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Daily Archives: July 2, 2020
Posted: July 2, 2020 at 4:47 pm
Black Lives Matter was created in 2013 by three Black women Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martins killer, George Zimmerman. Over the last seven years, it has evolved into something much bigger: a broad multiethnic liberation movement focused on criminal justice reform, racist policing, and adjacent causes.
During the course of this shift, the movement has not only expanded but become more radical in its demands for equality across the board. And yet, surprisingly, this has increased, rather than diminished, its appeal.
BLM had little support across the country as recently as 2017. But it has become steadily more popular, and in the aftermath of George Floyds murder, its popularity has surged to the point that its now supported by a majority of Americans. By any measure, that suggests BLM is succeeding culturally and politically.
But how should we think of Black Lives Matter as a historical phenomenon? Is it the sort of radical social movement weve seen before in this country? Or is it something new, something different, without any precursors?
To get some answers, I reached out to Michael Kazin, a professor of history and American social movements at Georgetown University and also the co-editor of Dissent magazine. We discussed how BLM fits into the long tradition of American radicalism, what its proponents can learn from previous eras, and why he thinks BLM is both a political and a cultural struggle.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
As someone who studies the history of social movements in America, how do you view this moment?
Its a remarkable moment in some ways, because we have a very unpopular right-wing president and a set of popular social movements on the left. Which is surprising, because usually social movements on the left get more popular when you have a liberal or progressive president in office. This is what happened in the 30s and 60s, for example. I think we might be witnessing the end of a conservative era.
What does the end of a conservative era mean?
Well, weve had Democratic presidents in this era, Clinton and Obama, but the guiding ideas of the time have been conservative ideas about government and labor and race. And now that could be changing in a very radical way.
If Democrats are able to win the presidency and tip both houses of Congress, then you could see another major vault to the left in American history, the kind of vault we saw during Reconstruction and during the progressive eras in the 30s and 60s and early 70s. But all of this energy doesnt always translate to big legislative revolutions. For laws to pass, itll take a combination of left-wing social movements and politicians who are willing to accommodate those movements in important ways.
The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of this leftward push. Do you consider BLM a radical social movement, or does it just seem that way to those who are more invested in the current order?
Like all large social movements, it has its radical aspects and its more reformist aspects. That was true of the labor movement in the 30s, which had a lot of communists and socialists in it. It was true of Reconstruction too, in which you had more radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to confiscate the land of anybody who had fought for the Confederacy and give it to African Americans, to freed slaves. We saw it in the 60s as well, when the Black Freedom Movement had its reformist side pushing for integration of institutions and the Voter Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and you had the Black Panthers and other Black Power groups who wanted one big revolution.
So you see this dynamic in every mass social movement. Its hard to say what will become of BLM. Youve got the different aspects to it. People can unite around some moderate demands like passing laws that will handcuff the police in terms of their capacity to use violence. The more radical aspects, like abolishing the police altogether, go much further. And there are conversations about reparations and restructuring the economy to ensure not just equal opportunities but equal outcomes.
As the movement gets larger, youll see more differences within it. But no single one of those manifestations will define the movement as a whole.
What makes a radical movement radical? Is it more about the nature of the demands? Or how those demands are perceived by the power structure?
Thats a very good question. The power structure, of course, often perceives any movement that wants to change the fundamentals of how the country operates as radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was perceived to be a radical and I think he was. But the demands he was making publicly, until the end of his life, really werent that radical. He simply wanted the 14th and 15th Amendments to be applied to Black people.
Any movement that goes to the root of things is radical. An anti-capitalism movement is radical. A movement which calls for reparations for African Americans is radical. Theres a radical ethics that diagnoses something wrong about the basic organization of society and seeks to undo that wrong, and conservative figures in power have always viewed these efforts as existential threats.
The New Deal was perceived as radically socialist by a lot of people in business and in the power structure, but in retrospect it was really just reformist.
The shifting perception of these movements is fascinating to me, especially in this moment. In the case of Black Lives Matter, its remarkable to see just how popular it has become. In the last two weeks alone, I believe, support for BLM has increased as much as it has in the last two years.
What does that signal to you?
It signals that racial attitudes in America, which began to change after World War II and then took a big step forward in the 1960s with the success of the Black Freedom Movement and the Civil Rights Act, have really evolved. This has been a very long and hard road, with moments of backlash along the way, but this is what youd expect because racism is so deeply woven into that fabric of American history and culture. Obviously, the horrific killing of George Floyd was a catalyst, but I think were seeing the results of young people coming of age and being much more open to racial equality than previous generations.
And BLM, whatever one thinks of it, strikes me as the continuation of some of the most successful social movements in American history.
I think thats right, and two of those movements, the Abolitionist movement and the Black Freedom Movement, were also organized around the demands of equality for African-Americans. Of course, you could say this is all part of one long movement, but it had various phases to it. I think what were seeing now is very much part of the Black Freedom Movement, which has had its ups and downs throughout its history. But the thread tying all of it together has always been the push for fundamental equality at every level of society and in every major institution.
Whats interesting about BLM is that it could be a catalyst to a reform movement in the same way the labor movement in the 30s was essential to moving the Democratic Party to the left. A lot of people dont know this, but it was really in the 30s that the Democrats began to move away from Jim Crow. It took a long time, obviously, but thats when it started, and it was because labor was interracial and labor was crucial to the success of the Democrats in the 30s and 40s.
How were these previous movements greeted when they emerged? I ask because the goals seem, in retrospect, so sensible and obvious, but I imagine at the time they were seen as extremist and threatening.
Definitely. The great Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci talked about how social movements can change the common sense of society. What we all take to be normal or moral in society can change pretty quickly, and it changes because of the force and success of social movements. Black Lives Matter has been enormously successful in this respect. Any movement pushing for this level of change will be opposed by people who dont support those changes thats just an axiom of politics. Whats astonishing about this movement is that its not provoking more backlash at least not yet.
Well, I wonder about the not yet part. I worry about movements like Black Lives Matter or abolish the police becoming so sprawling and disjointed that they lose their focus, or get overwhelmed by revolutionary spasms that may undercut the key goals.
Are there important lessons from the past on this front?
I was a New Leftist in the late 60s. I was one of those people who went too far. I think I undermined some of my goals, even though in the end we were successful in winning our main demands, which were to fight for racial equality and an end to the Vietnam War. But along the way I did some stupid things.
I think one big lesson is that mass lawbreaking undermines a movement. As MLK used to say, you want the other side to be seen as the violent side, you want the other side reacting to your civil disobedience, to your respect for order. You dont want to be seen as running amok without leadership, without discipline, because youre trying to bring about change and people are scared of change. You dont want people to be scared of you at the same time theyre scared of change. Thats one lesson.
Another lesson is the importance of building alliances. One of the reasons why I keep saying that leftists should support Biden and ally with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer this year is that we have to get as many Democrats as possible elected because only then will there be the political space to go further than they would like to go. There are limits to what a movement can create on its own. Eventually, youve got to get laws passed, and a movement cant pass laws by itself.
Is it better to view BLM or abolish the police less as political projects and more as cultural movements that shift the zeitgeist and therefore pave the way for political changes in the future?
Its a great question, and I think its both for me. As I said before, its obviously helped to change the attitudes of a lot of white Americans and thats a cultural change in consciousness. Without that change in consciousness, we cant get real political changes because there would be too much resistance to them, and politicians are averse to doing things which are unpopular.
So its important to demand immediate change but also wise to not expect it to happen that fast. These things take a long time. If activists dont have a longterm strategy, theyre going to fail. This isnt easy, of course. On the one hand, you want movements to build on a sense of urgency when outrage happens, the way it did with George Floyd and with other Black Americans killed by the police. But at the same time, you cant let that sense of urgency impede you from organizing for the long-term.
My sense is that were still very much in the beginning of whatever this is, and so theres a lot of symbolic activism and a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily a clear strategy for seizing power. What do you think a movement like this can do to channel all this energy and goodwill into enduring, concrete changes?
I think it has to find ways to work with other movements on the left. The change these activists seek is one of economic equity as well as an end to racist treatment by the cops. That was true for the Black movement in Fredrick Douglasss day as well as the freedom movement led, in part, by MLK in the 1960s. The fight to have the power over how the police treat you is necessarily a fight to gain more power and resources on the job, in ones neighborhood, and in education. But Black people cant win that fight by themselves. It will take allies from other races and a demand for universal programs in health care, the environment, housing, etc. and interracial institutions like labor and, yes, the Democratic Party.
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Posted: at 4:47 pm
The City of Stamford has received numerous requests calling for the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue, photograph on June. 19, 2020 at Columbus park in Stamford, Connecticut.
The City of Stamford has received numerous requests calling for the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue, photograph on June. 19, 2020 at Columbus park in Stamford, Connecticut.
Photo: Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media
The City of Stamford has received numerous requests calling for the removal of the Christopher Columbus statue, photograph on June. 19, 2020 at Columbus park in Stamford, Connecticut.
