by Dan Cohen
Over the past month, our library has been discussing ways to address—and more concretely take action to oppose—racism in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. We have some ideas that we will be accelerating work on this summer and that I’ll talk about in future HIs, but we also have many existing projects that we can build upon. A cluster of these projects work to shed light on the long history of systemic racism in the United States, to show how George Floyd’s death is, tragically and outrageously, yet another case in what seems like an endless line of countless cases.
But counting and making sure we have fully documented each case—each one a human being with family and friends, who had their life brutally taken away—is necessary. We recently rebroadcast our podcast episode on Professor Margaret Burham and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project, which is doing this hard work with the assistance of our library and archives (and generous funding from the Mellon and Ford Foundations), not only to bear witness to thousands of racially motivated killings, but to bring what they discover back to the cities and towns where the killings happened for communal discussion and memorialization. I encourage you to spend 30 minutes to listen to the show, or visit the CRRJ website.
So many of these cases take the same horrifically familiar course as George Floyd’s murder: a small, often perceived slight, followed by dehumanizing escalation and then deadly violence. Here is the abstract for the CRRJ case file for O’Dee Henderson:
On May 9, 1940, O’Dee Henderson, an employee of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad company (TCI), was killed in Fairfield, Alabama. He allegedly bumped into TCI employee M.M. Hagood, on the street in front of the TCI building. Hagood stopped Officer W.T. Glenn and told him that Henderson knocked him down. Before arresting Henderson, Officer Glenn allowed Hagood to beat Henderson as he was dragged into a police car. The beatings continued at the police station. Officer Thomas Nelson beat Henderson with a black jack. D.M. Flourney, a witness, stated that the officers and Hagood repeatedly beat Henderson with a blackjack, a leather strap, and a rubber hosepipe. Flourney heard Henderson say, “let me explain,” and “have mercy on me.” After beating Henderson, Nelson shot him three times in the chest, killing him. The town coroner labeled the death an “unjustifiable homicide.” The city council determined Nelson could remain on the police force. Nelson was charged with first-degree manslaughter. Officer Nelson testified that he acted in self-defense. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict.
There were no cell phone cameras back then, of course, to document these cases. Often only regional African-American newspapers recorded these killings, aside from deliberately vague official death certificates. Some of those newspapers have now been digitized, leading to the possibility of recovering what happened for diligent students who are given these cases to pursue.
What does it mean to be with other people? And how can we feel together when we are apart? As we think about the near—and maybe more distant—future of work or education or many other aspects of our lives in which we used to congregate, these are important questions, and ones that may not have straightforward answers, or answers that are the same for all people.
You can be physically adjacent to other people and still not feel like you are “with” them, especially if they are looking down at their phones. And most human minds are socially flexible enough to feel the “presence” of others online, if not with the intensity of physical proximity, for some rather decent measure of “withness”—something I’ve called ambient humanity. Remarkably, this can be true even if the method of conveyance is only text; just ask a teen about the profound social reality of private iMessage or WhatsApp groups.
In this pandemic, we have lost social cues online and off that help us feel together. Online, Zoom and similar videoconferencing tools have issues related to sightlines, eye contact, poor audio, and other sources of friction that detract from the feeling of ambient humanity. As Navneet Alang succinctly put it in his newsletter, “Who even remembers what a Zoom call felt like?” Offline, masks block the half of our face that has the most muscles and thus transmits most of our facial expressions. (If this virus forced us to wear sunglasses rather than masks, it would not only be much cooler but it would be much easier to convey happiness, sadness, boredom, etc.)
As Covid drags on, how can we continue to feel ambient humanity, even as offices and classrooms become sparser? While I now work in the same behemoth software as many others (Microsoft Teams Dreams will be my new wave band), I’ve been experimenting with weird little alternative environments to see what some other possibilities might be.
I’ve particularly liked the experiments from a trio of young engineers, Phillip Wang, Kumail Jaffer and Cyrus Tabrizi, who, according to the manifesto of their tiny company, the Siempre Collective, are “determined to help people have better long-term relationships with the people that matter to them, no matter where they are.”
They have tried everything from holographic videochats, audio-only wristbands that autoconnect with friends, and virtual reality environments. Fascinatingly, what has seemed to work best is a seemingly strange combination of low and high tech.
Instead of a grid of video images like on Zoom, Online Town combines the Zoom line of video thumbnails with a cute lo-res 2-D video game environment that looks like it was plucked straight out of 1988. As you move through a map of a town or a campus or an office park, and you encounter other bitmapped avatars of people, you gradually come in and out of audio reach as you would in real life. Move close to someone and you can talk at full volume to them; move away and their voice fades away.
Siempre’s Gather is for larger groups, and is also an interesting combination of a very spatially aware, realistic audio environment married to an almost comical avatar map. I’ve created a Humane Ingenuity private park in Gather; maybe we can have a meet up there? It’s currently rather lonely.
Anyway, experiments such as these can help us realize what matters as true indicators of proximity. Online Town and Gather show how hearing (for those who have it) can be an incredibly strong signal for closeness and spatial awareness, and yet it is often secondary to video. Maybe we feel closer as fat pixels with clear voices, and perhaps that’s why I’ve noticed a small trend of returning to plain old telephone calls from fancier videoconferencing.
Our nearby friends at the excellent Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library have a new online exhibit, Bending Lines, on how maps are used to distort the truth and deceive the public. With the recent inundation of Covid maps and data visualizations, it’s timely in ways that probably weren’t expected when it was conceived.
I do have a soft spot in my heart for Professor Orlando Ferguson’s map of the flat Earth, or really more like sombrero Earth?
Nice rhetorical flourish in the bottom right of this nineteenth-century gem:
It Knocks the Globe Theory Clean Out. It will Teach You How to Foretell Eclipses. It is Worth Its Weight in Gold.
(Note to reader: Professor Orlando Ferguson was not actually a professor.)
More accurate and helpful are some Covid maps being produced by Bahare Sanaie-Movahed of our Research Data Services team at the Northeastern University Library in concert with Northeastern’s Sustainability & Data Sciences Laboratory. They are creating a Covid Vulnerability Index and visualization that combines various local factors, like adherence (or lack thereof) to social distancing rules, the scale of health care infrastructure, population density, and the pre-Covid prevalence of chronic respiratory illness, to provide a sense of how dangerous the situation is in each county.
A huge problem right now is how squirrelly all the data is. As the Northeastern team notes, this kind of map is aimed more at municipal decision-makers than the public. (I.e., you should not alter your behavior based on the combined data in your county.) You can also alter the weighting of the variables if you don’t like the initial mix provided, for instance by overweighting mobility data or the number of available ICU beds.
We need some better visualizations, ones with targeted audiences and flexible outputs, like this one. It feels like we are still flying blind.