What Does ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Say about Being Human?

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When the ape leader Caesar meets his nemesis the Colonel face to face for the first time, the Colonel peers into the ape’s face and says, “My god, look at your eyes. Almost human.”

Warning: Spoilers!

Like thousands of other people this weekend, I went to see War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s a typical summer action flick and not bad for the third sequel of a reboot of the classic 1960s film series.  This latest iteration is not so much science fiction as it is an odd combination of Spaghetti western and wannabe Shakespearian tragedy, but my intention is not to review the film. I want to talk about the humanness of the apes, and I don’t mean the special effects.

Any story depicting artificially-created, nonhuman creatures that behave as humans expresses something essential about perceptions of humanness. This was true of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of the outer-space aliens in Star Trek, and of the robotic androids in Westworld. Whether the creatures are organic, synthetic, or a combination matters little, and so the genetically-enhanced apes that populate the world of the Planet of the Apes movies fit nicely into this category.

Apes, Humans, or Both?

Visibly, the ape characters are unquestionably apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos – and thanks to CGI and the brilliance of actors like Andy Serkis, they are almost believable. In one way, the apes in Planet of the Apes are not intended to be fully human. They appear to be apes and they do ape-like things: they climb trees, swing from branches and other protrusions, and live in the woods. But they are also intended to be somewhat human-like, and they do human-like things – they live in a hierarchical society, they form family units, have friends, perform rituals, and ride horses.

I confess I had many moments of doubt that an ordinary horse would gladly support the weight of 400-500 pound male gorilla,  I also found it odd that the unclothed apes have no visible genitalia but perhaps we can attribute the lack of anatomical correctness to the PG-13 rating, perhaps. One cannot have human-like creatures walking about the film with their privates exposed.

Let that last sentence sink in. This value judgment in itself speaks to the perceived humanness in the portrayal of the apes. The apes were created by the film writers, producers, actors, stuntmen, and special effects renderers to manifest the characteristics of humans – or at least, what they deem to be human qualities. And that’s where it begins to get interesting.

Determining Humanness

When we design and engineer things that are supposed to be human-like, how do we determine what human-like is? It’s not a trivial question; efforts have been underway for a long time to create robots and artificial intelligence that emulate humans. Before that can be accomplished, there must be some conception of what being human means.

On that question, War for the Planet of the Apes presents an unclear and inconsistent vision. It’s not just the hybridity of the ape-human; this we, as viewers, accept in the cyborg tradition of the genre. No, the confusion in part arises from the contradictory views of speech and language.

I’m not a linguist, so I’ll leave the analysis of the distinctions and relationships between speech and language alone. But I will describe the way the two are portrayed in War.

Let’s start with the backstory, which goes something like this: humans create a serum that genetically modifies the apes, giving them increased intelligence and the capability for speech.  So from the beginning, intelligence and speech are viewed as qualities that (let’s say) advance the apes to a human-like status.

This is a common motif in stories about artificial humans: high intelligence and the ability to speak = humanness. This is the basis of the Turing Test, and it’s frequently thought that these are the most important factors in determining humanness. However, in most fictional accounts, at least, these are not vital to portrayals of nonhuman beings. But I digress. Back to the movie.

As the opening scenes in War show, the apes can speak but more often use a complex system of signs and grunts to communicate with one another. Yet, a major plot line involves a virus mutation that destroys the ability for humans to speak. In view of the franchise, this occurrence sets up the situation of the original 1968 movie (the contemporary films are prequels), where humans don’t speak. But since the film has already told us that speech is not a determiner for language ( or communication) or for intelligence, I found it hard to understand why the human character, the Colonel, views the inability to speak as tantamount to erasing humanity. (And I’m surprised I haven’t seen any objection to this point from persons in the deaf community, who use language without speech quite adeptly.)

It’s obvious the filmmakers didn’t think too deeply on this issue. Most likely, audiences didn’t either. After all, explosions and shootings and clever escapes! And 3-D! Plus popcorn!

