Issue #20: What I've Been Planning and Reading About

Hi everyone! This edition has a bit of a different tone. I recently took the brave or potentially masochistic step of revisiting my 2020 goals. My feelings upon reading my thoughts, plans, and aspirations from six months ago are captured pretty well by Evelyn from the Internets.

I’m a Type A extrovert who loves to travel, so lockdown life has not been kind to me. However, I’m also an optimist. I’ve decided to distract myself from increasing anxiety about family in Texas and Florida and invest my energy and attention in this newsletter.

This began as a project to learn in public about how changing trends and disruptions may shape the future of belonging. With the world turning upside down, I don’t want this to just be a learning exercise for its own sake, but rather a call to learn together, connect, and take action to build a world of belonging for everyone. So I dared to set a few goals. I’m inviting you, dear reader, to join me on a journey of building belonging in a few key areas.

  1. Welcome emails: I know a few lovely people IRL who get this newsletter, but many of you are social media acquaintances or we haven’t formally met. I’ve started emailing each of you to learn more about you and why you’re interested in the future of belonging. If you haven’t gotten an email yet, it’s coming soon!

  2. Meetup: In that same vein, I’d love to meet face to face virtually and have all of you can meet each other as well. Back in pre-COVID days, I used to host events like breakfasts and dinner salons to build community. These days it will have to be online. I’ve scheduled a Zoom meetup for July 28 at 5:30 pm PT/8:30 ET. You can RSVP here. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

  3. Interviews: Excited to bring new voices to this conversation within this newsletter. I’m interviewing a number of people who are re-imagining belonging in their domains. If there’s someone who you’d like to hear from, leave their names in the comments.

Now back to our semi-scheduled programming, here’s a wide range of what I’ve been reading and thinking about.

The smart strategy that one LGBTQ forum uses to keep out trolls and bullies - TED

From the beginning, the site has relied on friendly competition and team-building to create a close-knit community and weed out intruders and troublemakers. By Al Shafei’s estimation, Ahwaa was one of the first platforms to use gamification to protect users. “On other platforms that use it, the incentive is often to get a title or a badge, rather than privacy or anonymity like it is on Ahwaa,” she says.

Belonging does not happen by accident. Even when we invite people into spaces or create safe spaces, there is constant work to build, maintain, and protect people to preserve a sense of community. How might we gamify belonging in IRL spaces like the workplace or schools? How do competitive incentives foster exclusion by design?

In historic move, North Carolina city approves reparations for Black residents

"It is simply not enough to remove statutes. Black people in this country are dealing with issues that are systemic in nature."…"The resulting budgetary and programmatic priorities may include but not be limited to increasing minority home ownership and access to other affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategies to grow equity and generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice," the resolution reads.

If we can create exclusion by design, that would suggest that we can create inclusion by design as well by shifting the systems that shape the communities we live in. Asheville represents the first American city to both acknowledge the legacy of slavery and discrimination and take active steps to systemic repair rather than attempting to modify one or a few parts of the existing practices.

An Interview with Alondra Nelson - The Believer

In the US and in North America—more in the US, I think—we talk increasingly about slavery as the original sin, but we want to also talk about racial slavery, chattel slavery as originary in another way. For the book, Dery interviewed the historian and cultural theorist Tricia Rose, who wrote the first monograph on hip-hop culture, called Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in America, which for me is a very important book about race and technology that doesn’t get read that way. Dery poses a question to Rose about race and technology.

To paraphrase Tricia’s words: Black people are the first robots. We are the first service instruments, service tools that are like robots, deemed to be both human and not-human. The contemporary literature on robots is instructive: for them to be effective and useful (to humans), they have to be humanoid enough; we like when they have eyes and maybe the eyebrows go up and down, but they can’t be too human. I think that’s one summation of racial slavery and the Black experience.

If we take this insight further, keeping in mind the economic and social position of Black people, we could also imagine that we will not live in a world in which robots enjoy rights or any other kind of parity with humans. To be of service in our modern society is to be the Other. We speak of human-machine collaboration, but if we look back to our history, we should be cautious of building technology for human oppression of machines.

I’ve never seen the term “communicide” before but it appears to be an apt portmanteau in light of the established of place-based investigatory units within local police departments to enforce goals for gentrification.

Amina discusses spatial anti-Blackness and urban planning outlining four actions to taake to construct neighborhoods and cities that include Black residents.

DeepMind researchers propose rebuilding the AI industry on a base of anticolonialism - VentureBeat

“Any commitment to building the responsible and beneficial AI of the future ties us to the hierarchies, philosophy, and technology inherited from the past, and a renewed responsibility to the technology of the present,” the paper reads. “This is needed in order to better align our research and technology development with established and emerging ethical principles and regulation, and to empower vulnerable peoples who, so often, bear the brunt of negative impacts of innovation and scientific progress.”

This quote serves as a strong reminder that any imagination of the future should begin with revisiting the past to understand how we arrived at our present. As one person learning about what could shape the future of belonging, I want to be conscious of grounding that learning in history. There are 141 brilliant minds subscribed to this newsletter. I’m sure that some of you either know or know someone who knows historical context that shape belonging to each, to our immediate social environments, and to our communities and networks.

