and moved to let him through. People had put themselves between the woman and the pair of harassers, who continued in their stupid sniggering. He hated the sound of it. He hated them for daring to continue drawing breath after their brazen, disgusting action.

Slowly, deliberately, he reached over and gripped the man by the arm he had used. The man stopped snickering and looked down at his forearm just in time to see Anthony’s hand snap in cleanly in the middle. Anthony never would have thought that such a large man was capable of producing a scream so shrill. It was a single scream, followed by a lot of moaning, interspersed with mostly incoherent rambling. He was completely incapable of believing what had happened was real; and from the look of it his friend was not much more capable.

Anthony stared down his nose at them as if he towered over them. Beads of sweat formed on the injured man’s forehead as he looked up, uncomprehending into his assailant’s eyes. At the next stop, he—and nearly all of the people on the train—got off, leaving the two creeps nearly alone. When Anthony’s eyes met the the woman’s, he was not sure what he saw there. But he did not wait to find out, not wanting to get involved with the police.

Over the next few months, he encountered many misongynists, and did far, far worse to some of them than breaking an arm. But he remembered that first time the most distinctively; his heart beating like a drum in his chest as he reached for the stranger’s arm. The way it felt when it broke in his hand, the sounds the injured man made.

This had all started not long before the arm-breaking incident. Emily, his long time friend and long time wishing-was-more-than-a-friend, had gone with him to see a movie in a little independent
theater in SoHo. He had never, ever had a problem in this part of town or any other, really, when he had been with Emily or any other female friend. So he was taken completely off guard when a couple of teenage boys starting cat calling her. It was bad enough that they were doing it, but they were being really, disgustingly graphic.

“Hey,” he said to them, “shut up already.” They found this hilarious. Both stood a good head and shoulders taller than Anthony, who had never had much in the way of stature. Being ten years older than some kids didn’t really do much for you when they were big and you were a scrawny geek. They got on either side of him, one of them getting in his face and daring him to take a swing. He didn’t, but not because he didn’t want to. He turned and walked away quickly because he was terrified of them.

They walked for several blocks with the assholes following closely behind them, taunting them and making lewd comments at Emily. It was miserable and it was humiliating, and it only ended when an older man intervened. “Fuck off you little pricks,” he shouted, walking up like he meant to deck them. He wasn’t much bigger than Anthony, but he carried himself with a confidence the younger man completely lacked. The kids didn’t actually want a fight, and so they turned around and left with a few parting remarks.

“Are you kids OK?” the man asked, and Emily assured him that they were, and thanked him. Anthony just stared at the ground. It wasn’t just the humiliation. He had never felt so angry in his life. He had never even known that he could feel this way; a cold, unyielding hatred that swallowed up every other feeling.

That night, he woke up and knew immediately that he was not alone. He turned on the light and standing before his bed was a man he had never seen before. The man wore an expensive looking pinstriped three piece suit. In spite of this, though Anthony couldn’t tell you exactly why, everything about him screamed cheap.

“What the fuck are you doing in my apartment?” Anthony demanded, hoping he sounded angry rather than scared.

“I’ve come to give you some help, Anthony,” the stranger said in a smooth, deep voice.

“Who are you? How do you know me?”

“I’m a friend,” the man said with a smile that was anything but friendly, “I saw what happened. With the boys.”

“Are you with them?” Anthony asked, grasping for some explanation for the bizarre situation he found himself in.

“Hardly,” the man said dismissively, “I just watched and thought the whole thing was kind of pathetic. Not only were you completely unable to do anything, but you didn’t even try.”

“Fuck you,” Anthony spat, and infuriatingly he had to fight back tears.

“Still feeling pretty raw, aren’t we?” a menacing grin, “I’m going to give you a little gift. Starting tomorrow, until you teach those boys a lesson yourself, you’re going to be strong. Unbelievably strong. No mortal will be able to best you.”

“What are you talking about? Are you…a trainer or something?” It sounded stupid before he had even said it. This elicited laughter from the stranger, a discomforting noise that filled the whole room and ran on far too long.

“Test yourself tomorrow if you don’t believe me,” the man said when he finally stopped.

Then the room was pitch black again, and Anthony was still under the covers. A dream? Of course it was.

But it hadn’t been. He couldn’t resist testing himself the next day. He went to the gym whose membership he had signed up for eight months earlier but barely taken advantage of. He found that the weights were a lot lighter than he could remember. In fact, he was unable to find any weights that he couldn’t lift immediately and easily. As he went from station to station, he drew more and more attention to himself. The sight of such a little man lifting so much weight must have been very strange.

