Retropost: On Instalado (2017)

From a Facebook post published on 16 July 2017, lightly edited:

Watched Instalado, an independent sci-fi film written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana. I didn’t like it because of shoddy world-building and character development, but it wasn’t a waste of time.


Instalado (2017) imagines a world in which traditional education is being phased out by the worldwide adoption of new technology that enables individuals to purchase, download, and install knowledge into their brains, thus literalizing “the marketplace of ideas.” In this world, knowledge across a variety of disciplines — from the hard sciences to the social sciences and humanities, including art and languages — is packaged as certified courses or degrees. In this story, predominantly set in the State of Central Luzon, specifically Pampanga, the technology of “installation” is controlled by transnational corporations, local capitalists, and, funnily enough, the Catholic Church.

The film explores a number of conflicts, primarily the commodification and inaccessibility of education; its opening scene is a student protest movement condemning the cost of installation (one course costs 100 to 200 thousand pesos to install; one ought to have at least two courses to get more than an entry-level job) and the government’s withdrawal of support for traditional education, causing many schools to close and teachers to lose their jobs.

It also depicts the developmental problems that come with adolescents leaving the traditional school system to become “instalados,” after which they can enter the workforce and virtually stop being children; one of the main characters, Danny, holds a senior management post at the age of 14, and acts as cynically as any garden-variety douchebag CEO. Related to this is generational tension between young instalados who simply paid for knowledge and got in four hours what people usually study for four years, and older workers who graduated in the traditional way. Companies prefer to hire instalados, and instalados generally prefer to download profitable rather than personally meaningful or socially relevant courses, in part because they need to recoup the cost of installation, but also because many of them are too young or too blindered to know what they really want, or how to make a life beyond providing themselves and their families with material comforts.

Its numerous plot threads and focal characters prevented the film from delving deeply into any of its narrative elements, or covering plot holes. As a sci-fi story, it is unsatisfying: its novum (installation) and the way this technology has transformed the material and cultural structures of the world was not clearly thought out; I felt that not enough research was done to make more believable the science that makes installation possible, and the effects it has on psychology, both individual and social. For instance, it fails to engage with questions about the limits of the human mind, semantic and episodic/autobiographical memory and their effects on personality, or declarative vs. procedural memory; it’s rather difficult to believe that procedural memory — knowing not just What, but How To — can simply be downloaded, especially when the knowing-how-to consists not in conscious remembering, but in something that comes more “automatically” through long and repeated practice, like biking or painting or playing the violin. One minor character, an Aeta, wants to get a course in law installed, so she could help her tribe fight for their land rights; is knowledge of the law all it takes to become an IP rights lawyer, to argue and write, to negotiate the grossly uneven playing field of politics, with acumen?

Perhaps my biggest problem with Instalado is how it never problematizes the sufficiency of installation for the development of competencies. Thus it glosses over a significant critique of the consumerist notion of education, one which maintains that learning is not simply an act of consumption — that is, paying for tuition demands something of the “buyer” before s/he can enjoy what s/he paid for, in a way that is very different from when one pays for a latte (I can enjoy my drink the moment I claim it from the counter and hand over the receipt for the barista to stamp; I cannot enjoy the fruits of my knowledge unless I work hard to build it).

Instead, the film conceptualizes knowledge as mere information for transmission, as if the very process of learning were not the important aspect of education. In so doing, it cheapens its own critique of the commodification of something whose substance and value is difficult to pin down, to quantify. Learning is irreducible to the acquisition of information per se, for it largely depends on building the mental architecture and capacity to organize facts, observations, and suppositions in a meaningful and coherent way; in this sense, knowledge-construction is inseparable from society, from power, from identity, positionality, and ideology as worldview. Knowledge is praxis.

So, does installation confer not just knowledge as an aggregation of discrete facts, but also knowledge as “justified true belief,” as something embodied, or as a function of politics? The film is vague about the nature of its central sci-fi element. If this question were explored further in the film (not necessarily through explicit narration, of course), then the viewers would be able to think more about why the Catholic Church tries to corner the market for this technology, why companies prefer instalados to traditional graduates, or why instalados need multiple installations to get good jobs. Because if one thinks about it, traditional education, which occurs through a long period of time and involves consistent and difficult work and interaction with others, actually offers more latent benefits — not just habit- and values-formation, but social and cultural capital — that instalados don’t get by what amounts to a minor non-invasive surgical procedure. One cannot download diligence or focus or five months of sitting next to your crush and future co-author in class.