A Hodgepodge of Signs

So what of the other indications of humanness in the apes? There’s quite a bit of comparison of ape behavior and values to human behavior and values. Here again, the movie presents an inconsistent viewpoint through an incoherent hodgepodge of signs and symbols. The portrayal of the human society suggests white nationalism: slogans, tattoos, marching, chanting, the shaving of a head, the noticeable absence of humans of color in a significant role. There are also Christian religious symbols, such as crosses and reference to the Alpha and the Omega. Yet it’s not all New Testament. This review  points out the exodus motif and the comparison of Caesar to Moses leading his people to the promised land. There’s also reference to an impotent border wall, scenes that suggest the Noble Savage concept, and seemingly random graffiti such as “Ape-pocalypse Now.”

To add to the confusion, the ape society is every bit as undemocratic as the human society. Caesar is the absolute ruler, and though he asks for counsel, the final decisions are his. In one scene near that beginning I found a bit disturbing, the crowd of apes parts and bows as Caesar walks through.

Furthermore, both ape and human societies seem completely devoid of females. Sure, there’s a brief glimpse of Caesar’s wife, and the young human that tags along with the ape revenge posse is female. But nowhere in the film does any female play an active and purposeful part in the plot or the theme. If ape society is supposed to be a superior version to human society, I’m not seeing it.

Who Has Moral Superiority?

So what of ethics and values? Loyalty is an important part of both societies, though it’s presented from the point of view of the apes. “Ape not kill ape” is floated as an unbreakable tenet. Out of necessity, Caesar does have to kill an ape, but the ape was a traitor. The Colonel, on the other hand, kills three of his men who contract the speech-destroying virus and seems willing to kill others who are seen as defective or who don’t cooperate. Mercy is another moral value touched upon by the film, but the humans and apes are seen as irreconcilable enemies, and if there was mercy shown by one side toward the other, I didn’t take note of it.

So what is humanness, according to War for the Planet of the Apes? The best I can say is it’s the ability to contemplate, imperfectly, what it means to be human.

 

Hair and the Genius / Mad Scientist

I’ve just finished watching Genius, the television biography of Albert Einstein on the National Geographic channel. I could discuss a number of issues, such as the paradigms of science, the celebrity scientist, and the representation of real people in movies and television. But instead I want to talk about hair.

Yes, Einstein’s hair.

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The real Albert Einstein and his hair.

Several times the dialog in Genius touched upon Einstein’s unkempt appearance and his “crazy hair,” and I couldn’t help thinking of Roland Barthes and his essay on Romans in the movies. Here’s an excerpt:

 In Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, all the characters are wearing fringes.  Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history. Those who have little hair have not been let off for all that, and the hairdresser – the king-pin of the film – has still managed to produce one last lock which duly reaches the top of the forehead, one of those Roman foreheads, whose smallness has at all times indicated a specific mixture of self-righteousness, virtue and conquest.

What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness. We therefore see here the mainspring of the Spectacle – the sign – operating in the open.

And so it is with Einstein, depictions of Einstein, representations of the genius, and the character of the mad scientist. It’s the hair.

What is the connection between science and hair? Between genius and hair? And how did this sign become part of the genius/scientist/mad scientist myth? Let’s begin an investigation.

First, the phenomenon seems exclusively white and male.

Sure, the Bride of Frankenstein  had pretty crazy hair, but she is not intended to be a scientist or a genius. And, there are definitely people of color with wild hair, like Frederick Douglass  and Don King  ,  but again, not scientists (though Douglass was undoubtedly remarkably intelligent). I feel compelled to also throw Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., into the mix – geniuses, to be sure, but not scientists in the usual sense.

Female scientists are less often culturally depicted, and when they are, they are pressured to conform to male expectations – or purposely flaunt them. 

