A Day at the Beach

One recent Saturday (scorching hot), there was drama at the beach: a small sail boat had capsized, and police helicopters hovered in the blue sky above. “What happened?” We asked a policeman walking up from sand scattered with scantily-clad bodies. “We think they’ve swum to shore but we’re not sure,” he replied before walking off in the other direction. Our eyes scanned the horizon and the crashing waves, spotting a clipper being towed away, and other beach-goers with their hands positioned on their foreheads -- doing the same. When the choppers eventually flew off and the noise from their blades had abated, the air filled instead with laughter and conversations resumed. Ice creams continued to melt, and sunscreen was slipped, slapped and slopped onto warmed skin. Order at the beach had been restored once again.
 
Later, I left the group positioned under the bows of a fig tree (picnic blankets bestowed onto patchy grass, and hunks of watermelon dripping from hungry mouths) passing small tents put up hastily in the morning heat, and towels decorated with shiny, motionless limbs, for the ocean. There were bikinis of all colors, shapes and sizes, boardshorts, and two woman covered head to toe in black garb. The sand pushed up between my bare toes as I watched them enter the water as I did, all of us relieved of the heat. A man played motorboats with a child, the little body paddling along laughing in his arms. A body boarder sped past them, his legs motionless as he crested a wave. This was a day at the beach, I decided, as I dunked my head under the water, feeling the bubbles leave my nose.      

Back on the sand, I removed the straps of my bikini and lay on a towel, little droplets of salty water soaking into it, feeling satiated. A man with tattoos turned in my direction. I turned the other way and towards a posse lain out as I was, tunes blasting from a small speaker. “Unbelievable,” someone said. It was hard to get any reading done under these circumstances. The sunlight bore into my skin as a friend joined me on the towel. “It’s hot,” she said. So, we made our way off the sand and towards the boardwalk which we strolled down as if time had stopped. There were children in wetsuits, boisterous teenagers jumping, and families strewn about as if they hadn’t a care in the world. On the beach on a Saturday. Soon, it would be time to go and picnic baskets would be packed. Blankets and towels would be shaken of sand and debris and umbrellas folded. Cars would be loaded, and the carparks would empty; as the sun moved overhead, beach-goers would seek solace, with burned bodies aching, and the beach would be left alone and quiet again -- until tomorrow.

Is Climate Change Real?

Last week, I drove through Malibu to see the effects of the Woolsey Fire which started near the Simi Valley and eventually swept through Malibu on November 9th. It burned 96,949 acres of land, destroyed 177 homes, and killed three people. The scale of the devastation is enormous with the rolling hills turned an amber color and the remaining trees shorn of their leaves. On the junction of the Pacific Coast Highway and Kanan Dume Road, there is a burnt-out car and further up the winding mountain pass, you can see where the raging flames have scorched the road black. Power lines are down and occasionally, you can spot structures that have been burnt to cinders with only a few ghostly details remaining. Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon in California, according to Alejandra Borunda in a story for the National Geographic, but since the 1980’s, the size and intensity of these fires has increased. Climate change is an influencing factor, and Borunda writes that, in fact, “over the past century, California has warmed by about three degrees Fahrenheit.”
 
I thought about this as I walked the foreshore just below Malibu Beach RV Park, where I stayed in March this year. Then, with my camper van parked high above the ocean, I watched the sun rise and set, and I spent time walking the beach, sitting near the water with my back to a rock. What would it be like if sea levels rose? Perhaps, I wouldn’t be able to feel this stretch of sand beneath my toes. Maybe, in a summer of the future, it even might be too hot to go to the beach. I wondered, too, whether I’d still be able to eat fish and chips bought from Malibu Seafood Fresh Fish Market, a tiny shack of a restaurant bordering the Pacific Coast Highway, and the impact of shifting plant and animal habitats. Earlier this year, when I visited the restaurant and ate fried calamari from one of the tables in the sunshine, you could see the rolling hills spattered with deep, green grass and pockmarked with trees. Now, they’re charred with fire crews wondering the hiking routes to demarcate areas prone to landslides. There’s been a lot of rain in Los Angeles of late and exposed hillsides such as this one pose a risk to the surrounding areas.  
 
