If two people stand looking at exactly same thing, might they feel the same way about it? Possibly, but probably not. And in the physical and even the digital world, it is actually pretty uncommon for two people to see the exact same thing, especially if our economic, physical, and cultural situations—or even our names—differ. Which, of course, they generally do.
In practical terms, it’s hard to perceive how differently another person sees the world. Travel gives us a glimpse of disparities. But even in the same city, when I visit a friend’s place that is a bit more central, and built on a higher level, I have a much lovelier view: one that includes Mount-Royal, and some really charming rooftops. When I’m invited to the family dinner of a particularly successful and established friend, I am impressed by the weight of the cutlery, the art on the walls, and the wine pairings I’m offered. These are not experiences that are part of my daily life, though I generally like most of what I see and feel as I go through my days. Probably because I’m happy with my current situation, I don’t think a lot about other people’s views, or about improving my own. But then there are these (following) moments when I realize how my much perspective differs from the views of other people, even my close friends.
Points of view—Some of my friends are shorter than me. Recently, I went to a party with a friend who is several inches shorter than me. As we entered, she lamented taking off her lovely, tall shoes because then she’d be shorter than everyone else: it would be harder to interact. As she explained this, I was reminded of a wonderful party that Berlin-based artist Hans Hemmert threw in 1997 where everyone wore “shoe-extenders” so all attendees became six-and-a-half feet tall.
I love this concept! I mean, how rarely do we share something so basic as the height from which we perceive? It’s much easier to share an absence of view.
Blind spot—All of my friends know about my holidays, but I don’t know about theirs.
I grew up in Canada, celebrating Christian-based holidays like Easter and Christmas: holidays that officially breakup our work weeks and semesters. Friends who grew up in other countries, and friends who grew up here and who aren’t Christian often wish me happy holidays on these days, in a manner that is both nonchalant and kind. Yet, I barely notice that they do this, because these are such regular exchanges. Unless invited to a friend’s holiday dinner, I’m hardly aware of other religions’ key days, and it is only during conversations with these friends that I realize how little I know of Ramadan or Passover or the Chinese New Year.
I don’t even know how to appropriately wish my friends well on these days. I feel weird about this—not because I want us to all celebrate the same holidays in the same ways, and not only because I’m not as thoughtful a friend as they are to me. Rather, it’s disturbing that I’m blinded by my own mainstream culture being flashed back at me in calendars, advertisements, films and music. I can barely see beyond that which I’ve always been aware. I know that it’s easy to have blind spots when this long-dominant culture of ours is the one that designated holiday schedules. But still, I’d like a broader view.
Constraints—Infrastructure limits what we can see, often in segregating ways.
Popular readings of architect Robert Moses’ great infrastructure build around New York between the 1920s and the 1970s describe the low bridges that limited public transit buses from going to the beautiful new parks and swimming pools as being built intentionally to exclude poorer (often Black) NY residents who didn’t own cars.
If this was indeed a deliberate decision, surely it was one that mirrored dominant politics at the time, and not just some idiosyncratic views held by Moses alone. Regardless of how they came to be, these low bridges kept many people from accessing the beautiful new parks that Moses had built (via this one route, at least). These bricks-and-mortar style infrastructures, visible by all to the naked eye, must have appeared rather common and standard to those who swooshed under in their picnic basket-filled cars. To those who were forbidden access by their presence, the low bridges probably appeared altogether more foreboding.
Recent research at Harvard identifies another kind of infrastructure that may constrain access, that alters our views, and that certainly reflects the (racist, stereotyping) dominant values of our times; this infrastructure seems more sinister because we wouldn’t be aware of the particular ways that our views are being shaped without this research. Though the infrastructure I’m describing is only digital, as we spend increasing amounts of time gazing deeply into screens—how many times over the last week did you “Google” a person or a topic?—it’s a view that matters more and more. In this project, Professor Latanya Sweeney found that searching “Black-identifying” names like hers resulted in Google.com and Reuters.com generating ads “suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 per cent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 per cent on the other.” This means that when Professor Latanya Sweeney (who has no criminal record) googles herself, or when anyone googles her, one of the top results is “Latanya Sweeney: Arrested?” According to the study, when we google the names of Black-identifing names, we’re very likely to see the words “criminal record” or “arrest.” That view sucks! And it only serves to edify negative stereotypes, which potentially limit people with “Black” names from accessing equal means of sustenance and amenities. Meanwhile, googling a white-identifying name produces “neutral” content. (The ads that come up when I google my own name offer viewers private information for a fee.)
And it is how this digital view is shaped that is most disturbing: Google assures that there is no racial bias in the algorithms they use to position ads. Rather, the algorithms “learn over time” which ads are selected most frequently and then they display those. The algorithms are simply reflecting the dominant values of our time, but demonstrating them to each of us differently, depending on our own particularities, and from what is know from our individual and collective clicks: these algorithms cannot result in a more panoramic view. So, thank you to Latanya Sweeney for rubbing the fog off of my view, for now at least. Otherwise, because of my race, and my name, I may not have seen the racist outcomes these algorithms are producing.
So, what’s your view? What are your blind spots?
And really, what can be done with our names, both in the digital and the physical world, that has an effect equivalent to Hans Hemmert’s shoe-extenders?