A Google image search of “female mad scientists” seems to reveal only costumes – but yes, with the wild hair. They are simply male concepts superimposed on females, which is not an unusual occurrence in media representations.

Second, the hair as a sign of genius/mad scientist is long and white or gray.

In the series Genius, the hair of the Einstein character becomes longer and more unruly as time goes on. The younger Einstein, played by Johnny Flynn, has thick curly hair (a wig, no doubt, since Flynn appears to have straight, fair hair). The mature Einstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, has long, poofy hair, similar to the actual the mature Einstein, who wore his hair long and untamed in the 1940s and 1950s, despite the fashion at the time for short and carefully pomaded styles.

Let’s look at the words I’ve used to describe the hair. Wild. Crazy. Unruly. Untamed. Could I add – uncontrolled? Certainly this plays into the idea of the “mad” scientist. Do these words also represent genius? If so, why?

Is there a link between the hair and brain? Does wild hair indicate a wild brain?

Signs and Origins

The next questions: Did cultural representations of the wild-haired mad scientist begin Einstein? Or did he cultivate the wild hair as part of his public image? I can’t answer this second question because I don’t know enough about the real Albert Einstein. I haven’t read the book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, on which the series Genius was based. The series does depict Einstein as someone who enjoyed attention and wanted to be the center of attention.

As for the question of the origins of the crazy-haired scientist, it could be a fun subject of research.

The quintessential mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has been portrayed on film numerous times, but in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is a young man and scant information is given about his appearance, except in his ragged and wretched condition at the end. The frontispiece of the first edition depicts a conventional-looking Victor  overshadowed by his creature. The 1931 Frankenstein movie also portrayed Victor as clean-cut. It seems doubtful that Dr. Frankenstein is an origin of the myth.

Even earlier, however, was the character of Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Yes, wild and crazy hair.

The image seems to have become part of the myth, at least in movies and televisions. Consider some other examples:

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Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein

By the way, for comparison, here’s a collection of photos of Albert Einstein in the 1920s and 30s.

In researching this post, I happened upon the book, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema by Christopher Frayling.  Rotwang appears on the cover. Naturally, I ordered it. I’ll let you know what I learn.

Finding Meaning in a Throw-away World

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A long-time friend of mine, Kate Gilpin, posted this on Facebook recently:

Today’s PBS Newshour finished with a piece on nationwide workshops designed to teach consumers to repair appliances that have quit working. Part of the explanation for the rise of these workshops was that “all the repairmen are gone.”

I’ve been thinking about this issue for decades, myself. Mass assembly-line production and the rise of cheap materials have produced a culture in which practically nobody expects their possessions to last very long, and in which it has become the default to assume that your gadgets will, after a brief life, just get tossed.

This is terrible on any number of levels. It discourages care and pride in craftsmanship, encouraging instead shoddy workmanship; it teaches people that possessions aren’t worth caring for; it assumes that people will view their tools as easily replaced; it discourages owners from taking good care of their things; and it teaches people to view what they have and use as being of very little value–to mention only a few of the respect-corrupting results of our modern perspective on possessions.

Probably worst is that teaching people not to respect their possessions inevitably spills over into other areas, including human relationships, skills, and the regard for everything our consciousness is aware of.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki taught his American students not to slide chairs roughly across the floor when moving them. This was partly to avoid making discordant noise; and it was also to demonstrate respect for inanimate objects. The wisdom of this is deep–to practice respect for all things is a way of practicing self-respect. And to practice self-respect is a way of reinforcing the truth that we are all profoundly connected.

Kate’s post resonated with me for a number of reasons. First, my father was one of those repairman put out of business by mass production. As a teenager, he taught himself how to build and repair radios and then televisions. He eventually owned and operated a television repair shop. He made a living by replacing faulty vacuum tubes, fixing tuners and switches, and swapping out burned out cathode ray tubes (“picture tubes,” he called them) for new ones. He even adapted when vacuum tubes were replaced with solid-state circuit boards. But by the late 1980s, there wasn’t much left to be fixed and repaired in a television, and people were increasingly tempted by new and better TV technology. In a sense, it wasn’t that the repairmen were gone; the customers were gone. They would rather buy something new than to repair it.

