David Byrne recently published a brilliant article on technologyreview.com detailing the current changes we’re all facing regarding technology’s role in removing human contact. Automated services from Facebook to Sky, Apple and beyond have become so advanced that many of us interact with algorithms more than actual real actions. Having worked at Apple, I have witnessed the sheer delight that big tech companies have when it comes to creating shortcuts designed to apparently ‘enrich’ our lives. I always found it interesting how they re-appropriate words to persuade the public. When I studied English literature, ‘Intuitive’ was a word I associated with the earth’s sacred energy fusing itself with our feminine side in a spiritual awakening for well being. Now it means making a machine drive you to work and back, feeding you dinner and turning on your favourite box-set exactly where you left off.
Is it any wonder there’s a rise in mental health problems? Britain’s police force received a phone call relating to mental health every five minutes last year. The ambition of tech companies to make life easier is outstripping our ability to cope with the life that particular ambition creates. As a teenager, I was fortunate to attend a low-tech school (I might add – at a reduced rate for my single mother who sang in Spanish nightclubs to pay the school fees). It was a Rudolf Steiner school, where importance is placed on introducing TV, IT and electronic devices during a certain time in a child’s mental, emotional and spiritual development. Sometimes, scrolling through the pointless newsfeed of Facebook leaves me quite jittery actually, but thankfully I am not as fragile as a child or a teenager. I have a fairly good sense of what it should feel like to be human, thanks to growing up with limited ‘intuitive’ technology around me.
Apple founder Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent. Silicon Valley tech executives and engineers enrol their kids in no-tech Steiner Schools. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page went to no-tech Montessori Schools, as did Amazon creator Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. However, many parents still feel it’s okay to use an iPad as a babysitter.
My recent trip to Italy brought the tech takeover into sharp focus as I trod a very real, organic and rich human experience for three days solid. I had never performed in Italy before. My first album with my first band (Jocasta – No Coincidence) had, without me realising, been heavily promoted in Italy back in 1997 when the record was released. If I had known at the time, perhaps it would not have taken me 20 years to go there to sing. Ricky Cavrioli – a fan of the band contacted me several years ago, through Facebook. Along with a few more fans, he personally arranged two performances for me this Summer, and it was one of the most enriching experiences I have had in my life.
Upon arriving, Ricky, his wife and son welcomed me with the Italian meal we all dream of (maybe 5 or 6 courses, not including the Limoncello and ice cream). The meal took time to experience. Food as art. Or opera – with repeating motifs, acts, scenes and intervals. With three complete strangers who I now know as friends. And all because of the power of music. No, I haven’t had 1 million streams on Spotify. But I felt like a million dollars after feeling real on that first night in a small apartment in Verona, the city of winged lions where human contact was made in all it’s precious ways.
The next day Ricky took me to the train station where I travelled to Ferrara to take part in the International Busker’s festival for it’s 30th Anniversary. Upon arrival, I made my way to the Il Molo. Il Molo is the Italian name for ‘The Pier’ – named after Brighton Pier by the venue’s owner Davide Franchini – a Britpop aficionado. Where once I had lived on Frith Street next door to Bar Italia in Soho’s Little Italy, I now found myself in Little Soho. In Italy.
To push the poignancy right down my throat, Davide presented me with a 7” Limited Edition single he had purchased in 1995 by my band Jocasta. My first single. 22 years later on the cobbled streets of Ferrara, I signed it for him and then performed the song and many others for 2 hours on those cobbles. People stopped and sat on the pavement to listen. Renatta Bignozzi – the artist who runs the Amor Gallery in Ferrara, brought out a candle and hung bundles of dried chilli behind me for good luck before I began my set. This was a reality I dream of every day. Genuine connection. And chilli.
I sang until midnight and the stream of people coming and going was so uplifting that I ended up singing for longer than I had intended. To be a stranger in a strange place and meet so many warm hearted people is exactly what the heart strives for. Sure, Davide and I are connected on Facebook, but the circumstances of our meeting resonates deeply with my mission to feel more human. This is what I seek and search for through my music. Person by person. Mind by mind. Heart by heart. Ferrara is a beautiful place, full of cyclists who smile as they glide past you in the streets. Needless to say, the inspiration is now packed into an almost full notebook and clutter of voice notes. New tunes tend to pour out of me when the soul is this aroused. When I shall find the time to dig through them and begin to sculpt is anybody’s guess.
The next day I returned to Verona to perform my new album I Am For You at Verona’s newest music venue, Cohen. Before the show, Ricky and I talked about his work over lunch (Penne Arrabiata). For the last 15 years he has assisted with psychiatric evaluations for people who suffer with mental health. Getting to know families and their ongoing struggle to survive whatever hardship that life has brought to them. It turns out that these days, he frequently assesses teenagers who are struggling to connect emotionally to other human beings. What these teenagers all have in common is that they are super humans when it comes to social media, whilst living the life of emotional cripples when it comes to actual human interaction.
How could this be possible in a city full of culture that cross pollinates the medieval with the ancient? The river Adige decorated with padlocks of love and messages of romantic connection? The tourist attraction of Romeo and Juliet? Shakespearean atmosphere at every corner? Dante’s statue and his words that blow between the beautiful battered buildings: “The secret to getting things done is to act!”. In action – there is deliverance to a better life. And yet I think of Ricky’s story of the teenager who cannot and will not leave his bedroom. Or his iPhone. All action has been chiselled out of his muscles. By the profit driven power of so called progress.
The only action is to survive this. Not to fight it. One cannot fight progress, but be mindful where it makes us regress. In times like this, I think of Oscar Schindler. A man who could not change the unjust and inhumane world he was a part of, but tried with all his might to save as many hearts and souls as he could from perishing in that world.
To me, that is a powerful parallel to the world we find ourselves in today. The corporate tech giants’ billboard may tower a mile high with a slogan that includes the word ‘connection’. You see them every day. But negligence always has its comeuppance. One day, tech corporations may have be held to account in their very own Nuremberg trial. Until then, I recommend smuggling as much humanity into your pockets as you can. We’re going to need it when we come through the other end. Naturally, I took my iPad with me to Italy. But it never made it out of my suitcase.
With thanks to Ricky Cavrioli and my friends in Verona for making me feel as a human should feel. Grazie.
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