Issue #33: Embodiment and Belonging

"My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young" — Louise Glück

The Future of Belonging examines how we can redesign tools and remodel approaches to fulfill the basic human need for belonging over the next decade as loneliness, alienation, and exclusion become more pervasive. If this newsletter was shared with you, please thank the sender. I invite you to subscribe and join the community as well.

This Sunday marked a personal milestone in a year where the word unprecedented became ubiquitous: I went to a poolside socially distanced comedy show with friends, making this my first gathering "outside" since lockdown began. You know it’s 2020 when you make a pact with friends to leave if there isn’t enough social distancing. Despite pre-show jitters as non-performers, we had a good time. We could all feel our collective energy lift as we experienced levity together. It was the communal therapy that we needed: a bit of stress relief, a quick lift of our moods, and a lot of relaxation. Sunday reminded me that we used to use and place our physical bodies in ways that now feel unfamiliar after over 210,000 Americans and over 1 million people globally have died from a pandemic that is still raging.

Our bodies and the physical sensations we feel in them make us feel alive. Our body is our first and last home. They can also be a source for doubt and uncertainty about where and how we belong. I've struggled to feel at home in my body throughout my life as an overweight child and adult. I spent years hating my appearance and the physical space that my body occupied, constantly challenged by bratty teenage girls, manipulated media images, and social expectations of how my body should "perform" in public spaces. As we look at the technological shifts over the next decade and the physical and virtual spaces that our bodies inhabit, we have to opportunity to transcend, remix, and recreate our corporeal form in infinite ways that expand belonging.

Sarah Hendren's recently released book What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World explores the innovations that spring from the boundaries of our body's physicality, needs, functionality and constraints. By exploring artifacts we construct to serve these bodies such as replacements for lost limbs and other body parts to the adaptations in mobility with wheelchairs and other aids and the demands of reconstructing public space to serve our bodies with curb cuts, it is clear that our bodies perform many more functions than we give them credit for. Looking to the changing nature of our embodiment can highlight new avenues for rethinking belonging.

In our increasingly algorithmic landscape, bureaucracy and culture, we can't escape how computation affects our bodies. Algorithms can sentence us to prison, decide our credit worthiness for purchasing a roof over our heads, or the proper medical treatment to cure our ills. We also can’t escape how these superficially objective algorithms result in dangerous outcomes for some due to bias.

But NIST’s tests and other studies repeatedly have found that the algorithms have a harder time recognizing people with darker skin. The agency’s July report covered tests on code from more than 50 companies. Many top performers in that report show similar performance gaps to Idemia’s 10-fold difference in error rate for black and white women. NIST has published results of demographic tests of facial recognition algorithms since early 2017. It also has consistently found that they perform less well for women than men, an effect believed to be driven at least in part by the use of makeup.

As companies compete to sell software using these faulty facial recognition algorithms to law enforcement, commercial real estate, airlines and other large entities, more academics, policymakers and activists are ringing alarms about the ability for technology to accurately assess and ethically represent the human body.

Algorithms like those used in facial recognition can transcend the bounded nature of our physical form, making us less humans being in bodies and more like humans owning bodies for production and entertainment. Educators at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have accelerated the shift to virtual training for medical school students due to the pandemic. The school recently landed in the news for simulating virtual patient interviews through the use of Zoom filters that changed the racial and ethnic appearance of patients. With rampant accusations of digital blackface, the school later quietly closed the program.

Photo editing app Gradient also landed in the spotlight as critics claimed the app’s new feature AI Face amounted to digital blackface by allowing users to see how they would appear if they “were born on a different continent.” The app also had another controversial feature called Ethnicity Estimate that claimed to calculate users’ ancestry by examining photos. With apps and platforms, and the institutions that use them, touting the ability to approximate the experience of living in a particular body by recreating a simulation of physicality, questions arise related to the value of authenticity and dignity. Although race is a social construct, the effects of inhabiting Black bodies comes at an economic and human cost in the United States as Black people are denied work, housing, leisure, and even their lives.

With the ability to simulate bodies and the social connotations and affordances that stem from the perceived of some values over others, people in less valued bodies not only have to fight to advance equity and inclusion but also need to define, quantify and protect the social identity to prevent trauma, misuse and abuse.

