An American Sense of Reality

“To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.”
                                                                                              – James Baldwin

The singularly most omnipresent entity amongst the American populace is that of mass media. It leaks into every facet of our lives and defines how we perceive others and construct our own identities.

Adult reaching out to baby through phone screen

It has been proven through various studies that mass media is a powerful influence that commonly causes people to undergo an identity shift. An identity shift is defined as “choosing to change your current identity because you want to become a new person and experience a new life.”

The most susceptible group to media influence and identity shifts is adolescents. This is because the adolescent years are the most formative in identity formation for a human.

TikTok is a great example of a mass media venue that constantly encourages impressionable youths to undergo identity shifts. These identity shifts can be relatively tiny, such as a person basing more of their identity around a harmless fandom, or substantial, such as a person adopting an antagonistic language and attitude towards certain groups of people in order to mimic their favorite creator.

Kirkland & Jackson, in their work “‘We Real Cool’: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies,” offer another great example of the ability of mass media to influence adolescents’ identity. They specifically investigated the role rappers and rap media played in determining the language-in-use by “cool” African American adolescents. In specific, they traced how the group of “cool” children altered their language, social views, and clothing choices in order to align more closely with what rap media portrayed and perpetuated as cool.

Picture showing off a child's drawing that exemplifies Hip-hops's cultural influence on the way children speak

The pair also provide context on why specific mass media have a more significant influence on certain groups over others. In their study’s case, African American children formulated their “cool talk” and identities around African American rap artists and media because the community they inhabited deemed said rap artists as representative of what a “cool black man” and/or “black masculine cultural model” is.

I think moving forward as a society that it will become more and more important to encourage persons to distance themselves from media consistently in order to allow themselves the ability to maintain and reinforce their own personally constructed identity separate from overpowering external influences. Otherwise, I think that events such as the recent uptick in white supremacists specifically targeting racist media at adolescent boys in the hopes they will form their identity around normalized racism will become much more commonplace.

Your Attorney is a Robot

Like many other industries, artificial intelligence technology is slowly becoming an existential threat for many young professionals attempting to break into the legal sector. This is because AI is taking over many of the lower-level tasks historically assigned to junior attorneys and legal assistants and performing them in a fraction of the time.

Robot creating a hologram of a balance (representative of the legal field)

AI has taken over research, litigation forecasting, legal analytics analysis, documents automation, and electronic billing in law firms ranging from small to gigantic throughout the United States. The most devastating of these takeovers is document automation. Writing work that once required a team of junior attorneys to finish in a week has been taken over by writing bots that can complete the same work in minutes.

Obviously, such a dramatic increase in efficiency has caused law firms to find buying a legal writing bot software package and hiring a single junior attorney to supervise its writings much more attractive than hiring and training a whole team of junior attorneys to perform the same work. A depressing fact for the swarms of law students attempting to obtain internships during law school and the graduates trying to start their actual careers.

Robotic attorney

It is worth noting that just as McKee & Porter recommend in their article “The Impact of AI on Writing and Writing Instruction,” law professors are actively reacting to the technology and have begun to instruct their students on leveraging and working alongside legal AI and writing bots.

For example, Harvard Law School has already started to offer “legal innovation and programming” courses. Hopefully, this proactiveness on the part of legal academics will soften the blow of the shift to legal AI integration by law firms and prevent future attorneys from being left in the dust by the technology.

Gif of a scene from "Legally Blonde" saying "Girls, I'm going to Harvard!"

The technology is not all doom & gloom though, as it does hold genuine benefits for the field of law. In a profession centered around billable hours for charging clients, the ability for legal AI to cut week-long tasks down to minutes allows for law firms to become much more affordable and therefore accessible to the “everyman.”

Overall, Legal AI is a multifaceted issue since it is both a tremendously beneficial technology and a severely disruptive one. On the one hand, it will benefit the workflow of many law firms and improve the process of law itself. On the other, the technology is guaranteed to allow law firms to cut down on employees and make it even harder for young legal professionals to break into the already very competitive legal job market. If “Legally Blonde” ever gets a sci-fi remake, it’ll for sure have to include a plotline about dastardly legal writing bots and their desire to replace so many poor junior attorneys.

The Importance of Prison Libraries

“The United States is not a country with a prison system, but a prison system with a country”

We as a nation currently live in the age of mass incarceration, our prisons overflow with prisoners and teens are funneled from schools into prisons (to such an extent that high school graduation rates are measurably affected). Said school-prison nexus is so prolific and problematic that it has been given a specific label — the “school-to-prison pipeline” — and been made the subject of numerous academic studies.

Newspaper comic which features a child being put into the prison system over low-level offenders.

