I was asked again yesterday, “How do you find life back in the states?” This is not the first time I’ve heard this question, it could actually be closer to the hundredth time I’ve been asked that question. There is no short answer to this question, but my long answer begins something like “It depends.”
Since I’ve come back to the US after living abroad for three years, I’m surprised at how little life in the US has changed. More on that later.
Some people who have previously lived abroad for an extended period of time ask me the question differently than other people. They seem to be probing, and after a few sentences I usually develop a sense of rapport with the person I’m talking to. They inevitably discuss life in the US in a different way than folks who haven’t sailed past the shoreline and into the unknown. There is a similar camaraderie between non-native citizens and people who just lived abroad for a while. There seems to be a distinct disconnect between the present moment in which we have our conversation, and the America they see inside their mind. It’s as if the memory of living away from America draws a curtain in between both participants in the conversation as we both relieve our experiences simultaneously with our dialogue.
An equally palpable curtain is drawn when I begin to discuss my “It depends” in a more political context. My conversations upon returning usually focus on the scenery or how friendly the people were that I was living with. I’ll often try to steer the conversation towards technology and the huge impacts I see as possible within the coming decade. I have become optimistic about the world in which we live, the potential for collaboration and information exchange on a global scale is only growing. Africa which is so often talked about as the “dark continent” may within 10 years have better cell service and a higher base of homes with solar than the US. I can’t help but speak about the tremendous opportunities afforded by technology that are becoming available to my friends. I can point to numerous examples of how technology can revolutionize the development work being done across the planet, and I can speak of my certainty that it will revolutionize the world.
But my feeling about life in America? Well… it depends. Upon my return to the US, I was assaulted by the different, and darker form of capitalism here. I am surrounded by reminders that small businesses aren’t as plentiful as they were in my childhood. That it is becoming increasingly difficult to know that the middle class which I’m a firm part of, doesn’t seem to exist for very many of my friends and family.
While I was away living a unique life very distinct from most Americans, I was able to distance myself from many of the things going on here. This distance is the curtain drawn between my memories and my present. I listened to the BBC as my main news source, and I wasn’t surrounded by the constant flow of headlines, warnings, disaster stories, and drivel that is the media in the US. I escaped from the clutches of commercial radio, tv, and for the most part I even experienced ad-free Internet. How is life back in the US? It depends… if you are referring to how I am constantly being scanned or tracked offline or online as a mechanism for companies to make money off me; then I don’t like it. What are all these small plastic cards at stores for? They had them before I left, but I am not exaggerating when I say I have to have a different “members” card for every store I want to visit. I have more cards than keys on my “key chain.” Is this really necessary? Is this what America is? It’s the same story of rampant consumerism and the disposable society, but now I’m the one who is on the outside looking in. It’s unfortunate that our freedom and anonymity has to be sold in order for us to buy bread for our children at the best possible price.
Often I’ve been thankful and optimistic about the outlook for America. This is clearly attributable to movements such as Freecycle or Craigslist. The new apartment is nearly 50% furnished with hand-me downs, items bought at yard sales, or freebies from the curb. The computer I’m typing this on I purchased from a garage sale. The box spring under our mattress that I will sleep on was in great condition when we picked it up from a listing on Freecycle. America is a great country! Look at the progress we are making as we move away from the “disposable society,” even while companies still perpetrate unsustainable living on the American people. These online tools have opened up so much commerce, and created new paradigms for how we view the world. How is America? America is amazing!
And then I heard about “Net Neutrality.” To be fair I had heard about it before we left, and I was familiar with the concept. But it was ruled that “Net Neutrality” is important and should remain. Now as I’m sitting at a computer in our Nation’s capital, enjoying streaming Internet that was sold to me as 50 megabits per second (estimated at 1 track from iTunes per second). When the college I was assisting last year had a 4mbps Internet connection it blew my mind! It had been too long since I had a great connection to the Internet. I could once again engage in so many activities that I took for granted. Mostly all technical given my craft, but occasionally I would stream videos. It was certainly a longer wait for it to buffer over there, but the overall quality wasn’t any different. Youtube adjusts my bitrate to the same here as it did there. Perhaps it’s not Net Neutrality, and there’s atmospheric interference, or swamp gas reflecting from the surface of Venus. I want to ask people: “Do you think Craigslist will survive the loss of Net Neutrality?” Who pays for Craigslist to get a share of the bandwidth when your ISP wants to run a competing service?
Whatever the cause, it’s clear to me that the end of Net Neutrality as we know it was a stab into the heart of the Internet. In one court ruling, capitalism prevailed against the betterment of humanity as a whole. I’ve posted a clip from Stephen Colbert in a different blog post here, as I believe he waxes more eloquently against this threat than I can.
The Internet as I have known it, and come to cherish it is under attack. And how do most American’s feel about it? Helpless. So many people I know all feel helpless in the face of the enormous problems facing the planet. We have climate change, human rights abuses, poverty, starvation, political strife, rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, spying governments, GMO crops, healthcare, overwhelming inequality in our own country, and so many other causes. The loss of Net Neutrality is just another cause that seems to be falling on deaf ears.
