Emoji Boss, IRL Bubbles, and Audiophile Elegy: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From meeting the person responsible for approving new emoji to rediscovering the kind of music listener we used to be, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Meet Jennifer Daniel, the person behind the emoji we all rely way too much on.
*Extreme Emoji Emoji*
Emoji are one of the great gifts of the internet age—an entire language that is shared by the world that is continually evolving and growing and changing based on user needs and habits and the times those users live in. I lean hard on emoji for their simplicity certainly, but also their wide-open potential. I love seeing how I can push and play and bend them to my snarky sense of humor. But because I work in media and I'm a nerd for everything involving how we communicate, anytime a story comes along that offers a peek under the emoji hood I drop everything. And late last week, MIT Technology Review published some great emoji content: an interview with Jennifer Daniel, the new head of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium. Or, said another way, she's the woman who decides what emoji we get.
Daniel is a designer whose work has been published by The New Yorker, TIME, and The Washington Post; she's a former graphics editor at The New York Times; and, as the Unicode Consortium so dryly puts it, "she now explores communication and messaging through verbal, written, auditory and visual expression at a small ad company called Google." She talks a bit about what her job as Emoji Subcommittee Chair actually is—"A lot of it is managing volunteers," she says. "There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings."—and how she ended up in the role. But the bulk of the Q&A is focused on the really interesting in-the-weeds stuff about how emoji happen. It takes two years to make an emoji from start to finish," she says. "And within those two years, so many decisions are made." A lot depends on the rapidly changing way we communicate offline and how that manifests in the digital world. "When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language," she says. "Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve." The biggest challenges center on inclusivity and diversity, as well as accessibility. With something as graphic as emoji, ensuring people who are visually impaired understand what they're being sent is crucial—and has been for too long overlooked. "Surely there is a way to understand that this is an emoji and reference that back to a meme or explain the secondary meaning," Daniel says. "It requires a much more specific meme accessibility team or standard. It’s great that the internet is getting more accessible with captions, but there’s so much more room to improve upon that. Emoji could do better." If you think you know everything about emoji, Daniel's interview will absolutely prove you're wrong. And if you think emoji is just some immature kiddie stuff, Daniel is ready to dissuade you of that, too: "Emoji are unstoppable, and language is unstoppable." <100 emoji> <hand clap emoji> <robot bicep flex emoji> —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Is this a photo of kids playing bubble soccer or a scene from a neighborhood block party when the topic of politics comes up? Yes.
Our Bubbles, Ourselves
We all know the dangers of living in an information bubble, where all of your news sources have the same political or ideological bias and you never hear contrary opinions. But The New York Times has a fascinating new tool to show the depth of our IRL bubbles, where we live and work alongside people who mostly share our worldview and politics. “How politically diverse is your neighborhood?” asks the Times, inviting people to plug in their address and find out how red or blue their area looks. Turns out a whole lot of us are living in an ideological monoculture.
My last two addresses in Washington D.C. and Seattle were almost identically blue bubbles—87% Democratic. But my grandmother’s house in a close-in, leafy Dallas neighborhood, which I had long assumed was a political bubble, turned out to be the most ideologically diverse of all the places I looked: almost evenly split between Republican and Democrat. All of this matters because it’s hard to imagine a reality we don’t see with our own eyes, and if we never encounter voters of the opposing party it’s harder to understand their views as fellow Americans. “It’s a lot easier to demonize people on the other end of the political spectrum if you don’t personally know many of them,” Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the Times. “That’s not a healthy situation for the country.” Time to venture outside the bubble—online and in the world at large. —Stefanie Sanford
While you're acting all clever calling vinyl record buyers "hipsters" or "nerds" or "millennials" while you stream endless corporate content Spotify playlists, they're listening to music the way it should be heard and you're hearing... sounds, I guess?
This One Goes to 11
It's hard to describe all the ways this meditative piece by Mike St. Thomas in The Hedgehog Review resonated with me. The memories of what now feels like a bygone era of music are powerful—scouring stores for interesting records, the devotional act of listening to whole albums, and, especially, the richness of stereo-quality sound when compared with the measly, compressed garble of streaming audio. “The music we store on our laptops and stream from the cloud are highly compressed, and sound noticeably worse, their edges chopped entirely off,” St. Thomas writes. “For this reason, vinyl records still have a market in the age of the smartphone app.” But this essay isn’t some Luddite’s complaint about modern technology. It’s an argument for the joy of full attention, of embracing music as a genuine break from the harried worlds of school and work rather than passively letting it hum as background noise.
