Issue #43: Belonging and Digital Public Spaces

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” – Henry David Thoreau

As someone who views travel as a form of self care, 2020’s pandemic-imposed travel ban feels like yet another reason to tell the overly anthropomorphized year to kick rocks. Perhaps in an effort to to have a taste of what I can’t have, I’ve been exploring more about how our digital places and spaces redefine and reshape belonging. If you have time this morning, I highly recommend peeking at the livestream of the New Public Festival, an event exploring the future of our digital public spaces.

I interviewed Dr. Courtney Cogburn about her perspectives on digital spaces and belonging after she developed 1,000 Cut Journey, a virtual reality experience that allows viewers to feel the 1000 cuts of racism a Black boy feels as he moves through physical spaces and grows up to be a man. We spoke about the social considerations and implications of the design of immersive media spaces.

Courtney Cogburn: I'm an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work as well as a faculty of the Population Research Center and Data Science Institute. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we characterize and measure racism and its implications for the effects that racism has on health. I also do work in emerging technology. So I'm largely interested in cultural structures, systems, and tools. Virtual reality is a cultural tool that can help shape narratives and understanding around racism and how it functions in society. The basic premise of that is that we have to understand racism in order to actually be effective at doing something about it.

Vanessa Mason: What are two to three questions, from your perspective, that people should be spending more time thinking about and working on?

Courtney Cogburn: Rather than questions, I have thoughts about process. We have to acknowledge that our training, our educational backgrounds, our personal experiences are limited and can't really inform the complexities of what's needed to make real change in society. So we should all start with some level of humility that our personal and professional backgrounds may be inadequate to address some of the really complex problems some of us are trying to address, which means we have to create processes and teams that allow us to benefit from other areas of knowledge, expertise and experience.

So for me, working across disciplines or working with people who are not academics or who haven't been socialized in particular educational settings and frameworks are important for seeing the broad and complex landscape of things related to racism, for instance, and what we do about it. And so I think that's not unique to racism. That's relevant to any complex social issue that we're attempting to address.

Vanessa Mason: When we think about those complex problems and systems that we're trying to address, what are some of the biggest trends that over the next decade are really shaping how we think about addressing a systemic problem like racism? 

Courtney Cogburn: Articulating what anti-racism is and how that actually gets integrated into our practice and systems is critical.  Racism is not the only source of oppression. It's a foundational oppression that If we start to address in a meaningful way, we are going to better position ourselves to understand other oppressions and address those as well. If we're thinking about technology, if we're thinking about health, If we're thinking about education, if you're thinking about carceral systems, we have to have a lens that understands the ways in which racism and racial oppression has functioned across those systems. Related to this, I've been recently engaging more with work around climate change so that we don't apply this colorblindness lens. A practice of anti-racism and an equity lens as it relates to the global scope of climate change are also opportunities for us to reimagine who we are and reimagine our societies. They can force us into new territory in ways that maybe we haven't engaged before. 

Vanessa Mason: And I think that's a nice segue way into your work that you've done with 1,000 Cut Journey that people can better understand the impacts of racism through the life of one Black boy as he grows up to be a man. What are other ways that we could be using immersive technologies like virtual reality to imagine who we want to be as individuals and imagine who we want to be as a society?

Courtney Cogburn: A small handful of people are shaping and telling us what these emerging technologies can do and how we should use them and are in a position to create content. I honestly think we have no idea what's possible. We have to create better access to not just the tools themselves but opportunities to explore and imagine how we would use these technologies. What are the stories Black youth on the South Side of Chicago would share? 

If you want to get to a meaningful outcome, you have to make sure that the right people and the right combinations of people are at the right tables to produce that content and to produce outcomes that will help us get to that point. Our current systems are not going to actually create equity how they're currently structured, which means they have to be disrupted in some way. I don't mean that in a violent sense.

If your Lego building doesn't have a great foundation, you have to undo it and build it right.

Vanessa Mason: When you think about 1,000 Cut Journey five years from now, what would be a sign that the VR experience has changed the way that things operate? What would be the five years later version of 1,000 Cut Journey?