School-to-prison Pipeline Comic

Thankfully within these overpopulated prison systems exists a trojan horse of sorts which helps victims of this pipeline escape from its long-term effects — the prison library.

Malcom X in his paper Learning to Read discusses how a major component in his transformation from a poorly educated street hustler to articulate leader for Black America was his access to his prison’s library during a seven year long prison sentence. In order to initially improve his reading and writing literacies, he took the route of learning the fundamentals through reading and copying a dictionary (sourced from his prison’s library) from front to back. He states that after teaching himself said fundamentals that for the rest of prison sentence that “in every free moment [he] had, if [he] was not reading in the library, [he] was reading on [his] bunk.”

The results of this self-education process speaks for itself through the renown he still holds for how he progressed the Civil Rights Movement through his effective speeches and intelligent writings.

Image of Malcom X (Civil Rights leader)

Malcom X

Merging Malcom X’s experience with Maisha T. Winn and Nadia Behizadeh’s paper The Right to Be Literate: Literacy, Education, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline reveals the importance of prison libraries in the reduction of the school-to-prison pipeline’s negative long-term effects. In that, Winn and Behizadeh’s work concludes that the development of critical literacy in youths is of major importance in helping them escape from being sucked up by the pipeline. Thus, drawing from both Winn and Malcom X, it seems intuitive to equally declare that the development of critical literacy after one was unable to break free of the school-prison nexus earlier in life still affords the ability for one to prevent themselves from getting stuck in cycle of reincarceration for the rest of their life.

A sad fact worth noting is that the prison-industrial complex has seemed to caught onto this trojan horse within their system and have taken steps to restrict prisoner access to the valuable tools stored by prison libraries.

Three Ben & Jerry's tubs of ice-cream advertising a campaign for justice system reform

Ben & Jerry’s Justice Remix’d Campaign

If even Ben & Jerry’s is attempting to combat the pipeline issue, then so too should you through speaking out and making book donations to the prison nearest to you. Your donations could directly help someone gain the critical literacies necessary for them to escape the system which has possibly entrapped them since they were a teenager.

Phoenix Rising: The Fall and Rise of a Writing Genre

The date is December 15, 2017 and an icon in the childhood of many passes away silently without notice…

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) finally shutters its virtual doors on the tail end of 2017, but the announcement barely makes a blip in the news due to the service already having been on its death bed for years.

The once very popular instant messenger began its prolonged death in earnest in 2011 after the dramatic rise in popularity of SMS messaging and social media plummeted its market share to 0.73%. AIM’s demise seemed a natural part of the seemingly inevitable shift from dedicated instant messaging (IM) services towards other digital writing genres that were rapidly growing as the 2010s began but in actuality it did not end up so.

Before continuing, a moment of silence for the deceased (pictured below).

AIM Running Man

AIM Running Man (May 1997 – December 2017)

Research in 2010 by Grabill, et al.’s on “The Writing Lives of College Students” placed instant messaging as the 7th most frequently written genre of writing for college students (just after mostly academic genres). Yet, the same paper show signs indicative that the genre is on the way out in terms of usage and value, which can be seen through college students rating it as the 15th most valuable genre and the close trailing by the just emerging social networking genres just behind it at the 7th and 8th place in frequency. As seen through the demise of AIM a year later, these negative indicators shined true and so began an era in which social media began to dominate (Facebook hits the NASDAQ in 2012 and its billionth user in 2013) and instant messaging became a feature (Facebook messenger, Gmail messenger, etc.) over a dedicated service.

Enter the smartphone, the handheld miracle worker of the 21st century and the savior for instant messaging. Instant messaging apps provided a inexpensive and readily accessible alternative to one of the dominant writing genres of the period — SMS texting (ranked number one in frequency in Grabill, et al.’s research). SMS texting would be surpassed by IM apps in volume of messages in 2013, and two years later a single IM app (WhatsApp) alone would account for more messages daily than SMS texting as a whole, thus the instant messaging writing genre began its climb back towards the top.

Now, not only has instant messaging majorly beat out the former number one (SMS texting), but IM has also beat out the other writing genre which had edged it out years prior with IM apps now holding 20% more active monthly users over that of social networks as of 2020.

Picture of various instant messaging apps, such as Snapchat, WeChat, and WhatsApp

Various instant messaging apps (such as Snapchat, WeChat, and WhatsApp)

Through it all instant messaging has endured, and I believe it will continue to do so for many years more since it is marked by two essential traits in any frequently used genre of written communication — versatility and accessibility.

So, here’s to the the one who all instant messaging apps can thank a lil’ for their existence — thanks AIM.