Opinion: Decisions on Stamfords Columbus statue, park decisions need to be informed
Having read a multitude of social media posts and comment threads regarding the status of the Columbus Park statue which in Stamford has become a lightning rod in the larger zeitgeist of national statue removal, I thought I would offer a few comments.
Just recently, Columbus statues in Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk and Middletown have been removed. A few statues have succumbed to beheading and defacement, certainly not a way to resolve these contentious issues. The removal movement is now brewing in Bridgeport and Stamford with the Italian-American communitys most vocal in opposition. Bear in mind that Stamford has a sizable Italian community, and the Italian-American organization Unico commissioned the sculpture in the 1970s.
Donning my art critics hat for a moment, I will say that public sculpture in its best form should have a guiding principle namely that it is edifying and uplifting. I am not sure this particular Columbus statue speaks to those qualities. The stone carving depicts Columbus attired in full explorer dress and regalia, with sword in hand, his face tilted upwards. The figure stands on a globe supported by a pedestal that bears the Unico dedication inscription. The carving itself is stiff and rather crude; and essentially of mediocre sculptural quality. It lacks that evocative, emotional connection to pull the viewer in to an uplifting historical story.
Arguments on each side of the issue of this statue have their merits. The Italian-American community argues that taking down this statue cannot solve the pervasive problem of racism; while African-American, native American and minority residents have expressed feeling deeply offended by this statue given Columbus participation and profiting from the slave trade, and forced labor of indigenous people.
Bearing this in mind, the polemics behind what it takes for diverse constituents to actually agree on replacements will be interesting. Selecting a replacement such as Fiorello La Guardia if that is what the city intends on at a future point that would be universally agreed upon by groups involved in this controversy, may be an even more arduous task.
In Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the birthplace of W.E.B. Dubois, widely considered a great civil right leader, activist and writer there was a growing movement by a number of citizens to erect a sculpture of him at the Great Barrington public library. What seemed like a groundswell of support for a statue of this native son to have an eternal placement on library grounds turned quickly into a firestorm of opposition from veterans groups due to Dubois embrace of communism late in life. Town meetings featured opposing presentations from history professors dissecting Dubois notable contributions, and his embrace of communist ideology; as well as from veteran groups opposed to the erection of a statue to a man who espoused communism in his writing and speeches. After a number of meetings and hotly contested debate, the Dubois statue was approved by the town board, and will be installed at a location yet to be determined. But this democratic process even in its best of intentions, left a lot of bad will in the town among various constituencies.
You can take the Columbus statue down following in the footsteps of other Connecticut municipalities, but agreeing on what will replace it may be as bitter a fight as what is going on now. At the very least, lets call upon the Stamford Board of Representatives to commit to a thorough and fair democratic process that will amplify the diverse voices of our residents; and resist caving in to pressure from any one group, before making an informed decision on the statue and the parks future.
Lynn Villency Cohen is a Stamford resident.
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Detroit jazz fest goes virtual for 2020; Labor Day weekend event to air on web, TV, radio – Detroit Free Press
Posted: at 4:47 pm
For the first time in four decades, there won't be a jazz festival to attend in downtown Detroit this September.
But there will still be free, live jazz music: The Detroit Jazz Festival will becomea virtual event this Labor Day weekend a four-day show that will air digitally, on television and on radio.
Yielding to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, festival officials and Mayor Mike Duggan announced the move Wednesday. Rocket Mortgage is aboard as presenting sponsor.
The 2020 jazz fest will run Sept. 4-7featuring mostly local talentperforming live on three soundstages in the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. The performance spaces will be fashioned after the festival's traditional stages, but without audiences.
It was a Cool night at the 40th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival on Sept 1, 2019.(Photo: Christopher M. Bjornberg, Special to the Free Press)
More: Watch 'Suzi Q,' documentary about legendary Detroit rocker Suzi Quatro
The fest will streamonline on the city of Detroit's Channel 22 digital station and the festival's own digital platforms, withperformances also broadcast on Detroit Public Television, WDET-FM (101.9) and WRCJ-FM (90.9).
The Detroit Jazz Festival's original 2020 lineup, announced in March, included artist-in-residence Dee Dee Bridgewater, along with Herbie Hancock, PharoahSanders, Gregory Porter and others who would have traveled to perform. While they won't be heading to Detroit for the virtual event, fest director Chris Collins hinted they'll have some kind of role.
"I have a hunch you'll be seeing them in some form during the four-day programming," Collins said.
Performances at the RenCen will be staged under a set of intensive protocols, including onstage social distancing and regular disinfecting of gear and green rooms.
The move to a "health-conscious" virtual fest followed consultation with local, state and federal authorities, Collins said, and officials evaluated several contingency plans for an in-person event before opting for the streamed edition.
Jazz fest officials were part of a 100-plus-personentertainment subcommittee that submitted a package ofevent reopening and safety recommendationsto the state of Michigan in June. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hasn't yet adopted the proposals.
The Detroit Jazz Festival is holding open submissions for Detroit musical talent. Artists can apply through July 15 at detroitjazzfest.org.
The festival has also put out an open call for visual artists, one of whom will be selected to design the event's officialposter ideally capturing the spirit of the music and the 2020 zeitgeist, including the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement.
Proceeds from poster sales will go to the Detroit Arts Fund, established earlier this year.
There's no word yet on the status of two other prominent September festivals, including Soaring Eagle Arts, Beats & Eats in Royal Oak and the Movement techno fest, scheduled Sept. 11-13 in downtown Detroit after postponing its traditional Memorial Day spot.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
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Posted: at 4:47 pm
Jambiani, Zanzibar. Around 700 children from two local schools cleaned up the village and collected 57 garbage bags.
widnica, Poland. Waldemar Woniak, a retired postman, cleaned up the local river and collected 2000 garbage bags.
There is also Zsuzsanna Ferraos family from India (100 bags), Daniel Toben from the US with friends (50 bags), volunteers from the Greek Island Kos ( 114 bags), and hundreds of people around the world who collected thousands of garbage bags. They all have two things in common. The first one: they actively work for a cleaner Earth. The second: thanks to a tiny Polish start-up Planet Heroes anyone can financially reward them for their social engagement.
Planet Heroes describe itself as the first-ever eco-crowdfunding platform for people who want to clean up the Earth. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, where the money is raised for something that is yet to eventuate, Planet Heroes makes it possible to reward cleaning efforts that have already taken place. If someone wants to arrange donations for their actions, they first have to clean up an area, then send photo documentation and go through a double check. The first check is required by law for international money transfers. The second one, based on data from photos, is to establish whether the area has actually been cleaned up and the garbage disposed of in the right place.
Despite its young age, the start-up has achievements that plenty of more developed companies can only dream of. The company won the UN competition for an ecological start-up at the United Nations Forum in Nairobi. It became a partner of the UN Habitat Waste Wise Cities Campaign which aims to solve problems of the 40 biggest cities in the world. As the first start-up in history, it had its official launch at the UN Science Policy Business Forum in Canberra, Australia. Also, it received a grant from Amazon to develop an Artificial Intelligence module. This will allow them to use Amazons cloud capabilities to analyze photos of dirty areas with a lot of rubbish.
Planet Heroes business model is based on commissions on bank transfers from donors to the various clean-up causes (standard practice for crowdfunding platforms), as well as various contributions to those causes from the revenues of their business partners. But when you talk to Przemysaw Pyziel, the companys co-founder, you get the impression that money comes second. Although they have built up the company from their own savings and they still keep pouring money into it, they have kept their commissions on bank transfers very low. They also dont encourage users to make the highest possible transfers. And they reject business partnership proposals if the applicant company does not comply with their ethics. We want our platform to be seen as a community that is focused on environmental activities. And not as a business project that sells cheaply to, for example, a cigarette manufacturer, Przemysaw Pyziel states.
Worldwide more and more companies think like the Planet Heroes founders: Money is a factor yes, but it is more important to use technology to find a solution to important problems. Like fighting climate change, reducing waste, addressing exclusion. These global trends, although a little late, are also reaching Poland. For several years now these new types of companies can be seen on the start-up stage. Professor Bolesaw Rok from Kozminski University, who for 20 years has been researching responsible business practices in Poland, calls such companies positive impact start-ups.
This is a new global wave of positive business. There are several reasons why they are emerging in Poland right now. It has certainly been influenced by the social zeitgeist associated with such initiatives as school climate strikes, the social justice movement. Plus, also by EU regulations. For example, a ban on single-use plastics, and by peoples disillusionment with big business. For 10 years I have been running post-graduate studies on Corporate Social Responsibility. Until now, graduates have always wanted to work in corporations. This year, for the first time, most of the group wants to start their own company. Because they know that in a large corporation, they will not be able to realize their passion to change the world, Bolesaw Rok explains.
In a report published in June, he found over 400 such firms. The list is very diverse. There are both simple companies such as Caf PoWoli, a caf run by people with disabilities, and very technologically advanced companies. Such as Bio2Materials that has developed technology to produce textiles from apple pomace (dry pulp).
Some trends are easy to spot. The first is healthy food and plant-based food. The second is ethical fashion, while the third is natural cosmetics and cleaning products. There is a lot happening here. When we look for start-ups focusing on local and circular economies, these trends are less visible. These types of companies are just starting to appear.
