Amazon recently had its massive annual Prime sale–the Black Friday of summer or as some have dubbed it, Christmas in July. Among all the books, movies, clothing, gadgets, and electronics you can purchase on their site, perhaps Amazon’s greatest pride and joy is their own invention: the Amazon Echo.

The Echo is a monolithic device reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey–a black pillar to erect in the center of one’s home that is always listening. If you want to play music, check the weather, calculate a measurement conversion for a recipe, all you need to do is ask Alexa, the genie in this bottle. 

Google, not to be outdone in the quest to control all the technology in our lives, has a similar device on the market: the Google Home.

Both devices offer increasing convenience for the modern chaotic life. As someone who bakes quite a bit, I love the idea of being able to verbally inquire after the next ingredient for my recipe when my hands are covered in flour. For parents with small children in need of extra arms, no doubt these kind of devices also come in handy. And, in truth, how different are these devices from the Siri and Google that already live in our smartphones? We have already transitioned into a world where we talk to our devices and expect a proportionate response in word or deed. 

But is this really a world we want to live in? Is convenience the framework we wish to structure the future around? It’s sorely tempting, but I would answer no–and urge you to do the same.

In a world of listening devices, everything we say in the comfort and privacy of our homes is picked up by these devices, with the potential of being recorded. There is already evidence to show that what we say to our companions and family members–not directly to the device–is being used to customize the advertising we see as we surf the web. (Listen to this Note to Self episode to learn more.) 

While most of what we say at home might be quite innocuous, suppose one of these devices picks up a casual conversation in which you speak bitterly about an acquaintance who is then subsequently found murdered. What if that conversation becomes admissible in a court of law? As we know from experience with texting, digital devices have a hard time providing an emotional context and nuance when converting a verbal statement into a written one–even with the use of emojis and gifs. And this scenario is not simply hypothetical–Amazon has already been subpoenaed to release Echo data in this murder case. (Amazon refused but the defendant himself later agreed to release the data to the police.) And then, of course, there is the case of the San Bernardino shooters in which the authorities tried to get Apple to provide access to the shooters’ phones.

Even as these corporations are currently fighting to maintain our privacy, I find it scary to think that our data is in the hands of massive companies that are shaping the world’s future. They may not be the governmental authorities but Amazon, Google, and Apple are powerful authorities over our lives in other ways. They already have so much access to our privates lives through our email inboxes, our devices, and our shopping baskets–why would we want to invite them more directly into our homes?

For those who reluctantly respond with, “well we’re in this far, we might as well just accept the state of the world, give up and enjoy the convenience of such devices,” I disagree. We are not so far that we can’t take a stand and begin to shift the needle back to a place in which we as individuals can begin to own our personal information and data again. Choosing not to own an Echo or a Home is a place to start making that shift. Baby steps. Baby steps.

I’m not the first person to discuss this issue, so here’s a few links to some great podcasts and articles that also discuss this topic. If you own or don’t own one of these devices, I’d love to hear why you chose to buy or not buy one, and if you have one, what do you think now that you have it in your home? Do you disagree with my argument? If so, why?

The featured image is courtesy of Matthew Henry

After the past several weeks keeping up a steady pace of constant output, I’m in slow-collapse mode. I just finished putting together a paper that is due for a July 10 conference deadline, and I am breathing a deep sigh of relief. I’ve been scrambling to research and write it while also preparing for my trip to Texas, my two presentations at Denver Comic Con, and my trip to South Africa. Well, I’m currently in South Africa so everything else had come and gone successfully (to my relief), but this one last paper was being pesky. I’ve been feverishly working on it in airports, on planes, in bed . . . wherever I get a few moments to focus. But it’s mostly done, and now I get to relax a little more and focus on why I’m in South Africa. (A topic I’ll cover in a later post.)

As I mentioned above, I was recently in Texas with two objectives. Primarily, I was attending a conference in Waco as part of a teaching fellowship I am in. Since I had to fly to Texas anyway, I decided to rent a car in Waco and drive down to Houston–to pay a visit to NASA. 

One of the real-to-goodness Baylor bears.

