Friday, October 12, 2018

Time and Time Again

There's been a lot of hype about this new movie that's come out, called 'A Star Is Born.' Initially, I didn't pay much attention to the movie, because we've seen way too many renditions of the same story. But that was before I realized that this is actually the fourth remake of an evolving movie franchise. The first one came out in the 1930s, and there were remakes in the 50s and 70s, and now, our generation got its own version. Perhaps the story of the transient nature of fame ring true as a fundamental reality of life, and the student surpassing the teacher is something that never stops being complicated. The timeless story is getting enough buzz. Maybe there's going to be an acting Oscar for Gaga. Maybe a directing Oscar for Bradley Cooper. All that typical buzz, which seem well-deserved for the people involved in the making of this movie, but today I would like to talk about something outside of the universe of this franchise.

A video essay I saw on Youtube makes a point about how the character of the male star (played by Bradley Cooper in the most recent version) pointed out that when you put all movies together, it's the evolution of the male lead and female leads in relation to each other that shows how the same story would play out with the passage of time. The first female lead was a headstrong ingenue dreaming of making it big in Hollywood, the second an exceptionally talented young woman to whom fame just happens to by chance, the third a feminist rockstar, and the fourth, played by Lady Gaga, a woman insecure about her ability to 'sell' because of her unconventional looks in a world of Photoshop and 'Most Beautiful' lists and women being open about their imperfections and subsequent insecurities. All timely portrayals of women, but all somewhat politically incorrect for their times. When women were supposed to be subservient, we got the stubborn woman who got to dream. The 70s gave us girl power and Barbara Streisand's rebellious heroine. The 2010s gave us a fragile woman in a time when it's all about 'strong female character' and 'Miss Strong and Independent,' when acknowledging the role of a man in your life is almost taboo.

But it's the male protagonist's development which is the more politically correct one, and it's surprising how that development is what I found more compelling and thought provoking. Over the years, the male lead's ego seems to have grown less of a factor in his journey. Their growing irrelevance in the entertainment world in contrast to their partner's growing popularity has slowly become less of a factor in their eventual downfall and (spoiler alert) death. The 1930s hero just couldn't bear to be someone's husband and offed himself. The 1950s one was slowly broken by how the world that made him abandoned him in favor of new talent, showing a vulnerability that can't be tied only to masculine pride. The 1970s version was the self-destructive rockstar, and it is in this period when we see that how maybe its not external factors but internal demons that consume him, and his partner is the mere collateral damage in that process. Then we have Bradley Cooper, with his history of mental illness and his inherent goodness and weakness and efforts to fight the monster growing inside him but constantly failing. We now have a man who is not afraid to cry, unreluctant to share his darkest and most vulnerable self, and it is somewhat ironic that he is portrayed by a man that is the stuff of dreams of many women, something that would have been unimaginable in previous decades. This is no rebel without a cause. It is a human being with issues, and to humanize him further, there is an honest effort to heal and overcome, even if in the end, the efforts are in vain.

So we have the evolving characters, but there is one thing that remains unchanged. It is the bond shared between the man and a woman, and yes, its portrayal evolves with the passage of time, but does it really? You see, when we evaluate interpersonal relationships, we are bound to put them in the cultural context that we live in, but it is our naivety and not our intelligence that tells us that something that is politically incorrect is not real love. In previous generations, parents were not informed by parenting books and just went with the flow. They sometimes hit their kids, more usually boys. They didn't give special thought to the development of their children's self esteem. They may have been less acceepting of their gay kids. Does that necessarily mean they loved their children any less? Similarly, in older times, a lot of men were troubled if their wives had more professional success or power than them. Now, we think of those men as such losers, don't we? They're just the old-fashioned caricatures with their 'toxic masculinity' and 'male ego,' men who would scoff and spit at any talk of mansplaiing and manspreading. But do we stop to think that maybe they loved their partners too, maybe as much as men today? Do we consider that they too, like women, had pressures to be 'the man,' pressures that could be just as crippling as pressures to be 'the woman'? 