I was also reminded, possibly because of Kate’s last paragraph, of Albert Borgmann’s idea of focal things and practices, which he discusses in his 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Like Heidegger, whom he references, Borgmann laments how modern technology has tended to distance us from nature, traditions, and our essential selves. He describes how the ritual of the family meal has been disrupted by the mass production of food, frantic work schedules, and the omnipresence of technological devices:

Once food has become freely available, it is only consistent that the gathering of the meal is shattered and disintegrates into snacks, T.V. dinners, bites that are grabbed to be eaten; and eating itself is scattered around television shows, late and early meetings, activities, overtime work, and other business. This is increasingly the normal condition of technological eating. (p. 65)

Borgmann isn’t quite the technophobe as Heidegger, but he does stress the importance of reclaiming a deeper meaning in life through what he calls focal things and focal practices. To explain, he returns to the discussing the traditional family meal. The meal becomes a focal thing that serves to connect people to things and to one another. The practices of cooking, serving, and eating of the meal create a “context of activities” that are embodied within people, and the meal becomes a physical, social, and cultural meditation. (p. 65). It’s hard to find that when eating a Big Mac, he says.

A second example is the Japanese tea ceremony, described by Hubert Dreyfus in “Heidegger on Gaining a Free Relation to Technology.” He states:

Normally we deal with things, and even sometimes people, as resources to be used until no longer needed and then put aside. A Styrofoam cup is a perfect example. When we want a hot or cold drink it does its job, and when we are through with it we throw it away. How different this understanding of an object is from what we can suppose to be the everyday Japanese understanding of a delicate teacup. The teacup does not preserve temperature as well as its plastic replacement, and it has to be washed and protected, but it is preserved from generation to generation for its beauty and its social meaning. It is hard to picture a tea ceremony around a Styrofoam cup. (p. 27)

The teacup becomes a focal thing, the ceremony a focal practice. As Finnish scholar Topi Heikkero puts it, “The idea behind the tea ceremony is to make, share, and drink tea observing the principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.” (p. 255).

At the moment, I’m drinking a Starbucks iced tea, no ceremony involved. When I’m finished, I’ll throw away the plastic cup. What principles am I expressing?

References

(1) Albert Borgmann, “Focal Things and Practices,” reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, edited byDavid M. Kaplan, 56-75. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(2 Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger on Gaining a Free Relation to Technology,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, edited by David M. Kaplan, 25-33. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(3) Topi Heikkero, “The Good Life in a Technological World: Focal Things and Practices in the West and in Japan,” Technology in  Society 27 (2005): 251-259.

 

 

Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 4, Right Now You Are Working for Free

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In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen compares social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to the idea of the Panopticon. As I discussed in Part 3 of this series, Keen stresses how the big social media companies are making millions of dollars by collecting people’s personal information and browsing histories and selling them to advertisers and other third-party companies. While Keen frames this as an issue of privacy, I see it as something quite different: it’s an issue of unpaid labor.

Simply put, you and I and the other millions of people using social media are working for free.

With every post, share, click, connect, and “like,” we are providing income for some of richest corporations on earth. And we are doing it without expectation of remuneration.

This is not a new idea. Canadian media researcher Dallas W. Smythe first proposed the idea of the media audience as workers in 1981 in an article titled “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.”(1) Smythe asserts that the audience is at once a commodity – something to be bought and sold – and a source of labor. Both ideas are important, but before I get to that discussion, let’s start with two key premises.

  1. All media outlets exist for the sole purpose of making money.

Both traditional media (radio, newspaper, television) and digital media (Internet-based companies) share the ultimate concern of making a profit, and in today’s form of capitalism, that means large and ever-increasing profit.