Courtney Cogburn: I'm not sure what's possible in five years, but let's be hopeful here. We would see a couple of different things. One, I think we would see a drastic shake up in leadership in private nonprofit sectors such as medicine, etc. with a broader representation of people on the basis of race and Black people in particular. Another big point would be seeing curricula shift across disciplines in an educational setting. What responsibilities do we think engineers have to understand humanity and society?

There's this group called Hyphen Labs that does some really interesting work in VR and other types of media. They created all these technologies that disrupt other forms of technology like a scarf that can obscure and disrupt the way a camera reads your face and disrupt facial recognition systems.

When you put the tools in the hands of people who do understand humanity and society, we will see a counter tech culture.

I would love to see that counter culture expand. It would be evidence to me that we're moving in the right direction.

Vanessa Mason: Given your experience with immersive media and other emerging technologies, how might their continued development affect how people view themselves? How might these technologies affect their relationships with others?

Courtney Cogburn: The direction that we're going in now feels like identity gets really controlled by the technology given data privacy and data use much like social media does now: telling us what to buy, telling us what to think, telling us who to listen to. You could think about these immersive spaces as being the possibility of imagination. In terms of personal identity, who I am and who I can be and how I can exist in space, what our societies look like, what relationships look like, what communities look like, these virtual spaces are potentially a blank canvas for us to imagine who we are, who we want to be, and how we want to relate to the people around us. But right now, we're kind of going in thinking that good intentions will be enough to shape good spaces. 

Vanessa Mason: What you bring up reminds me of something the author of The Power of Ritual recently wrote about this notion of community washing. He likened it to green washing, the idea that certain companies will adopt superficial environmentally friendly activities that really are PR efforts. With community, we risk the same problem that can become a way of sanctioning resistance to change if you don't really get to the core of what community, belonging, inclusion and equity really and truly mean.

Courtney Cogburn: We have to get to the core of why it's not there, why we have to deliberately try and include people. It is not just natural that people feel included. We've designed systems and endorsed ways of being and interacting that we have to interrogate and unpack in order to truly be a place where belonging is necessary. Why do you need diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts? Why is it not naturally diverse, because if it was just random and people make up a certain percentage of the population, it would look a certain way.

it's not just random. It's not happenstance that our spaces look this way. So we can say, oh, I really want this to be open to everyone. You need to interrogate why it wasn't in the first place and be very, very honest with what has been in place that made a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion true. Many people skip over that part.

Vanessa Mason: One of the principles of this work I share related to what you’ve outlined is that belonging happens by design and not by accident. You're kind of hitting on a narrative piece of it. There's this notion that if things are open, if they are objective, if there's equal opportunity, then we've done the work of design that is actually necessary. Something that came up in one of the other interviews I did, is that we haven’t done this before in an American context. Meaning that we’ve never figured out, “How do we actually all live in this place together and make decisions together?” It's always been a function of trying to diminish the exclusion that the system is actually built to achieve. As you think about your research going forward, what are the metrics that you've identified or processes that you think that would help people be able to make these kinds of acknowledgements?

Courtney Cogburn: I build my teams with people who are smart and different than me. I think in terms of teams: I need to talk to an artist; I need to talk to a designer. I need to talk to some kids. I'm trying to always imagine what perspective and point of view am I missing that I might need to not just talk to them for an hour. How do I integrate them into this process? So that starts with an orientation to the work that I'm trying to achieve. In my work in virtual reality, I had a broad framework for what I thought was important for us to achieve in VR. I recruited the team and reached out to a collaborator at Stanford who'd been working in VR for over 20 years. He hadn't really done anything with race. It's not what he does. He's been very thoughtful about the social and behavioral implications of VR. And so now we have a team of computer science and communications VR people at Stanford, social workers and psychologists here at Columbia, and people who do community-based work imagine how to do this. It's slow and it's complicated. It would be a lot faster if I just wrote something down and said this is what we're going to do. But part of what's so unique and powerful. I think about what we created is not that it's like the best VR aesthetically that's ever been created. Or that it was written by a brilliant filmmaker who wrote this emotional narrative. The nuance of it was created by a team of people and not just one person. It wasn’t people implementing my vision; we were creating and finding that vision together. 