Unfortunately, what doesn't evolve in this movie franchise is the ending. The male lead always dies in the end, emblematic of setting the woman free. And yes, Aashiqui 2 was a remake of the original A Star is Born, which is why this ending might feel familiar to you even if you haven't seen any of the movie. I am unsatisfied by this lack of evolution. In fact, I hate it. You see, if mankind in general evolves over time, so do people over the course of one lifetime, and if we weren't okay with a suicide in '13 Reasons Why' we shouldn't be okay with it here. It sounds cheesy when I say this, but I think for this franchise to grow, the next version actually needs a happy ending. You see, we may try to deny it, but a final death, a great sacrifice, these are dramatic gestures romanticized to the point where they don't convey the unfairness of life as much as a mythical dramatic end. But this is a talk about stars being born, and I think the ending needs to reflect the theme of 'life goes on' a little better. Maybe we see more fights, more relapses, more compromises towards the end, but I think this movie should end with the two characters committing to to give their relationship another chance. That is a messy story without  a neat ending, and that is what the audience needs to see.

It's strange, but I think a Bollywood movie, Abhimaan, starring Amitach Bhachchan and Jaya Bachchan did this. It had the same story as A Star Is Born, but it's a lot messier. Amitabh's character is flawed to the point of being hard to like at points, and he goes so far as to have an sort-of affair in the movie. Even in the 21st century, a relationship challenged by an affair is hard to portray because it's ugly, it's messy, it's so goddamn human, and we, people who claim to be practical and sympathizing viewers, can sometimes not digest the inherent betrayal of such a gesture. There is some talk about how this may have been the real life story of the Bachchan couple, who at that point of time, may have struggled with Jaya Bachchan's respect and popularity when Amitabh was still growing as an artist, a gender role reversal difficult to digest at the time, and the alleged infidelties of one of the most respected artists in the industry. Or maybe that's just Bollywood gossip fed to me by my parents. Whatever it is, the movie ends with both Amitabh weakening one last time and in a moment of true humility, in a momoent completely unlike his 'angry young man' persona, genuinely apologizing to his wife and asking for a second chance. And no, his wife isn't the 'strong, independent female' here, refusing to take him back and walking away in slow motion. Instead, she gathers the strength to forgive somebody who loves her but has made mistakes. There's very little that takes the kind of courage that this kind of forgiveness takes, and this is what we need to see on screen the next time we see an ingenue and a megastar and how their roles shift.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Thing All Our Relationships Have In Common

When we talk about relationships we usually mean the type which is a subject in many movies, the type where two people meet, sparks fly, something goes wrong, and then everything's right. We assess these relationships as being fundamentally separate from all other relationships we have, but I think that's not true, at least in my opinion. Perhaps I think so because recently I have been observing a common pattern in people engaged in all kinds of relationships and today, I will talk about it.

Have you ever heard a young man or woman say, "I wish I could just give up this family life and travel! I need my space. I need my freedom." Or something along those lines.

Have you ever heard a parent say, "I don't know why I had kids. I was so much better off without them." Or something along those lines.

Have you ever heard a spouse say, "I could have been so much had it not been for the pressures of the family. I had dreams and I had the talent. But what can I do? Family comes first."

Have you ever heard someone young say, "I'm never getting married. It's such a trap. Once you're in it's so hard to get out."

We've all heard these complaints, and I'm sorry to say that these complaints are more commonly heard from males than females, not because females have a different attitude but because that's currently the socially accepted norm (and can we please not dwell on this gender difference for too long and move on to the matter at hand?). It's so common to get tired of the relationships that bind us down, so understandable to get frustrated by the people who are closest to us.

A lot of us reason that it's because human beings are biologically not designed to get stuck with the same groups of people forever, and that is especially problematic since we live twice as long now. There are narratives of how being shackled inhibits our creativity and productivity, examples of how single men and women have done great things in life which may have not been possible had they had three other living beings to worry about. I'll admit there is some substance to this argument. I do think some amount of distance is important, and it is at that distance that our best can come to light.

My only issue is that I've noticed a pattern where whenever people talk about being too tied down, they're usually talking about being the one that would leave and not the one that would be left behind. In a lot of people's heads, their hero's journey begins with leaving, but getting left behind is quite the opposite of being a hero. It's being a victim, a ground for disillusionment and suffering.