“The stuff around us is a little unsightly,” says Ryan of the devastation surrounding Malibu Seafood. “But if you turn around, we have a beautiful view.” It is a beautiful view. From one tables, with its gently peeling red paint, you can see the horizon across the Pacific Ocean -- and I realize that everything is interconnected. At the moment, there is a drought in parts of Australia, a relatively short flight away. Recently, Cape Town suffered one of the worst droughts in its history; a city might have run out of water. The debate about climate change isn’t a simple one and, with such divergent ideas about climate change and what is actually happening, how do we know who and what to believe? To me, the debate seems unequivocal and you can read the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change here. Climate change isn’t just about rising temperatures or drought, nor is it just a problem for the rich, hence the importance of agreements like the one made in Paris. Some consensus has to be reached if we are to mitigate the effects of the changes occurring to our climate. The Woolsey fire, despite occurring in and around Malibu, is a human problem in the same way that the other effects of climate change are. Climate change concerns everybody. The next question should be: what do we do about it?

Propaganda

What is propaganda? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” One might associate the term with wartime, and perhaps the First and Second World Wars. During the former, a man called Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, formed the Council for Public Relations and recently, I’ve been reading his book called, simply, Propaganda. It’s a chilling text and one aimed at the heads of business at the time of publishing in 1928.

Bernays is commonly known as the father of public relations having invented the term soon after World War I. “When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace…” he writes early in the book. So, he did – by attempting to manipulate the unconscious mind. Bernays was instrumental in persuading women to smoke with George Hill, the President of American Tobacco Company, as an early client. The models representing the Company garnered much press attention during a New York City parade at Bernays’ behest with the cigarette being called the torch of freedom. In other words, Bernays’ work pertains to the linking of products to desires and feelings (rather than appealing to the intellect) and the forces controlling these desires.

The book is a short one but not without perverse gravitas. Throughout, I was reminded of contemporary chat about “the media” and how the term is thrown around so liberally. Who or what is “the media” and why are they being grouped into a singular entity and criticized so? Perhaps, more to the point, is who is criticizing them and to what end? Bernays might have been in support of the idea of the media is a singular entity because it suits his notion that the media can be used to manipulate “the masses.” He writes: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

He dubbed this process the “engineering of consent.” This is horrifying enough in itself without breaking down what the term actually means and in a margin of the book I’ve written, “how to profit from fear” which seemed apt upon re-reading it. Are we living in a time in which profit is being made from fear – in whatever guise that might be? To whom are we listening to? Are there forces in control, as Bernays postulates, and if so what are they endeavoring to do? Are we letting them appeal to our desires and feelings or are we using our intellect? It’s perhaps not surprising that Propaganda and the ideas contained within it were used by Joseph Goebbels and Hitler’s Third Reich during World War II. This shocked Bernays, but he later said, “…I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” I’m not sure that I would call Bernays’ work one with a social purpose but perhaps, to some extent, we are living in a time in which certain sentiments are being propagated and that’s certainly chilling.

The Last Free Place in America

Recently, I hired a recreational vehicle in California complete with a shower and toilet, a small kitchen, and I took off in search of my idea of the American Dream. The RV was a beast. It was branded and bulky but together we explored the camp sites along the Pacific Coast Highway, some with their own laundry facilities but most with portable toilets and a view of the Pacific Ocean to rival the best postcards. But after seeing a reference to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I decided that a real road trip meant travelling and sleeping in a car. So, I hired a van and drove into the desert. 
 
I lived out of my van for a month or so, every evening pulling into a numbered campsite, sometimes listening to the desert wind as it rocked the vehicle and I to sleep. There is something romantic about sleeping in one’s car. Not knowing where you might end up of an evening. Perhaps missing a shower or two. The ability to drive along empty highways without responsibility or anyone necessarily to answer to. This feeling was exacerbated in Slab City. The Slabs occupy an area of land just outside Niland in the Sonoran Desert and are home to a mostly nomadic community of reprobates and misfits. Tourists venture there to see Salvation Mountain or East Jesus, two outdoor exhibition spaces with large-scale installations. I spent time at the Slab City Library, where book donations are discouraged in favor of tarp, paint, and soap, and at Ca Ponderosa where you can rent a room for as little as US$29 a night. 
 
The owners of Ca Ponderosa, Spider and Shannon, got married when I was there, and you can see some of the images on my Instagram account. But not all is rosy in the Slabs. It has its own rules and I was told that, sometimes, the local police are fearful of venturing there. Periodically, there are burn outs which leave the harsh desert soil -- where a trailer once stood -- scorched black, and it’s a hot bed for meth addicts. It’s hard to imagine sticking out the summer in the Slabs when temperatures soar to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and there is little relief from the heat. Most of the community leaves then but there are those who can’t. I met a couple, fallouts from the housing crisis, who have made Slab City their home. One man has a felony. Another, a trans woman, lives there with her ailing mother.
 