While the core of my research is still focused on South African national identity and popular media, I have recently embarked on a side project that also involves my love of media and post-colonial theory. I have been looking at the rhetoric and philosophy around why we, as humanity and as particular nations, choose to explore space. This is a project partially fueled by the science fiction I read, which is where I started to think about how many of the topics I was studying in post-colonial studies pertained to our current extra-planetary actions. We talk about space as “the final frontier” or as a storehouse of potential resources. We speculate on how we might colonize Mars or some other exo-planet, which might serve as a back-up plan once we’ve destroyed Earth. When I hear such statements, all the warning bells go off for me because I immediately think about how Western Europeans colonized the New World. For those of us who are Caucasian, our ancestors said pretty much the same sorts of things, completely disregarding the indigenous people and animals already living on the land and with very little respect for the land itself. Such an exploitative attitude has continued to shape many of the political, economic, and ecological problems we see today.

I don’t propose to have all the answers, but I do think we should be asking more ethical and philosophical questions that challenge our intentions. For instance, who or what gives us the right to land on Mars and turn it into a Terran colony? That’s a very messy question, and one that people will no doubt disagree fervently over, but that discussion needs to be taking place and in the public arena. Perhaps we need to slow down the technological and scientific development for a moment to first hold these discussions and come to some tentative agreements or compromises.


As part of this research, I’m doing a number of different mini-projects, such as analyzing news articles and feature films; surveying students preparing for work in space-related fields; and interviewing various key professionals. Earlier this year, I met Dan Huot, the NASA Public Affairs Officer responsible for all PR related to the International Space Station, and he invited me to visit him at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. So I did! It was a pretty incredible visit, complete with crawling into the cockpit of a space shuttle, meeting the lovely Valkyrie, and strolling among the desks of Mission Control while the ISS astronauts completed an assignment. My trip concluded with an official interview with Dan, the first of hopefully many fascinating conversations with a diverse group of individuals thinking about space from quite distinct perspectives.

Fan-girling hard at this moment!

What are your thoughts on space travel? Does it thrill you? Concern you? What do you think the public’s involvement should be in the decisions around how, when, and why we visit other planets? Please do share as I really am interested to hear the spectrum of perspectives!

Next up: Denver Comic Con!

Summer is finally here. While many of us still have to keep “adulting” at our day jobs or other responsibilities, it does usually mean a little more time for leisure. The summer blockbuster is one American summer tradition. This year brings us Wonder Woman, Baywatch, The Mummy, Despicable Me 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and a number of other big budget, mostly mindless, “good fun” movies. Typically films released over the summer don’t generate much award interest; they’re provided to give our brains a break from the year–to help us relax.

But whether you are going to see a light summer blockbuster or an Oscar-nominated drama over Christmas, when you walk out of a movie, the first question asked by your companions is usually: So what did you think???!

How do you experience this question?
For me, usually my group has barely exited the auditorium when the question comes and I am still trying to readjust my eyes to the blaring fluorescent lights of the theater corridors—let alone figure out how to articulate my thoughts to this question. At that point, somebody else in the group will pipe up with how they feel and then their response usually shapes how the rest of the conversation goes.

If one person walks out exclaiming about how delightful the movie is, the entire group then has to recalibrate their opinion about the movie in relation to that first declared opinion. If you hated the movie, you might hesitate to express that and begin to question your own experience. Or perhaps you might respond with immediate shocked disbelief and a feisty discussion could ensue structured around the two most extreme perspectives.

Of course neither might happen and you might have a perfectly productive conversation, but I started to notice that I had social anxiety about the after-film dynamics. No doubt, this is probably because I am a filmmaker and thus really care about how I process each movie-watching experience.
So instead of feeding the anxiety, I channeled it into contemplating how people think about and talk about their movie experiences.

First, we tend to talk about “liking” or “not liking” a movie, but as Facebook has taught us, the act of “liking” can mean so many different things. What do you really mean when you say you liked Life of Pi? Are you talking about that feeling in your chest when you left the auditorium: the devastation; pure joy; heart-pounding adrenaline; apathy? Or are you trying to express that you thought the filmmakers did a masterful job of storytelling? Or maybe you are simply trying to communicate that you were glad you saw the movie and felt like it was money and time well-spent?

Maybe it is a little of all three?

