The PEN Pod: Putting Tech Under the Microscope with Ainissa Ramirez
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with the self-described “science evangelist” Ainissa Ramirez. Her new book, The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, looks at the technologies of yesteryear and their importance on human social evolution. An advocate for STEM education and an educator herself, Ainissa writes about eight inventions and how they’ve shaped humanity. We spoke with Ainissa about her work, the importance of STEM education, and technology’s rapidly expanding role in sparking global movements.
Our relationship to technology is evolving so much right now, both because of the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of police violence, particularly against Black lives in this country. How do you think people might read this book right now?
We are certainly in a critical time, and we’re learning a lot about the world, as we’re in this crucible and learning a lot about who this world really works for. But in my book, The Alchemy of Us, I’m actually looking at how the world works through a lens of technology. So many of us have been locked up for a long time, and we’re losing our sense of time. I would argue that we’re going back to the era when our ancestors were alive, and clocks weren’t as permeated in their lives as they are in ours are today. They lived more by nature’s cues—they used the sun and their bodies to try to determine time. So time moves slowly now because we’ve kind of removed ourselves from the clock. This is one of the things I discussed in The Alchemy of Us. I would also say that the desire to connect, which is a human desire, is being enabled by technology. Imagine what life would be right now without cell phones and Zoom. So technology is definitely a tool, and it’s definitely something that’s within our social fabric. And these are some of the things that I highlighted in the book.
“Time moves slowly now because we’ve kind of removed ourselves from the clock. This is one of the things I discussed in The Alchemy of Us. I would also say that the desire to connect, which is a human desire, is being enabled by technology. Imagine what life would be right now without cell phones and Zoom. So technology is definitely a tool, and it’s definitely something that’s within our social fabric.”
This text highlights some important figures who, at least at the time, were unheralded for their noted inventions, particularly women and people of color. Of the stories that you exposed in this book, which were most surprising to you?
The most important thing that I wrote is in Chapter Four: “Capture.” It’s the story of Caroline Hunter, an African American woman who was a chemist working at Polaroid. Polaroid was the much beloved company at the time in the 1970s, because they made this wonderful technology called instant photography. What Caroline found is that her company was actually selling this technology to South Africa, and it was being used to buttress their apartheid system. It ended up that all black South Africans had to carry with them a passbook, which was used to monitor and control their whereabouts, and at the heart of the passbook was a picture made by Polaroid. I love Polaroid. I had a Polaroid camera at one time. But now I’m looking at it, and I’m like, “Ooh, how come I didn’t know about this?!” So I hope that when people read The Alchemy of Us, they gain a new relationship to the technologies that we have—even the ones that we’d loved.
One of the big conversations that is happening now is around the fact that technology is not bias-free. When we talk about AI and computer technology, we bake in so many of our own assumptions and replicate our world. Do you think that there’s a moment for that to change?
I’m so glad that we’re having this analysis of technology in the future. But what I do in The Alchemy of Us is look at older technologies of the past and show how they changed us, so people will see how language was shaped by the telegraph, and how today’s computers are shaping how we think. And I’m hoping that by looking at older technologies, we’ll feel more emboldened and more empowered to look at newer technologies. One of the things I’m pretty excited about right now is photography. The way that we use cell phones—I wasn’t too proud as a species about all the selfies, but what’s making me optimistic right now is that cell phone cameras are being used as a tool of social justice. By being able to take pictures of brutalities and then be able to transport them through the internet, we now have a global impact, a global movement that’s taking place all because of technology.
“If we don’t learn about the biases in technologies like artificial intelligence, and if people don’t push back, then we are going to go in a direction that I don’t think humanity is going to be completely happy with. But I am pleased with the fact that we’re using technology as a way to create movements. And since so many things are being put underneath the microscope, I hope that technology, too, will be put there.”
All these advances in genetic engineering and health technologies are being laid flat by this virus. Has it affected your feelings about technology? In the instance about this sparking of a movement, it sounds like you’re optimistic.
I’m optimistic in parts. I’m from New Jersey, and we’re not usually optimistic about things. So I’m not generally optimistic about technology, but I do think that it can do things that we haven’t been able to do. But if we don’t learn about the biases in technologies like artificial intelligence, and if people don’t push back, then we are going to go in a direction that I don’t think humanity is going to be completely happy with. But I am pleased with the fact that we’re using technology as a way to create movements. And since so many things are being put underneath the microscope, I hope that technology, too, will be put there. And that was my intention in writing The Alchemy of Us—to put old tech under the microscope and show how it shaped us, so that we will do the same with newer tech.
As someone who advocates for STEM education, do you think that the pandemic in particular will inspire more people to enter into the sciences as a field, particularly women and especially women of color?
It’s never been an issue of people entering the field of STEM—it’s if we can sustain them. And one of the things that’s happening right now with all the upheaval is that we’re actually putting STEM under the microscope. There was a movement that happened just yesterday of #ShutDownSTEM, where people who are in the sciences were not doing the daily business of science, and institutions had to reflect on how they buttress racism. So it was an important day. And I hope that one of the positive results of this is that the pipeline will be patched. People who are in academia will have better lives and not have to undergo much of the microaggressions that happen in that world of academia.
So I’m hopeful. I think that this is a time of upheaval, but it’s also a time of reflection. And again, STEM is very important, but we also need people to know STEM for more than just having STEM careers. What we need them to do is be able to think critically. That’s what STEM is really about. I actually think that the way we’re teaching STEM is not quite the way we need to do it. We need everyone to be a critical thinker. And that was the reason why I wrote my book, The Alchemy of Us, because I was trying to train people to think critically. If you can look at something in the past and feel comfortable about that, then you’ll have that muscle to look at things in the future and think critically about them.
“I was trying to train people to think critically. If you can look at something in the past and feel comfortable about that, then you’ll have that muscle to look at things in the future and think critically about them.”
A century from now, if the Anissa Ramirez of that generation writes a similar book to The Alchemy of Us, what technologies do you think that person might write about?
Oh, that’s a very good question. It might be things like the cell phone. It might be some of these algorithms such as driverless cars, and how they change our perception and our interaction with each other. I haven’t given it a tremendous amount of thought, but it may even be technologies that seem very benign to us, but a hundred years from now we’re like, “Wow, that really shaped us.” So maybe we’ll be alive and we’ll be able to read that book.
Absolutely. And finally, what are you reading right now?
Well, I’m thinking a lot about photography, so I’m actually reading On Photography by Susan Sontag.
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