Home > Interviews > Technology Structures Our Memory: An Interview with Peter Babiak

Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore

Vancouver-based author Peter Babiak’s new book of essays Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction was recently published by Anvil Press. John Moore, writing for BC Bookworld praised Babiak for his new book, writing, “Babiak does what smart people are supposed to do—question the real meaning and implications of elements of the larger culture that permeates our lives and to a large extent determines who we are, with or without our permission or connivance.”


Firstly, congrats on your new collected essays Garage Criticism. Your essays deal with the ever-destructive relationship we have with technology, yet your book is published in the old school often satirized or honestly portrayed in pop media as being a “dead” medium known as the book. Was it cathartic in any way to have your musings on technology see its final resting place in the form of an honoured traditional form of communication?

Thank you. I’d never thought of it as “cathartic” but yes, perhaps it is just that. It feels good to have the book published. I had my doubts as to whether or not I’d get Garage Criticism published, but one essay lead to another, and another, and before long I had enough for a collection. So yes, it was cathartic to have the missives, some of which take techno-fetish culture as their target, published in the old-fashioned format of a book. Books, paper, ink: they have a material scent, though they may be “dead” for many people today. Online books, if they convey a scent at all, smell clinical, probably like an embalmed robot. But beyond any theoretically thick commentary, I’m really just thankful that it’s published and that people might read it.

In the opening essay you dissect the concept of redoing things, the rehashing of old concepts, citing revered philosophers and writers, you pull apart Facebook, calling it “just a marketing device intended to make users feel like they control the narrative presentation of their lives, but it’s also a protective shield against the unbearable trauma of aging and death” while offering a glimpse at the relationship you have with your daughter as it relates to memory, art and literature influencing mainstream culture and a ton of other engaging asides. Do you think technology has a false impression on our sense of memory? That it renders it unfair and biased? 

There’s no doubt that the technology-heavy world we live in has an effect not only on what we think but on how we think, so technology structures our memory. That’s not disputable, though it’s always a hard sell. I think that’s what McLuhan meant when he said, “the medium is the message.” The content of what we think or remember is determined by the technology we use to express it, or post it in a status update, whether it’s pen and ink on paper or a virtual social network. Technology isn’t inherently “unfair” or “biased”, though it does have this way of messing with things like employment and social structure; I think that corporate mediums that anchor these technologies—Facebook, Google, Apple, and the rest of them—are a lot more unfair and biased than we like to think. When I log on to Facebook and the first thing I see is that the company “cares” about my memories, it makes me gag. It’s like a perverse take on a Philip K. Dick story: Facebook will remember it for us wholesale by monetizing our memories by spinning them out in that recursive advertising and marketing loop we see as a “social” network. As for my daughter, she was a big part of the book, as an invaluable starting point or sounding board for some of the stuff I was struggling with—video games, Tumblr, Fifty Shades of Grey, literacy, and gender.

If you were recording a voiceover for the DVD bonus disc, “Making of Garage Criticism”, what would you say when asked about how you selected the essays in your book? How old is the oldest, how young is the youngest?

For some reason I misread this question the first time I read it—my iPhone screen is too small—and thought you were asking me about a DVD disc featuring a soundtrack, in which case I’d answer: I imagine the soundtrack for “Making GC” features a Ramones song on half speed because I came up with the idea for the book when I started the first essay working in my East Van garage. But back on point: the oldest, about the September 11 “terrorist” attacks, was written in that garage, and the most recent few were written in very different circumstances, and about more autobiographical or less conventional essay matters—death, sexuality, marriage—just a few months before publication.

When probed about Leonard Cohen’s work, Irving Layton once told Pierre Burton that Cohen was “interested in preserving the self.” George Lucas once said (and I’m paraphrasing here from a VHS I watched in 1990) “technology won’t save us, only our own inner selves. Do you feel a pressure to write from a personal perspective while confronting issues of technological threat, or is it the same level of personal investigation as say an essay on death, sexuality, domestic life, etc. 

