From Matt Kenyon's Wolf at the Door

The social freak-out

Regular LSS readers know that social media is one of my preferred hunting grounds for stories. I spend a fair amount of time cruising the Facebook highway, picking up hot topics. Last week, on one of my own Facebook posts, people were recommending I watch the documentary The Social Dilemma. Now trending on Netflix, the show would open my eyes, they said.

Nothing new here

Using interviews, animated infographic segments, and dramatizations, The Social Dilemma describes how such things as Facebook and Google covertly manipulate and control users. If you have no idea how the businesses of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and similar apps operate, the show delivers a dystopian account. It’s a time-honored tale of "technology gone wrong," in the tradition of 1984, Brave New World, Her, and Colossus: The Forbin Project.

On the other hand, if you’ve paid attention to news accounts about internet privacy, you already know that everything you see online is there by design to lure you in. The idea of customizing messages for targeted recipients, didn’t start with the internet. Years ago, I participated in a paid focus group, without knowing what it was for. At some point I realized I was helping to determine the most effective message to undermine the Democrat party. I felt so dirty.

Scare tactics

The Social Dilemma employs melodramatic music, fast-cut news footage, and flashy graphics to create a disquieting tone. Maybe that’s what it takes to get Americans to watch a documentary, but for those who don’t like their nonfiction deep-fried in fear batter, this show might seem gratuitously alarming.

Throughout its hour and a half running time, industry insiders spill trade secrets with ersatz whistle-blower angst and remorse. The interview segments are intercut with dramatized narratives remarkably similar to the anti-drug films we watched in high school. Substitute cell phones for pot, and they are identical cautionary tales of spiraling addiction.

In one unintentionally comical scene, a young girl leaves the family dinner table, and seconds later breaks into a glass container in which her mother had locked her phone minutes before. We hear shattering glass, then see the expressionless girl holding a hammer and wearing protective goggles. Are we supposed to take this seriously? A reoccurring segment has three male tech-clones maniacally operating a control panel in front of a big display board to manipulate a high school social media addict. It’s supposed to be a metaphor, but it falsely creates an impression that smartphone owners are being individually monitored.

A timeless response

Every new technology is soon followed by doomsayers predicting the end of society as we know it. From sentient robots conquering humankind, to automated missiles starting World War III, to laboratory genetics exterminating all life, it’s the stuff of doomsday fantasies.  

In The Social Dilemma, someone states, “No one got upset when bicycles showed up. No one said, oh my God, we just ruined society.” Not true. In 1895, the Literary Digest wrote, "Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted 'bicycle face,'" quotes VOX. The condition was "characterized by a hard, clenched jaw and bulging eyes,” and can now be seen as part of a “backlash from many (male) doctors and onlookers, who cited all sorts of reasons to dissuade women from riding bikes. In general, they argued, bicycling was an excessively taxing activity, unsuitable for women. It would lead to not only bicycle face, but also exhaustion, insomnia, heart palpitations, headaches, and depression.”

“A bicycle is dangerous,” reported the New York Times in 1880, “not when it is in motion, but when it is at rest. It is then that it throws its rider and tramples on him with a viciousness that the depraved horse would be ashamed to admit.”

Yeah, people got upset when bicycles showed up.

Fake news

An hour into The Social Dilemma, it gets around to the topic of misinformation and disinformation. This is when the film becomes more alarming. But it illustrates the consequences of fake news with lots of scary riot scenes, presumably for the chaotic visual pizazz they contribute. The goal is to grab viewers by the throat with pit bull resolve, not letting go until they’re panicked into submission. And it works. Amid reports of Facebook users deleting their accounts after viewing the show, the company issued a rare rebuttal

The thing is, while violent uprisings are frightening, they’re not a product of the internet. I grew up watching riots on the nightly news. Take a look at archival footage of the 1969 Democratic National Convention to see what a real riot looks like. The Rodney King riots were triggered by TV news footage. The Chicago Riot of 1919 used word-of-mouth to ignite a week of terror, causing 537 reported injuries and thirty-eight deaths.

