As we head into the third year of the pandemic, everyone I know is missing something. Live music. Reliable child care. The simple joy of working from a coffee shop, of casual contact with strangers.
My family and I are not untouched by COVID, though we’ve been incredibly lucky. I am deeply grateful to have a job that allows me to work remotely when I’m not teaching in the classroom, and a safety net that includes affordable healthcare if I do get sick.
But I’m missing something too. Initially, I thought it was travel – a major ingredient in my life that’s been almost entirely absent. But I don’t miss airplanes, racing for flights, dicey hotel rooms or living out of a suitcase. What I do miss is surprise. Not major, life-changing surprises, but the surprise of turning a corner in an unfamiliar city and seeing something unexpected. The surprise of ordering dinner in a language you don’t really speak and being served something you didn’t actually intend. The surprise of meeting a new colleague or catching up with an old and dear one and having a conversation go somewhere you hadn’t imagined.
These conversations take time. Being masked together in an office tends to limit interactions to the purely pragmatic: Could you please help me with this? Let me convey this information to you. What I miss are the discursive conversations that happen waiting for the train, or sitting on the floor outside the conference room waiting for the next session. I miss being surprised by what friends are working on, thinking about, obsessed with.
What’s helped is podcasting. Not podcasts – I’m sick of the voices and cadences of even my favorite serendipity brokers, wonderful folks like Roman Mars and Avery Truffelman, and I long for a future where I’m excited to hear from them again. No, I’m getting my juice from interviewing people for Reimagining the Internet, the podcast Mike Sugarman and I launched last year for the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure.
Reimagining the Internet was initially intended to be a set of short (20 minute) episodes in which I asked internet luminaries for their thoughts on fixing the various problems we currently experience on the internet and the broader digital public sphere. Almost immediately, the guests steered the show in other directions, towards questions of whether computing is an inherently extractive industry, or towards the value of the principled stance of refusing to fix unfair and unjust systems and working instead for their abolition.
As Mike has taken his reins as producer, he’s challenged my preconceptions as well, bringing the idea of digital public infrastructure into realms like music streaming services, and introducing me to brilliant people not on my radar. The conversations that produce these episodes have grown from twenty minutes to an hour, and Mike struggles to edit them down to a listenable length.
Late last year, I interviewed Fred Turner, a Stanford historian who’s written two of the most influential books about the origins of the internet, From Counterculture to Cyberculture and The Democratic Surround. His most recent book was a surprise to me: a collection of photographs and essays called Seeing Silicon Valley, co-authored with Mary Beth Meehan. Turner sees the oft-celebrated, long-idealized Silicon Valley as where the fraying of America is perhaps most apparent, the unbridgeable gaps in wealth and power between the founders of and investors in big tech firms, and the people who do the invisible work around these firms of cleaning the bathrooms and preparing cafeteria meals.
The surprise in the conversation came not from learning that a security guard working full-time at Facebook lives in a garden shed without plumbing – I’ve spent enough time in Silicon Valley (and in America as a whole) to understand how inequality can manifest so profoundly. It came from Fred’s diagnosis of the current state of American society. Fred believes we are torn between an impulse towards individual success and towards a desire for community, and since the Vietnam War which split Americans along lines of class, wealthier Americans have opted almost entirely for individual success over collective welfare. But Fred sees the roots further back: in the Puritan idea of predestination. In a world where culture has preordained that some are saved and some are damned, evidence of ones divine status manifests in wealth, a trend Turner sees unfolding in Silicon Valley today.
But as much as old friends like Fred Turner have surprised me, I’ve been even more surprised from people I’m meeting through the podcast. Early in the show’s run, a listener suggested that we pay attention to questions of how caste discrimination was shaping the contemporary internet. We invited Thenmozhi Soundararajan, aka Dalit Diva, to join us and explain how caste has become a critical issue in global technology circles.
Soundararajan explained the idea of “digital brahmanism” to us, the idea that patterns of caste oppression get replicated both in technologies that permit harassment of oppressed castes and within tech companies that are only starting to consider racial and religious diversity, and have not worked to understand why caste diversity may be important to track as well. While we’ve seen encouraging indicators like Alphabet Workers Union demanding caste be added as a protected category for the workers they seek to represent, Soundararajan is not ready to declare any US tech companies “caste competent” at present.
My biggest surprise was the equation Soundararajan challenged me to consider: the balance between discomfort and death. “Discomfort doesn’t have to be the stop of where our interventions can be, because the reality is, is that for that dominant-caste person I deeply understand why it’s uncomfortable, but what’s uncomfortable to them could be a death sentence, or a physical attack for someone who’s caste oppressed. They’re actually uniquely in a position to intervene on their family as distasteful as it would be to them because they aren’t going to be the recipient of atrocity the way that I might be, or as someone else who’s caste oppressed.”
Our conversation with Dalit Diva made clear to Mike and me how important it is that we interview people whose perspective on the internet comes from standing in a sharply different place than our own. Of the episodes to be released soon, I’m most looking forward to my conversation with Dr. Jonathan Ong, my colleague in UMass Communication, who studies dis/misinformation through the lens of troll farms and online influence operations in The Philippines.
So yes, I know that responding to COVID by starting a podcast is roughly as original as baking sourdough bread or posting Wordle scores. Still, it’s done a better job satisfying my need for surprise than any other coping strategy I’ve found, and I hope perhaps some of these conversations can surprise you as well.
Some other recent favorites:
Kevin Driscoll on the early roots of the social web in Minitel and bulletin board systems
Heather Ford on the weird ways in which Wikipedia has become the agreed-on arbiter of our contemporary reality.
Tracy Chou of Block Party on making the internet safer for minoritized users through collective action.
And a closing plug – if you’re enjoying Reimagining the Internet, that’s probably because Mike Sugarman is an amazing producer. He’s building a portfolio of amazing podcasts at the intersection of academe and contemporary issues, working to make scholarly debates and questions interesting and accessible for wide audiences. If that’s something you think you might like to do, you should give him a call.