Categories
tech anguish

Zoom Doom

On April 22, BBC News ran a widely-shared piece digging into the psychological and ergonomic factors that make Zoom meetings so fatiguing. The experts offered many reasons, ranging from the dissonance of “togetherness in mind but not in body” to the irregular silences and delays in communication. They also noted the context collapse of working and living in the same place, and, y’know, that whole “living through an unprecedented global pandemic” thing. And they said one thing in particular that made me personally feel a little less alone: “It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen.”

OK, I don’t know if anyone else is running into this problem, but it’s really hard for me to not look at my face on the Zoom screen, even in meetings where I’m looking at a 4×4 grid or more of other faces. This isn’t a weird flex. Seeing my face this often is not something I’m used to or comfortable with, and I’m starting to fixate on all the things I don’t like about it. Now, I rationally know that because I’m an adult human who spends her time with other adult humans, and not, say, on an elementary school playground, people either don’t notice or don’t much care about the things I find problematic about my face, or the appearance of anything about me or anyone else. Yet I fixate nonetheless.

Is this exhibiting a false consciousness? (Would this be a less ridiculous and more intellectual piece of writing if I examined it from that perspective? Probably.) As someone who considers herself to be a feminist with lots of axes to grind with the obsession of appearance in our culture, I’d like to think I’m beyond this shallow self-deprecation. Maybe I am, but maybe Zoom has pushed me back into it, or maybe I really haven’t overcome the pressuring societal definitions of attractiveness. However you slice it, imagine how it would be if every in-person meeting you had from now on was simultaneously being played back on a screen right in front of you, and you had the choice of turning it off but only if you made it so the person you were meeting with could no longer see your face. How on earth do people fire or break up with each other on Zoom? I’ve heard that both are happening.

Anyway, right now, I desperately want to do something that has nothing to do with my face. My answer to “What do you want to do when it’s ‘over’?” is: Eat some fries at Porter Cafe (okay, I guess that does have to do with my face) and then go get another tattoo. A big one, another half-sleeve, probably, on my right arm. I want to experience the deeply unpleasant but stupidly gratifying test of endurance that is receiving a large tattoo. I’ve wanted to do this for a while but haven’t mostly because it’ll hurt like hell as my other half-sleeve did (and, y’know, because I’m fiscally responsible and all of that 😉), but now I just want the sensation of something else. I want to do something that’s the anti-Zoom or the un-Zoom, something that could never be done via Zoom, something that would be absurd if streamed on Zoom because it would be so outside of what Zoom can possibly convey, either to the person watching the tattooing (boring!) or from the person being tattooed (ouch!).

I’m annoyed by how privileged and childish I sound, but who among us is over a month into quarantine and free of this temper-tantrum-inducing, stomach-churning anxiety? I think we all have earned a little childishness in the form of tattoos, fries, or whatever floats your boats. And who isn’t annoyed by themselves at this point? Tell us your secrets, please (but not on Zoom, please). I’ve been astounded at the similarities between now and my life in 2009, when I was much more annoying than I am now and I moved to Boston with a bunch of other recent college grads, all of us with no job prospects. We went for big Costco runs and did little else because we had no money, and the boys played Halo all day, which I bring up because the boys still appear to be playing Halo all day. I don’t care what my partner does with his time, and video games are a great way to help us not kill each other; it’s just wild to me that it’s 11 years later and men are still playing the same frigging game on the TV in my living room. The only difference is one of them is on the couch here, and the others are all on… you guessed it, Zoom.

2009 was a rough time to be a person, especially a newly independent one. But things got better. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time, but they did improve. One has to assume they will this time, too. At the very least, we’ll probably stop using Zoom this much at some point, right?

Categories
books/readings

Book Response: Superior by Angela Saini

So some people have asked me lately if I have a Goodreads account or anything like that, and I don’t, and the reason why I don’t is the 2007 book John Dies at the End. I was very active on Goodreads until I put up a negative review about that book, which I hated, and got trolled into oblivion by a bunch of proto-MRA freaks with little else to do. I do want to start tracking what I’m reading in some way, though, so I’m going to devote a category of this blog to “book responses,” which aren’t exactly reviews but are… yeah, responses.

