Practical magic in pandemic times

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Photo by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

This COVID-19 lockdown diary from New York City was written for Ida Faldbakken and the rest of the Katapult Future Fest team in Oslo.

Today is May Day 2020. Here in New York — the epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic — the air swells with spring rain. Sirens wail and gusts of wind tear through newly-bloomed tulips. Tonight, as with every night at seven, a jagged wail will rise from the streets and alleys around me: clapping, hooting, car horns, and one woman who simply needs to scream.

New Yorkers create this new ritual reactively, ardently, as the virus robs us of kinship and community. Life in the city has radically shrunk: Languid dinner parties and small-venue shows are suddenly… dissolved. Instead of inviting old friends to “roll through” a rollicking bar, we celebrate birthdays by Zoom and solitary candle. Layoffs cascade. Offices shutter. Culture workers panic as their side gigs disappear, promising gallery openings are canceled, and museums and theaters shutter indefinitely. As I write this, meetings and donations and deals in tech are being rescheduled to entirely different years.

Pilgrimages have also ceased: One year ago, my grandmother Marie-Louise was slowly dying and could no longer fly. My trip to Oslo in May to speak at Katapult Future Fest transformed into a rite of passage, with my body serving to reunite a family across generations and the Atlantic. A year later, with borders slammed shut, I realize how lucky I was to make this journey.

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The diarist climbs onto a ledge during the 17 Mai 2019 parade in Oslo, Norway

My Norwegian cousins and aunts embraced me on the 17 Mai national holiday as thousands spilled joyfully through stately streets and green parks, inaugurating spring after months of frigid darkness. They shared precious artifacts and barraged me with loving questions. And, they answered mine: I knew about our Resistance history, but the women in my family were also writers, painters, and polyglots! I received these gifts of memory and identity as we passed time over the table, breathing shared air. By late 2019, my grandmother was gone but my American family was afforded the dignity to gather and mourn her at a simple white altar in a seaside church, passing along words from the old country with a hoisted glass of ceremonial aquavit.

None of this would be possible today; May 1st, 2020. Now, funerals are disbanded by edict. Mourners rely on livestreams or gather in sad small groups spaced out across lawns. Who are we when we must sacrifice both our joy and our grief? When we cannot celebrate love by embracing our kin? Last week my friend Atossa gave birth in an N95 mask to a small, strong boy in an isolated maternity ward in Manhattan. This tiny oasis of new life was encircled by a larger ICU of intubated humans. Her son was born healthy, thankfully, but giving birth in a pandemic meant no after-birth cuddles from relatives trapped behind borders near and far.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

We are just beginning to see the effects of social distancing as it forecloses the communion of touch. The psychological effect “skin hunger” has a direct influence on our bodies’ regulation of stress hormones. Though the hospital in my neighborhood received many donated iPads to help its COVID-19 patients contact loved ones, technology cannot suffice as a surrogate for ceremony or care. Patients with acute COVID-19 in New York hospitals face far worse trials than mere separation: They must suffer and ache and writhe, but forget the bedside vigil of comforting hand-squeezes or even the dignity of last rites.

Technology leaders of conscience must work toward fair and equitable solutions to the pandemic crisis so that we can all be together again and share in human ritual.

Developing a vaccine is critical. Developing the social trust to take a vaccine will be critical too. Labor rights, security and privacy, and equitable health outcomes could be a first focus for those of us outside of biotech. This crisis calls not for uncritical solutionism or for unscientific thinking, but for a kind of practical magic; one of rebuilding and recalibrating. A practical magic that draws on our deepest collectivist wisdom and refuses to return to an unjust “normal.” As Arundhati Roy writes, the pandemic is a portal. Can we pivot and walk through it, protected by newly-visible truth?

Data & Society, the independent research institute where I work, brings people together to study and debate what happens when humans intersect with emerging technology. We think about systems and vulnerabilities in sectors ranging from medical innovation to machine learning. Our response to COVID-19 was to launch virtual network “power hours” that center knowledge from communities who have historically relied on interdependent support systems to share tactics, build resilience, and reclaim power.

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Data & Society rapid-response network talk featuring public health expert Kenyon Farrow & sociologist Tamara K. Nopper on racial disparities in COVID-19’s impact, reporting, and analyses.

These groups include tech labor organizers, disability rights activists, digital security practitioners, and artists whose work reveals invisible experiences of this crisis and of technological proliferation. We at Data & Society find that intersectional, inclusive cross-sector collaboration ensures that values such as fairness, accountability, and transparency stay central to developing and deploying new technologies. This important digital circle-calling work has been led by my colleagues including Rigoberto Lara Guzmán. Cross-sector, global-collective, and hyperlocal approaches are each critical in a pandemic that knows no border, class, or boundary.