St. Thomas grew up at the dawn of the internet age, so he remembers what it was like to search—physically, in record stores and friends’ houses—for a coveted CD or bootleg concert tape. He remembers getting recommendations from real humans—friends, music teachers, record store clerks—instead of simply following the Spotify algorithm. And all of that effort made for a deeper experience of music, for a relationship to sound that was richer and more focused. Sure the convenience of YouTube concerts and streaming singles is wondrous, but there’s an inevitable tradeoff. “As I look at the purple links of music on my YouTube feed, most half-played, abandoned, and now forgotten, I feel like some unwitting Brave New Amnesiac, trained to forget his own experiences so that he will repeat them over and over again.” I was never the kind of music devotee that St. Marks is, with a turntable and a set of good speakers. But I remember what it was like to put a borrowed CD into my Jeep’s stereo, to find some backroads long enough that I could listen to a whole album with the windows down and nowhere in particular to go. Beats the heck out of a Spotify playlist on tinny little headphones. —Eric Johnson
(left) Singer Carnell Johnson poses during a pro-mask wearing campaign in Las Vegas on June 25, 2020; (right) A protester holds up a sign protesting wearing a mask at the Texas State Capital building on April 18, 2020.
"Was the trauma sufficient to elicit a response?" That's the lingering question author Michael Lewis has after reporting his new book, The Premonition, about the covid-19 pandemic and the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in America's handling—or mishandling—of it. He spoke with The New York Times' Ezra Klein last week and, yes, I know, everyone wants to move on (even though the pandemic still rages), go back to normal (what even is normal now?), and throw their masks into the incinerator (they work, they're as much to protect those around you as yourself, and seriously, masks are an emasculating infringement on your personal liberty?). But this is a conversation worth listening to. Lewis is expert in telling these kinds of diffuse, gnarly stories in ways that help normal people make sense of them while also pushing things forward. (See (and read): The Big Short.) It's also valuable because Klein pushes on Lewis, the perspectives he shares in the book, and the conclusions he reaches. (It's also a fascinating capsule history of the CDC, an organization I know far too little about. Which is something I'm sure I share with a lot of other Americans.)
How responsible was a botched CDC response in the early days of the pandemic for the pain and devastation that followed? Could the United States have done the difficult things in January and February 2020—like closing schools at the first hint of a potential pandemic—to arrest the spread of covid-19? Will the country learn the right lessons from the last 15-plus months to guard against the inevitable next pandemic? These questions, and more, scaffold the interview and the stress test Klein puts Lewis and The Premonition through. But it's that last one, about lessons, that seems most relevant as we emerge from pandemic lockdown. And something Lewis says in the interview lodged itself into my brain. "It’s been a very peculiar pandemic, because it’s given enough people a feeling of they’re not affected. At the same time, it’s caused enormous tragedy," Lewis said. "People can tell themselves a story, 'Oh, this isn’t about me.' It didn’t actually implicate everybody in the same way." It didn’t actually implicate everybody in the same way. How the country acknowledges that reality—if it's even acknowledged—will dictate everything about the post-pandemic recovery. Lewis thinks the trauma was "sufficient to elicit a response." I really want to believe him. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
To paraphrase my favorite fictional mailman, when you control the internet you control... information! And to whoever controls the information go the spoils of being the nu-elite.
Serfing the Information Superhighway
One of the best books I’ve read this year is Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public. It’s not an easy read, covering everything from the Great Recession to the Arab Spring to the aftermath of the 2016 election in the United States. But the thesis is pretty straightforward: We’re living through a genuine revolution in the relationship between the public and “the elites,” a crisis of institutional authority driven by access to information and the ability of people everywhere to participate in the public conversation. “Our ruling institutions had authority because they had a very valuable commodity: information,” Gurri explains in this excellent interview with Vox. “But when the tsunami of information hit around the turn of the century, the legitimacy of that model instantly went into crisis because you now had the opposite effect. You had an overabundance of information, and that created a lot of confusion and anarchy.”
Gurri is a former CIA analyst, and what worries him is that the new communications technologies of our era have proven adept at tearing down institutions without building up new models of authority in their place. He says it’ll be up to the rising generation to create an elite class that’s comfortable with radical transparency and closer proximity to the public. “We’ll have to reconfigure our democracy,” Gurri argues. “Our politicians and institutions are going to have to adjust to the new world in which the public can’t be walled off or controlled. Leaders can’t stand at the top of pyramids anymore and talk down to people. The digital revolution flattened everything. We’ve got to accept that.” It’s equal parts worrying and inspiring, and it means this generation of young people has a lot of work to do. —Eric Johnson