Don't get me wrong here. There are relationships which truly are unhappy and people definitely have the choice of leaving them. Here. we are talking about relationships that, in our hearts, we do cherish and would hate to lose, but lose sight of the value of when we're too close to them. In our heads, we grow the idea that we'd be doing so much more if not for the people we are bound to. My favorite example of people thinking this was when a couple of my friends said to me, "I sit with my work for so long but what can I do? The minute I reach an epiphany somebody from my family assigns me with a task I must perform right away. It breaks my flow." And all I could think was, "Well, that's one heck of a coincidence, isn't it?"

A lot has been said about how romantic comedies give people unrealistic expectations. But not a lot has been said about how the narratives that are the exact opposite of these give us unrealistic expectations, too. The act of leaving has been associated with emancipation and independence, coupled with the romantic notion of 'If you love them, let them go.' I agree with that caveat but I don't think people are necessarily trying to hold us back anyways. But the way it's portrayed is that the people in our lives are essentially hurdles in the path to freedom, and it is only by cutting some ties that we can attain a state of fulfillment or realize our dreams.

Pop culture also plays a part. We hear stories of great men and women who've done so much without any familial responsibilities and very soon 'greatness' becomes connected to 'detachment.' We do hear stories of people who have supported each other to reach a better life, of families that have established themselves over generations, but those stories often don't have the drama of the single man who made it. We can get conditioned into believing that people are the sacrifices that we need to make to reach our goals, even when those sacrifices hurt and there's melancholy music playing in the background as our hero walks away in slow motion with a quivering chin and steely eyes.

A little bit of tragic romanticism is good for all of. As I have mentioned before, a little bit of distance is beneficial too. But if you take people out of every equation in our life, all that remains is objects and places, and is that truly worth it? Is it possible that our constant urge to walk away is probably just a fantasy we hold on to, something that undervalues the contributions of others in our lives? These are things to think about the next time we go on a rant about what we could have been, if only there weren't so many other people to think about.

As for me, without the people who love me, I would be nobody. I feel that everyday I grow from all my relationships, even when I'm at blows with my family, when I'm at odds with my parents, when somebody's in tears and the other doesn't know what to do, because I think we all act out because we care. These people multiply the value of my accomplishments and set a bar of expectations that I strive to reach because I care about their opinion. As Barney Stinson says, it only matters if you're legendary if your friends are around to see it. I hope I never leave anybody behind.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

10 Things People Are Using Way Too Much Of

Taking advice from myself, I am writing a post about the environment. After coming to the States I have become very conscious about wasting of resources, as I think it's being done more severely here. Because Indians seem to want to do whatever Americans start doing, here's a list of things to avoid overusing before we create environmental havoc for ourselves:

1. Disposable Gloves

I get it. You want to keep your hands soft. But why do your gloves need to disposable? Just buy one pair and use it again and again while remembering to clean it regularly. And honestly, nobody needs to wear gloves to clean a half inch stain from the couch.

2. Ice

Really, what's the point? No, seriously, I don't get it. Why do you want a foot tall glass filled to the brim with ice, with only the remaining gaps containing some carbonated drink which just gets diluted because of all the, well, ice.

3. Take-Out Containers

Just get a container from home and ask the vendor or server to fill it. I've been doing it with food carts in NYC for a while, and it's made me pay attention to all the waste that I would be generating if I hadn't been doing so. I also try not to take the disposable spoons and napkins.

4. Plastic Bags for Everything

And I mean everything. Sometimes I get a plastic bag for one small box of cookies and I resist the temptation to ask if this is some kind of joke.

5. Air-Conditioning

At least where I live, in Pennsylvania, there's no need for airconditioning for most of the summers. I wish more people thought so.

6. Soda Cans

Okay, first of all, you're not doing yourself any favors by ingesting the 54 grams of sugar in a can of coke everyday.

7. Travel Packs

You're not only generating more waste but also wasting your money. Keep a few small empty bottles for essentials and refill them whenever you travel.

8. Water Bottles

Just carry your own. This one's not even hard.

9. Flushable Wipes

You know they aren't really flushable, right?

10. Coffee cups

I think at this point, I've made myself clear. Refills are possible my friends. 

The Case for Case-by-Case Consideration

Last week, something interesting happened. A friend of mine, who happens to be living in what is supposedly one of the unsafest neighbourhoods in the US, was working late and told me he would be heading back home at around one at night. I was a little worried, and proceeded to tell him to be aware of his surroundings and to make sure he wasn't the only one unnecessarily working late as that could be an indication that others were being more prudent about the whole being-out-late-at-night situation.