Naked and Unafraid to Exercise in Virtual Reality - Wired

Somewhat in juxtaposition to VR’s oft-touted capacities to build empathy through embodiment, my TMI anecdote points to the power of disembodiment. So much of the modern fitness experience is wrapped up in appearance, which in turn opens the doors for insecurity and shame. It’s not just when we feel embarrassed about our out-of-shape bodies—though of course many are deterred from going to the gym because of self-esteem issues—it’s a whole host of other factors. Some are social. Am I sweating too much? Am I wearing the right clothes? Am I being laughed at? Some have to do with our sense of identity. Will I look incompetent? What if I use a machine incorrectly? I used to be able to do x at y ability—how did I let myself go?

Diagram explaining how Zoom delays and erases decision-making.

This graphic brings back not so warm memories of my consulting days. Yet I also feel so seen. If virtual interaction is all we have for the forseeable future, we are doing a terible job of building safe spaces much less ones conducive to decision making. Hanna Thomas Uose does an excellent job reminding us that communication, and belonging, require embodiment. This insight shouldn’t be too surprising; virtual and augmented reality are as compelling, or even more compelling than real life because they command control of all your bodily senses. When we are fully present and attentive, our decision making practices shift as we are more aware of our emotional responses. How can we generate a new body language for our distributed organizations and movements that supports greater inclusion in virtual spaces without excluding folks with physical mobility challenges?

Liminal Space - Real Life Magazine

We sacrifice today for tomorrow and tomorrow’s joy. Quarantine, as sorrowful as it is, was optimism. To believe in quarantine meant to have faith in afterward, whether in 40 or 400 days. Yet the price of this hope was a panicked, suspended animation. The price was “this moment,” an overzealous now going nowhere. By warping the present, quarantine was limbo between the past and the future, where time stagnates even as it moves in all directions at once.

At IFTF, our research is grounded in drivers and signals. You can think of drivers as linear trends or undercurrents of change. Signals are the small or local innovations or disruptions that have the potential to skew or upend these trends. Sometimes we refer to them as “non-linear” to distinguish them from drivers. Even this dichotomy of linear vs. non-linear failed to capture the experience of time that we are in now, both circular and static in nature. In Western thought, we are used to thinking of the forward motion of time, focusing on advancement and progress and in the faith-based traditions, the redemption from sins of the past. But what does faith look like if time is at a standstill and “after” is not available to us?

NYU’s virtual graduation event turned into ‘a vaporwave nightmare’ - The Verge

Hollander says NYU sees “enormous potential” in the tech as a communal tool, and it intends to use feedback to continue improving the experience of social VR. …

Reflecting on their inability to attend a proper celebration, some students acknowledged Grad Alley’s failures while voicing appreciation for the school’s best efforts. “The vibe was sad, and depressing, but I get it,” says Alvarez. “It’s like — what else were they supposed to do? I’ve been seeing a lot of my peers complaining at every turn, and if I were part of the administration at NYU I might have quit by now. I don’t know what else they could have done, this sucks for everyone and I guess this was a pretty inventive way to make up for not holding Grad Alley in person.”

I learned of the term “digital skeuomorphism” during a podcast that I listen to with Priya Parker. It basically means copying and pasting an IRL event format to online with no attention or modification to the unique constraints or opportunities of that context. As we all succumb to Zoom fatigue and Zoom trauma, we need to learn from our initial mistakes with rushing to virtual spaces. What is the cure for being Zoomed out? How do we heal from the trauma of digital skeuomorphism destroying some of important rituals and spaces?

Singles and Couples Are More Divided Than Ever - The Atlantic

Some of the friction we’re seeing now is due to an inability to imagine another reality. …Perhaps the disconnect singles and couples are feeling from each other stems from misunderstanding each other’s challenges, rather than resenting each other’s choices.

I worry that the gulf between singles and couples will persist when quarantine ends. I worry that partners who had an easy time in quarantine won’t want to return to socializing with their friends. I worry that I’ll get too used to being alone and won’t want to reacclimate….I can set aside these worries, though, and remember that the hardships that singles and couples share—watching death tolls tick up, seeing the people we love falling sick, or worse—probably outnumber the hardships that divide us.

Our existences share less and less in common than ever before. Rather than focusing on what happens when quarantine ends, because who knows when that will be, how do we begin to build bridges to all of our social islands now? And what how do we share the hard, vulnerable things rather than the most perfect, socially acceptable sides of ourselves?

Masks are changing the way we look at each other, and ourselves - The Washington Post

When considering the information that masks now conceal, it's helpful to know that we're actually pretty bad at reading faces. We think people who have feminine features are more trustworthy, for example, or that people with lower eyebrows are more dominant. Computers are better than people at distinguishing whether someone is smiling in frustration versus delight, or faking pain versus experiencing it.

When people wear a mask, “You’re left really only with the eyes. And that can make it difficult for people to make these snap judgments that they like to make, even if they’re wrong,” says Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychology professor at Brandeis University who studies facial perception. “We feel more comfortable when we feel that we’re able to assess what someone is like.”

In the mask era, those haphazard assessments continue — as do the prejudices they can reveal.

So much of our communication and trust works on context and non-verbal communication. What substitutes can we bring to the forefront to not make suspicion and exclusion our new normal?