As a teacher, I suppose my occupational psychosis is to write about technology from a more academic perspective than I do in the essays on death and domesticity, though pretty much all of my pieces on technology or any other cultural matters like that are always fused with personal anecdotes. I actually enjoyed writing those parts the most. Many of these anecdotes involve my daughter, a millennial who over the years introduced me to the practical impact of many of the theoretical points—on screen culture, video gaming, etc—I was dealing with in the collection, and some involve my students, who always offer a front-row vantage point on how culture is practiced by real people in real time. The more personal essays on death and domesticity and marriage—were hard for me to write mostly because I had little experience writing in that vein. The autobiographical essays that were previously published are always called “commentary” instead of “memoir” or “creative nonfiction”, and I think that that’s because I tend to come at everything, no matter how personal or physical it might be, from a linguistic point of view.

Can you talk about the cover and what went into its final form?

51QOkALrzrL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Anvil has a wonderful designer, Derek Von Essen (who has just published a beautiful book of photography, No Flash, Please!, a photo-essay on the music scene in Toronto in the 90s). He did the original cover art, but I really wanted to use a photo that I took, and Derek and the editor at Anvil, Brian Kaufman, were thankfully okay with that. It was a relatively poor quality photo I took one evening as my daughter and I exited the Slocan restaurant through the back door into the alley. A skateboarder happened to whip by us down the hill: it was a nice image, the skater gliding down an alley, not far from our house, the garages and hydro poles and the Vancouver skyline in the distance. Thought it wasn’t a very good quality photo, I pushed for it because a good part of the collection is indebted to the long conversations I had with my daughter, many of which I had with her at that restaurant on East Hastings since she was a little kid. Derek did his artistic magic on my photo and came up with what I think is a gorgeous cover.

About halfway through Garage Criticism, you open your essay about your own health issues wondering if anyone would want to even read about such a personal crisis. It reminds me about the personal essay in general. Shows like Girls, and countless artists who break down the fourth wall and try to connect with an audience through what is perceived as accessibility and honesty. To me this essay works on another level, and demonstrates how the world works. When you get sick this is what happens. This is what you think about. The essay washes over the reader in a way that is intense but not confrontational. It’s like a conversation with someone explaining what it was like for a month to be in a coma. Was that a tough piece to put together?

It was tough, sure. I avoided talking about my coma too much for years because it sort of scared me, and I didn’t think I could ever write about what it was like being in a coma and have it make sense because, you know, what “happens” in your head when you’re comatose—or “vegetative” or “minimally-conscious” or “brain dead”—is pretty fucked up. It’s not easy to describe. Plus, I always figured that most of what I experienced was a hallucination, like a real bad acid trip, so I just repressed or forgot about it, which is I guess what people do with their nightmares. But then I read this essay in the New York Times about an ICU nurse who was in a coma, and it turns out she experienced something similar to me. That essay used the “PTSD” phrase, which surprised me because I never really thought of myself as a PTSD sort of guy, but it was like her coma happened in the same amphitheatre of cruelty that mine did and that blew my mind. Anyway, I researched it, got caught up in the research when I came across the Canadian neurologist at Western whose work will forever change how people think about and treat comatose patients, dug out the notebooks I compiled in the aftermath of both my comas (the first one was a month long, the second significantly shorter, years later), found a lot of testimonials from others who’d experienced the same thing, and just started writing. I never intended it for the book because it was too personal, but it fit well the unintentional narrative of my memoir pieces, plus it was just really cool learning about consciousness so I wrote it so that it would fit in. It also opened up a new area for me, one that I now use when I teach contemporary linguistics and we get into things like the medical language of “consciousness”, AI, etc.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on an essay about language and time, which I’m sure sounds horribly theoretical and uninteresting to most people, but I teach literature—with a focus on linguistics, rhetoric and grammatical theory—and in this essay I’m writing about something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic theory that anchors out a recent film called Arrival, about a linguist who needs to figure out how to communicate with a group of aliens. According to that hypothesis, our thinking and behaviour, and obviously how we see the world, is not just some empirical fact that happens when we open our eyes and just move around in the real world; on the contrary, it’s the product of our language structures. Different languages lead to radically different understandings or views of “reality”. They lead to different realities, you might say. I find that stuff riveting. After that?  I’d like to write more about teaching English, which seems to be increasingly harder to do in a culture that is efficiency and STEM obsessed. It seems to me that most people really want to go through their entire lives pretending that language isn’t a thing at all, but more like a simple tool we use and never have to think about because it’s so simple. I’m not going to change that mindset, but I’d like to try.

Nathaniel G. Moore lives on the Sunshine Coast and works full-time as a publicist. Visit him online at: nathanielgmoore.tumblr.com.