Some would say that it was an overreaction, but I disagree. The advice I was offering a friend was merely one that has been given to me thousands of times, because such advice is more commonly reserved for women. I do agree that there are many situations under which women do become the more vulnerable gender, but I also believe that there are times when we ignore men in debates of safety. I grew up in New Delhi, which is considered on the less safe metros in India, and I always thought that I could be sexually assaulted by someone but its just as likely that one of my male friends could be beaten up or even killed in an incident of 'road rage.' I think there's a misconception that men are protected from harm simply because they are men, but there is no logic in that. Everyone must be encouraged to exercise caution, and men should be believed in their claims of having been harassed or assaulted.

Just today, I saw this video, about Priya Seth, who murdered her Tinder date and cheated thousands of others.

This case is obviously horrifying and I hope nothing like this happens ever again. But I do have a question : Are we so stupid, as a people, that we can't really assess crimes and misdemeanours on a case-by-case basis? And I'm asking this because it seems that everyday victims are disbelieved and offenders get off with no consequences. In some cases, it seems that the bias favors one group (in this case women), such as in cases when the very fact that somebody is a woman is used as their defense. But there's also times when the other group gets the advantage of bias (in this case men), as brutal crimes like rape are investigated with a focus on the woman's 'character' and the length of her skirt. Why is it so difficult for us to dispense justice on the basis of truth, and I am not asking this question in a cute blogger-y way. I really don't know the answer.

By the way, since the video put up here was uploaded by Deepika Narayan Bharadwaj, I have this video of her arguing against having any laws against marital rape as she thinks rape laws only exist to be misused and doesn't seem to understand the logic that just because a law can be misused doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. If that were the case all laws could be done away with, and not all accusations of equal punishment.

I do appreciate Bharadwaj's efforts to create a more equal world for both men and women, but I do feel sometimes that she feels that all women are liars and abusers and all feminists are basically supremacists. The reason women have more support groups and helplines is because violence against men happens it is usually not a systematic phenomenon and the result of an individual deplorable woman's actions while women are often victims of a system which has existed for years which is why even now there are entire villages where every girl and woman is raped or sold to the flesh trade.

I think the underlying issue here is identity politics, which is an issue no group seems to be able to address appropriately because it goes against the very idea of them being a group in the first place. Honestly, I can't address it either. But I do recognize the need for greater subjectivity in cases where groups are pitted against each other. There is also a need for us, those who understand the complexity of the situation, to present more balanced viewpoints in the media (that is, the Internet). My honest opinion is that for a while we should all take a break from sharing articles about gender, sexuality and religious violence and instead focus more on issues of education, economics and the environment, but so far nobody has agreed with me one-hundred per cent. But I think we can all agree that something must change, and that there are flaws in how we are discussing matters where idenity can either be a wound or a weapon.

(Also, I apologize for the poorer quality of writing today. Because I'm not a professional writer or anything, I can't always present my thoughts in the best way. I was discussing something today that I didn't have clear answers or opinions to and I think that shows in my writing.)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Tiny U-Turn From The Left

I support women's rights (I mean, it would be stupid to be up against myself), gay rights, the rights of minorities, better public infrastructure. I believe in global warming, am alarmed at the rate at which we are generating and accumulating waste. I am agnostic and do believe in democratic socialism. It seems that on the Internet, I am a 'good' person.

Unfortunately, I can be, for lack of a better word, an asshole sometimes, and today, I want to talk about how that is.

Let's start with an example. Recently, I had some confusing thoughts about elections. I was brought up under a school of thought which says that it's important to vote. Our voices matter, and the act of voting is not just our right but also a responsibility. To a great extent, I agree with that. However, I don't understand why people equate ignorance with not bothering to vote, because if you believe voting is a step in the path to the well-being and progress of all, wouldn't votes cast by the ignorant derail us from that path? In a nutshell, why do we encourage people to vote without taking into consideration that they might vote for the side that we are fundamentally opposed to? My confusion grew deeper when I noticed that those encouraging voting were mostly in the same camp of reasonably well-to-do, educated, liberal (perhaps even progressive) and well-intentioned people that I myself am a part of.