During my road trip, I realized that what encompasses the American Dream is the need to travel and to explore but to also have a home. According to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, there was an increase in the number of homeless people in 2017 to just under 554,00, the first time in seven years. There are more homeless people in California than any other state. These statistics seem at odds with America’s early pioneering spirit. Some of California’s earliest settlers made their way out west in search of gold and a better life. They, like many of the residents in Slab City, didn’t have portable toilets or laundry facilities. In Slab City, despite the sense of community, its residents are homeless in the traditional sense, and they have fallen off the grid. For many, getting back on it is almost impossible. They are stuck in this no-man’s land living off food stamps and sporadic seasonal work. For these people, like others in America today, the Dream is dead.
 
I started off on a journey along one of the most scenic highways in the America and ended up in one of its most unforgiving places. Slab City is not the Last Free Place in America as its commonly called. It is a place where the down and out seek refuge because the American Dream is broken, and their existence is evidence of this. Slab City residents may not pay to live in the Slabs, but they pay in other ways. There is no running water or electricity. The nearest supermarket is at least thirty-minute walk away. Justice is dealt through community consensus. Life, and the social contract, is a compromise, though. I didn’t find my American Dream on this trip and, Kerouac be damned, I returned to a home in the relative comfort of a city where I’m bound, like you, by the constraints of living in a modern society.

A World Without Secrets

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people, or the state of being free from public attention. One also has a right to privacy. What does privacy mean to you? We all have things we consider to be public and things we deem as private. When you get up in the morning, for instance, you might be alone in your bedroom. It is a private space. If you have a partner, you might share this space with them, or if you have roommates or children, your living spaces. Furthermore, we tend to demarcate spaces or determine what is public and what is private with certain rituals. Dressing is one; we choose how we present ourselves to the world by selecting certain items of clothing that construct an identity according to who we imagine ourselves to be. Putting on make-up serves as another act of public display. Those who wear it have a particular face they construct to be seen. What might it be like if there was no demarcation between your private and public spaces? A celebrity might empathize with this plight to a certain extent but, by and large, they tend to curate their public self via the press. They still maintain an element of privacy — it’s rare to see inside the bedroom of a public figure, or anyone for that matter, unless one is invited in. 
 
I’ve been thinking about privacy recently, perhaps because I’ve been watching the science fiction television series Black Mirror. Written by Charlie Brooker, it’s a generally dystopic view of the world and our relationship with technology. In one episode, a woman who is obsessed with boosting her social media profile in a world where every action is ratable eventually starts telling the truth about herself and others and consequently overcoming her fear of not being liked. In another, a man gets himself fired after deciding that his work as cartoon character who is running in the local elections is amoral. It’s thought provoking stuff, particularly with regards to how we think about ourselves in public and in private spaces, and what it means to be engaged with technology but it’s not for the faint of heart. Neither is this talk by Alessandro Acquisti called What Will a Future Without Secrets Look Like?
 
On a slightly different but connected tangent, I’ve also been thinking about the gaze (how and what it means to see) and gatekeeping (how a message is disseminated, usually via a mass medium). Who, in other words, dictates how and what we see and when. Someone once said to me that the editors of information would wield the most power in future. Perhaps, that is why social media technology is so popular. Those with the most followers can and do circumvent traditional modes of communication to curate their own image, brand, and message. I wonder, then, whether it’s pertinent to be particular about what we look at and read – not to engineer a silo where the only information we access affirms our thoughts and beliefs but rather to pay more attention to where that information is coming from, whose interests it’s serving, the quality of the reporting, and the facts. After all, especially if looking on the Internet, what we’re choosing to search for, see, upload, and send, as Acquisti reaffirms, tends not private at all. 

We Are Our Choices

Recently, I went shopping. I don’t often but I needed underwear and the ordeal proved to be a dilemma. Do I shop online or offline? Should I buy local or not? What about sustainability? Should I keep that in mind when thinking about price, size, and fabric? This sounds arduous and you’re probably thinking – why should I bother reading this. But my underwear purchase relates to you.
 
Every day, we are all faced with a number of decisions that impact the way we think about purchasing and our relationship to goods and services, and therein lies our power as consumers. Where we shop and how has enormous knock on effects. The problem is: we are bad decision makers, we are time poor, and the market place is crowded. The interesting question then is how our decisions reflect our values. After all, as Jean Paul Sartre famously said, we are our choices. Through these, we truly do have the ability to shape our world.
 