UCLA professor Dan Siegel’s research explores the nature of the human mind, defining the mind as “the emergent self-organizing process, both embodied and relational, that regulates energy and information flow within and among us.” This definition suggests that our mind exists in the physical brain as well as outside the body in our collective interactions, relationships and experiences.

When Siegel was asked in return whether he belonged in America, his answer was less upbeat: “I thought how isolated we all are and how disconnected we feel,” he says. “In our modern society we have this belief that mind is brain activity and this means the self, which comes from the mind, is separate and we don’t really belong. But we’re all part of each others’ lives. The mind is not just brain activity. When we realize it’s this relational process, there’s this huge shift in this sense of belonging.”

Positive psychologists have started to harness the power of our minds transcending the physical limitations of our bodies. By encouraging people to focus on their “small self,” researcher Virginia Sturm says this “healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you” can get you out of your head and into more happiness. Although our brains are confined to our bodies, our minds are free to connect with the experiences of others to seek meaning and make sense of the world, fostering belonging for all of us.

It’s not just our minds that are entangled. Biological sciences struggle to articulate a definition for what constitutes an individual body or organism.

The task of distinguishing individuals can be difficult — and not just for scientists aiming to make sense of a fragmented fossil record. Researchers searching for life on other planets or moons are bound to face the same problem. Even on Earth today, it’s clear that nature has a sloppy disregard for boundaries: Viruses rely on host cells to make copies of themselves. Bacteria share and swap genes, while higher-order species hybridize. Thousands of slime mold amoebas cooperatively assemble into towers to spread their spores. Worker ants and bees can be nonreproductive members of social-colony “superorganisms.” Lichens are symbiotic composites of fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. Even humans contain at least as many bacterial cells as “self” cells, the microbes in our gut inextricably linked with our development, physiology and survival.

These organisms are “so intimately connected sometimes that it’s unclear whether you should talk about one or two or many,” said John Dupré, a philosopher of science at the University of Exeter and director of Egenis, the Center for the Study of Life Sciences.

The work of disentanglement will only grow more complicated as technologies such as brain-computer interfaces allow us to merge our minds and bodies with computation. Synthetic media can create new beings such as fashion models, social media influencers, and gaming avatars that populate the Metaverse of virtual reality. Companies like Hour One are racing to dominate a growing market for virtual beings to act as company spokespeople and customer service representatives. Our humanity can be represented by and replicated as beings without the flesh and body of a human body serving purposes beyond entertainment.

The recent HBO documentary Welcome to Chechnya, which explores the persecution of LGBTQ people in Russia, used deepfake technology to protect the identity of interviewees by overlaying their faces with those of actors. Digital avatars also hold promise as a means of reducing bias and discrimination, such as in the context of recruitment.

As these beings take on lives and purposes of their own, questions will arise regarding the necessary and ethical rights and protections for their production and use. While today we live in a technology marketplace dominated by planned obsolescence, these virtual beings have lives of their own and lives that we become emotional connected in spite our inability to physically embrace them. Virtual humans may represent our pathway to immortality albeit not embodied as we see in science fiction movies. Already we have AI chatbots that approximate our unique beingness by harvesting smartphone data. Could a simulation of life after death be as good or better without our physicality limiting us?

A pandemic has a strange way of reminding us of the fragility of our bodies while also demonstrating how precious they are. There’s an abundance of evidence that physical movement helps us learn and emerging evidence that artificial intelligence must also be in embodied form to attain its most advanced form. Laughter re-energizes us while an invisible virus can break us down. What we lose in quantity of interactions and touch, we gain in quality of the few ties that we can maintain in proximity.

Rather than viewing our bodies as a machine that breaks down with age or trauma or bodies that betrays us by losing a battle against a pathogen, we can see our bodies as living expressions of awe. Even before the pandemic we lived hectic lives, often sacrificing the warmth of a hug for the sake of being too busy or feeling silly for wanting to ask for one. And now the only thing we crave is the intimacy of physical proximity and contact that we can’t have and we can’t readily simulate.

Upcoming Events

I’m speaking at CMX Recap TODAY October 22 at 10:30 am PT/1:30 pm ET. This event is *free* and I’ll share highlights from my talk on tech and the future of belonging.

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I want to continue experimenting with ways to connect in dialogue with all of you. Substack features discussion threads that I’d love to try using to host office hours to discuss this week’s issue. Interested in trying that out? Comment on this post and I’ll schedule a Reddit AMA-style office hours.