The above just expresses my dissatisfaction with conceptualization. There’s also the matter of storytelling, including flat characterization and abrupt shifts in character focus that precluded the development of conflicts and motivations, which made it difficult for me to empathize with any character, even with the girl who ironically got a degree in education installed so she could teach poor kids in the barrio. (That production value is not the greatest is understandable. That the acting is sometimes over the top is understandable.) All in all, the premise of the story is interesting, but the execution lacked nuance, complexity, and coherence. Nevertheless, it’s still worth seeing, especially for grade school or high school students who must think about what higher education is for (aside from, you know, getting a nice job, earning money, buying stuff, etc.).


Turning Twenty-Eight

On the eve of my 28th birthday, I wrote an essay on depression and bulimia for Growing Up MNL. It took me maybe six hours to draft, and seven years to go through (though the depression part goes back to my preteen years).

When J. asked me if I could write a piece on my history of disordered eating, at first I was hesitant because it doesn’t feel nice to revisit that past. (Also, since I hardly read literature these days and instead subsist on academic tracts and papers, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to write with style, haha.) I still don’t quite know what I feel about writing it, though friends have told me they felt comforted as well as saddened by it. On the one hand, I’d already processed that experience years ago and made peace with it, so writing about it felt like picking on a scab. On the other hand, writing a kind of confessional made me feel more accountable to myself and to the people who’ve worried about me, especially my family (some of whom expressed their shock that I never told them I was going through something like that, and were like, How could you, don’tcha know we gotchu fam). My reasons for not telling were kind of complex, but I guess it boiled down to guilt and shame — for being depressed and for the reasons why I think I was depressed.

There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, such that people don’t get help, or even admit to themselves that they’re suffering from it. So even when J. offered to publish the essay anonymously, I said, no, put my name in the byline. People should be able to talk about mental illness the way we can talk about physical ailments, like a broken bone or a chronic migraine. People shouldn’t have to keep it a secret, for fear of discrimination at work or school. People get sick from time to time, okay? That’s part of human existence, so we have to accept that, and deal with it in constructive ways, give ourselves time and space to heal, care for ourselves and one another.




In other news, I successfully defended my PhD research proposal last week! Now comes the more difficult work of doing what I said I’d do.


Photo: Jason Quibilan for Esquire Philippines (2015)


and on this night and in this light, I think


The other night, as I listened to a friend recount One Love Affair and its heady intensities, it occurred to me how vaguely I remembered mine, despite spending at least two years writing about little else but that, and brooding about him for four. I remember: how we met and when and where, what the weather was like, and what our first conversation was about; the first books we gave each other as birthday presents (Milton’s Paradise Lost; Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers); the bottle of wine I brought with my first of three confessions, the street where we lived, the events leading up to the day I got the word for a Greek virtue tattooed in red around my left wrist. Everything else, the small particularities, the comfortable banal activities that build up to adoration, now form sedimented knowledge: I loved him because he is a good man, because he is interesting and intelligent, responsible and driven, because we walked together and had many fine conversations, and it didn’t tire me to spend time with him. My mind, as I’ve observed, is a funny thing: I can well remember the things I’ve read (which helps with intertextual thinking and other nerdy operations), but my autobiographical memory is sketchy — what I don’t put down, I don’t remember, which is why I record all the time, and forget. What a luxury it is, to forget, knowing I have volumes of personal history archived, if I wanted to remember a time and a place and a feeling, but, well, when it comes to him, I don’t; I am quite happy now with my blurry recollections of a past in pastel hues, all pain excised from the picture — even if this misted impression prompts no interesting story.


Several weeks ago, my friend J. asked me, What’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened to you? I thought for a while and answered, One morning, I woke up after eight days of diarrhea, and found that I no longer felt like crying for hours every day after nine straight months of going through just that.

Do you think your depression had to do with him? another friend asked the other night.

Who knows? I grew up depressive, but I seem to be better now — I’m generally careful to get enough sleep, to eat clean, to exercise every day, to walk among trees and soak in sunlight, to mind my thoughts, to never again let any one person take up so much heart- and mind-space as to threaten my precious sanity.


John Berger, in And our faces, my heart, brief as photos (1984)“Human happiness is rare. There are no happy periods, only happy moments. But happiness is precisely a generalized pleasure. And the state of happiness can be defined by an equation whereby, at that moment, the gift of one’s well-being equals the gift of the existent.”


I used to dread the future, the sense that I’m barreling into a space of essential uncertainty. Alternatively: I used to dread the future, the sense of certainty that I would never be bereft of my existential sadness (or of my tendency toward solipsism). But there’s no way around it — life is contingency. Now I am simply thankful for the passage of time, how it reaves the attachments I latch onto, how it teaches me what I can do without. I am learning to trust time and its processes of accumulation and loss, to be open to what comes, to cherish the good that stays (while it stays), to let go of what leaves me, to keep a space of quietness where I can gently breathe.


On this day three years ago, I created a Tinyletter account and “sent letters” to my friends (though they were all really written for myself), every day for maybe half a year. I never reread what I wrote there.