One of the companies that are part of this general trend is BACTrem. The company deviates from the image of a typical start-up. It was not founded by an angry young man who is mad at big business. But instead by a group of scientists led by Prof. Magdalena Popowska, a specialist in microbiology.
It all started with the patented bioremediation vaccine. It contains a dozen or so bacterial strains that purify areas polluted with oil-derived substances. In simple terms, the bacteria selected by Prof. Popowskas team eat oil and decompose it into uncomplicated and harmless compounds. Today, the product portfolio also includes a vaccine for bioremediation of areas contaminated with creosote. Which is a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance that is used impregnate railway sleepers (the wooden beams on rail tracks) or wooden telephone poles. Another application is in soil preparations for farmers that reduce the effect of glyphosate and restore the natural biodiversity of soil microflora.
The market tells us what products to make. We take on projects that will solve specific problems related to environmental protection for certain people. In the case of bioremediation of creosote, it all started from media reports that people are burning old railway sleepers. This is extremely stupid! That is why we wanted to create a technology that would be cheap so that everyone could use it. We developed soil preparations because the state of the soil in Europe is getting worse. Thats why we created preparations that restore the soil, and then less traditional fertilizers are needed, says Andrzej Berezowski, COO at BACTrem.
There is one more thing that differentiates Polish positive impact start-ups from their Western counterparts. They cannot count on institutional support, either from the government or investors. In Poland, this sector is still unprofessional because there are no qualified incubators or accelerators dedicated to sustainable start-ups. There are only a few individual initiatives. The impact investment market is still in its infancy. I am trying to get various investors involved in the impact investment trend. Everyone I tell about it says: great, but we still have to make money. Capital is international. I am convinced that impact funds will start to look more closely at Poland because there is a very interesting market here. When this happens, support for sustainable start-ups will finally be seen as normal, Bolesaw Rok adds.
Meanwhile, children from Jambiani village in Zanzibar are not aware of the problems that start-ups in Poland have. By the end of June, they have managed to collect 673. The first computers for local schools will be bought with this money. The collection for them lasts until the end of July.
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Posted: at 4:47 pm
When it comes to taboo subjects on screen, period sex serves up a double whammy. Intercourse and menstruation who wants to see that, right? Certainly not Hollywood. In the history of cinema, the vanishingly rare instances of sexual flow-down are portrayed with more focus on the horror of women surfing the crimson wave, as Cher from Clueless puts it, rather than reducing the stigma.
Who can forget the moment, in both the original 1976 Carrie and 2013 remake, when the titular heroine is terrified when she discovers blood coming out of her vagina in the school showers? A similar scene of fright occurs when Brooke Shieldss young castaway Emmeline gets her period for the first time in The Blue Lagoon (1980), while Ginger Snaps (2000) wraps a teens transformation into womanhood with becoming a werewolf. Its even implied that Ginger gets attacked because the wolf, to quote Brick Tamland from Anchorman, can smell the menstruation!
In recent years, however, movies like 20th Century Women and American Honey, both released in 2016, have tried to combat the culture of period-shaming. The latter movie, written and directed by Andrea Arnold, sees Sasha Lanes character remove her tampon before having sex; a quiet gesture that speaks volumes for the reality of the feminine sexual experience as well as positioning intercourse from the female perspective.
We need to grow up about periods being a normal and very regular part of our lives including in the bedroom, says Emma Barnett, broadcaster and author of Period. Its About Bloody Time in which a chapter is dedicated to the subject of period sex. Anything which depicts period sex as part of life and debunks myths and doesnt use the scene as another chance to show menstruating women as dirty or weird but just a woman having what is a very humdrum regular biological occurrence can only be progress and a good thing.
New indie comedy Saint Frances fits this definition perfectly. In an early scene, our lead Bridget (played by the films writer Kelly OSullivan) wakes up after a night of passion to find blood on hers and her male sexual partners face. Bridget initially feels awkward, but soon the pair laugh it off as they change her bloody bedsheets. It becomes a sweet statement of intent for the rest of the story that will deal further with menstruation as well as motherhood and abortion.
It was important for me to say from the very beginning, This is the movie that youre in for and were not going to shy away from womens bodies, OSullivan says. If people are going to have sex with each other this is going to come up every fourth week and I wanted to portray it in a way that was an exploration of intimacy.
The writer-actor laments the lack of films dealing with this subject, though recalls an episode of Sex and the City in which the character Samantha, fearing she was going through menopause, is relieved for her period to come on during sex, though her male partner is horrified by the discovery. If somebody is an asshole about you having a period during sex, theyre gonna be an asshole in general, she says. But there is a discussion thats emerging into the zeitgeist about period sex and about how different people react to it: the shame that some people are made to feel about it but also the acceptance that other people have.
Most of our pushback was from men, but we were unapologetic
Many women report this being one of the times theyre most interested in having sex outside of ovulation, and orgasms have been shown to help ease period pains, says Frances Rayner, founder of the Clit Test a campaign to change the way sex is portrayed on screen. I think well quickly start to see this change as women slowly gain power in all aspects of content production.
Television has done a better job at dealing with the subject and that might be due to the increasing number of female showrunners. Lena Dunhams Girls, Marja-Lewis Ryanss The L Word: Generation Q, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKennas Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and, more recently, Michaela Coels I May Destroy You, offer open depictions of period sex that have each earned praise from viewers.
Periods are something so normal its weird to see how its been stigmatised to be something strange when it happens, says I May Destroy You star Weruche Opia. It was shocking to see the things that you would talk about with your friends, but not actually see on television, in the script.
Its a brilliant show of Michaelas work to be able to be very frank and bold about it.
The great thing about being an independent film, its not filmed by committee, OSullivan says. You dont have to get the OK from 100 people in a way that you do if youre a studio film or network show.
So we had some lovely investors who asked if there had to be so much blood and we were like yes, because, thematically, the core of this film is about acceptance and its something that women have been told for the longest time is dirty or shameful, she adds. Most of our pushback was from men but we were unapologetic.
OSullivan hopes that her film will inspire both men and women to become active participants in the normalisation of period sex both on-screen and in real life too.
Its really important that if there is going to be a progressive movement it cant be one-sided, she says. Its too much work for just women. We need the other half of the population to hurry up and come along with it.
Saint Frances is released on 10 July.
Posted: at 4:47 pm
The previous five articles in my film-by-film analysis of the Marvel Films have covered most of 2018, a year which was an undisputed high-water mark for comic book films. The year began with Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), which so perfectly hit the zeitgeist of America that it instantly became a cultural touchstone. That was followed by Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers, 2018), which was not as culturally important but was an even bigger global hit and an enormous blockbuster.
After that, Marvel films such as Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018), as well as non-Marvel comic book films such as Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018), Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (Michail & Horvath, 2018) and Aquaman (Wan, 2018), each distinguished themselves by following a unique approach and executing that approach very well. Even the most disappointing and regressive of the year's comic book films, Venom (Fleischer, 2018), was a financial success.
Indeed, comic book films in 2018 were varied, interesting, culturally significant, popular and plentiful. However, the most jaw-dropping, unique, original comic book film of 2018, the one that will doubtless be considered the most cinematically influential film of the bunch, is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey & Rothman, 2018).
Photo by on Unsplash
One can approach Into the Spider-Verse from at least four different perspectives and it excels at all four. 1. As a comic book superhero film, it presents the most out-there, 'comic-booky' plot ever adapted to film. It explores inter-dimensional travel and the intersection of alternate versions of the same superhero, perhaps the pinnacle of geekiness in comic books. It presents this complex, ridiculous plot with humour, heart and relatability, making it one of the best superhero films ever made.
2. As a coming-of-age story, the film presents an insightful story of a teenager grappling with mentors while trying to find his path through the world, as well as a thoughtful meditation on the nature of heroism. 3. As an action comedy, the film balances exciting, endlessly inventive action beats with the silliest bits of comedy imaginable.
And most importantly 4. as an animated film, Into the Spider-Verse presents some of the most unique, gorgeous pop-art ever put on film. It marries animation styles and techniques from across the world and the decades alongside elements taken directly from comic books to create a frenetic, colourful comic book come to life. And so, as equal parts love letter to comic book fans, relatable coming-of-age tale, inventive action comedy and animation masterpiece, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one of the most remarkable films of the century so far.
Sony Pictures approached producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller about a comedic animated Spider-Man film in 2014. This was revealed to fans prematurely by the hack of Sony's computer systems in November 2014. The film was officially announced in April 2015, and it was made clear that it would take place in an alternate universe to the live action Spider-Man films. Lord and Miller were established experts at taking potentially terrible ideas and producing shockingly good films, such as 21 Jump Street (2012) and The LEGO Movie (2014). They approached their Spider-Man film with a desire to make it as different as possible from the Spider-Man films, comic book films, and animated films that came before it.