When I thought about it deeply, I realized where my mistake lay. When encouraging others to vote, I was making the assumption that they were on my side, because how the hell could someone not be? In this particular case, I was, quite ironically, fundamentally opposing my own views of how every voice matters because I had counterintuitively invalidated some voices. As human beings, we have a tendency to think of those who act in ways that we would not as the outliers and weirdos, but is such a thinking, even on behalf of liberals and progressives, in any way productive? Also, is it, in fact, hurting our own cause?

Now that I have stated my case on this matter, I would like to venture into the slightly more controversial territory, and I hope you will give this a fair hearing. Recently, I have read a lot of articles being shared on the Internet about how people who are not transgender should label themselves cisgender and how we can't say 'Latina' or 'Latino' anymore and should say 'latinex' instead. To be fair, I didn't think there was anything wrong with these discussions per se, but I did think there was something disproportionate about how much traction these discussions were getting and how these discussions were being put forth by the people starting them. The issue is that these are issues that can be argued about endlessly, but in the life of a common person, there might be very little time or opportunity to give them serious thought, and it might make this common man think that liberals are people who are constantly debating issues that have little relevance to them and don't have direct impact on their lives, so what's the point of showing support to their? There might even be some women who are tired and overworked and desperately balancing jobs and families, who just need longer paid maternity leave, and when their issue isn't covered the same way as the politics of semantics and wordplay, they might get frustrated and start to believe in the established order of power more because the group looking to challenge that power dynamic seems to have very little time for her.

Another example of leaning too far left was the case of Aziz Ansari, where he was accused of sexual misconduct for what turned out to be a bad date. When that case was reported, my first thought was, "Man, now a lot of men who were on my side will become victim to fear that something similar could happen to them." This was just another example of how the liberals took too many liberties and suddenly things were out control. A similar case I have seen is of men from metropolises ridiculing the patterns observed by men in smaller towns or less economically well-off groups when it comes to approaching women, calling those men 'despos' and 'creeps' without giving due consideration to te fact that these men unfortunately function in a different social setting than us, where direct communication between men and women is more difficult and therefore indirect actions (that is, the actions which are ridiculed) are thought of as the only way to start any kind of a relationship.

I think, on some level, we have a tendency to think of those that don't agree with us as people that are stupid and uneducated, and on an average, we don't give any consideration to their thoughts or feelings. As Indians, we often use words like unpadh and gavaar against them, and make fun of them, and act surprised when they don't sympathise with us. But when have we ever sympathised with them? We trolled them and invalidated them. I think a big example of that is how many liberals and progressives are now trolling those who voted for a right-wing government (both in the United States and in India), and we accuse them of being hateful, gullible citizens who can't tell the difference between right and wrong, and maybe a significant proportion of the voters were like that, but it is also possible that many people were just frustrated with the establishment for not having come through on their promises, disillusioned by governments that self-claimed to be the good ones without ever receiving direct benefits, and they thought that if I vote for someone different this time, maybe I'll get something out of it.

Lastly, there is significant research concluding that conservatism is often driven by fear, and fear cannot be recognized in ourselves that easily. If someone feels that their position is being threatened, it might be their natural instinct to fight back. At the end of the day, everybody reacts to attacks, and attacks often cause people to hold on more dearly to their beliefs than if they were educated with due consideration.

My dear fellow liberals, let's fight the good fight but let's not do things that cause us to lose our soldiers along the way. If our intentions are true and good, they must go hand in hand with trying to convince others into seeing our point of view instead of completely invalidating theirs, because then, we're just turning into the deplorables that we claim to be fighting against.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Valuating Validation (And How It Affects Pretty Much Every Indian I Know)

Something really weird happened today. I was on Youtube, and I came across a nice video about the in-built inferiority complex of middle- to upper-class Indians. Take a look:

To the creator, of FMF, good job. I agree with you and I give you special credit for making the video in Hindi (mixed with some English), because a lot of Indian content creators don't do that. Also, I just want to clarify that I said upper- and middle- class Indians because from 2015-2017, I did some work with economically struggling Indians and they seem to have bigger problems to deal with than what foreigners in the West think about them.