Rather than trying to make the word “like” encompass all those different meanings, I would recommend we start using a collection of different verbs to talk about our movie experiences. Using a variety of verbs will allow us to speak more specifically about what we mean when we say we “like” a movie. I am going to propose three sets, including my suggestion of how the term “like” should be used, but I’d love to hear if you have other verb suggestions.

1) To Appreciate
This verb choice identifies your recognition of excellent filmmaking.
E.g. “I really appreciated the filmmakers’ use of color in Hero.
“The performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower were incredible; they really captured the tone of high school, and I appreciated that about the film.”

2) To Enjoy
This verb choice identifies the level of pleasure you experienced while seeing the film.
E.g. “Mad Max: Fury Road was a blast! I enjoyed every minute of it.”
“Watching Lawrence of Arabia was an exhausting experience; I did not enjoy those three hours.”

3) To Like/To Love
Overall how would you rate this film? This is the hardest verb category to explain: it takes into consideration both how you objectively would rank the film and subjectively how you experienced it. This verb also provides space for moral/ethical judgement. The two verb choices (like/love) reflect the degree of how strong your opinion towards the film is. (Examples below.)

This last verb option builds upon the previous two. Sometimes you will instinctively know that you really liked a movie, but often you will need some time (whether 30 minutes or 3 years) before you decide how you comprehensively feel about that film. This form of “like” is the product of both thoughtful reflection and gut emotional reaction.

Just because you like a film, doesn’t mean you necessarily appreciated or enjoyed it as well. What do I mean by this? Here are some examples to illustrate:

  • “I really appreciated the attentiveness of the filmmakers in Forrest Gump, but I found the film to be tedious and boring. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I definitely did not like it.”
    • Here the viewer is able to appreciate the film but not enjoy or like it.
  • Beverly Hills Chihuahua isn’t a great film in terms of story or technical prowess, but I still had a blast watching it because I love talking animals. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked the movie, but I certainly didn’t dislike it either!”
    • Here the viewer is able to separate out their enjoyment of the film from their perceived value of the film. In this scenario, the movie could be likened to a ride at an amusement park—good fun and not much else!
  • “Wow, Steven Spielberg really killed it with Schindler’s List. The performances were gut-wrenching, the cinematography was beautiful, and you could tell how intentional the directing was. I had a rough time getting through the full movie because the story was so depressing, but I am glad I watched it. That was a good movie.
    • Here, the viewer is able to appreciate and like the film even as they were not able to enjoy the movie due to the nature of its content. In these scenarios, it can be harder to use the word “like” (it can feel wrong to like a movie about the Holocaust), so other terms like “good” often get used even though they’re also vague.
  • “I think The Fountain is an absolutely stunning movie with incredible performances, and I really enjoyed watching it, but at the end of the day, I had serious concerns with the worldview portrayed and what I perceived as a problematic appropriation of Eastern spirituality.”
    • Here the viewer acknowledges a difference in how they experienced the film and their recognition of its cinematic quality with their personal beliefs about what the film was trying to do. The viewer appreciated and enjoyed it, but ultimately didn’t like it because of what they perceived it was doing.

As you can see, we don’t always actually use the words like/love/appreciate/enjoy when we talk about movies, but those different ideas are built into our conversations.

So to close, here are my tips for your next movie outing:

Social Guidelines for a Positive Post-Cinema Experience
1. Ask the group to wait to leave the theater till the end of the credits, so you have time to process through some of your thoughts and feelings about the film. (And to pay your respects to the many people who helped make the movie!)

2. Pick a public space like a coffee shop or restaurant to go and discuss the film afterwards as a group. Wait till you get there and are settled in with your drink/food orders before opening up the conversation.

3. Before asking if people liked the film, try teasing apart the above categories and discuss if and how each person was able to appreciate and enjoy the film.

4. After a productive conversation, let everyone reflect on how much (at that moment) they liked the film and would rate it. Remember this opinion might change later upon further reflection!

You can also use this process with movie nights at home. At first it might seem awkward and formulaic, but after practice, you’ll find yourself relaxing into a natural way of thinking and talking about movies!

Share your tips for watching movies with friends below, and pass this on to anyone you think might find it helpful! And of course, tell me how you have enjoyed, appreciated, liked, loved, or hated this year’s summer blockbusters.

Featured image captured by: Jake Hills

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