The incident with the broken arm came not long after that. Then he knocked a few teeth out of the mouth of a cat-caller. Then he caught a couple of guys pinning a girl against a wall in an alley on his way home from work, and he really gave them a thrashing. They were disgusting. They were vermin. They deserved worse than he was capable of, even then.

After years of never encountering this type they seemed to show themselves every other day. Was it that he had been ignoring them all along, and only now had his eyes open? Or was part of the bargain that these people were drawn to him now?

When he spent time with Emily, she could tell something had changed. He didn’t look any different, and she hadn’t seen him get into any fights, but it was just the way he carried himself. He radiated confidence in a way he never had in all the years they’d known each other. She liked it, and she gave him signs that she had finally started to like him—in the way he had always wanted her to.

But that went out the window when they encountered those teenagers ago.

From Anthony’s point of view, it was destiny, giving him another chance. A chance to make up for his previous humiliation. They even remembered him, and walked over with the intention of repeating history.

He had never thrashed any misogynists as thoroughly as he did these two. He hit the first one in the ribs, having learned that going for a blow to the head first tended to drop his opponents too quickly. The boy rewarded him by coughing up blood. Before his friend could blink, Anthony brought the heel of his foot down savagely against his ankle. The result was rather similar to the man on the subway, only with more crying. It did not go better for them from there.

Anthony lost himself in the adrenaline rush. When he stopped, the big youths who had humiliated him and harassed Emily were broken, bleeding, whimpering piles at his feet. He was so strong. He was a hero.

Emily. He suddenly remembered her. He looked up at her for the first time since the engagement began. And he saw…

He saw what he had seen only a glimmer of from that woman on the subway, something he had now seen from dozens of men over the course of the past few weeks.

She was afraid. Afraid of him.

He had thought himself so righteous, but with each fight he had fallen deeper into the euphoria of violence. Feeling justified, feeling better than the powerless scum he had crushed only made the whole thing feel more…enjoyable.

Emily would never speak to him again. And now, having caught up with the kids who had been there at the beginning, his strength would leave him for good.

He felt more pathetic and alone than he ever had. And the streets of Manhattan seemed to echo with the horrible laughter of the well dressed man who had given him the gift of violence.

The Transparent Society

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that the privacy norm died, but historians tend to emphasize a few key developments. The global adoption of the Internet, World Wide Web, and smartphones were obviously the beginning. The rise of services that gathered user data to monetize through various strategies on the one hand, and systemic state surveillance such as was practiced early on in China on the other. A few open source projects which made it trivially easy for even the technologically unsavvy to get around all but the strictest security practices.

Whatever moment in these and other progressions it happened, the notion of “secret” gradually expired while no one was looking. The result was a radically transparent society unprecedented in human history.

The initial discontinuity clearly occurred a few short decades after the birth of the Web, and the result was a great deal of disruption and upheaval at first. It took less than a generation, however, for people to simply become used to it.

Philosophers and scholars before the great transformation believed that people would behave fundamentally differently when they were being observed, but it turned out that people can get used to just about anything. And when they do, they tend to just keep on falling into the same old patterns. So while a sociologist of the late 20th century might have thought that porn consumption—especially of the really weird stuff—would plummet if anyone anywhere could find out about it, it remained basically unchanged. For the most part, people didn’t want to know what porn other people were watching, and taboos developed against bringing it up even when they did find out and were disgusted by what they learned.

There was a lot of fear about what what happen under a mass surveillance state. But the private lives of the state officials who would pursue prosecution were also an open book, and any unsavory personal or organizational agendas were in plain view. As a result, in those countries where success in the public sector was highly sensitive to public perceptions, the transition was basically a wash. In police states such as China, tyrannical laws were already selectively enforced to begin with. The new transparency made it clear how large a swath of the population was dissatisfied, and how corrupt the ruling regime was. It also made it harder to stop insurgents from finding and doing harm to top officials, though it made it easier to find them after the fact.

In short, the result of an initial upsurge in violence and persecution was largely a shift in norms that kept social and political life in the status quo.

A few generations in, when history teachers explained to their students that their ancestors had clung fiercely to concepts of privacy and secrecy, they were baffled. How did any solve any crimes? What did the older generations think they had to hide? Of course, as with the young of any era, it was inconceivable to them that society could ever have functioned at all outside of the particular framework they grew up in. Even though they continued to be taught that crime rates and wars and censorship around the world had basically remained the same before and after the transition, few could bring themselves to believe it.

The preferred the story of progress, the story of how technology transformed the world for the better.

Stories about how the world keeps on turning, mostly indifferent to the things individuals find fascinating, are boring, and soon forgotten.