Bongwater

The corporate world may not be hip, per se, but it certainly has become more up-to-date on attitudes and lifestyles than it has been in recent years. What's unsettling is that corporate America may now be playing a larger part in dictating those attitudes and lifestyles than they have in the past. Somehow the pipeline has begun to flow in the other direction. Instead of absorbing our culture, sanitizing it, then spitting it out and force-feeding it to us, there are signs that the culture we have was made up in marketing meetings and those mythical boardrooms. An example: a few years ago the Zeitgeist of the Pacific Northwest spread across the country so fast that kids in Miami Beach were wearing $80 flannel shirts, listening to Nirvana and wasting their days in coffeehouses. Music was tied to fashion, which was tied to television. And now the rest of America has friends to watch every Thursday, a lifestyle and age group all cleaned up and pretty with funny things to say for 22 minutes a week. The 20-something situation comedy has been born, perhaps the ultimate plateau in generation oriented marketing. Much has been made of the term 20-something this past few years, a lame catchall term meant to identify a group of people in America who came of age sometime between 1980 and 1990. Twenty-something is a demographic advertisers can set their sights on, a term magazine editors can use lazily, over and over and over again, until it loses what little meaning it has. Generation X is another such term, which I suppose came into vogue after the publication of Douglas Coupland's novel of the same name. Supposedly plugged-in to the attitudes and behavior of my generation (whatever generation means I don't know, but I'm told I belong to one), Coupland became yet another in a series of its spokesmen. I can't imagine it's a comfortable place to be. And though Generation X wasn't the slacker anthem that Time and Newsweek told us it was, it showed promise, flashes of insight. His subsequent Shampoo Planet and Life After God were, at best, feeble attempts at providing his established readership another 200-odd pages of his wisdom. This is how we are, the youth of America, the books seem to say. Trouble is, they're not very good books. How is it possible to roll millions of Americans of a certain age into one group and cater to them in any affecting manner? The truth is, it isn't. But Coupland, whether he knew it or not, paved the way for others. The Gen X novel was here, if not to stay, then at least until something else, some other buzzword, inserted itself into our language. Michael Hornburg's first novel, Bongwater, could certainly be pigeonholed into that category. It's short, easy to read, episodic. All the characters seem to be in their 20s, most of them aimless, confused, floating through life. While this might be a turnoff to some, Bongwater has moments of startling clarity and, overall, leaves you with a feeling, a sense of place and time, an age group and their lives. There isn't any plot to speak of, though that should never be used as a criterion for a good novel. In fact, plotlessness seems to fit Hornburg's subject matter. The book cuts back and forth between Portland and New York. David, in Portland, is a pot dealer/filmmaker, whose apartment has recently burned to the ground. He is staying with a young gay couple, Robert and Tony, crashing in their spare bedroom, though not getting much sleep - there seems to be a party there almost constantly. David has a thing for Jennifer, whom he's slept with once, but Jennifer has a misguided crush on Robert. Robert's gay and doesn't care. David meets a stripper/clothing designer named Mary, and they start seeing each other. There are scenes of general hanging out, parties, people falling in and out of relationships. Portland is a wasteland, desolate, boring, overcast. In New York, David's ex-roommate Courtney, who may or may not be responsible for the fire, hangs out in even lower squalor and despair. She's seeing a paranoid rock star, living from moment to moment, aimless and despressed. Life is hellish in New York, and when Jennifer comes to visit, Courtney's only reminded of how far she is from home. Portland's dull and desperate, but New York's not such an easy landscape for a confused little loser. Back and forth. New York and Portland. David's starting to have some semblance of a relationship with Mary. They have sex, they take a trip together to score more weed, hang out with David's screwed-up hermit friend. Courtney's life keeps getting worse. One night she's living with the rock star; the next, his paranoia drives her to sleep in a squat, sharing a sleeping bag with some skate rat she doesn't really know. It's cold. She's dirty. Her stuff is slowly disappearing. I've always admired novels that have the power to keep me reading even though nothing is going on in the pages. If the writing is good, no plot, no message, is necessary. Motifs aren't present, nor themes nor lessons, just characters and dialogue and movement. Whole sections of Bongwater are like this - effortless reading, interesting dialogue, people depicted as people are. Yet what slows Bongwater down, at times, is a message. There are only a few, but they become glaring deficiencies simply because the rest of the book is unencumbered by such earnestness. If you're going to write a novel about aimless American youth, you can't stick in your opinions about how the Native Americans have been screwed and how ugly a clear- cut hillside of tree stumps looks. It seems Hornburg is trying to disguise these messages in characters' points of view, but what's interesting about these characters is that they have no point of view. It also doesn't help matters when specific tidbits about current attitudes and fashion come jumping off the page - more messages, deliberately inserted. David and Mary have the following implausible conversation: "We just finished a new line, a seventies groupie look." "Why is everyone suddenly so in love with the seventies?"I asked. "It's the recession, really, people are trawling thrift stores, the tackier the better, it's a backlash against good taste. The seventies had the coolest music, disco and punk. I don't know, it's a trend, what can I say?" "What will come next?" "Well," she paused, "it definitely won't be an eighties flashback. The millennium countdown will probably kick in soon, everything will get very gothic and weird, mix in a little end-of-the-century-new-age glam and presto, instant zeitgeist. You want some more wine?" Instead of feeling confident enough in his characters and their circumstances to let that convey a sense of place and time, Hornburg obviously feels [that]like he has to tell us something - inside information. A much more telling conversation takes place between Courtney and the skate rat Bobby, who's writing in his journal: "Is it about me?" "No." "Oh." She sounded disappointed. "Do you want to be a writer someday?" She sat up, unable to get comfortable on the futon. "Maybe," he said. "I think you should reconsider." She stared at the doorway. "Why?" "Nobody reads anymore, you have to think visual, something that people can react to." "Like a billboard?" Bobby mumbled. "Very funny. Who's more popular, Samuel Beckett or Vanna White?" Bobby didn't answer. "You see, and they both work with words." Or David, driving around with Mary: I fiddled with the radio dial, found a country western station, Patsy Cline sang, I thought about the movie, when the plane crashed, wondered if all my coolest memories were from television. David's and Courtney's stories eventually intersect, bringing them together again, and the book loses some of its impact when another implausibility is foisted upon it. There is a giant scene, the climax as it were, at a club. A ridiculous Mansonesque fashion show/performance piece ends in a police raid. David and Courtney are left alone on the rooftop, talking and if I'm not mistaken realizing that they're meant to be together. It's such a false and incongruous ending to this book that I have to leave open the possibility that it's meant to be funny, tongue-in-cheek. I hope so. Maybe the trouble begins with those stupid words being bandied about these past few years: 20-something, Generation X,slacker. While Hornburg is a good writer, even he can't get by the publishing industry's need to cater to what they think is a certain demographic "they're young, they're bored and aimless, they'll read this book because it's about them" and Hornburg has to share some of the pressure that Coupland must feel. The nation's unfortunate obsession with the idea that what's new is best can lead to situations where an otherwise pure outlook, like that expressed in the best and most convincing parts of Bongwater, gives way to flaws in attitude and misguided earnestness. There's really something here, something to pay attention to. It's just sometimes hidden and blown out by the summary definitions and cultural recaps. author

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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