On the second day of the WIRED25 three-part virtual speaker series, topics ranged from the disastrous effects of the Anthropocene to the importance of journalism under an authoritarian regime. Today’s premise: how to make our communities, systems, and planet more resilient.
Sarah Friar, the CEO of Nextdoor, kick-started the discussions in an interview by Lauren Goode, a senior writer at WIRED and host of the Get WIRED podcast. As communities around the world suddenly faced Covid-19 lockdowns, Friar explained, Nextdoor was there to "cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighbor to rely on.” The site, based in 268,000 neighborhoods in 11 countries, aims to foster trust and kindness among locals through user verification measures, promoting positive posts, and moderating heated debates. Even in the pre-pandemic world, the company’s research showed that loneliness plagues people around the globe and from every walk of life—a condition whose effects have been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So while those living on opposite sides of a picket fence may not look or think the same, she explained, an outstretched hand during a time of crisis might just save a life. Empathy, above all, is key.
Arielle Pardes, a senior writer at WIRED, was then joined by venture capitalists Arlan Hamilton and Katie Rae. Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital, a fund designed to promote underrepresented innovators. Rae is the CEO and managing partner of the Engine, whose stated goal is to back founders with transformational tech requiring years of development.
When asked about the genesis of Backstage Capital, Hamilton responded, “Ninety percent of venture funding goes to straight white men.” Where most people would see a defeatist statistic, though, Hamilton saw an opportunity to capitalize on the brightest minds of our most underestimated thinkers. “If we have done so much with so little,” she thought at the time, “what would happen if we were given more, if we had that slight chance that was not afforded to us prior.”
For those investors still not sold on the economics of social good, Rae noted, “If you talk to young people, what you hear so often is, 'We want to do good.' So if you just follow the youth in what will be, you’re going to make money by being aligned. The youth always know. So you just sound old when you say you can’t make money by doing good.”
Then WIRED’s Matt Simon led a panel on global environmental challenges with some of the scientists catalyzing the tech in the field. Joining him were Deonie Allen and Steve Allen from the University of Strathclyde to discuss their study of microplastics and how they’re transported through the atmosphere. Skeptics may brush off microplastics as a micro-concern, but according to Deonie, they’ve found them everywhere. Throughout their globe-trotting research, they’ve yet to take “a sample that doesn’t have plastic in it.”
Also on the panel was Isla Myers-Smith, whose research crew, Team Shrub, has been studying the greening effect in the Arctic tundra over the past dozen years. But green, as Myers-Smith pointed out, isn’t always good: More vegetation means more insolation, and more insolation means a warmer ground—thereby melting the permafrost and releasing carbon into the air. How much carbon? “It’s somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 petagrams,” she calculated. “If you imagine a coal train, the train would be 200,000 miles long.”
Whether it’s microplastics or the thawing Arctic, Steve Allen reminded viewers, “We often forget we live on a ball and that ball is inside a bubble. So whatever we do in one area affects everybody else.”
Matt Mitchell, the founder of CryptoHarlem and a tech fellow at the Ford Foundation, then spoke with Sidney Fussell, a senior writer at WIRED. Mitchell told Fussell he launched CryptoHarlem in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial to help educate activists on cybersecurity. His free courses are geared to disrupt what he calls the digital stop-and-frisk. “It’s the criminalization of Blackness online instead of on the streets,” he explained. As for white people who think this is an issue that doesn’t involve them, Mitchell pointed out that our marginalized communities are the canaries in the coal mine. “When it comes to surveillance, they’re the ones who are targeted first. They’re the beta testers,” he said. “It begins in Black communities and brown communities and in marginalized communities. They are the canaries in the coal mine, and they are screaming, but we’re still alive.”
Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler and the final guest of the day, is intimately familiar with staying alive in a despotic system, as she explained to WIRED’s editor at large, Steven Levy. With eight arrest warrants for “cyber libel," tax evasion, and securities fraud, she’s been the victim of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s attack on the press and faces a possible jail sentence of almost 100 years. Ressa and Levy’s conversation covered Duterte’s legal gymnastics to achieve convictions, Facebook’s ongoing efforts to “duck the responsibility of being a publisher,” and the world’s tragic backslide into fascism 75 years after the formation of the UN. Even if Ressa feels like Franz Kafka’s Josef K., though, she still maintains an upbeat spirit and sense of “gallows humor.” Her trick, she said, is to “embrace my fear, and if I hold it tight, then I can rob it of its power over me.”
Shifting that power dynamic today, as WIRED’s editor in chief, Nick Thompson, said in his closing remarks, is crucial.“When something starts to move in one direction, it starts to move ever faster in that direction,” he added. Whether that direction is positive or negative is up to the global community.
To meet some more of the superheroes of 2020 working to push humanity in the right direction, join us for the final day of WIRED25 next Wednesday, September 30, at 12 pm Eastern Time. Speakers will include—among others—Anthony Fauci, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang, journalist Patrice Peck, and a timely segment on the wildfires now raging through the American West.