The Three: January 2022 Edition
Cultural happenings that catch my eye.
Happy New Year! And Happy New Three! Thanks for rocking with me last year. I hope that your new year has begun on a sweet note, and I wish you all all the best as the year progresses.
What’s Apple Saying with Swan Song?
The way the digital world works nowadays is essentially that it create digital selves, or profiles, for each user. Through Big Data, the profiles will become fine-tuned over time with the data we give through our interactions on digital platforms to shape our online identities. The more things hitherto beyond the domain of that which is countable – like how you feel about a certain kind of post, the kind of films you like, or even your dating preferences – become countable, the more platforms can discern. And in the giving of ourselves comes the creation of better user profiles that will look more and more like who we actually are. That’s why the recommendation feature for Spotify works best the more it monitors what you tell the platform you like, for example.
There’s been lots of conversation about Big Data and its possibilities, so it’s not such a weird thing that we’re getting more films that toy with the question of what happens when a companion self to us is able to roam the same offline paths we do, or when that which was meant to live in the digital grows legs and walks off the screen. I’m thinking of Black Mirror, but even shows like Westworld, in which human-looking androids meant exclusively for the Wild West-themed park designed for human indulgence go off screen and begin to cause harm to human beings. But I specifically had Jordan Peele’s film Us. The family in Us looks the same as the family that lives above ground, have the same mannerisms, and the behaviors of the “real” family determine what the other family does. I know these companion selves, or ‘tethers’ as they were called in the film, were not digitally rendered, but I’m thinking in particular about the very idea of the dangers that could be posed by having another ‘you’ with a separate mind of its own that is both like and unlike your own. In Us, each character in the family had to kill their tether to live, and leave freely. Of course, I do not mean to draw too fine a parallel. There are many questions we do not get answered in Us to enable us to make a neat comparison here. We don’t ever learn the science of how these tethers come to be, who’s making them, and why. Plus, the ‘villain’ in the film was the other self who forcefully stepped from behind the curtain and made it out. It is not quite a sci-fi film, but it does still get at the same fear.
In Swan Song, however, the data gathered from you to create this new self is not there to kill you – it is there to make you live. The lead character Cameron Turner, played beautifully and tenderly by Mahershala Ali, is a terminally ill man who is looking for a way to continue living without upending his family. The solution is a new technology developed by Glenn Close’s character Dr. Scott where the terminally ill person is cloned into a new body, blood and bones and all, that’s exactly the same as the dying one, but healthier; complete with memories and thoughts both conscious and subconscious. This high-tech procedure and the emotional journey it sends Cameron Turner on happens against a cold, wintry backdrop that could be a default Mac background lock screen.
In this film, we see technology literally create a new self. In the creation of this self, we see the transfer of memory, both conscious and subconscious, as easily as one might transfer files from a PC to Mac, rendered difficult only by the emotional weight of the memories the original self bears. When the transfer is complete, the only real conflict is whether or not Cameron Turner will have the emotional fortitude to let go and let it be.
In Swan Song’s technological optimism, we do not get a reckoning with the fact that the lead character has essentially opened up his entire life to be accessed by some doctor with a secretive process with which she literally makes new adult human beings that live and bleed. We do not get a sense of the weight and implication of that at all. We’re encouraged not to even think of it, and focus instead on the character’s inner turmoil and his emotional reaction to seeing his digital self slowly replace him. What does she do with all this data she is gathering? There was no attempt to even try to find out, not even in a heated conversation between Cameron and Dr. Scott. But these are questions worth answering in the world we live in today.
This is a film made by Apple+ so I know not to expect a tech-critical approach to assymetries between users and creators. However, it is important to ask questions because platforms like Amazon and Apple have now begun entering the content creation space, and are key actors in the ushering in of the datafication of our world, and all the attendant consequences of that for our society. It is important to recognize them as political actors (I mean in the sense of having power, not in the left/right sense), engage critically with what they platform and why they might be doing so.
Swan Song was beautiful and tender where it needed to be, but I kept thinking how much more compelling it would have been to scrutinize Dr. Scott and her role. In the film, the agreement is that you can stop at any point and the new self that’s created will not be used. Dr. Scott’s team had said to Cameron that they would stop recording his new self after a brief trial period, but there was no engagement whatsoever with what it means to have access to all those memories and two weeks of footage of his life interacting with his family, buying things, making things, dealing with people. Even shying away from the cost of the “service” contributes to the larger playing down of all possible costs of this kind of procedure.
