I often listen to podcasts while doing rote or simple tasks and this morning, while carving on a linoleum block, I listened to one of my favorites, CounterSpin from Fairness and Accountability in Reporting, or FAIR, @ https://fair.org/counterspin-radio/. The program interviews a lot of sources that do not commonly get approached by corporate media reporters and talks about how corporate media often under- or mis- represent very important issues, policy or cultural trends to the detriment of citizens. The show I listened to today was an interview with Amin Husain, an organizer with the cultural activism group Decolonize This Place. The show’s host and interviewer, Janine Jackson, asks us to consider, “Cultural institutions are important sites of public conversation, but the public doesn’t have much say in who gets to lead that conversation, or the stories they tell. Activists are asking us to talk about what that means, and what it would mean to change it.” Her interview with Amin Husain discusses a lot of good points about colonization, ethnocentrism, wealth and equality. And it poses really important questions about the value of art, as culture, as manifest spirituality and as something that we assign monetary worth. It’s a really good listen, even if you’re not particularly interested in art and museums.
A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entry about the internet re-writing my grandfather’s life history (and mine!) and how corrosive that process is to our lives, HERE. Today, on the radio program, Democracy Now, author Shoshana Zuboff discussed this very problem, the subject of her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. She suggests that ‘surveillance capitalists’ are ‘poaching’ our lives to sell the information and that corrupts our agency and our fulfillment as human animals.
I can’t disagree; I’ll be looking for that book.
I looked up my father online to find out who is using his decades-old research, done long before the world wide web existed for civilian use. I found lots of people referencing his works, and lots of listings for his publications,* but I also found information about my grandfather, a rancher, land owner and saddle and boot maker in Texas in the early 20th.
I met Granddad only a few times—we lived on the other side of the country—and knew very little about him, mostly that he’d owned land and horses, made some money on the stock market during the Depression and refused to pay for my father’s graduate education (when his WWII GI Bill ran out, I assume). Another thing I knew about him was that he had been a saddle and boot maker for cowboys in the region of Central Texas where he lived. I have handled and cleaned the saddle he made for my dad, worn the tooled belt he’d made for one of my brothers before I was born and now own the boots he made my grandmother to match the saddle (long gone) he’d made her for her 40th birthday. They’re a bit narrow for my feet, but I’m built like she was and can walk in them without discomfort.
Granddad had been the kind of person who’d rejected his first check when the government instituted the Social Security system (they never sent a second one); I was interested in seeing what the Internet could have to say about him.
What I found at first surprised me, then really pissed me off; the interwebs told me that he was not, in fact, a saddle maker or boot maker, rather, his only connection to saddles was, they said, working for a large ranch.
WTF? Nawp, that’s not right, I thought.
I took another look at my pictures of that saddle, inspected that belt, tried on those lovely boots and dug up the charming picture of my grandmother wearing them while sitting in her custom-made saddle. I thought about all the leather-working tools that we got from their garage when my grandmother died, the sturdy sewing machine, the specialized needles, the stamping tools—this was not a hobby, this is how he made the money he used to build a life.
What the nuts, Internet?
This is the crux of the issue: The commerce of the Internet has rewritten my family history. For a fee of $60, a website posing as antiques research re-wrote my granddad’s life. Using half-assed, paltry and easy research, this site told their curious customers that he did NOT make saddles and that the initials on the saddles were NOT his, but someone else’s, someone who also worked for that large ranch. Then, the website helpfully tells their customers when and where my father died. (what? why?)
The customers were not satisfied, and no surprise; the site’s superficial, glib and inaccurate response is not worth the dial-up. This is one of the despicable things the current “connected” age is doing; by purporting to have all the answers, internet ‘authorities’ gather arbitrary info and present it for purchase as consumable reality. This is deeply wrong and corrosive to our lives as individuals and as historians of our own experience.
This issue is too weird and important to just let go.
*Note: There are uses online of my father’s work (invaluable research that cataloged aspects of cultures that have rapidly changed, or even disappeared) in the last several decades that his estate was not conferred with about. Companies are using his work, without permission, to make money from scholarly material that is otherwise available to students and scholars, free. This is another thing that makes me furious. My father did that work to contribute to historical knowledge, not to help make a packet for slimy igmos online. gah.