Coincidentally, I chose to check the stats on my blog. I usually don't check the stats because I already know that I'm not exactly a famous blogger and I don't need to keep track of the single-digit numbers I usually garner. But I randomly wandered to the stats section just five minutes ago, and this is what I saw:

Apparently, an overwhelming majority of my pageviews are from the United States. It's not a small difference of a few views, it's almost five times as many pageviews I have gotten from India. The discovery made me realize a few things:

1. I still really wish I had more pageviews because, like most people, I wish there were more people who cared about what I had to say. Even after eight years of blogging, I only have about 68,000 pageviews total, and that's not a very impressive number. In fact, the number of years I've been blogging would seem more impressive to most people (especially those who start blogs but don't keep up) than  the number of pageviews. All in all, I don't have a very successful blog.

2. I keep blogging for some reason in spite of modest number of pageviews. And no, it's not because I believe in the miracle of small efforts, but because I continue to hope someone will finally care what I have to say.

3. If I am being honest, I think a lot of Indians would be so proud to have more pageviews from the United States than from India, but honestly, I don't care. I wish I had more pageviews from India because that's the country I mostly write about so I obviously think Indians would enjoy my content more.

I want to talk more about 3.

As far back as I can remember, I've wanted some degree of validation from the West, but I never really valued the validation that others got from abroad. The reason was that I didn't see how a few Americans giving their approval to someone automatically made them better, but I had an acute awareness of how it seemed everyone around me would value me more if I got into an elite American university or even managed to marry a white man (the second one is ridiculous, by the way). Business owners and respected professors in India seemed to have lesser value than 25-year-old working regular jobs in the States. Aishwarya Rai commanded inordinate amounts of admiration from the fact that she was in a few 'Hollywood' movies, even though all her ventures abroad failed, because for most Indians, it was enough that she'd been invited. Occassionally, I heard expats home for the summer talking about how nothing ever happens in this vast unwashed country, and their only qualification for saying so was the fact that they lived in America. Even my own family, God bless their heart, have often rationalized their arguments against our systems by saying, "This is not how they do it in Western countries."

I wanted the validation of people around me, so I thought I needed to get the validation of people abroad. Honestly, I'm not even sure I knew what 'abroad' meant. It was just the land of people where everybody was supposedly smarter than me, more beautiful than me, better educated than me, always right where I was wrong, people who upheld standards that I couldn't uphold no matter how much education I got. I was born inferior to some and would remain that way till I got some validation from people of a wealthier, whiter country.

The only issue is that right now, I am in America, making American friends, doing reasonably well in school with a full scholarship, and I have more pageviews from the United States than from India. And guess what? Nobody cares. And that's because validation, regardless of the source, only takes you so far. Nobody needs to be overtly patriotic, because, at the end of the day, nobody has any true control over which country they are born in. However, we can't let our desire for validation grow to the point where it actually starts to limit us. If we believe that there is a glass ceiling that is unbreakable for us, how can we ever be anything resembling the people that we admire, because I am pretty sure those people didn't doubt themselves. Also, it is important to note that more people have access to higher education abroad today then there were a few decades ago, and honestly, you don't really become special just by getting a degree from the US or the UK. If more educated Indians start businesses and venture into the fields of science and arts, which is now possible because of the Internet, maybe you could find yourself at a dinner with other educated Indians who've managed to find some self-respect and don't really care about your foreign exploits.

This is not a competition to become better than Western countries, because in a lot of important ways, India has a long way to become a devloped nation. It's more that on a personal level, seeking the validation of strangers is, at the end of the day, a flimsy thing to pin one's self worth to. It's even worse when we put divides amongst ourselves based on attributes that have nothing to do with the real merit of people. For example, today, 'broken' English is a bigger setback for many educated Indians than poor fundamental understanding of science, even though, if we are being honest, we do speak in our native tongue in the workplace. This is a conversation about reevaluating our internal biases regarding our own personal worth, and the worth of others around us. I don't want to be too political and say that an acceptance of our roots will change the world and guide future generations to a life of progress and prosperity, but I will say that an acceptance of who we are can relieve us of unnecessary stresses that we bear in our hearts while participating in a twisted pageant that has no real value, and this unburdening can free up our consciousness to be directed to more productive endeavours. Maybe it's time we start looking for other forms of motivation, not for the sake of our country, but for the sake of ourselves. If nothing else, maybe we can one day become the kind of parents that love themselves and don't pressure our children to enter the same rat race leading up to a foregin degree/job that many of us accused our parents of entering us into, and that, I think, is worth more than the validation of any First World validation we could get in our lives.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Elizabeth Holmes and Fraudulent Futurism