Anyway. The book I just finished reading was Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (so much for choosing a topic that won’t attract trolls! whatever, fuck off, Nazis). It was an excellent read, a fascinating exploration of the many incarnations and reincarnations of race science, told with a journalistic accessibility and building a nuanced narrative with direct quotes from its subjects. Saini does a great job explaining the tug-of-war between people on both sides of this issue, but her presentation is not milquetoast “fair and balanced” – she calls out the maleficent actors as well as the dundering do-gooders who have, wittingly or unwittingly, added to their causes. For instance, she writes about progressive population geneticists who attempted to study small “isolate” groups in hopes of understanding their uniqueness, adding fuel to the folks who want nothing more than proof conclusive that humans are different enough to be treated differently according to their “race.”

What’s so satisfying about this book is the way Saini digs into the issue from many angles. There’s a remarkable amount of confirmation bias afoot on this topic, both from the white nationalists who seek out and twist scientific affirmation and from the reportedly apolitical or liberal scientists doing the research, and it seems clear that there’s comparatively far less inquiry about the “nurture” issues vs. “nature” in determining the roots of differences between people. Saini shines a light on the small subset of academic publishing devoted to amplifying “scientific” support for racism, including the journal Mankind Quarterly and various pieces that have wound up in more mainstream academic fare, such as Intelligence and Science. She talks about how money has flowed to legitimize and amplify racist ideas, demonstrating how the old systemic holders of power have fought to keep it (i.e., a wealthy descendant of slave owners put large amounts of money into these publications).

Saini shows us how we have arrived at the current moment with the alt-right and the mainstreaming of nationalist movements around the world. She explains that after World War II, eugenics and race science were broadly dismissed as outmoded and inaccurate, certainly not championed by political leaders. Then, through the creation of journals like Mankind Quarterly and the rise of early-internet niche mailing lists that drew well-intentioned people in, they slithered back into public consciousness, waited for amplification, and received it in the form of an international infection of right-wing ideologues responding to the 2008 recession by taking cues straight from the WWII fascist playbook. We’ve looped our way back to xenophobia, and the architects of it are eager for a way to dismiss opposition with clear scientific facts.

Saini explains why they won’t get them, but also the danger of it not mattering to them in the end. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the social and academic aspects of race science and how race (and racism) is positioned as a technology in order to help “neutralize” its claims. It’s a great cautionary tale for the impacts of research, as anyone working in population genetics and related fields can have their work appropriated and recast in ways they never intended.

Categories
books/readings

Cyborg Lessons, part 1

I’ve been reading a lot since we entered this new normal, and a group of friends is currently engaged in a deep read of Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. We got through the first 15 pages of it last night. I’m trying to find a good way to succinctly describe it, but this was a 1985 essay using the idea of the cyborg as a rejection of rigid boundaries like human vs. animal and human vs. machine. Haraway uses the cyborg archetype to urge feminists to move beyond the limitations of traditional gender, feminism, and politics; she pushes for unity around affinity with recognition of identity. Considering it was written 35 years ago, it feels strikingly relevant in the present day–and yet, not.

The whole essay takes delight in its own contradictions, though, and it begins with a section called An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit. One of the members of our group said it reads like the text generated by natural language processing algorithms, and another said there was enough different dimensions to it for everyone to find something in there that resonated with them, whether it be in a good or bad way. Haraway critiques drawing epistemological fences (in other words, creating specific terminology or buzzwords to define knowledge) and its impact on creating divisiveness within movements, specifically feminism, and yet she’s constructed many of her own here in the form of this essay.

We got to talking about our cyborg-ness during the current moment in a pretty literal way, like how we’re continuing to work and stay social with tools like Zoom, social media, our phones, and so on. But straying back to Haraway’s more esoteric explorations of rigid boundaries, we also found ourselves musing about the word “normal” right now, the boundary that maybe many of us want to align ourselves along, that maybe many of us are feeling we desperately want to get back to. Is it true as people have said that “If we get this right, we’ll never go back to normal?” We talked about Arundhati Roy’s piece “The pandemic is a portal” in the Financial Times, where she writes: “Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality,’ trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

It’s another fresh contradiction for us to mull over as we yearn for a return to what was and yet know that’s probably not only impossible but irresponsible, too. What I think A Cyborg Manifesto helps us see in this moment is the need to ready ourselves for whatever comes by teaming together, to let our nostalgia for the past be muted by the need for a more human future for everyone, to find affinity and build “a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, elders, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm the state.”