They wanted to use the medium of animation to create a film that looked like the inside of an old comic book, adapting the visual style of the original medium in addition to the characters and narratives. In service of that, Lord, Miller and their collaborators blended computer animation with hand-drawn elements, used certain colouring and lighting techniques, and added comic book staples (such as text on-screen) to create a visual style that hadn't been seen before. Furthermore, after so many recent Spider-Man films already released, the filmmakers needed to make this a story worth telling. That led them to the idea of including multiple alternate versions of Spider-Man in one film. Most importantly, the film would focus on Miles Morales, the popular successor to Spider-Man who had never before been depicted on screen.
Alternate versions of characters is a common trope in superhero comics. Over the years, writers have introduced these versions for fun, for a gag or, more interestingly, to explore new story possibilities. Often they interrogate the fundamental characteristics of characters by placing them in totally different circumstances or tweaking their origins. For example, would Superman still be a fundamentally "good" character if he had landed in the Soviet Union, rather than the United States, during the Cold War and became an instrument of the Soviet government? These stories can be fascinating, placing the familiar into the unfamiliar and seeing what results.
As one of the most popular superheroes of all time, there have been countless alternate versions of Spider-Man in the comics. What if Spider-Man was a cartoon pig? Marvel Tails Starring Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (November 1983) What if Spider-Man existed in a cyberpunk future? Spider-Man 2099 #1 (November 1992) What if Spider-Man was a private eye in the '30s? Spider-Man: Noir #1 (February 2009) These are just a few of the many examples.
In the late-'00s, the longtime writer of Amazing Spider-Man, Dan Slott, collaborated on the video game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (2010), which unites four versions of Spider-Man. Inspired by the narrative possibilities, Slott conceived of a comic book event that would feature every version of Spider-Man that had ever appeared, and introduce a few new versions, united against a common, dimension-hopping threat. The "Spider-Verse"event was published across many Marvel comics in 2014.
New versions of Spider-Man included Peni Parker/SP//dr, introduced in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (October 2014), and Spider-Gwen, introduced in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 (September 2014). Spider-Gwen is an alternate version of Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man's long-dead girlfriend, who was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. The character was very popular, and has starred in an ongoing series ever since.
The most successful alternate version of Spider-Man began in Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (October 2000). The Ultimate Marvel Universe was a line of comics intended to retell classic Marvel stories, but streamlined and updated for modern sensibilities. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley kept Peter Parker in high school and reimagined his classic rogues gallery to primarily result from genetic engineering at OsCorp. The series was critically acclaimed and continuously successful, but its most significant innovation occurred in the aftermath of Ultimate Spider-Man #160 (August 2011), in which Peter Parker dies protecting his Aunt May from the Green Goblin. As the aftermath unfolded, Ultimate Fallout #4 (August 2011) introduced the world to the new Ultimate Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Partially inspired by the election of President Barack Obama, partially inspired by debate over casting Donald Glover in The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012), Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli chose to explore Marvel's most iconic character through the lens of an Afro-Latino boy from Brooklyn, New York. Miles is a bright kid who wins a chance to attend a private science-focused school in Brooklyn.
He looks up to his Uncle Aaron, and is unaware that Aaron works as a high-priced burglar known as the Prowler. Aaron raids an old OsCorp facility and inadvertently takes a genetically-engineered spider back to his apartment, where it bites Miles. Miles develops powers similar to Peter Parker, with the additional powers of invisibility and an electrically-charged "venom blast". He is initially hesitant to become a superhero but, inspired by Peter's death, he gives it a try. Miles is immediately thrust into a role formerly occupied by the slightly older, much more experienced Peter Parker, and must find his place amongst pre-established villains and threats.
Miles was a sensation, arguably the most popular new Marvel character in years and certainly the most successful unique character in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. In 2012, Bendis wrote the five-issue Spider-Men series, where Miles meets the regular Marvel Universe version of Peter Parker. But the Ultimate Universe was failing. What began as a way to quickly update and retell old stories, preparing new readers to jump into the regular Marvel Universe, had ballooned into its own long-running, continuity-rich universe. But readers were increasingly disinterested.
The 2015 major event story "Secret Wars" collapsed the Marvel multiverse, officially ending the Ultimate Universe. One of the few survivors was Miles, whose backstory was rewritten to place him in the regular Marvel Universe alongside the rest of the Marvel characters. All of this backstory, all of this universe-swapping in the comics, provided a lot of material for the Into the Spider-Verse filmmakers to draw from as they brought Miles and the concept of alternate versions of characters to the big screen
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse focuses on Miles (Shameik Moore), a 13-year-old half-black half-Puerto Rican boy who lives in Brooklyn with his father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) and his mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles has recently gained admission to a prestigious science academy, but he doesn't feel like he belongs and misses his neighbourhood school and friends. Oh, and also, the city is home to a superhero named Spider-Man (Chris Pine).
One night, Miles is taken to an abandoned subway tunnel by his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) to paint some graffiti, and Miles is bitten by a strange spider. Overnight, Miles grows a bit, gains added strength, and discovers his ability to stick to things. Realizing he has gained Spider-Man-like abilities, Miles returns to the spider that bit him. He learns that the abandoned tunnel leads to a supercollider built by the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to access alternate dimensions. Kingpin hopes to use it to replace his deceased wife and son with alternate versions. Fearing the dangerous possibilities, Spider-Man intends to shut it down.
Miles walks right into the middle of a battle between Kingpin's henchmen and Spider-Man. Spider-Man saves Miles and damages the supercollider, but not before he's pushed into the collider's strange energy field. Spider-Man recognizes Miles' new spider-abilities and makes him promise to stop the supercollider once and for all, but then he's murdered by the Kingpin.
Miles struggles with the weight of the responsibility, and of how to master his new powers, until he meets Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson). Peter is the Spider-Man of another dimension, sucked into Miles' dimension when Spider-Man interacted with the supercollider's energy. Peter is older, more jaded and less in-shape than Miles' Spider-Man, but he eventually agrees to train Miles as they work to stop the collider and send Peter home.
Jake Johnson voices Peter B. Parker (IMDB)
Along the way, they run afoul of Kingpin, his chief enforcer, the Prowler, and his chief scientist, Dr. Olivia Octavius/Doc Ock (Kathryn Hahn). But they also meet up with four other alternate dimension spiders: the balletic loner Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), the '30s black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), the futuristic anim teenager Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her robot SP//dr, and the Looney Tunes-esque Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).
Each spider-person is competent and experienced, regardless of how silly they may seem, and Miles feels intimidated. He discovers that the Prowler is actually his Uncle Aaron. Shortly after, Aaron is murdered by The Kingpin for refusing to kill Miles. Miles' lack of experience and confidence then force the spider-team to leave him behind as they race to destroy the collider. A talk with his dad gives Miles the confidence to become his own kind of Spider-Man. He arrives in time to fight Kingpin's enforcers, send the other spider-people home, defeat the Kingpin, and destroy the collider.
Nicolas Cage voices Spider-Man Noir (IMDB)
That's a brief summary of the geeky insanity that is the plot of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Just ten years prior to this film, comic book film narratives were still fairly grounded, if you will, mostly featuring mad scientists or psychotic killers. Over time, these films gradually introduced the wackier aspects of comic book plots, from aliens to space travel to time travel, acclimatizing film viewers to the more heightened genre concepts.
Into the Spider-Verse features alternate dimension versions of Spider-Man, from the past, from the future, male, female, black-and-white, anim and cartoon pig, all coexisting in the same scenes. This level of "comic-booky" plot would not have been accepted, let alone embraced, by mainstream audiences just a decade earlier. Like a frog in increasingly warming water, viewers gradually became ready for such a film.
Spider-Man was an inspired choice to base such a film around. Firstly, the character had starred in six popular solo films in the 16 years before Into the Spider-Verse was released, meaning audiences generally knew and understood him. Secondly, the popularity of Spider-Man largely stems from the character's relatability. Traditionally the most successful approaches to Spider-Man view him as an ordinary person (struggling with school, work, romance, finances, family) who has the added responsibility of superpowers. He is the answer to the question "what if an average person suddenly had superpowers?"
Spider-Man is an everyman superhero, in contrast to the unreachable paternal ideals of Superman, Batman, Iron Man or Captain America. Thirdly, that relatability and the full face mask has always meant that anyone can be in the Spider-Man costume. Of course, Spider-Man has traditionally been a straight, white man under the costume but, as the film states, anyone can wear the mask. Anyone can see themselves in the character's ordinary struggles, then easily extrapolate out to his fantastical adventures.
Into the Spider-Verse makes this explicit by focusing on a teenaged afro-latino Spider-Man, while also featuring a teenage white girl, an asian girl and, of course, a pig. This is a film where viewers of different races, ethnicities, and genders can imagine themselves as Spider-Man. It's incredibly powerful for people to see themselves represented in film, particularly as crowd-pleasing superheroes. It's especially important now when, as I write this, Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and institutional racism are happening across the United States. There are obviously more important things to address in society than representation in popular culture, but the representation has an impact.
The year 2018 was bookended by Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, films that demonstrated that Black people, too, can be strong, smart, heroic and can make a difference. The focus on diversity of representation makes Into the Spider-Verse feel timely in addition to its other cinematic achievements.