Internet apps can indeed be weaponized as effective and diabolical spreaders of misinformation and other mischief. These problems must be addressed—perhaps through regulation—but it’s important to maintain perspective. All good things come with downsides. For most people, the internet and its many apps are valuable tools. Facebook allows us to reconnect and stay connected to friends from our past. It’s hard to imagine life without instant access to information through Google.

Who’s the product?

"If you're not paying for the product, you are the product," says The Social Dilemma, repeating a line you might have already heard. It’s true; we’re not social media customers, because advertisers pay the bills. I’m fine with being the product, considering what I get in return. I watched “free” commercial television shows for decades that were also paid for by advertisers. Viewers were the product there too, delivered to businesses by the networks for a fee. The difference is, on social media, the commercials and content are more targeted, so I don’t see ads for Nickelodeon Green Slime ketchup at Walmart or stories offering video game hacks.

What The Social Dilemma fails to point out is that app users are the product in the aggregate. An individual’s data alone is virtually worthless. Tech-clones are not monitoring your every message.

The takeaway

The Social Dilemma ends on a note of optimism. There’s a warm meeting between the high school phone junkie and the tech-nerds, who inexplicably merge into a single man, whatever that’s supposed to represent. The music grows sunnier as we're told we can fix everything if we just have the will. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe this is the end of civilization as we know it. If so, I’d rather learn about it without sideshow sensationalism. 

Scary stuff

New technologies are often greeted with hand-wringing naysayers. Here are a few more things that alarmed people when they were invented:

Books: “Philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm said in 1680, over 200 years after the invention of the printing press, that ‘the horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism.’” “In War and Peace, published in 1869, Leo Tolstoy writes that the ‘most powerful of ignorance’s weapons’ is ‘the dissemination of printed matter.’” Plato fretted over the invention of writing itself! You can read more on LenWilson

The telegraph: The Spectator magazine worried about the “constant diffusion of statements in snippets.” Much like Twitter.  

The telephone: They were seen as an invasion of privacy. One writer said that the telephone introduced society to a slippery slope where we would soon be “nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.” Others claimed that it would make society lazy and anti-social.

 Radio: Inventor Guglielmo Marconi wondered if he had “done the world good” or just “added a menace?”

Television: there was fear that it would turn people away from reading or having intimate conversations with one another…and hurt radio. It would mean the “vulgarization of American culture.” Okay, so that’s true, but we survived.

Computers: when first introduced, they spread a wave of panic and fear. “Computerphobia” became an actual term. We still suffer from Gatesphobia, the fear of Bill Gates.

Video games: They were going to turn kids into isolated, weak-minded killers. Instead, video games strengthen several parts of the brain and promote socializing via gaming.

Nuclear fission: Godzilla.

Back to art

In pre-rona days, art exhibition openings often attracted big crowds. Now that galleries and museums have reopened without receptions, and with social distancing guidelines in place, only a fraction of art show regulars have returned.

This is a call to get back on the horse, leave your homes, and go enjoy art again. And there is some excellent art to see.

Venues we’ve recently visited:

In this month’s Spree, Elizabeth Licata writes that the six new exhibitions now on view at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center “…may be its best installation since the new building opened in 2009…” Much of the work comes from the museum’s collection.

The Albright-Knox Northland has a new exhibition by the internationally known street artist Swoon. Seven Contemplations—reflecting the artist’s concern for the environment—is an eye-dazzling display of technical skill and visual bravura. There’s a longer preview in the September Spree.

On to Hallwalls, where People Like Us (aka, Vicki Bennett) is exhibiting two media works. First Person is an audio piece derived from dating site responses. But it is Fourth Wall that you’ll want to commit at least a quarter-hour to take in. The mesmerizing multi-channel video, spreads across two walls, juxtaposing and superimposing a multitude of ephemeral clips from familiar motion pictures. Overlaid film snippets appear, dissolve, merge and flow into one another, revealing recurring filmmaker tropes and themes. It’s like a visual stream of consciousness that gradually puts the viewer in a meditative state.