Complicated problems that intersect with humanity and society require this work. I quote one of my colleagues here at Columbia all the time: “There are people who solve the problems of the discipline and people who solve the problems of the world. People who are trying to solve the problems of the world can’t rely on just their point of view.” We don't get to the moon, just with astrophysicists or engineers. If there are human beings getting in a metal object flying into space, there's so much we have to consider and think about. Questions like belonging are just as complicated. They're just as complicated as getting to the moon. It's not a matter of niceness. It's not a matter of intention. There's so much to unpack and understand about that and what the barriers are. It's way beyond what a small group of people can achieve.

Vanessa Mason: If we're actually going to have a world where there really truly is belonging that needs to be as many people participating as possible. Are there resources that have either been helpful to you, or that you think that people should be thinking about?

Courtney Cogburn: There's a couple of things that have been guiding my thinking around this that I didn't have at the time at the outset of my VR work that I use now. So one is an organization here in New York called BlackSpace. They're mostly urban planners, architects and designers. They have this manifesto that guides their thinking and discussion around what space should look like, what the future should look like, how do we design that in a way that is truly inclusive and just.

There's also a group called Black in Design. They're expanding what being an architect means and they're expanding what design means. We're all designing things and creating structures. Architects should think not only about buildings and landscapes, but think about how we architect societies and they should apply those same skill sets especially when done through the lens of equity and justice. 

Another book that I'm just starting to dig into is called Design Justice built on these principles as well. Not only around race, but thinking about being marginalized more broadly. It's a framework and a manifesto for how we can stop getting this wrong and make new mistakes. I want to emphasize something because I slipped into speaking in very general terms. 

When I think about racism and anti-racism, I am very explicitly also thinking about anti-blackness, white supremacy and whiteness and how it functions. We can't talk about anti-racism or equity without acknowledging the function and role of whiteness and white supremacy.

Courtney Cogburn: So if we're thinking about equity through that lens, White people can't remove themselves from that equation. They're not neutral in what's happening. So when a space is not equitable, it's in part because of how we're framing the problem. We treat marginalized people as the problem and aim to fix them so that they feel more comfortable as opposed to naming that whiteness and the system created by whiteness are the problems.

Framing shifts what needs to be fixed.

The Black queer people who are differently abled are not the problem. The systems created are the problem. Someone who needs to use a wheelchair is just fine when they have an environment that's been built in a way that makes it accessible for them. They are not the problem. I can't function when I don't wear my glasses. I cannot see your face. But that's not the problem when I have something that helps me do that. We have to shift our framing when we're thinking about equity. We don't get to equity without dealing with race. We can't do anything about race and racial justice without dealing with whiteness period. You don't get to skip over race and you don't get to skip over whiteness in order to get to this generic notion of equity. 

Learning More

New Public recently released the results of two years of research examining the qualities of flourishing public spaces to understand how they can inform the design of digital public spaces. Take a look at the beautifully designed report to learn more about their Welcome-Connect-Understand-Act framework could contribute to flourishing digital public spaces.

If you’re curious about the historical and cultural context of monuments, you many way to attend The Future of Monumentality on January 27-28 hosted by Next City.

Spatial justice activist and urban designer Liz Ogbu calls for places and spaces that support and sustain healing rather than stress, struggle, and displacement in her 2017 TEDWomen talk.

Belonging at Work Scenarios

Thank you for everyone who attended the first session this Monday! We played a game to better prepare our minds for futures thinking, 100 Ways Anything Could Be Different. If you weren’t able to attend, take a look at the notes as well as the input from the attendees on our Miro board. Add your insights and questions on stickies in our Mid-Week Reflection space.

Next Monday January 18, we will focus on signals of change, the building block of futures thinking, forecasts and scenarios. Watch this intro video to learn more about how to find and analyze signals and contribute signals that you’ve found using this Google form.

You can learn more about this event series on our Notion page. If you want to join us, RSVP at