I decided, when underwear shopping, that I would shop online despite the carbon footprint I might leave after the goods were shipped from the factory to me. That would mean that I could browse items from home as opposed to getting in the car or taking public transport to the mall. The bras and knickers would have to be delivered to the store somehow, I reasoned. So, I picked, after doing some research, an underwear label that seeks to, “support women rather than objectifying them.” 
 
Seems like a strange line for an underwear label but I liked it. The company also employs predominantly women and single mothers and, despite locating their production in a developing country (not locally), pays for the workers’ healthcare on top of their living wage. Additionally, they support the children of these working mothers by paying for their school meals, books, and their uniforms. They also donate 2 percent of their revenue to charities supporting women’s education. 
 
In terms of the garments themselves, the company prints digitally to minimize water waste and it includes fabrics in its line made from plastic bottles. Why should this matter? Well, according to Green Peace, “it takes about 10,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton for one pair of jeans” and the American EPA estimates that textile waste takes up about 5 percent of all landfill space. Those statistics don’t take into account the number and amount of chemicals used when creating a piece of clothing – chemicals that affect the environment. 
 
The True Cost, a documentary about the impact of fast fashion, or fashion that is mass produced quickly, details this and is worth watching if you’re interested. The film asks who is really profiting from these cheaply priced, mass produced garments; the workers, the consumers, or the producers. It’s a good point and, one which highlights that goods and services are connected to a chain of people and entities. It follows then that our purchasing power impacts the flow of resources. Despite paying a little more for my underwear, I can wear it knowing that it’s not just underwear. It represents something far greater and that my buying decisions, like yours, have an impact. 

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

My mum deleted her public Facebook profile when she was in her late twenties. She was concerned about the amount of information she was sharing so openly on your platform. It seems that her concerns have grounds given recent events, the public response, frankly, isn’t good enough. I want answers, Mr. Zuckerberg. I want to know where all my information is being stored, who it's being sold to, and why. I want to know why Facebook introduced facial recognition software, which seems to me to be some form of human profiling system -- but what would I know, I’m just a kid. Are you, and these technology companies, using my language patterns, too? Is it important how I think, speak and write; is that some kind of code for you? And why does my friendship network and location matter so much to you? (When I say you, I mean Facebook, but I think of you and Facebook as the same thing, even though one is real and the other is a digital entity. More on that in a minute.) Surely, where I am, who I know, and how I interact with them is private. Also, the make-up of my face and how I think and write. Those things belong to me, especially if associated with my name and birth date, and then, by definition, as a human right. But, I have a sneaky feeling that you and your company are using this information for other, more devious uses. Perhaps, I’ve been reading too much science fiction, but, historically, those writers have been uncannily on point. J.G. Ballard. H.G. Wells. There’s Philip K. Dick with, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” Margaret Atwood’s, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is pretty poignant of late, too.

But, being someone who is well-read, I’m sure you’re familiar with these narratives and themes, and those in the more recent, “Ready, Player One.” It all hits a bit too close to home, for me. I’m pretty stoked that I get to live in a democracy because having the right to vote is important. When I’m old enough, I’m going to make sure that I take advantage of that choice and educate myself accordingly. But what’s the point of going to school and learning so much, and having the right to vote, when pretty nasty people and foreign governments can influence that process for their own ends? The fact that you’ve let bad people use my information to affect democracy makes me very upset. Seems to me to be the epitome of evil. What’s the point, then, too, of living in a democracy? Shouldn’t you, given how much money you’ve made from your company, be taking more responsibility? But, then, if you’re creating a data farm of our information, which you’re using to create an alternate race of artificial intelligence, otherwise known as, perhaps, defamation, privacy infringement, theft, and perhaps worse -- if we’re sticking with our science fiction theme-- that seems to me to be the epitome of evil, too. Then, it isn’t just the foreign governments and nasty people using my information for their own ends -- it’s Facebook. And you’re facilitating that. So, what does that make you?