The different types of spider-people also allow Into the Spider-Verse to deconstruct the nature of superheroes, and of heroism in general. The three primary Spider-Men allow the film to simultaneously depict a superhero at three stages of his career. Miles is the rookie, lacking confidence in his abilities and apprehensive about entering this world. This is an origin story for Miles. The original Spider-Man of Miles' universe is the perfect superhero. He's confident to the point of being casual about his power, he's enthusiastic about his work, and he exudes goodness. He also dies at the end of the first act, allowing the film to examine the impact of such a hero, and the loss of such a hero, on the city. This is the sadly triumphant final film for that Spider-Man.
And then there is Peter B. Parker, who has been a superhero for twice as long as the other Spider-Man. He's still highly-skilled and good to his core, but the thankless life of a superhero has taken its toll on his marriage and his body. This is the superhero story we rarely see, where the decades of life weigh heavily and the superhero has grown cynical. This is the superhero that's close to retirement.
The three characters are all in conversation with each other. Miles looks up to the perfect Spider-Man, who doesn't live long enough to disappoint him but casts a long shadow. Peter scoffs at that Spider-Man's perfection. Miles recognizes Peter's skill and sadness, and they make each other better Spider-Men through their interaction. Miles learns the job, and Peter learns to love it again. Passing the superhero 'mantle' is a well-worn comic book trope, particularly in DC Comics, but it has never been depicted like this on screen. Miles is a brand new Spider-Man, but he's inspired by the skill and self-sacrifice of six other spider-people as he begins his superhero career.
And so, Into the Spider-Verse adapts deep comic book tropes such as alternate versions of heroes and passing the mantle. It does so using a hugely-popular, familiar superhero known for his relatability and potential diversity to make the concepts accessible to all audiences. Finally, it explores the nature of superheroes by embodying the different stages of a superhero career in several characters. The filmmakers present all this intelligently and entertainingly. That already makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse one of the greatest superhero films of all time. The visuals, however, elevate this already engaging film to a whole new level. The plot is good, but the animation is brilliant and groundbreaking.
Producers Lord & Miller, and directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, began the film with a single animator to create a distinct visual style. Once that was established, the animation team increased to 60 people for most of production, and then up to 177 as the release date neared. At its core, the film is computer animated (like most animated films these days), but that style is overlaid with hand-drawn elements and colouring techniques to make it look distinctive.
The technical choices behind the film's animation are fascinating. The filmmakers used chromatic aberrations, basically refracting the light on some parts of the frame to render them fuzzy or out of focus. This adds to depth of field, making the film almost 3D-like, but without the glasses. It also directs the eyes of viewers to the important areas in the frame, which are in focus. Most of the film is animated at a standard 24 frames per second (fps), meaning 24 slightly different still pictures displayed each second, going by fast enough to give the appearance of movement. But the filmmakers played with that frame rate. For example, when Miles is still inexperienced, they double up each frame to have him move at 12fps alongside experienced Peter moving at 24fps. This makes Miles appear jerkier compared to Peter's smooth movement. It's a brilliant use of technology to inform character.
The filmmakers also purposely avoided using motion blurring during movement. If you wave your hand in front of your face, it appears as if your hand starts to blur with the motion. Animators have perfected ways to intentionally blur animated movement, making it appear more realistic. Removing motion blur means that every movement of every element is perfectly in focus in each frame, which is jarring to see at first. But this means that each frame of the film is a perfect image, like the panel of a comic book.
That's the main goal of the visuals in Into the Spider-Verse: recreating the comic book page. The shading and shadows in the film, for example, are achieved through criss-crossed lines, like a sketch. The colouring is often done using small coloured dots, much like the colouring in comic books of the '50s and '60s. In those old comics, printing errors sometimes resulted in colours being misaligned with the line drawings. At times, Into the Spider-Verse intentionally uses misaligned colour to add depth of field or enhance the emotions of a scene.
But much of the comic book aesthetic is more overt than that. Characters have motion lines, like in a comic book. Captions and thought bubbles appear, often manifesting Miles' thoughts and anxieties. Large onomatopoeia text appears during fights, just like the "WHAM!" "BANG!"s of a comic book. Shots are sometimes broken up into panels, just like a comic book page. And even some transitions between scenes are visualized as page turns. Many of these comic book-inspired flourishes don't appear in the film until Miles is bitten by the spider. They develop as Miles' powers develop.
Kimiko Glenn voices Peni Parker (IMDB)
And yet, all of those technical choices and comic book aesthetics are not even the full extent of the visual genius of Into the Spider-Verse, because certain characters also have unique styles. Peni, for example, is an anim character specifically modelled after the animated series, Sailor Moon. Spider-Man Noir is in black-and-white, with wind always blowing on him. Spider-Ham, meanwhile, has the colouring and movement of a Looney Tunes cartoon. For much of the second half of the film, these characters occupy the same frame as Miles, Peter and Gwen, who all share the common aesthetic of the rest of the film. Even so, Peni, Noir and Ham don't look out of place, which is impressive.
The Kingpin, meanwhile, is depicted as a head and two hands on an enormous black shape that grows or shrinks depending on the situation. He's almost abstract in his presentation. Other visual flourishes include the dimensional glitching that occurs when the supercollider is activated. These glitches, which also painfully strike the alternate universe characters at inopportune moments, are based on cubist art. All of these artistic styles come together for the climax, when pieces of every universe emerge and are mashed together in a psychedelic, kaleidoscopic asterisk at the centre of the collider. It's a tour-de-force work of animation to cap off a pop-art masterpiece.
Liev Schreiber voices Wilson Fisk (IMDB)
The most impressive aspect of the animation, with its frenetic style-switching and sensory overload, is that it never becomes off-putting or too much to process. The filmmakers are smart about giving a rhythm and release to the crazier visual moments, allowing the viewers' brains time to relax and process. Given all of this, it's no surprise that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse earned a well-deserved Best Animated Film Academy Award. But despite the technical achievements, it would not be as well-received or as well-regarded if it's story wasn't relatable. That's all down to Miles and his coming-of-age story.
Miles is a relatable protagonist from the moment he's introduced in his room, singing along to a song but forgetting some of the words. His struggle is figuring out his path, his future. He moves from mentor to mentor, trying to decide who to emulate before ultimately realizing that he must forge his own path. Before the spider bite, Miles' mentors are his father, Jeff, and his uncle, Aaron. Jeff pushes Miles to go to his new school, excel, reach his full potential, and Miles feels like he can only disappoint his father. By contrast, Aaron is easygoing, comfortable, appreciating Miles' natural skills while never pushing him to grow. The conflict of mentors is highlighted by the book Miles is given by a teacher at the start of the film: Great Expectations. Jeff has great expectations for Miles, whereas Aaron has no expectations for him. The former is too much pressure, the latter is unchallenging, easy.
After he acquires his powers, Miles meets Spider-Man, who offers to train him. This Spider-Man is the perfect role model, so of course he's killed minutes later. Miles is stuck with Peter B. Parker, an imperfect mentor who's even more of a mess than Miles. Peter channels Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid (Avildsen, 1984) in this way. He warms up to Miles quickly, offering the right pushes, encouragement, and tough love. The film even develops Peter as a secondary protagonist. His marriage ended because he was afraid to have kids, but mentoring Miles helps him overcome that fear.
Miles gradually achieves small victories, such as learning to turn invisible and learning to swing on webs. But he also has disappointments, such as failing to jump between buildings early in the film, accidentally breaking the device that can destroy the collider, and discovering Aaron is the Prowler. This is all compounded by the rest of the spider-people, who are experienced, competent superheroes in their own way.
At a certain point, they challenge Miles at a rapid-fire pace about his ability to be like them, overwhelming him and causing him to leave. But each spider-person has their own unique approach which would be impossible for Miles to emulate. Peter might have been a useful mentor alone, but the whole spider-team creates an unreasonable expectation for Miles and he can only disappoint them.
This is character-building. The crazy visuals and plotting and alternate versions of Spider-Man only exist to externalize Miles' story. He must learn to accept, among other things, that he can never float through the air when he smells a delicious pie, like Spider-Ham. It sounds silly, but the script brilliantly ties in the impossible standards of each mentor as they relate to Miles, grounding every crazy concept. Without Miles and his character growth at its core, Into the Spider-Verse would be a beautiful mess, nothing more.
John Mulaney voices Spider-Ham (IMDB)
Every spider-person is ready to answer the call, ready to sacrifice themselves to send the others home and stop the collider. But Miles is from this universe, and he made a promise to fix it, so he must rise to the occasion. After Aaron's murder, the spider-team leave him behind. They do it with love and care, but it's the last big disappointment for Miles. But then Jeff comes to Miles' door. He tells Miles that he sees a spark in him, and that Miles will be great at whatever he chooses to do. This takes the pressure off Miles. His father simply believes in him, has great expectations for him, but isn't telling him how to live his life.