But, wait! – you might say – don’t the media promote the conservative agenda of state? And I answer, yes, this is true. The actions of media company and the textual content serve to advance values that support consumer-driven capitalism and the people and institutions that profit from it. However, this is neither ideologically or politically motivated; it’s all about money – first, last, and always. If radical criticism made money, they’d be all over it – in fact, co-opting and assimilating ideas that are outside the norm can be extremely profitable (seriously, virtually all of TLC’s lineup). That the ideas become neutralized is simply a side benefit.

  1. All media rely on the active participation of the audience to make its profits.

If people don’t read magazines and newspapers, they go out of business. If nobody watches a certain TV program, it gets cancelled. And if people stop using social media sites (think Friendster ), they go bust.

Now, you may argue that our use of these media are a fair exchange. We invest our time and money, and in return we receive information, entertainment, and pleasure. Fair enough – but that means that our primary relationship with the media outlets is an economic one.

That’s the conclusion that Dallas Smythe came to when he envisioned the media audience as both commodity and labor. Let me briefly summarize.

Audience as Commodity

First, Smythe views the audience as a commodity for the same reason Keen does: individual users (viewers, listeners, readers) make up groups that share common characteristics, and these groups can be “sold” to advertisers who hope to market to a specific audience. Traditional media has been actively collecting                                           demographics on its audiences for a long time (there’s evidence of analysis of radio audiences as early as 1923 (2)). In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen illustrates well how the data gathering power of the Internet takes audience commodification to a new level. As an individual user of social media, your activities are profiled to such as an extent that you receive immediate and personalized advertisements. This is what happened in my incidental excursion into the CVS parking lot, discussed in Part 3.

Audience as Labor

The second point Smythe makes is a little harder to grasp, but as with the audience-as-commodity model, the audience-as-labor model becomes more intense with social media.

The Internet as we know it didn’t exist in 1981, so Smythe uses magazines, radio, and (primarily) television to illustrate his point. He says that much of the work performed by the audience is mental, taking place “in the heads of audience members” (p. 231). (For more info, see Enzenberger’s ideas on the “consciousness industry.”)  This mental work – reading, watching, discussing – “fuels both the economy of mass produced goods and the promotion of the interests of the government,” Smythe says (p. 233). (See premise #2 above.) The media audience is therefore a necessary economic component of what Smythe refers to as “monopoly capitalism,” which comprises the political-economic hegemony.

You may feel like watching television or listening to the radio is relaxing or entertaining, but in actuality, you are working. Smythe explains, “You audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you receive the program material and the explicit advertisements.” (p. 238)

Moreover, as audience members we pay for the opportunity to do this work, not only in the cost of our equipment, our cable bills, our subscriptions to digital streaming services, our subscriptions to digital newspapers and magazines, our cell phone service, and so on.

And, our labor on social media is much more than mental. Our status updates, tweets, photo posts, blogging, and sharing actually create the content that attracts more users and therefore creates more profit for the media companies.

Are You Having Fun? Marx Would Say No

But posting and sharing is fun, you might say, and we do it voluntarily, on our own time. No one forces us to take pictures of our dinner and share it online, so how can we call it work? Okay, here it gets a bit complicated, and I’ll discuss the idea of leisure time in a future post. For now, I’ll turn to British communication professor Christian Fuchs, who provides an excellent explanation as well as a great overview and analysis of the issue in view of Marxism theory. (3)

Fuchs asserts that the audience is exploited in its labor of generating content and serving as audience commodity for social media companies. In short, you are giving the social media companies a great deal more than you are receiving. To understand why, ask yourself who is benefitting the most from your online activity?

Let’s back up. We’ve already established that your relationship with media outlets is an economic one. In exchange for entertainment and information, you provide work as both an audience commodity and a generator of content. But is it a fair exchange? Fuchs says no for the simple fact that what you produce is not yours. It feels like yours – your Facebook page, your Instagram account, etc., right? Not from an economic point of view.

