Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Alarm Clock That Woke America

It all began with 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed and the clock he built.

He takes it into his school in Irving, Texas on the 15th of September, 2015. He shows it to his engineering teacher who praises his work but suggests that he not show the clock to other teachers but keep it in his bag. Later that day, the clock's alarm goes off. Ahmed's English teacher asks to see the clock and is so disturbed by its appearance that she alerts authorities. The police arrive and Ahmed is taken into custody, primarily because he cannot explain why he's built the clock. He is detained for bringing a 'hoax bomb' into school. There follows a national outcry against his arrest. Ahmed is embraced by the large 'maker' community, the hugely creative generation redefining invention through 3D printers and rapid prototyping, and he becomes a symbol for the institutionalised Islamophobia in America. Now a cause célèbre across the States, Ahmed is invited to the White House and the President compliments him on his 'cool clock'.

So far, Ahmed's story makes for a self-contained fable we might recognise. It's the American Dream writ bland. Young creative type, the stuff of which America is made, builds something notable through his own ingenuity. His genius goes unrecognised in his hillbilly school, which instead looks at the colour of his skin and his oh-so-familiar surname, and forms an equally oh-so-familiar judgement. Thankfully, not all of America is so prejudiced and that enlightened part of the nation does what it does so well: it rallies support through social media. Mohamed is released from captivity, goes to Washington and meets the President. God bless the spirit of Horatio Alger. God bless the US of A.

Yet if that were the story, it wouldn't be noteworthy. We'd accept it as believable but slightly hackneyed, especially if presented by Hollywood. IMDB 5.5. Not bad for a quiet night in with the kids.

Look deeper, however, and you begin to see the narrative twists. It makes a different story if you know that the clock was constructed inside an aluminium briefcase. Since clocks are meant to be seen, assembling one inside a briefcase does seem odd and perhaps even provocative. After all, we can't escape the cultural connotations of a clock in a briefcase. Wile E. Coyote shakes a ticking briefcase and you expect that he'll soon have a large lump of Monument Valley on his head. So were the police right to arrest young Amhed Mohamed? Is it at least understandable why they might begin to take an interest in his briefcase?

Before you decide, let's now add another twist to the tale. It now appears that Ahmed didn't actually make the clock. It wasn't so much constructed as disassembled. He had taken an old 1986 digital clock, stripped away the casing to expose the internal mechanism which he then attached it to the inside of the briefcase. Ahmed isn't a 'maker' as much as a 'meddler' who was lucky not to treat himself to some good ol' Texas justice courtesy of the exposed 120 volt transformer.

You begin to see, I hope, how at each stage, facts beget ignorance beget more facts beget tales, tropes, myths, assumptions and, soon, a whole lot of ugly politics.

For instance, when Richard Dawkins highlighted this last fact about the disassembled clock, Twitter outrage ensued. The very fact that it was Dawkins's tweeting about the clock located Ahmed's story inside an ongoing saga in which Dawkins's atheism is seen as an aggressive challenge to religious dogma. Dawkins points out the facts I've outlined above but, for many people, the existing narrative was already far too compelling. It was as though Dawkins had just stood up in the final reel of The Empire Strikes Back and explained why Luke couldn't possibly be Vader's son based on the DNA record. The disassembled clock fitted the narrative of Dawkins's as popularist naysayer. It didn't fit the romantic narrative of the young engineer and his home made clock.

Depending on where you choose to direct your focus, Ahmed's story is either about a young protagonist and his misguided actions or it's about a broader reality in American culture. The more you believe it's about Ahmed's surname, his Sudanese background, the procedural details of his detainment, the more polarised the issue and the same old voices begin to frame the debate. Sarah Palin became involved last Friday when she squawked 'That's a clock, and I'm the Queen of England'. To which you are compelled to reply: but it is a clock. It's just not the idealised notion of a clock that Palin prefers alongside her idealised notions of American, Muslim, or, indeed, Queen.

Yet, in truth, nobody but Ahmed knows why he dismantled a clock and put it inside a suitcase. His mind will be a messy nest of cultural influences, teenage angst and spirited imagination. Really, it's of no significance why he did what he did. Despite whispers of political motives and the influence of family members, in all likelihood it's probably just the dumb kind of thing that most kids do at that age. Much more telling is why the story around Ahmed has become more complex than any clock. The story has multiple interpretations, each vying for the status of accepted truth. Mohamed is at once innocent, knowing, naive,  harmless, malicious, exploited and exploiter.

It might be a long time until another story quite like that of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock comes along, meaning so much, so differently, to so many different people. For now, it is fascinating to view the fractures in American society through such a multi-faceted prism.

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