Working in technology gives us agency and privilege on a regular day; in this pandemic, we must doubly judge our investments and innovations against the problem of exploitation. We must take stock of the many promises of “empowerment” in the context of human health and environmental stewardship, and alongside the challenges of historical reparations and healing. COVID-19 lays bare many already-existing inequities: Unequal surveillance. Lack of access to basic resources. Income inequality. Racial disparities in healthcare access. Civil society groups long dedicated to these struggles will likely see renewed interest from well-meaning technocrats and funders now. But I am a little nervous about the frenzy of activity toward seductive tech solutions to the pandemic such as contact tracing, which may or may not take into account work that’s already been done to protect privacy and vulnerable groups.

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Smartphone photo of a May 1 pandemic bouquet from Park Deli, pictured in front of the Brooklyn Museum, with Deborah Kass’ “OY/YO” public sculpture.

Our Labor Futures researchers often point out the division between who can safely shelter at home, versus who must risk their health in order to work. Every day, I see front-line delivery workers slalom through the Brooklyn streets on motorized bikes. The supply chain for sending a single bouquet of celebratory spring flowers feels morally different when you ask another person to harvest without hazard pay, or risk viral exposure during their delivery trip.

This is one ritual I would say to forego were it not for the fact that my stepmother, a profoundly talented floral designer (and proud immigrant to the United States from Mexico) was laid off as soon as the virus hit — along with countless other skilled workers in the events and hospitality sectors. In my own tribute to the also-essential vocations, I’ve been walking 1.5 miles in a snug mask up to the Park Deli in Crown Heights to buy bundles of ranunculus, lilies, and roses in time for the pagan holiday of regeneration, Beltane (also today). Small acts of patronage are not just neighborly now; they are political. And acting up for rent relief and workers’ paid sick leave is the next step in that advocacy. After all, May 1 is the perfect day to protect those workers of the world who provision us with bread and with roses.

Mayday is also an international distress signal. Is the pandemic a last-second logistic and moral fire drill for the climate crisis? A reminder of the bitter toll of anti-science mis- and disinformation campaigns, enabled for years by the venality of platform companies? Another indictment of the American neglect of empirical knowledge, of our eviscerated social services, of our unwarranted and counterproductive international exceptionalism?

One thing is certain: We cannot keep up this pace.

In a bizarre way, I can’t help but wish that this keen, slowed-down appreciation of the natural world during shelter-in-place might produce a permanent critical rupture in perception. Let that wish become a focused intention, then, which is another way of describing a spell: After 2020, we will reexamine supply chains that imperil our earth and place risk on “essential workers.” We will finally heed the First Nations leaders such as the Hunkpapa and Sihasapa bands of Lakota Oyate and the Ihunktuwona and Pabaksa bands of the Dakota Oyate, who have publicly put their bodies on the line to ensure community health while calling out ecologically unsustainable business practices. We will listen to the chronically ill community, which has been ringing a loud alarm for decades about American problems with medicine, equality, and access to care––and whose ranks are full of the immunocompromised and incarcerated, who are so very at risk right now. And we will invoke the strength and stories of our ancestors, especially those who survived waves of war, disease, annihilation, and oppression.

Place a flower on the altar, light the candle: So mote it be.

In order to cope and to build, we must use our connectivity not to jump to quick solutions and surveil each other, but to access wide bodies of knowledge from all those spiritual and intellectual traditions that listen to signals from history, and from nature. Our past kin gave us the methods. In us are encoded real human stories of exile, courage, and survival. We should learn from this past — and from our own generation’s organizers and healers — to leverage our privilege and scaffold a truly shared future.

May Day is a holiday of glorious growth and a day to practice solidarity. We are called on at this time to acknowledge the seasons of life and to care for our most vulnerable.

Today, seven blocks from my apartment there is an 18-wheeler freezer truck set up outside the hospital as an overflow morgue. Nothing feels more unnatural than this harrowing reminder that I live in a community that needs me now, albeit dialed in and safely separated. Fellow Katapult-er Adah Parris writes of individual and collective rituals; in a way, we are all now what Wiccans might call “solitary practitioners” of, paradoxically, a virtual global coven of mutual aid. In this anxious interval, there will be creative ways to recreate the rhythms of humanity both in the flesh and online, making space for connection but also for collective grief. After all, mental health is a part of essential health and the shamans and therapists of this age will be our frontline workers, too. They will instruct us on how to honor and upend moments of darkness, even as winter cedes to warmth and seasonal daylight hours grow here in New York with a now-uncanny beauty.

Sam Hinds is Director of Creative Strategy for Data & Society. She is currently in lockdown in New York.

Sam Hinds is Director of Creative Strategy at Data & Society (www.datasociety.net) in New York City.

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