For those of you that don't know, Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, a biotech company specializing in blood testing technologies, was indicted of wire fraud recently. Her company claimed to be manufacturing small blood testing machines that could take just one drop of blood and run upto a thousand tests, but in reality, it could only run one test and that too not always accurately. What is shocking is that Theranos was valued at 9 billion USD, all for some technology that didn't even exist. In this episode in the Elizabeth Holmes series, I talk about how futuristic design played a part in making the scam possible.

Image result for theranos
My reaction to Elizabeth Holmes is equal parts horror and admiration, because seriously, how the hell did she pull this off?
It doesn't matter who we are. There is always going to be some part of the world, or some idea of how the world could or should be, that we will not relate to personally. For example, I have never lived in Central Asia, but I still know that Central Asia exists and some things about what it's like because there of information absorbed by my brain over an extended period of time. I have never seen a rocket with my own eyes, but TV has helped me have an image of it and therefore, I would be able to recognize it the first time I lay eyes on one. Come to think of it, most of what I know is composed of ideas and representations, not first hand experience.

These representations are responsible for how a good portion of the population romanticizes periods in the future, imagining kings and queens draped in finery and decked up in precious jewels while speaking in elegant accents, while the truth in previous centuries was more about widespread disease, random beheadings, wars and despotic rulers, with the average person having a life of hard labour and little to no power, and yes, this was true even in Western Europe which is supposed to be the pinnacle of development today. These representations are responsible for misconceptions we have about communities other than our own, and stereotypes which persist even when there is little interpersonal interaction between groups.

I think at this point you could understand how representations have affected our visions of the future as well.

Take for example the case of smartphones. A smartphone company is visualized by many as a glass-cladd office building with underground chambers lit with neon and scientists in lab coats diligently working in front of computers and fancy laboratory equipment. It is a honour to be working for a company making smartphones. However, in reality, the actual manufacture of smartphones happens in sweatshop-like settings, with underpaid, usually Asian, men and women slogging away performing repetitive tasks, the human beings basically just treated like machines. Now, this isn't to say that smartphones don't do any good, or the basic idea of smartphones is unethical, but it explains why people are able to successfully overlook what happens behind the scenes of a tech company and only focus on the positives. It is similar to the manufacturing of fireworks, which start to seem a lot less celebratory when you find out about the child labour that goes into making them.

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Oh, really, Theranos? Really?

I think part of what made Elizabeth Holmes' scam go on for so long is that she invested in an idea of changing the world that we have accepted in our minds as the path to the future. If you look at the promotional material of Theranos, their facilities appear to be futuristic places with the latest technological innovations, even when we don't really know what the technology does. That's because years of science fiction, movies, television and Silicon Valley powerhouses have taught us to associate certain images with progress and development, and for this, George Orwell and Issac Assimov are just as responsible as Steve Jobs, even though their intentions may have been different.

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Could you believe she's just playing with toys here? There was never any technology in the first place.

What Elizabeth Holmes did, essentially, was invest in creating a set, not at all dissimilar to how maybe a Hollywood production house would build a set for a sci-fi show. Her 'technology' was essentially just props, things that looked like they served a purpose but were beyond the fourth wall and therefore couldn't be checked for their effectiveness.

I think this is an opportunity to re-examine what all we have internalized in terms of imagery. Are we at a point where the looks of something have become this important that even billionaire investors could be fooled by techno-looking packaging? And if this true, are we on our way to regressing as a society, as no matter how much we want to embrace all people for how they look, will we continue to judge their position in life by how they are packaged, whether they wear a grey T-shirt and hoodie and therefore are the smart guys or whether they wear ratty denim cutoff shorts and tank tops and therefore are on the Duck Dynasty side of things? The design aspect of the Elizabeth Holmes scandal opens up an interesting discussion that needs to be addressed in case we want to really move forward in the world, and maybe if we look at the issue carefully, we can figure out how we can not get fooled as consumers and investors in the future