By using the information I put into Facebook, even if you just intended to sell it anonymously to advertisers, aren’t you creating a weird feedback loop that will eventually spell the demise of humanity, anyway? I want to know why there is such a similarity between what I see, my thoughts, and the adverts appearing on my Instagram feed. ‘Cos Facebook owns Instagram (and Whatsapp, and Oculus VR, to name a few) -- that was a nifty maneuver, and one, I’m sure, that wasn’t done just, “because they were very talented app developers who are making good use of our platform and understood our values…” Maybe I don’t want all these companies to know everything about me so that they can make a profit at my expense. If I knew that’s what they, and you, were really using my information for, under the guise of friendship and community, I wouldn’t have signed up for Facebook, or Instagram, or the Internet, in the first place. That was, and is, false advertising on your part. But, I think, it might have already gone too far. Does my Mum's clone already exist? What's going to happen to me? I want the truth, Mark Zuckerberg, and my life back. What you and your affiliates, and those foreign governments, and the nasty people, are taking doesn’t belong to them or you. It belongs to me. I’m not a number just because I have an IP address. I’m a human being. I also want answers, Mark. I hope it’s alright if I call you Mark -- since you know so much about me. And, you know what, Mark, whoever said that nothing in life was free -- seems they were right. Nothing is free. But, I’ve decided that my freedom isn’t for sale. That’s my choice, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If any of these things are true, which we know some of them already are (and who would have thought that a few years ago), I hope you decide to take the lead by telling us the truth, and do the right thing by my Mum, Dad, and me, your kids, and by the world, too. 

Peace out,

An Unborn Daughter

It's a Powerful Thing

It’s a powerful thing -- to give your power away. A few years ago, I was invited to the office of a respected business person for a meeting. I’d been working for the organization for some time and had received compliments from industry and my peers about my work. I thought that this meeting was a result of that. I was wrong. What transpired was sexual harassment. I thought, because of this person’s position and demeanor, that his behavior was acceptable. I should have walked away as soon as I started to feel uncomfortable but I didn’t. When I did leave, it took about thirty minutes for my body to register what had happened; to sync with my mind. I felt ashamed and violently sick. How could I have not realized what was really going on? What a fool, I thought, to think that the meeting was about work and that I was there to be rewarded for my efforts. I called a counselor -- unsure of where to go or what to do. When I finally exited the train near my aparment, I cried. 

Thankfully, the situation with this person did not eventuate in a more serious case of sexual harassment or abuse but on some level I felt violated. On some level, I’d let him win at his game. I stopped working for the organization, and, slowly, I began to remove myself from all of my obligations. Easier to avoid situations; to protect myself from potential harm. I’d walked away on one level but I’d run away in another. I’d equated my good work with his bad behavior and, subconsciously, I’d punished myself. This person had continued. He kept his job, his paycheck, and his position. Usually, I would have fought back in some way — as I’d done in the past. Usually, I wouldn’t have let this person’s inflated ego overpower my own sense of self. I thought this person was more powerful than me because of his position. What I forgot, in giving my power away that afternoon, was that he is not.

Recently, I saw an exhibition about fear and how it’s used to control not only individuals but societies, and countries. How particular ideologies are used as a means of control, and how, when these ideologies result in trauma, the trauma can be perpetuated until it is healed. This may take moments, days, lifetimes, or generations. The artist likens the traumatic event to losing a limb. The injured party knows that the limb is gone but mourns for it. The resulting behavior can be one of anger and retribution or one of creativity and healing. Thankfully, I haven’t lost a limb but what I lost that day was intangible. That’s a different kind of pain. I couldn’t see what I’d lost. But I could feel it. This person might have used his intellectual prowess, emotional manipulation, and his status to attempt to control me but thankfully, he didn’t use physical force. I’ve been in situations where a person has exerted their power over my body using their own and it’s terrifying. Never have I felt so alone and so powerless. In those situations, it’s physically impossible to walk away. In those situations, one does not have power to give away. It is taken from you. Thankfully, I had a choice that day. I was able to walk away.

Reading the myriad of reports that are surfacing in the media, as this person's harassment has, is hard. There is something wrong with the system, a system which has rewarded individuals for abusing power in order to “get ahead”, and a system that encourages victimization and silence for the same ends — until recently. This system may be perpetuated by a few but the global support for victims who have spoken about their experiences is encouraging. It’s a time of change but it’s a strange time. Our values are being tested. It’s hard not to give into fear, especially when the someone in a position of leadership says, “and when you're a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... grab them by the pussy”. That news isn’t fake. It’s dismaying when women state that being fondled on the subway isn’t harassment. Any unwanted or unwarranted invasion of space on the basis of sex or similar innuendo is harassment. Your person is your own, regardless or cultural nuance or historical precedent. It should not be for sale, under any guise. That is your human right.

