Spotlight Baratunde Thurston

Comedy, Privacy & the Power of Distributed Movements
Group 11 Created with Sketch.
noun_63692_ffffff Created with Sketch.

Baratunde Thurston wants to help define the future of media, and he is in a pretty good position to do it. Comedian, author, television personality, speaker, advocate, activist, futurist — his talents respect no boundaries.

He’s told jokes on five continents, worked for The Onion and produced for The Daily Show, co-founded two creative entities (Cultivated Wit and About Race), and received an Emmy nomination for hosting the Spotify/Mic series Clarify. Thurston has also advised the Obama White House, and serves on the National Board of BUILD, an organization that provides entrepreneurship-based experiential learning to propel underserved youth through high school and college. His book How To Be Black was a New York Times bestseller.

Unifying his many interests is a deeply-held belief in the power of comedy and digital media to empower and open up new perspectives. Thurston comes by this belief honestly — his great-grandfather taught himself to read; his grandmother was the first black employee at the U.S. Supreme Court building; and his mother was a computer-programmer who took over radio stations in the name of black liberation.

Though he jokes a lot, his humor is firmly grounded in empathy, optimism, and a sincere commitment to changing the social and political culture for the common good. Thurston sat down with me in Brooklyn recently to talk comedy, politics, and technology.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Eamon O’Connor: You describe yourself as a futurist comedian. What is futurism? How does comedy relate to that?

Baratunde Thurston: It doesn’t always feel like we’re in charge as individuals, but collectively we make the future happen, by action or inaction. I think comedians, or artists more broadly, help paint a picture of where that road might lead, and how we might get there. Whether by criticizing where we’ve been, or by imagining what might be. Comedy’s a really fun way to criticize and create — and to try to articulate a possibility. And people don’t necessarily expect to be learning things when they’re laughing, which is the perfect time to teach.

I know a lot of cats who call themselves futurists, but I’m not coming at it as a forecaster with all kinds of trend analysis and S-curves. I grew up in a technologically-grounded home with a computer-programming mother who never graduated from college, and I saw her drag us into the future with a computer in the house. I think it’s very important, as a black person, to be invested in the future, and to constantly be saying, “I plan to be there.” Many of the science fiction portrayals of us, that don’t really have a lot of us hanging around.

To me, that merger of art and tech, the human soul and the machines, is very important. So far, the future’s been defined without much soul and texture. And I think comedy, sculpture, music, all the arts need to be co-creating the future. Not just the software and hardware engineers.

Judgment used to be centralized at networks, amongst a handful of producers or club owners, agents. And now everybody has a voice.”

E: A few years ago people were talking about this idea of punching-up versus punching-down in comedy, which I don’t hear people talking about much anymore.

B: Because they’re mostly at protests now.

E: Or they’re punching-down from various news media organizations. But do comedians talk about it in those terms?

B: It does come up. It doesn’t always come up in that analytical language. But inside comedy, especially among comedians who want to be about something, there is a notion of picking your target. There’s also the notion of being funny versus being funny in a different way — in a way that’s not obvious or well-tread. I think it’s really about undermining the status quo, articulating a different future. But [comedians don’t often say], “That’s punching-up! That’s punching-down!” I think that’s a simplification of, “Who are you attacking? And who is your joke at the expense of? Or is it merely observing and calling attention to and analyzing the situation?” It can be a very subtle difference.

E: I imagine it’s complicated to keep all of that in mind when you’re onstage.

B: Well, yeah. But judgment is distributed. It is decentralized. It used to be centralized within networks, amongst a handful of producers or club owners, agents. And now it’s like everybody kind of has a voice. Not all equally heard, but they can be quickly organized. So there is a bit more caution because you’ve got critique coming from non-traditional spaces. And so the relationship between any artist and an audience is shifting, because the audience isn’t just passively consuming art.

E: Are there any comedians you admire who are doing more humane comedy?

B: I don’t think most comedy is punching anyone. I don’t think it’s aggressive. I think a lot of it is personal. I think the vast majority of comedy that I’ve seen in a club setting is basically a memoir onstage. It’s people talking about their relationships with their parents, lovers, bosses, with a stranger on the subway, with themselves. How they process being a self, and how absurd it is to be a human being — and to have a boundary between you and other human beings. It’s existential. Maybe it’s self-punching, because people are poking fun at themselves. It’s mostly not targeted. It’s mostly observational about the absurdity of the world.

E: It feels like comedy is really politicized in the current cultural moment. Do you think there’s a connection between a person’s comedic style and their politics? How can comedy subvert or reinforce these power structures that exist in politics?

B: If you had asked me eight years ago, I would have said there’s no such thing as conservative comedy. It’s just people being dicks; it’s just mean. You’re picking on already powerless people, and I think that tends to still be true. I think that comedy and most art, to the extent there’s a target, is power. And the status quo of power is still pretty capitalist, male, cis-gendered, Western, white. Any art that’s pushing against society is going to push against that predominant frame, so it’s going to tend to be left.