Why is it so difficult for the government to STFU and get to work? Why do both parties, Republican and Democrat insist on perpetuating the belief that we are so fundamentally different from our neighbors? We aren’t that different, almost all of us want the same things. There are certainly disagreements on how to get the job done, but it is inexcusable how ineffective our politics seem. Both sides blame the media and each other. Who is it that is pulling the strings to get our senators and representatives to think like this? How can they act like this? How do I find the US? It disgusts me how ugly our politics have become.
And sometimes the political answer of “It depends…” goes on for a bit. I was lucky enough to learn about TED talks while I was overseas, and I learned more from them than I believe I have ever learned from watching nearly any TV channel. I was introduced to dozens of concepts that have altered my view of what I believe our future and the future of all humanity can be. I have watched hundreds of talks on dozens of topics. I have been introduced to Sir Ken Robinson, Google Glass, and Hans Rosling. My life is fundamentally changed for the better just by being exposed to the brilliance of other people. How do I find the US? It depends. If the conversation stops with my exposure to TED and it’s influence on my life, then I believe America is a great and wondrous place. The sort of place that can give birth to the greatest minds of today and the future. It is here that the best ideas can come to life.
Sometimes I talk more about TED and sometimes I will come to my introduction to Lesterland. This famous TED talk given by Lawrence Lessig has also had a profound impact on my life. It has been watched from the TED website 1,106,140 times as of this writing. In the video Professor Lessig discusses the impact that money and the American capitalist system have had on the policial system in the US. I find that Professor Lessig is correct about his assertions regarding the influence of the wealthiest Americans and corporations have. I pause when I think about this speech, and I recognize that most of the other battles I want to fight, Climate Change, Net Neutrality, Income Inequality, homelessness, marijuana legalization; ALL of them are potentially symptoms of the unchecked influence of wealth on politics in our country. How do I find the US? I find it terrifying. I’m thankful for the work of groups such as Rootstrikers, so that I may not feel alone against this cause of causes. I believe this influence of money on politics is central to the stories we are fed from the news, and a major factor causing strife in Washington, and preventing a more democratic approach to our own governance.
I watched the TV show Continuum when I first settled down in December. The story portrays a grim version of the future not dissimilar from George Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian state. Much like the Cyberpunk science-fiction genre and role-playing game of my youth, the future totalitarian state is controlled by corporations. It’s not an extreme tale of science fiction anymore to perceive a path where we ourselves could allow our future to slip quietly into the night of totalitarian control.
The Government in Turkey which is a democratic country recently shut down Twitter, blocked VPN access, and continues to attempt blockage of the services the Internet can provide to a populace that wishes to organize. How can we feel we are really that different in the US when we find out that corporations such as RSA are complicit in helping the government purposefully flaw encryption standards. It’s been known for over a year that the NSA has been engaged in incredible, James Bond and Mission Impossible style computer infiltrations. But what about the other branches of the government? Why would we think that these programs have only been built and designed for use outside the US? Is it difficult to believe that the FBI, ATF, US Border Patrol, and local PD don’t have access to nearly unfathomable technology? How about the vest cameras proposed for Oakland cops? It’s not difficult to think about that facial recognition technology used on Facebook and how easily it could be put to profiling purposes. Do you think Officer Anthony Bologna would have thought twice?
How I feel about being back in the US is very deep and complex. I missed the mass movement of Occupy Wall Street while it was happening in cities across the country. The OWS movement created something in the country that seemed to be lacking up to that point. It created a conversation amongst Americans, “Can we be better?”
I believe that the US is an amazing and complex place. It is the starting point of the world’s experiment with democracy. It is the country that has facilitated and allowed so many of the positive everyday aspects that influence the entire planet. The US also has its fair share of challenges, and things can look awfully grim at times. I believe the US needs a serious dose of change, particularly aimed at the influence of the Lesters. I believe the continual quest for more profits at the expense of customers, quality, the environment, and future progress must stop. We need to continue the conversations started by OWS, we must not buy into the system of Republicans Vs. Democrats. Us Vs. Them.
There is so much room for advancement of the world, and much of the push for that will come from our country. More tools like Bitcoin, Freecycle, Permaculture, the Stem Cell burger, renewable energy, Coursera.org ,and can help dethrone the tyrants of our times.
I believe living in the US we citizens are allowed a choice:
To engage with or ignore the challenges of our time.
I know that this has been a lengthy essay to read, but I hope you understand my hesitation to your question a bit better now. Perhaps you will think about asking a more engaging question the next time you meet someone who has just come back. More importantly I hope you have considered the implications of the more dreary facets of the US and will do your best to be part of the solutions to our global challenges. Maybe you’ll be returning from abroad soon. I’ll try to wait patiently for you to continue once I’ve heard you say : “It depends.”