Reconciling the complexity of the feelings I’ve felt over the last few years with regards to this instance of abuse and the others that I’ve experienced, and now within a larger context of openness and discussion, is also hard. To try and comprehend what motivates one human being to negate, on some level, the existence of another. I wasn’t the only person targeted by this man but hopefully, because of the brave women who have spoken out about their interactions with him, we will be the last. Hopefully, because of the bravery of others who have spoken and continue to speak about injustice, the systemic nature of punishing abuse victims and rewarding their abusers, will stop. If you’ve read this far, thank you. This letter has been sitting on my desktop for months. Picking up the pen hasn’t been motivated simply by the desire to write from a place of freedom, to express, to understand, or to try and make sense of the world. On some level, I’ve had to check the fear that I won’t be punished for writing, or speaking out, or more generally, for my efforts. It’s a powerful thing, to give your power away. But it’s even more powerful to take it back.

The Art of the Protest

There was anticipation in our house in the weeks leading up to the protest. Bags had been packed, bus tickets bought; plans made in advance. It rained on the morning that we were due to leave but that didn’t matter. My suitcase still accompanied me through New York streets to meetings before being pushed into the undercarriage of a bus with other bags and backpacks. Destination: The Women’s March, Washington, January 20, 2017. This wasn't the first march that I'd been on but I was by no means versed in the art of protesting. The year before, I’d joined thousands of others on Broadway in support of Black Lives Matter armed only with a fist and slogans. “Don’t shoot,” the crowd shouted in unison. Then, “I can’t breathe” or “No justice! No peace!” Our presence and our words were intended as a collective objection to police brutality against black Americans, and particularly in reference police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. There were bodies of all shapes, sizes, and creeds there that day, children and a man in a wheelchair, and all of us had journeyed there with the same intention. We believed in something and we were going to do something about it. Our aim wasn’t commercial, or for individual gain, it was for something far greater; a sense of unity and a belief in the sanctity of justice and the value of human life. “Thank you,” a black woman said to me as we walked uptown. The fact that she felt she needed to show gratitude brought tears to my eyes.

The Woman’s March was similarly peaceful, except this time I held a sign made from bright pink colored card with “Pussy Power” scrawled in black marker above woman’s badly drawn legs. This time, I felt more prepared. However, nothing could have prepared me for the thousands of pink knitted hats that filled the streets, or the sheer variety of banners and signs proclaiming feminist slogans, or the overwhelming sense of peace, solidarity, and purpose in front of one of America’s most iconic buildings: the White House. Or, the fact that more than 600 similar marches were taking place in 60 other countries, again because we believed and it didn’t take much. Just a body and a mind with the intent to unify with something greater than itself, for something greater than the self. Perhaps there is an art to protesting. Martin Luther King might have thought so. He believed, like Mahātmā Gandhi, that taking a stand doesn’t need to be necessarily premised on violence. One might just, “take a knee.” It’s an incredibly simple gesture usually associated with the marriage proposal but within an American football context, it signals the end of play. When a footballer kneels, the gesture allows him to run down the clock whilst his team is still in possession of the ball — as a way of securing victory.

What might be the point of taking a knee outside of play? Perhaps, at its essence, is the ability to choose. I chose to get on the bus to Washington that day. Millions of other people around the world did the same thing. We had freedom of choice but often it's not until our freedoms come under threat that we decide to do something. Knowledge, education, and the rule of law are all essential in this process. History provides evidence of our mistakes. Hopefully, the ball doesn’t have to be lost, forcing a game, or the act of taking a knee before play. But in the event that it is, I can take a seat on the bus, and join with others, or wave a pink pussy power sign. In some parts of the world, there are no buses. At times throughout history, drawing on a poster board in aid of a cause was banned and acts like taking a knee inspired more than a few angry tweets. But these acts aren’t done without good reason and noble cause. The choice is then whether or not to take action. There is freedom in that and therein lies the truth. 

What is Net Neutrality and Why Should I Care?

What would you do if you were connected to the Internet? I mean literally connected to the Internet. What if every idea you had, every sentence you typed, the way you structured your language, and the words you used was recorded. Your face too, with every image uploaded to social media and your emotions, codified by emoji. Imagine if the “you” you thought you were — the private individual with your own thoughts, feelings, and whims — was actually not “you” anymore but a collection of information or data that was instead owned by the Internet. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, doesn’t it? Luckily, you cannot belong to the Internet. But the reality of a free and open Internet is again up for debate. 

What is net Neutrality and why should I care?