Miles immediately gets an old Spider-Man suit, spray paints it black, and sets out to the collider. His self-actualization is visualized in my favourite shot of the film. Miles leaps off a skyscraper with full confidence, and falls down towards the skyline. But the image is flipped, showing Miles falling up. It's beautiful and instantly iconic. When he joins the fight at the collider, he proves his worth to the rest of the spider-team. He sends them home and is able to face Kingpin alone.
The message of Into the Spider-Verse is that anyone can be a hero. The filmmakers hoped to inspire young people to be heroes, and inspire older people to help them be heroes. It's a strongly-stated, universal theme at the heart of Into the Spider-Verse that keeps the film grounded and meaningful, despite all of the wackiness.
But that wackiness is vital as well. This film is so much fun, especially for superhero fans and Spider-Man fans. The sheer volume of Spider-Man jokes and references is staggering, and requires multiple viewings to fully process. The film opens with the Comic Code Authority seal of approval, which was featured on the covers of mainstream comics through the '60s. Each spider-person is introduced with a narrated montage, explaining their backstory.
The first Spider-Man is an amalgam of each previous cinematic Spider-Man, but everything is a bit different. His Uncle Ben is briefly voiced by Cliff Robertson using audio from Spider-Man 2). This Spider-Man is seen stopping a train (as in Spider-Man 2), kissing Mary Jane upside down (as in Spider-Man), stretched between two weblines (as in Spider-Man: Homecoming) holding cars on a bridge (as in The Amazing Spider-Man), and even embarrassingly strutting down the street (as in Spider-Man 3). Even the iconic theme song from the 1967 animated series is included.
Peter B. Parker's montage features similar scenes, but then goes further through his bankruptcy and divorce to find him crying in the shower. These are the Peter Parker/Spider-Man characters with which we are familiar. The other characters get more straightforward montages. Gwen's is coloured and styled to match the distinctive appearance of her comic book, and faithfully retells her origin. Peni, Noir and Ham are introduced together, so their origins are intercut and eventually cut off by Peter. The film ends with Miles adding his own montage to the pile, having come into his own as a superhero. These montages are love letters to longtime Spider-Man fans (like myself).
The film is full of inventive action beats mixed with the silliest comedy beats. Case in point: Peter escapes a facility by walking casually, although dressed as Spider-Man, through the break room and taking a bagel. When they're chased, Peter tosses the bagel to Miles, who throws it back at one of their pursuers. As the bagel hits a person, the word "bagel!" appears on impact. In the climax, one of Kingpin's enforcers terrifyingly rips into Peni's SP//dr robot, which is intense until a cartoon anvil falls on his head, the music becomes loopy and Spider-Ham strolls into frame. In the same fight, Peter, Gwen and Miles team up against the formidable Doc Ock. After some fighting, they square up for more to come, and then Ock is just hit by a city bus that comes out of the collider portal. There are too many gags to list.
Music builds early in the film as Miles prepares to jump off a skyscraper, then abruptly turns and goes back down the stairs and picks a shorter building to jump from. Black-and-white Spider-Man Noir is flummoxed by the colours of a Rubik's Cube. Spider-Ham says "that's all, folks" as he leaves the film, to which Peter responds "Is he allowed to say that? Legally?" And yet, just like the frenetic visual style, the fast-paced action and rapid-fire jokes enriching a film already overflowing with assets.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a masterpiece. It tells a narrative deeply-rooted in the geekiest, most potentially-inaccessible comic book lore, and yet it's perfectly relatable. It uses a broad mixture of animation and artistic techniques to create a distinctive visual style that feels like a comic book brought to life. But the heady narrative and frenetic visuals are all in service of a coming-of-age story. It's accentuated by inventive action beats and hilarious comedy and riddled with references for comic book fans to appreciate.
Despite its positive points, the film opened in North America with a relatively-small $35 million opening weekend. But it was praised by critics and audiences, and strong reviews word-of-mouth helped the film sustain well. It ultimately made $190 million in North America and $376 million worldwide. This makes it the lowest-grossing Marvel Film of 2018. And even so, the strong positive reactions and Best Animated Feature Oscar all point towards a much larger impact.
Sony Pictures has announced a sequel to be released in 2022, a potential spinoff featuring all-female characters, and a possible television series. In the future, people will either look back on Into the Spider-Verse as a stunning, one-of-a-kind masterpiece, or as the start of something transformative in the superhero or animation genres. Either way, I have no doubt that this film will be discussed for decades.
* * *
Stan Lee Cameo Corner: In his first posthumous cameo, Stan Lee appears as the owner of a shop that sells Miles a Spider-Man costume after Spider-Man dies. He claims to have known Spider-Man, and that he will miss him. This was a poignant moment to see just weeks after Stan died. Lee also appears on every train that passes by and as a bystander in some scenes, because animators loved including him. The film ends with a Stan Lee quote about being a hero. It's dedicated to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the two creators of Spider-Man who both died in 2018. That's 36 cameos in 52 films.
After the credits, we're introduced to yet another Spider-Man: Miguel O'Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). He learns of the disruption in the multiverse and is fitted with a wrist device to travel between dimensions. He uses it to travel to "Earth-67", where he faces off with the 1967 animated Spider-Man (Jorma Taccone) in a recreation of the "Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man" meme that is popular online. Hopefully both versions appear in the sequel
Speaking of the sequel, all we know at the time of this writing is that it will continue Miles' story. So, Shameik Moore will return. I would not be surprised if much of the rest of the cast also returns, but that remains to be seen.
Next Time: The MCU finally produces a solo female superhero film with Captain Marvel.
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In September 1955, John McCarthy, a young assistant professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College, boldly proposed that "every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it."
McCarthy called this new field of study "artificial intelligence," and suggested that a two-month effort by a group of 10 scientists could make significant advances in developing machines that could "use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves."
At the time, scientists optimistically believed we would soon have thinking machines doing any work a human could do. Now, more than six decades later, advances in computer science and robotics have helped us automate many of the tasks that previously required the physical and cognitive labor of humans.
But true artificial intelligence, as McCarthy conceived it, continues to elude us.
A great challenge with artificial intelligence is that it's a broad term, and there's no clear agreement on its definition.
As mentioned, McCarthy proposed AI would solve problems the way humans do: "The ultimate effort is to make computer programs that can solve problems and achieve goals in the world as well as humans," McCarthy said.
Andrew Moore, Dean of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, provided a more modern definition of the term in a 2017 interview with Forbes: "Artificial intelligence is the science and engineering of making computers behave in ways that, until recently, we thought required human intelligence."
But our understanding of "human intelligence" and our expectations of technology are constantly evolving. Zachary Lipton, the editor of Approximately Correct, describes the term AI as "aspirational, a moving target based on those capabilities that humans possess but which machines do not." In other words, the things we ask of AI change over time.
For instance, In the 1950s, scientists viewed chess and checkers as great challenges for artificial intelligence. But today, very few would consider chess-playing machines to be AI. Computers are already tackling much more complicated problems, including detecting cancer, driving cars, and processing voice commands.
The first generation of AI scientists and visionaries believed we would eventually be able to create human-level intelligence.
But several decades of AI research have shown that replicating the complex problem-solving and abstract thinking of the human brain is supremely difficult. For one thing, we humans are very good at generalizing knowledge and applying concepts we learn in one field to another. We can also make relatively reliable decisions based on intuition and with little information. Over the years, human-level AI has become known as artificial general intelligence (AGI) or strong AI.
The initial hype and excitement surrounding AI drew interest and funding from government agencies and large companies. But it soon became evident that contrary to early perceptions, human-level intelligence was not right around the corner, and scientists were hard-pressed to reproduce the most basic functionalities of the human mind. In the 1970s, unfulfilled promises and expectations eventually led to the "AI winter," a long period during which public interest and funding in AI dampened.
It took many years of innovation and a revolution in deep-learning technology to revive interest in AI. But even now, despite enormous advances in artificial intelligence, none of the current approaches to AI can solve problems in the same way the human mind does, and most experts believe AGI is at least decades away.
The flipside, narrow or weak AI doesn't aim to reproduce the functionality of the human brain, and instead focuses on optimizing a single task. Narrow AI has already found many real-world applications, such as recognizing faces, transforming audio to text, recommending videos on YouTube, and displaying personalized content in the Facebook News Feed.
Many scientists believe that we will eventually create AGI, but some have a dystopian vision of the age of thinking machines. In 2014, renowned English physicist Stephen Hawking described AI as an existential threat to mankind, warning that "full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."
In 2015, Y Combinator President Sam Altman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, two other believers in AGI, co-founded OpenAI, a nonprofit research lab that aims to create artificial general intelligence in a manner that benefits all of humankind. (Musk has since departed.)
Others believe that artificial general intelligence is a pointless goal. "We don't need to duplicate humans. That's why I focus on having tools to help us rather than duplicate what we already know how to do. We want humans and machines to partner and do something that they cannot do on their own," says Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google.
Scientists such as Norvig believe that narrow AI can help automate repetitive and laborious tasks and help humans become more productive. For instance, doctors can use AI algorithms to examine X-ray scans at high speeds, allowing them to see more patients. Another example of narrow AI is fighting cyberthreats: Security analysts can use AI to find signals of data breaches in the gigabytes of data being transferred through their companies' networks.