The film reminded me of the way that so much of the way digital platforms earn their keep is from how we are convinced that the digital traces we leave behind as we zip through the digital world hold no real value. The ‘exhaust’ emanating from the movement of our lives – the throwaway commentary, the photos of places we have been and things we see – all contribute to the monetization of our digital spaces. We ‘consent’ to this labor through End User Licensing Agreements that most of us do not understand. Indeed, the way we engage with digital platforms take their shape from other capitalistic asymmetries not unlike good old-fashioned factories and their workers. It is on this asymmetry, this lack of shared understanding of the value of the data we provide as we like and tweet and share and post, that platforms are built. There have now been several examples that show how that asymmetry has not been without cost to us as a society.
I’m uninterested in a simple “tech is good/bad” (I think technological advancement is largely a good), but I do think it is important that tech companies like Apple are able to engage these types of conversations better. Behind the sunny disposition of tech optimism is the need for people to just stop asking questions and let these companies do whatever they want, but we’re long past that. A lot of our socioeconomic future will depend on our ability to ask better questions, address the asymmetry and manage relationships between platforms and users better.
Nigerian Artists I’m Rooting For in 2022
I should begin by saying that the following is not an exhaustive list. In addition to those listed below, I’m also looking forward to seeing what Mayorkun does, because he was pretty quiet in 2021 and we will likely see a new project from him before the end of the year. I also like Bella Alubo’s new single that almost literally just dropped. I’m really hoping a new female artist soars this year, whether its the openly-queer Nigerian artist Temmie Ovwasa who dropped a new album late in 2021, or even Simi because I’m sure we’re getting something new from her this year. I’d actually really love for it to be Fave, who gave us the really solid ‘Baby Riddim.’ That song has been on rotation on my Spotify, and her sound is so fresh and laidback, I just know there’s more where it came from.
So yeah, not even every Naija artist.
Also, I’m restricting this list to Naija, which already cuts out a whole universe of artists I love. SZA is dropping her new album, and I think Lucky Daye is also blessing us this year. One artist I’m really looking forward to seeing flourish, though, is the British-Nigerian rapper Enny. She is worth your time, and she dropped an EP I’m only just checking out.
That said, I really want these three artists to blossom in 2022.
We’re in for a big big year for this dude. He’s hit refresh on his 2021 hit ‘Peru’ with a dope verse from Ed Sheeran, his third album is loading, and his first US tour is, too. Granted, I was lukewarm on his last album, but one thing I’ll say for Fireboy is that he likes to experiment with different styles and I hope he gets a sick new formula that works better this time. With the success of the Peru remix, I hope this means more international attention and a new record that rises to the occasion.
I have always thought that Kizz Daniel should be way bigger than he is. The man has been consistent since dropping ‘Woju’ in 2014, and I really can’t think of a song of his that sucks. I’m really glad to see his new album ‘Barnabas’ is doing well, and that he’s touring the US next year. Fingers crossed the year gives what it’s supposed to give for him.
Admittedly their first record was not really my cup of tea; I found it too faithful to old school highlife and did not feel like they put enough of their own spin on it. Theirs is essentially the kind of music I want to see live (and I hear they are excellent live), but don’t want to hang out at home with. Still, it is always great to see when alternative acts build an audience and I am happy they are other people’s cup of tea even if not mine. We need more diversity of voices, and with the online space allowing more and more acts to build organic audiences, this is the best time to do it. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do in 2022, especially if that rumored collaboration record with Show Dem Camp actually drops.
RIP Virgil Abloh
Virgil Abloh died in November 2021, and now that I’m done on a brief break I’m making my way through what interviews and speeches I can find of him. Below is one really great talk of his from 2017 I found that I've watched a couple of times now. I like what it tells us about the man: the intentionality, the vision, the thought behind the work, but then also the ease with which he wears all of these things. I like how he thinks in patterns, never in straight lines. He’s the guy who would start a DJ set with Miles and end with Kaytranada, or throw in Bowie with Four Tet and Swae Lee. He had dexterity, malleability, and saw less obvious connections between things.
Can’t lie, I used to make fun of the quotation marks and even some of his design work (that Ikea reciept rug still makes me laugh). But his impact on the culture, his hunger to express himself creatively and in an interdisciplinary manner will always be awe-inspiring as what he achieved in such a short time.
The good people over at Isele Quarterly published my short story ‘Today, She Will’ in their latest edition. With all this academic writing I’m doing now, it’s great to be made aware that I’m capable of other stuff. Check it out.
Until next time.