Net neutrality is based on the idea that the Internet is a free and open network accessible to everyone. At the moment it’s free to use but in the United States, we pay for the way we connect to it, via broadband, or for the amount of information or data we use, via a mobile phone service plan. Net neutrality advocates, Internet Service Providers’s and the Federal Communications Commission are still trying to decide how this should be regulated. The outcome will affect how we connect to the Internet and what content we can access, which neutrality advocates argue goes against the idea of the Internet itself. 

Is net neutrality a new concept?

No, ideas underpinning open communication networks have been around since the invention of the telegraph in the early 1800’s. In 1860, the U.S. federal government signed the Pacific Telegraph Act, which states that “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception...” In 2003, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu coined the term net neutrality in relation to how we should send and receive messages over the Internet. 

Isn’t the idea of neutrality on the Internet misleading?

Yes. The Internet is a series of interconnected networks or highways and the Web is the language that allows content to move around the Internet. Technically, information doesn’t flow freely across the Internet. Companies like Google and Yahoo have certain languages or rules called algorithms that determine where each website ranks in its search results. What you’re getting back isn’t a random selection of everything available on the Internet but what the search engine deems the best results, usually the most popular.

Wasn’t the Web always supposed to be free and open to everyone?

Yes. In 1989, Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the Web as an open platform for anyone to create, say or do anything they want to, except when it comes to drug dealing, child pornography or terrorism. It still operates without a central governing body today. 

What changed?

In 2005, the FCC adopted Open Internet Order principles to ensure all information accessed and exchanged across the Internet was treated equally. Five years later, Comcast took them to court arguing against their ability to do this based on a technicality. Comcast won and the FCC was forced to redefine its Open Internet rules. The FCC tried to reclassify ISP’s as telecommunication services, making them public utilities like gas or water and therefore governable under law. It lost again and in 2014 proposed two tiers or lanes of Internet access. Since one of those tiers would provide faster service for customers who could afford to pay for it, the FCC inflamed the neutrality debate. In 2015, the Open Internet Order was passed effectively banning Internet "fast lanes" and classifying ISP’s as telecommunication services under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, making them public utilities governable under law. Yesterday, the was debate ignited yet again with the current FCC chairman suggesting net neutrality rules might be rolled back as soon as next month. 

What would two tiers or lanes of Internet access allow ISP’s to do?

This two-lane system could extend to all types of content, allowing ISP’s to create tiered services or packages similar to those on cable TV. They might also be able to favor a service in which they have an economic interest. According to judge Dave Tatel, who spoke at Verizon’s 2014 appeal of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, Comcast could limit access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to NBC’s website, a company it owns, for instance. “It [could also] degrade the quality of the connection to a search website like Bing if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access,” he said.  

How would this change how I use the Web?

You would have to wait longer to see content from creators who could not pay for priority access to the faster lane. Netflix might be able to afford this but your neighbor, who likes sharing his songs on YouTube, may not. His videos would take longer to load than the latest blockbuster, dashing his hopes at becoming the next Justin Bieber. You might also have to choose between two different services based on price. It might be more expensive to use Twitter then Ello, for instance, and the next Mark Zuckerberg or Facebook would remain unknown.  

Should we worry about what happens to our private data online?

Where does digital information come from and where does all the data that we’re constantly typing, uploading, and sharing actually go? The smartphone and computer are hyper-connected, constantly transmitting and receiving, objects. The data we’re inputting exists in reality and in real-time. Just because we can’t see it once it’s entered the digital void doesn’t mean it’s not there — and what are we really agreeing to when we accept the fine print in those terms and conditions? “You” might not be able to belong to the Internet but the data you upload does. It's constantly being stored, bought, and sold by a myriad of institutions and organizations. We’re all connected to the pipes through which this data is accessed. The future is now… The Matrix, anyone?

I Am Not an Object

Repeat after me: I am not an object. I am not an object. I am not an object. Seems strange, doesn’t it, to really consider what that phrase means. Objects are inanimate. Actions are directed towards them. They are material, lack agency, and constitute, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a goal or purpose. Yet, on a daily basis, we are told, constantly, that we are objects. The advertisement on the train on the way to work, the billboard on the neighboring building outside the office window, in the magazine, and on the television, phone, or computer screen. Buy this and you’ll look like me, or attract the perfect partner, or feel better about yourself. Life’s problems will disappear and you’ll feel fulfilled. You’ll be happy. But this freedom from insecurity and the general nature of day-to-day malaise is momentary. That’s the trick and the nature of the hyper-commercialised world we live in. Implicitly, we are taught we will never be happy. There is always the better car, the bigger house, the more youthful appearance, and more fashionable clothing. 