Early AI-creation efforts were focused on transforming human knowledge and intelligence into static rules. Programmers had to meticulously write code (if-then statements) for every rule that defined the behavior of the AI. The advantage of rule-based AI, which later became known as "good old-fashioned artificial intelligence" (GOFAI), is that humans have full control over the design and behavior of the system they develop.
Rule-based AI is still very popular in fields where the rules are clearcut. One example is video games, in which developers want AI to deliver a predictable user experience.
The problem with GOFAI is that contrary to McCarthy's initial premise, we can't precisely describe every aspect of learning and behavior in ways that can be transformed into computer rules. For instance, defining logical rules for recognizing voices and imagesa complex feat that humans accomplish instinctivelyis one area where classic AI has historically struggled.
An alternative approach to creating artificial intelligence is machine learning. Instead of developing rules for AI manually, machine-learning engineers "train" their models by providing them with a massive amount of samples. The machine-learning algorithm analyzes and finds patterns in the training data, then develops its own behavior. For instance, a machine-learning model can train on large volumes of historical sales data for a company and then make sales forecasts.
Deep learning, a subset of machine learning, has become very popular in the past few years. It's especially good at processing unstructured data such as images, video, audio, and text documents. For instance, you can create a deep-learning image classifier and train it on millions of available labeled photos, such as the ImageNet dataset. The trained AI model will be able to recognize objects in images with accuracy that often surpasses humans. Advances in deep learning have pushed AI into many complicated and critical domains, such as medicine, self-driving cars, and education.
One of the challenges with deep-learning models is that they develop their own behavior based on training data, which makes them complex and opaque. Often, even deep-learning experts have a hard time explaining the decisions and inner workings of the AI models they create.
Here are some of the ways AI is bringing tremendous changes to different domains.
Self-driving cars: Advances in artificial intelligence have brought us very close to making the decades-long dream of autonomous driving a reality. AI algorithms are one of the main components that enable self-driving cars to make sense of their surroundings, taking in feeds from cameras installed around the vehicle and detecting objects such as roads, traffic signs, other cars, and people.
Digital assistants and smart speakers: Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assistant use artificial intelligence to transform spoken words to text and map the text to specific commands. AI helps digital assistants make sense of different nuances in spoken language and synthesize human-like voices.
Translation: For many decades, translating text between different languages was a pain point for computers. But deep learning has helped create a revolution in services such as Google Translate. To be clear, AI still has a long way to go before it masters human language, but so far, advances are spectacular.
Facial recognition: Facial recognition is one of the most popular applications of artificial intelligence. It has many uses, including unlocking your phone, paying with your face, and detecting intruders in your home. But the increasing availability of facial-recognition technology has also given rise to concerns regarding privacy, security, and civil liberties.
Medicine: From detecting skin cancer and analyzing X-rays and MRI scans to providing personalized health tips and managing entire healthcare systems, artificial intelligence is becoming a key enabler in healthcare and medicine. AI won't replace your doctor, but it could help to bring about better health services, especially in underprivileged areas, where AI-powered health assistants can take some of the load off the shoulders of the few general practitioners who have to serve large populations.
In our quest to crack the code of AI and create thinking machines, we've learned a lot about the meaning of intelligence and reasoning. And thanks to advances in AI, we are accomplishing tasks alongside our computers that were once considered the exclusive domain of the human brain.
Some of the emerging fields where AI is making inroads include music and arts, where AI algorithms are manifesting their own unique kind of creativity. There's also hope AI will help fight climate change, care for the elderly, and eventually create a utopian future where humans don't need to work at all.
There's also fear that AI will cause mass unemployment, disrupt the economic balance, trigger another world war, and eventually drive humans into slavery.
We still don't know which direction AI will take. But as the science and technology of artificial intelligence continues to improve at a steady pace, our expectations and definition of AI will shift, and what we consider AI today might become the mundane functions of tomorrow's computers.
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Posted: at 4:46 pm
LinkedIn has been at the cutting edge of AI for years and uses AI in many ways users may not be aware of. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Igor Perisic, Chief Data Officer (CDO) and VP of Engineering at LinkedIn to learn more about the evolution of AI at LinkedIn, how its being applied to daily activities, how worldwide data regulations impact the company, and some unique insight into the changing AI-related work landscape and job roles.
Igor Perisic, Chief Data Officer and VP of Engineering at LinkedIn
The Evolution of AI at LinkedIn
Very early on at LinkedIn, data was identified as one of the companys core differentiating factors. Another differentiating factor was a core company value of members first (clarity, consistency, and control of how member data is used) and their vision to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.
As LinkedIn began finding more and more ways to weave AI into their products and services, they also recognized the importance of ensuring all employees were well-equipped to work with AI as needed in their jobs. To that end, they created an internal training program called the AI Academy. Its a program that teaches everyone from software engineers to sales teams about AI at the level most suited to them, in order for them to be prepared to work with these technologies.
One of the very first AI projects was the People You May Know (PYMK) recommendations. Essentially, this is an algorithm that recommends to members other people that they may know on the platform and helps them build their networks. It is a recommendation system that is still central to their products, although now it is much more sophisticated than it was in those early days. PYMK as a data product began around 2006. It was started by folks that would eventually be known as one of the first data science teams in the tech industry. Back in those early days, no one referred to PYMK as an AI project, as the term AI was not yet a back in favor buzz word.
The other significant project which we started around the same time was of course search ranking, which was a classic AI problem at that time due to the emergence of Google and competition in the search engine space.
How AI is applied to daily activities
At LinkedIn, Igor says that we compare AI to oxygenit permeates everything we do. For example, for our members, it helps recommend job opportunities, organizes their feed, ensures that the notifications they receive are timely and informative, and suggests LinkedIn Learning content to help them learn new skills. With respect to LinkedIns enterprise products, he says AI helps salespeople reach members that have an interest in their products, marketers serve relevant sponsored content, and recruiters identify and reach out to new talent pools. The benefits of AI at Linkedin also operate in the background, from helping protect members from fraudulent and harmful content to routing internet connections to ensure the best possible site speed for our members.
Ensuring member safety on the platform is something that we take very seriously. Being a social network with a very strong professional intent, its important to act quickly in identifying and preventing abuse. Because abuse and threats are constantly changing, AI is certainly at the core of these efforts. LinkedIn has found machine learning very helpful in detecting inappropriate profiles.
Without AI, many of their products and services would simply not function. The economic graph they use to represent the global economy is simply too large and too nuanced to be understood without it.
AI is literally enhancing every experience. Starting from the notifications our members are getting about relevant items. But, probably, one of the most prominent ways through which our members experience AI is in the feed, which sorts and ranks a heterogeneous inventory of activities (posts, news, videos, articles, etc.). To ensure relevance in the feed, its important that the algorithms consider the different nuances of content recommendations and members preferences.
One interesting example Igor shares is that at the start of 2018, they discovered an uneven distribution of engagement in the feedgains in viral actions were accrued by the top 1% of power users, and the majority of creators were increasingly receiving zero feedback. The feed model was simply doing as it was told: sharing broad-interest, viral content that would generate lots of engagement. However, he says they realized that this optimization wasnt necessarily the most beneficial for all members. To combat the negative ecosystem effect that the AI had created, they incorporated creator-side optimization in their feed relevance objective function to help their creators with smaller audiences. With this update, the ranking algorithms began taking into consideration the value that would result for both viewer and creator in surfacing a specific item. For the viewer,they wanted to surface relevant content based on their preferences, and for the creator, they wanted to encourage high-quality content and help them reach their audiences. Igor says by tweaking our models to optimize for more than just viral sharing moments, our feed changed into a healthy mix of content from influencers as well as direct connections, which then improved engagement for both viewers and creators..
How worldwide data regulations impact LinkedIn
In recent years regions around the world have started to put in place laws around how companies are able to store and use user data. Laws such as the EUs General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are intended to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection. For some companies, becoming compliant meant having to totally chance how they approach data. Luckily for LinkedIn, data was always considered an asset to the company and approached with respect as one of the companys core differentiating factors.
Even before GDPR, Igor says LinkedIn had an internal framework they call the 3Csclarity, consistency, and control. He says We believed then and still do today that we owed it to our members to provide clarity about what we do with their data, to be consistent in only doing as we say, and to give our members control over their data:. In that context, LinkedIn approached GDPR as an opportunity to reinforce their commitment to data privacy for all members globally. For example, LinkedIn extended GDPR Data Subject Rights to all members globally. They continue to be thoughtful in how they approach the use of members data throughout LinkedIn and in AI, and in how they review and update processes, to ensure privacy by design. Acting in the best interest of members continues to be LinkedIns north star, and they always felt that its their joint responsibility across the organization to protect members data.
The changing AI work landscape
As a very large professional social network, LinkedIn has the unique opportunity to see insights about changing job roles, popular positions, and regional popularity that other companies might not have as deep insights into. At the end of last year, LinkedIn released their third annual Emerging Jobs Report to identify the most rapidly growing jobs. AI specialist emerged as the #1 emerging job of that list, showing 74% annual growth over the past 4 years. Its especially exciting to see this growth beyond the tech industry. In 2017, they found that the education sector had the second-highest numbers of core AI skills added by members, showing that AIs growth is correlated with more research in the field.