Are You Being Exploited?

Fuchs says that “digital labour” is exploited in three ways: coercion, alienation, and appropriation.

First, we are coerced to use corporate-owned social media platforms. It hasn’t always been that way, and many of us can remember the olden days of MUDs, BBSes, and listservs that were created and maintained by individuals and used by groups with no substantial profit to anyone. A few of these still exist, but by and large, the corporate takeover of the Internet is virtually complete. Just using a search engine or an online email account forces us into becoming the audience commodity.

Secondly, our labor is exploited because we are alienated from the process and the product. This is a term in Marxism that Fuchs explains in detail in this context, and since my field is not economics, I’ll direct you to his article (cited below) for his explanation. Let me just ask: Who is richer, you or Mark Zuckerberg? If the final product of your labor is profit, you see none of it.

In this regard Fuchs discusses Marx’s idea of surplus value. In a capitalistic system, labor must generate more value than it costs, or else there is no profit and no funds for reinvestment and growth. As you skim through your newsfeed, share an interesting article, or invite your friends to play Farmville, you may be enjoying yourself, but you are also creating surplus value – voluntarily – that builds tremendous profits for the social media companies.

So that leads us to Fuchs’ third point, appropriation. Your personal data is taken from you and sold, without your express knowledge of consent. Oh, sure, there are terms of service.  You can turn off GPS locators and opt out of cookies. But it’s exactly that – an opt-out structure. Unless you specifically refuse – and that’s very hard to do – your labor is appropriated and your online behavior is bundled up and sold for someone else’s profit.

So … Are You Working for Free?

Now let’s come back to a question I asked earlier: Is it a fair exchange? Is your activity as both commodity and labor a fair economic exchange for the pleasure of connecting with friends and the entertainment of watching funny cat videos? Is what you are “buying” equivalent to the megaprofits that social media companies are racking up because of your online actions? Fuchs says no – you are getting the short end of the deal. What do you say?

 

  1. Smythe, Dallas W., “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Revised Edition, ed. Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, 230-256, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  2. New York Times, “Public Criticism Aids Programs.” July 1. Archives. Accessed Sept. 30, 2013. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F60815F83B5516738DDDA80894DF405B838EF1D3
  3. Fuchs, Christian. “Dallas Smythe and Digital Labor,” The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media, ed. Richard Maxwell, 51-62, New York: Routledge, 2015.

 

Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 3, ‘Big Brother’ Is Not the Government … or Is It?

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The other day while driving, I missed a turn and pulled into a CVS store to turn around. The next time I looked at Facebook, I saw ads for CVS. When I looked at my Google app, I had a recommended news story about CVS. I didn’t even go into the store, yet both Facebook and Google knew I was there and targeted me as a potential customer. 

If social media is a Panopticon, as Andrew Keen asserts in his book, Digital Vertigo, then that means we are constantly visible to structures of power. But what power? And by whom? We generally think of power as the government, and when my students write about being watched on the internet, they always write about government surveillance by the NSA and other law enforcement agencies.

Keen alludes to government surveillance briefly. He quotes Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who says that Facebook has amassed “the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communication with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence” (p. 23).

But the point Keen stresses is that the biggest “inspector” is not the government but the capitalistic, consumer-based economy. Oddly, he uses none of these words. However, he zeroes in on the billions of dollars that Facebook and other social media companies are making on people’s “shared information” through targeted advertising and other marketing strategies, such as allowing third-party games, quizzes, and activities to access Facebook profiles. 

The structure of power in our lives is not the government, but the system of big retail business.

If social media comprise a Panopticon, then the power is concentrated in the hands of the consumer goods industry. These days, some may say say that is equivalent to government. Can you tell where government ends and corporations begin?

Who’s watching you, and for what purpose? And if so, what is your role in all of this? Next time, in the fourth and final part of this series, read about social media and work.

Read Part 1.  Read Part 2.