But there are different forms of power. And the types of “lulz” humor that’s coming out of the online white supremacist world is really fascinating. I would struggle to dismiss it as not being comedy. There’s a lot of paintings I don’t get, that doesn’t make them not paintings. There’s jazz I can’t decipher, that doesn’t make it not-music. There is a culture and a community around that form of grotesque comedy that I don’t find funny, but it doesn’t mean it’s not-comedy.

The trolling culture — that’s the most aggressive form of punching comedy. You’re actually trying to hurt someone. It’s nihilistic humor, nihilistic comedy, nihilistic satire. And I think those are legitimate artistic forms. I think they’re disgusting artistic forms, and I think there’s a lot of artistic forms that are necessarily disgusting. I think this white supremacist form of humor is being used to subvert a power that community feels it is being denied. The power to be a victim. The power to claim injustice. The power to be singled out as special in society.

E: There’s an Andrew Breitbart quote: “Politics is downstream from culture.” What are your thoughts?

B: I think it’s evidently and obviously true. I think most things are downstream from culture. The norms of society are set by culture, what’s acceptable, what we all believe we should do. Is it legitimate to buy food from a truck that doesn’t have a restroom or any visible license? Apparently we’re all good with that. That is our culture now. Is it acceptable to pay $7 for a single cup of coffee? In many cities around the world, that is the culture now. Is it acceptable to twerk on a video, and make fail videos? Yeah, that’s the culture now. And our politics emerge from the people in a democracy.

E: Do you have a favorite meme right now?

B: It’s funny, my interest in playing with memes has ebbed and flowed. Right now that’s not how I express myself. I’d say a meme that is a favorite of mine — a broader, cultural, downstream from culture meme — is “Enough.” These Parkland students who have jumped on a wave that’s constantly rolling from generation to generation, a fight for better circumstances for life. I think they’re showing up differently than man other victims. They’re not showing up as victims. They’re showing up as survivors. There’s a level of youthful, “Y’all are fucked up, grownups,” as a cultural meme that’s happening right now, that is building on a meme of Time’s Up and #metoo and Black Lives Matter and Occupy. It’s all: enough’s enough — we’re sick and tired of it. It’s “Bulworth”, it’s “Network” — “I’m sick and tired of it and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” And that is a trending cultural moment that I would say is a meme.

More radical possibilities can emerge from a distributed system, because you’re not as tainted by existing orthodoxy.”

E: A lot of the movements you just mentioned are decentralized. What are the benefits and drawbacks?

B: It’s hard to find them. It’s harder to stamp them out. It’s harder for state power to target movements if they don’t have a headquarters address and an org-chart listed publicly. A decentralized movement can localize itself much more quickly, and in fact be defined by difference. The way Black Lives Matter shows up in St. Louis is different from the one in Miami, different from Seattle. And that’s a significant feature of being relevant to people where they’re at, of meeting people where they are, because they grew out of location. That’s a big advantage.

Disadvantages? The wins are more difficult to observe. Interacting with existing legitimized power is harder. Frederick Douglass walked up to the White House, and Lincoln let him in, and they hashed it out. King sat down with Lyndon Johnson. There was a person. That is the advantage of centralization. There is a level of decision-making, and compromise, and deal-making that requires dealers to make that deal.

The stories we absorb still heavily run through an intermediary of pundits and analysts and anchors and writers etc. They want a list of demands. They want an agenda. They want a piece of paper that they can zoom in on and say “This is what those hooligans want.” A distributed movement doesn’t always provide that TV-friendly image. That can make it challenging for a movement to be taken seriously. There’s more noise, and even for the people in [a distributed movement], you constantly have to be re-syncing with the other forks of the code.

I think there is probably more radical imagination in a decentralized movement, you’re not pre-limiting your ideas to what the organization says, because there is no organization. More radical possibilities can emerge from a distributed system, because you’re not as tainted by existing orthodoxy.

E: What are you most optimistic about in terms of decentralized movements?

B: I think that our reality is downstream from culture. And I think that the idea of reality is pretty malleable, in the sense of what our perception of normal is, what we will tolerate. And stories affect that. Stories we see on the news, stories that parents tell their children about what they can be when they grow up.

What’s exciting about decentralization is power that’s in the stories is also decentralized. We can start telling each other different stuff that affects what we see as normal, what we see as real, what we see as possible. Look at people like Issa Rae, or Donald Glover. Look at Twitch, or all of these different outlets for people to have a voice. It’s really chaotic, and I don’t think it’s a guaranteed victory. But it’s got a really great potential to shake things up, and if executed well, to lead to something radically better than what was possible before.

So the distribution of story gets me really excited. If I were add a technical layer to that I would say, intuitively, Augmented Reality. Not Virtual Reality — I think VR is kind of fascinating and nerdy, but I think AR is more likely to interrupt existing culture. You remember Foursquare?