More recently, amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, LinkedIn is still observing that the AI job market continues to grow. When normalized against overall job postings, AI jobs increased 8.3% in the ten weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Even though AI job listings are growing slower than they did before the pandemic, and despite an overall slowdown in demand for talent, employers still appear to be open to hiring AI specialists.
Whats interesting about the field of AI is that LinkedIn is seeing an entire ecosystem of technical roles that support different stages of the AI lifecycle. If you go back to the Emerging Jobs Report at the end of last year, AI specialist roles (people who build and train models, etc.) are up, but that so-called AI-adjacent jobs are also on the rise. This means that youre seeing more demand for data scientists, data engineers, and cloud engineers. Youre also seeing this demand growing across multiple industries, not just the technology sector. It is across the entire spectrum.
Future Impact of AI
At the end of the day, AI is a tool, and its greatest potential lies in how it will augment human intelligence and how it will enable people to achieve more. LinkedIns current AI tools depend greatly on human input and can never fully be automated.
Igor strongly believes that the future of AI is in applications and especially how we leverage that tool to make us all smarter and to enable us to do more. To do so, AI needs to be much more accessible to a wider set of individuals than just AI experts. AI needs to become more of a plug-and-play, almost a point-and-click interface. Hes seeing the major cloud players get into this space, developing tools that help lower the barrier of entry into AI. Once AI is application-driven, it opens up human creativity to develop really cool and interesting use cases.
In that context, AI technologies are really fascinating across the entire spectrum; from algorithmic and mathematical developments to hardware and AI systems. Just think about the ingenuity researchers have shown in attempting to make their deep neural nets simply converge. In the AI landscape, it seems that there are treasures behind every bush or under every rock.
Posted: at 4:46 pm
Artificial intelligence has long caused fear of job loss across many sectors as companies look for ways to cut costs, support workers and become more profitable. But new research suggests that even in STEM-based sectors like cybersecurity, AI simply cant replace some traits found only in humans, such as creativity, intuition and experience.
Theres no doubt, AI certainly has its place. And most business leaders agree that AI is important to the future success of their company. A recent survey found CEOs believe the benefits of AI include creating better efficiencies (62 percent), helping businesses remain competitive (62 percent), and allowing organizations to gain a better understanding of their customers, according to Ernst and Young.
And AI is already having a real impact across many industries including healthcare, financial services, retail, automotive, and critical infrastructure. According to a recent report by KPMG, AI improves access to medical care in healthcare, detects fraud in financial institutions, mitigates customer service issues in retail and improves traffic management systems in transportation.
In cybersecurity, AI and machine learning provide several advantages for cybersecurity professionals, especially in the face of the technology talent gap. According to a recent survey by WhiteHat Security, more than 70% of respondents agree that AI-based tools made their cybersecurity teams more efficient by eliminating more than 55% of mundane tasks.
Nearly 40% of respondents also feel their stress levels have decreased since incorporating AI tools into their security stack, and of those particular participants, 65% claim these tools allow them to focus more closely on cyberattack mitigation and preventive measures than before.
So while AI has proven extremely beneficial in supporting tasks, it may not ever replace some decision-making. WhiteHats survey found that 60% of security professionals are still more confident in cyberthreat findings verified by humans over AI.
Could it be that at the end of the day, well always place more trust in humans over machines?
Despite the number of advantages AI-based technologies offer, respondents also reflected on the benefits the human element provides cybersecurity teams.
Thirty percent of respondents cited intuition as the most important human element, 21% percent emphasized the importance of creativity, and nearly 20% agreed that previous experience and frame of reference are the most critical human advantages.
These findings match up with other extensive reports that are helping to shape the future of education and the labor market.
A recent report entitled Robot-Ready: Human + Skills for the Future of Work conducted by the Strada Institute, finds that the most valuable workers now and in the future, will be those who can combine technical knowledge with human skills: programming + ethics, artificial intelligence + emotional intelligence, logic + judgment. Other findings include:
Its clear that human skills involving insight, creativity and other mental processes cannot be easily automated, and perhaps the best way to future proof workforces is to collaborate with AI and technology.
In the application security industry, this model has worked well at WhiteHat Security. Our engineers and researchers have developed, trained and tested machine learning models that enable increasingly automated cybersecurity vulnerability verification.
This automated vulnerability verification allows engineers and researchers the time to develop additional security tests and spend an increasing amount of time on security research that benefits our customers. For instance:
AI and machine learning have infiltrated almost every industry and impacted businesses in many positive ways, but my belief is that machines will never reign over humans in our industry or others.
In the cybersecurity industry, people will always play a higher-level role no matter how autonomous AI is able to make security processes.
With AI, its clear that our role as humans shifts rather than disappears into an elevated and mastery role and takes over tedious and routine tasks that can propel us forward into the future.
About the author: Bryan Becker is the Product Manager at WhiteHat Security. Bryan has been working in application development and security since the startup scene in 2003. Before working at WhiteHat Security, he worked as a contractor in the startup hub of Asia, Shenzhen, China. There, he helped multiple startups develop internal and external facing applications, as well as developed strong security policies that are realistically achievable with strapped resources. He has also been heavily involved in the blockchain startup industry in Hong Kong, where he helped small teams get proof-of-concept blockchain apps up and running to present to venture capitalists.
Posted: at 4:46 pm
COVID-19 has drastically changed the worlds shopping habits. For instance, grocery stores accelerated to curbside pick-up and Texas temporarily legalized alcohol delivery to boost restaurant sales. E-commerce companies with efficient processes have seen a boost in sales during this time.
However, e-commerce setups inspired by a pandemic, are unlikely to be methodical or focused on the granular levels of the customer experience. Companies that needed to shift their focus to e-commerce had to find ways toincrease customer value in new, creative ways.
The latter is why a growing number of companies have turned to tech to help them find success in the new normal that we are experiencing. With this new normal comes the merging of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning into e-commerce platforms, offering a significantly more personalized experience for consumers. To put it simply: theres nothing artificial about the growth that exists for companies who correctly leverage AI/ML technology.
For example, Gucci created a new artificial store for online shoppers. Guccis stores are complete with cameras and TV-style lighting to impress their customers. In the past, only a physical store could properly convey the elements of GucciDigital experiences. Those times have changed.
By launching Gucci Live, the company was able to convey elements of luxury that are associated with the brand. Additionally, the company is hiring online advisorsa sure sign that their technological adaptation is paying off. Although Gucci hasnt implemented a completely seamless and uninterrupted experience yet, they have adjusted quite well. When Marco Bizzari, Gucci President and CEO, was asked about this future-forward project, he discussed his desire to create a human touch powered by technology and it would seem he has succeeded in doing just that.
Chatbots are an increasingly common way to scale the personalized shopping assistant experience. Using NLP and analysis, marketers can create a system that automatically identifies the underlying message of most chats/texts. If potential customers ask a question about e-commerce products, AI can be used to identify the keywords then send an automatic script that addresses the question.
Another way to use AI is through image recognition classifiers which are used to identify products within images and video, in real-time. Todays consumer has a short attention span. As such, consumers expect much more from brands and experiences than they have in the past.
Thanks to AI, the process is directidentify the product in a particular image or video frame, search the catalog, and serve up relevant products based on the computer vision results. AI as it pertains to computer vision can have massive returns for companies who spend a portion of their marketing budget on content and have an especially large number of offered products.
Machine learning algorithms have reached a point where they can even predict a specific individuals behavior with greater accuracy than that persons own spouse. Its not only possible but commonplace for brands to now tailor different messages to different factions of their target market. The use of deep learning in e-commerce marketing has led to optimized ad creation and significantly higher ROI.
For example, Netflix plays different trailers to different viewers based on their viewing history. If you enjoyed 3 movies in a row that feature Robin Wright, its easy for Netflixs data science team to understand that you appreciate strong female leads. Once Netflixs algorithm understands this about your viewing preferences, it will highlight specific trailers that feature female leads more frequently than the male leads.
This work is important as Netflixs recommendation engine is responsible for a whopping 80% of content discovery on the platform.
Another example is image classifier tools like Clarifai. The company is making custom neural network training simple for the masses. The software allows users to build their own models and teach an AI system on how to identify just about anything they could desire. For example, your team could train a model to identify Instagram pictures that include more than five people. If you sell KN-95 masks or hand sanitizer, you could use this information to directly target these people who dont appear to be socially distant.
IoT devices like Alexa and Google Home play an increasingly important role in the crossroads of artificial intelligence and e-Commerce. While not new, you can order products directly from these devices using nothing more than your voice.
Today, machines arent the only ones that care about learning. More and more growth-focused marketing departments are awakening to the idea that AI will revolutionize their traditional practices. Technology-forward practices like content commerce and shoppable video will act as the sandpaper that reduces friction in the online shopping experience. You dont need to be a luxury brand to care about increasing your online conversion rates.
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