Buffalo Arts Studio features two exhibitions by artists Adele Henderson and Patrick Foran. Using printmaking and drawing methods, Henderson seeks to visually map contemporary dangers and anxieties; both real and imagined. Her largely black and white works, reminiscent of ancient charts of the heavens and earth, explore that space between science and magic.

Foran’s skillful representational drawings and paintings are fragmented scenes, where surrounding information and context is selectively stripped out, drawing attention to those elements that cut to the heart of a moment. The imagery is adapted from broadcast news, social media, and other sources. A shopping cart engulphed in flames, for instance, is at once intense and mysterious.

All the exhibitions mentioned above are exceptional, and well worth seeing. The staffs of these art spaces are anxious to welcome you back.

One not to miss

We’re doing a deeper dive into The Wolf at the Door, an exhibition by Matt Kenyon, now on view at Big Orbit, because it is, quite frankly, one of the finest art installations I’ve ever seen. Kenyon is that rarest of artists who shrewdly combines sophisticated technology with multi-leveled conceptualism to arrive at aesthetically stunning results. There are six discrete works in the exhibition. Each is a tour de force. All are also the work of an accomplished magician, who achieves the seemingly impossible through innovative applications of high-tech industrial materials and procedures.

Tide (image at top), is a pyramid of champagne glasses that gradually fill with water over the course of the exhibition, fed by a slow-dripping tube attached high above the uppermost glass. Each glass contains a miniature crystal house, made from material that becomes invisible when submerged in clear water. Taken together, the work acts as a metaphor for the rising flood risk in many parts of the country, due to climate change. As each glass fills, the houses go “underwater,” a term used to describe homes which are valued at less than what the buyer owes.

Champagne glasses invoke celebration—especially when lit to dazzling effect as they are here—but the initial celebratory tone gradually turns to metaphoric tragedy, as each house vanishes. The pyramid structure and progressive filling alludes to other processes which progress exponentially, from Ponzi schemes to viral social media posts, and even the spread of COVID-19.

Alternative Rule serves as an act of protest, and a memorial to victims of gun violence. The work appears to be a stack of lined paper, the kind on which children learn to write. Visitors slide a plain black tube, concealing a wireless digital microscope, over the paper. Projected onto a nearby wall are the magnified lines, which are revealed to be micro-printed rows of names, dates, and locations, of school shooting victims since Columbine. Visitors are urged to take the micro-printed paper home to write letters of support for gun control to government leaders.

Supermajor features a table with an oil spill, and nine vintage motor oil cans stacked on a display rack. Oil from the table appears to leap into the air in a stream of droplets and enter the central can through a hole. Even if you understand the physics, it’s hard to comprehend.

Lockset comprises three spotlighted house keys, each of which is notched in a manner that casts a silhouette portrait of a homeowner who has been evicted. The keys work in the actual home locks, allowing former residents to symbolically remain with the house.

Cloud is a machine that extrudes house-shaped, helium-filled foam. A bar periodically pivots to slice off frothy slabs that float to the ceiling—like inflated home prices—which eventually dissolve and fall.

Tap features an upright sink with a flaming faucet, in which the chemically produced blaze acts as a plasma audio speaker, playing media coverage of fracking stories. Yes, the flame talks.

Kenyon uses technology and illusion much like a stage magician or sideshow huckster, luring viewers with displays of jaw-dropping improbability, with visual conundrums guaranteed to stimulate contemplative reflection.

You’ll regret it if you miss this one. It closes November 14, with hours on Saturdays only, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Final thoughts

This isn’t a complete list of exhibitions on view around town. Those who remain extra cautious due to the coronavirus, might be happy to know that you will likely be alone, or close to alone, when you visit. Check their websites for gallery hours. There’s no excuse. It’s time to get out and begin enjoying art again. 

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