E: Yes.

B: I was king of Foursquare for a while. Literally got a Shorty Award for being Mayor of the Year of a venue in SoHo. And one of the things I liked to do on Foursquare was distribute my jokes through the network. So I would leave tips at restaurants on menus, but they were just my jokes. And one of the restaurants where I left a tip was a swanky spot in Fort Greene, off of Fulton called No. 7. I was like, “Remember, this place used to be filled with black people. Lots and lots of black people.” And it was one of the more popular tips that I left. And people would just come across it, and they weren’t expecting it. It was relevant to the space, but it definitely had nothing to do with like, the charred broccoli, or whatever they were serving.

E: Blistered shishito peppers.

B: Yeah! So that was location-based humor, it’s really exciting. You and I are sitting in Downtown Brooklyn, a space that’s been rebuilt a thousand times and will continue to be rebuilt, and it will erase a lot of history. That’s our thing, in America, but it doesn’t have to be. If we distributed history to the space where it happened, that’s exciting to me. We could see, “Oh snap! I’m standing on an African burial ground! Oh this is what the native people called it. Oh, this apartment used to cost only $50/square foot, now it’s $700!” Layering story on top of place. I think there’s a huge opportunity there. I hope someone doesn’t hear this and make a very lucrative business without cutting me in on it. But for the purposes of culture shift I want more people to be doing that.

E: Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal there’s been a big backlash against apps and platforms that make money by collecting data. Were you surprised?

B: I was not surprised. I think we have collectively built an economic system on our internet system, that is premised on surveillance. Facebook is an intelligence-gathering operation that sells us. We’re the intel, we are the briefings they have monetized to all these advertisers and to these third-party apps.

I’m sure people are surprised, because the system was designed for us not to understand the risk we were exposing ourselves to. Our risk was these companies’ revenue. They had an interest in obscuring the truth. I’m pissed about it, but I’m not shocked. We have been playing our part, and now let’s change the rules of engagement on how we are supposed to interact with these systems.

There will need to be a power shift around data, as an asset, and as an essential part of self. That is not how the US has approached it. Europe is getting closer with the GDPR law. California has proposed a data law — thank you California, thank you 50-state system for experiments! — but you realize the greatest and most powerful dictators in the world would have loved this [data harvesting]. Franco would have loved this. Mussolini would have loved this. It’s one-stop shopping for tyranny.

I want a world where people have a level of savvy and skepticism around the networked age — coupled with a sense of empowerment and collaborative possibility.”

But the beauty is, nothing is set. We thought slavery would Be, we thought the USSR would Be, we thought MySpace would Be! All these great institutions have fallen! Facebook will have its moment, and our little capitalist surveillance infrastructure will probably have a reckoning too. And I’m looking forward to that.

E: Mr. Tom-From-MySpace, tear down this Top 8!

B: Tear down this page! It’s all related. Harm has been done. Most of us have already lost our Social Security numbers at this point, even before Cambridge Analytica, so it is real. However, everything can be fixed as well.

I recently visited the Museum of African American History and Culture. The Montgomery bus boycott — talk about a network that has insinuated itself into people’s everyday lives — public transit. You have workers, maids, housekeepers — and they created an alternative network, and they held out.

It’s possible to live without Facebook. For most of human history we did, and for most of human future we will. Facebook is temporary like everything else. And we’ll look back on it like, “Remember when we all gave up our shit just for baby pictures, and some Farmville? That was a weird blip. So glad we don’t live in that world anymore.”

E: It seems like these revelations have shifted the discourse a little bit about what constitutes digital literacy. It used to be “Learn to code!”

B: I’m pro-literacy, let’s get that on the record. But no, not everyone should code. Not everyone should become a civil engineer and design bridges. Not everyone should become a farmer and grow kumquats, though praised be their name, they are delicious. I have two thoughts on digital literacy: one is that it’s a cop-out and puts too much pressure on the individual to make up for systemic failures. There are so many sophisticated and well-funded attacks on people, that just being literate is not enough. We need a systemic response to some of these systemic problems.

I think the other side is we do need to continually push back against the consumer culture that has been created around us, and by which we define our economic might. There’s something deeply flawed about the idea that success is consuming, downloading. I want a world where people have a level of savvy and skepticism around the networked age — coupled with a sense of empowerment and collaborative possibility. That doesn’t mean coding, but it does mean learning how to use some of these tools. Rolling up the sleeves a little — which I happen to have done today because my shirt is too short. But it looks cool when I do it like this —

E: It does, indeed.

B: For the record, my shirt looks cool! Y’all are missing out.

But I’m honestly still sorting it out. I want a world where I have as much power, and as much right to leverage these tools for my own benefit as these platform operators have to leverage them against my interests. Facebook should make it as easy for me to mine my data, as they make it for Procter & Gamble to try and sell me fucking soup. And until then, we are living in an imbalanced and unjust world. And I will fight to rebalance it.