As a fashion model, I know this narrative well. Our bodies are sometimes reduced to things in order to sell other things and this then begs the question: what does this constant objectification of self do to the mind? The mind is immaterial. It acts as a bridge between the body and if you believe in one, the soul. Are we corrupting our minds and our souls by the constant desire to consume? In wanting that new smartphone, the latest boots, or the newest skin care product or kitchen appliance, what do we really want? A more efficient way to get from home to work, to make a nourishing meal, or to be more like James Bond, to have wrinkle-free skin, or the right clothing or aesthetic to fit in? What are we trying to fit in to? To whose rules and values are we ascribing? And what impact is this constant desire to consume having on those around us and the environment?

These were some of the questions that came up during a recent evening in New York with advertising executive Maddona Badger and hosted by New York Women in Communications. Badger has been in advertising for over thirty years and was instrumental in creating the Calvin Klein Jeans campaigns. You know the ones, with Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg: unapologizing sexy. Cue a generation of adverts, and consumers, selling and buying sex. Is this necessarily problematic? Perhaps not. The survival of the human race depends on the fact that we procreate. But what does sex and the survival of humanity have to do with the consumption of goods and services, and what does this relationship do to the gaze or the way we look and see? 

Does it create a new kind of relationship: the body is an object, and it is for sale? Does this mean that we are prostituting the self for a burger, a beer, or some lipgloss? Often, these images are inspired by great artists and are the result of hard work done by talented individuals and creative teams, such as Badger. But her new campaign, #WomenNotObjects, is a rallying cry urging the advertising industry to stop objectifying women. Her argument: that women’s bodies are often reduced to sexual objects, or objectified, to sell products. Perhaps, in the spirit of National Woman’s Day, you might take a moment to consider what else exists — beyond what you are meant to see. Advertising is a modern visual language and it is fluid; it can be altered and changed. Might we need to re-invent how we re-imagine the body as its used to sell goods and services, and really consider what impact our purchasing power is having on the environment and those around us? Perhaps, and by virtue of this, we will begin to re-define our relationship to self and the world we live in. We should celebrate women — we should celebrate everyone — every day. 

We Are All Immigrants

I’ve been thinking about the nature of immigration recently: I am an American immigrant but because I am white, I'm exempt from the abuse currently afflicting many other American immigrants who do not look like me. I’ve seen a video of a man verbally abusing a Muslim woman for praying in the street. There is footage filmed on a smartphone from inside a car, the person in the neighboring vehicle shouting obscenities whilst telling the camera-holder that he should go home because he is a terrorist, that his visa will be rebuked. Last week in a local deli, a customer told the gentleman selling me a banana to take off his turban; he had been here long enough. The gentleman gave me my change — telling me it was $4.75 before thanking me in his American accent. These instances of overt racism and the talk of building a wall along America’s Mexican border are perhaps just the beginning. Will the next construction project entail fencing off the Canadians? 

The notion of a wall is particularly troubling. Walls aren’t only physical. They can be ideological, too. And those walls are much more intricate and dangerous in their form and function than a few bricks leveled and fixed together with some wet cement. They can’t be destroyed swiftly with a sledgehammer upon a whim. They take years, if not generations, to pick apart and dismantle and even then, the foundations can still be seen underneath the dust and the broken chips —like those I saw in Berlin, Germany, on a recent trip. 

I grew up in South Africa and when I was a child I was too young to know what Apartheid, a system of government implemented there between 1948 and 1994, really meant. I knew that on my passport, because of the color of my skin, the shape my facial features, and my wispy, white-blonde hair, that I was “White.” I also knew, despite being a child, that segregation based on race and skin color was the basis of so much socio-cultural and economic organizing in my country of origin. What I didn’t know then was that these systems of segregation were kept in place by laws dividing South Africa along racial lines and implemented with the intention of keeping it that way. This meant that resources — that everything — was separate, too. We had beaches designated for blacks, whites-only bathrooms and sinks, and separate education systems. 

My family left South Africa in search of a better life and perhaps, like the turbaned man in my local deli, our version of the American Dream. What would it be like, I wonder, if my Green Card were to be revoked because I was no longer deemed an American resident? But I don’t get stopped on the street, or hassled, or told to go home because of the colour of my skin. I am safe because I am "White." But this isn’t Apartheid South Africa. This is America, isn’t it?