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Digital contagion

The Covid-19 pandemic stopped the world, causing thousands of deaths around the globe, and questioning the structures of our societies, economics, and cultures. Following the quarantine requirements, human sociality progressively moved online. As a consequence, digital infrastructures were under severe stress for a few weeks, following a massive increase in data consumption and connectivity demand. More people online for more time also meant more chances for cybercriminals to spread malware and other viruses exploiting code vulnerabilities and human weaknesses. In the face of this full-force technical gale, computer security expert Mikko Hyppönen tweeted out a warning to internet criminals: “Public message to ransomware gangs: Stay the F away from medical organizations. If you target hospital computer systems during the pandemic, we will use all of our resources to hunt you down.” 

What follows is a conversation in lockdown, in March 2020, between Philip Di Salvo—an academic and journalist who covers surveillance, hacks, and leaks—and Salvatore Vitale—a visual artist who works on security imagery and the politics of data, who recently infected a computer for art’s sake. 

Philip di Salvo: In these first days of quarantine in Northern Italy, I was thinking about how frequently I used the term “virus” in a technological context, compared to a medical, biological one. It strikes me now, to see this term gaining such a crucial meaning in that regard.

Salvatore Vitale: I’ve been thinking about it a lot too during the past few days. We are all witnessing the limits of our political and economic systems, therefore their social impact somehow reflects the way we, as humans, aren’t fully aware of how those systems work. This brings me back to high school, when, during biology class, my teacher was trying to hold the attention of a bunch of young students, while explaining how the human body and its immune system work: We all know we have one, we all, more or less, know the parts that constitute it, but many of us aren’t fully aware of its functioning. Can you find some similarities if we compare it to technology and safety online? Technological apparatuses, although cultural objects, go far beyond our understanding of their functioning. I see some similarities with the recent events concerning the pandemic, caused by an unknown enemy. 

As I watch cases of Covid-19 increase in my region, I’m constantly thinking about how easily we spread computer viruses or malware, sometimes without even noticing it. We have all received at least one email from a random contact with a dodgy link or attachment. That reminds me of asymptomatic people spreading Covid-19 without any awareness or chance of avoiding it. Have you ever worked on these issues?

I recently read an article about the increase of cyber attacks due to Covid-19. As more and more people are experiencing quarantine, online activity becomes a primary source of information and entertainment, as well as a tool to pursue social and professional interactions. This massive online presence triggers a series of criminal activities against a huge amount of potential victims. IT security has a lot to do with human behavior, a topic which is discussed in psychology. Back in 2018, talking about psychology and IT security at the festival Transmediale, Stefan Schumacher, president of the Magdeburg Institute for Security Research and editor of the Magdeburg Journal for Security Research, addressed some questions related to hand washing and disinfection: Everyone knows how to wash their hands, but many don’t know how to do it properly. That’s an interesting fact, as recently we’ve been bombarded by tutorials on “How to wash your hands,” promoted by governments, celebrities, and influencers in an attempt to educate the population to avoid the spread of Covid-19. There is, indeed, a similarity between hand washing and IT security, as both actions imply a certain level of self-awareness and perception of personal expertise, which inevitably leads to decision-making. And decision-making is affected by experiences and individual behaviors. Therefore, psychology plays a major role in the study of these phenomena. Let’s take as an example the use of passwords. Users don’t perceive a direct threat when they are requested to set up their passwords. The majority of them use weak passwords, often because they don’t consider IT security relevant. This has a lot to do with individual perception and acceptance of risk. When something (or someone) appears to be abstract, or—as in the case of computer malware or a biological virus—difficult to be comprehended, risk is not perceived, therefore, security measures for prevention will be weak. The complexity of cybernetic systems leads to various collateral and/or unintended effects on socio- and political-technological levels. However, these modulations, and thereby the relation between the modulator and modulated, are rarely fully transparent. This leads to action and reaction patterns with delayed or obscured cause-and-effect mechanisms, often resulting in a black box for lay users. This logic, as such, reflects the internet, but as we have seen, also both the computing of security and the securing of computing. Actions and non-actions, of users, super-users, bots, and robots, in connection with the networked world, require a regime of policing and securitization. Starting from these assumptions and the basic question, “what does malware look like?” I worked on The Reservoir, an installation used as a trigger to experience the non-linear cause-and-effect relationship that occurs while browsing the internet. By interacting with a sensor field in the sound installation, the audience disturbs and modulates an audio track, while a real-time infection of a Macintosh-running virtual machine connected to the internet triggers a visual simulation of human online activities and malware responses. Photography, sound, video, and interactions work together to underline and evoke the construction of a certain kind of awareness concerning safety in cyberspace.

In information security, it is widely accepted that the weakest knot in a system is usually human behavior. For instance, you can use the best state-of-the-art encryption technology and still jeopardize your security by doing something banal outside of the internet. Also, most hacking is more social engineering than technological expertise. I re-thought about it the other day when I saw a tweet from a white-hat hacker warning that in a lot of pictures on social media showing smart-working it was possible to spot passwords handwritten on post-its, etc. It is always fascinating to see how much humans tend to think about technology as if it was in isolation from other human, physical, or even biological factors. But tell me more about the project, what did you find out?

It is worth mentioning that as of yet there is no official research devoted to the visualization of cyberspace as a whole, though the researcher and academic, Myriam Dunn Cavelty, has attempted to specifically trace the visualization of cyber threats in visual culture through the analysis of movies and TV series. Ultimately, visual culture remains the only site that influences how digital is read and made readable. Within it we can observe a rapidly growing interest in the understanding and representation of the digital world we live in. A long list of blockbuster movies, for instance, deals with the representation of the intangible, which each time is presented and represented in a more or less physical, more or less ephemeral, futuristic, or post apocalyptic way. This is especially true in the realm of science fiction. Hyperreality plays a role here. The perception of the digital is often channeled into a series of factors that make its specificity explicit. However, the real is increasingly imbued with digital elements, therefore it becomes increasingly difficult to make a clear distinction. Hito Steyerl argues that the “internet is dead” because it crossed borders and became too real. The world we live in is shaped by the internet and the internet shapes the world we live in. It is actually a good exercise, to stop for a moment and notice how every single aspect of our life is regulated by images, screens, 3D models, videos, devices. Indeed, this is nothing new and many words have been shared about and around this topic. But Steyerl takes it to another level, she says: “Data, sounds, and images are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter. They surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially. They incarnate as riots or products, as lens flares, high-rises, or pixelated tanks. Images become unplugged and unhinged and start crowding off-screen space. They invade cities, transforming spaces into sites, and reality into realty.” How can we blame her? The subtle line that separates what is digital from what is physical triggers a whole series of behaviors and reactions, which inevitably lead to situations such as the one you mentioned in your passwords example. However, as I was mentioning earlier, I witnessed a big gap between reality and representation. Our understanding of the digital is mostly based on patterns coming from a speculative process. Digital as such is highly abstract, therefore, it becomes difficult to visualize its functioning. When I had the occasion to collaborate with the The Reporting and Analysis Centre for Information Assurance (MELANI), I immediately realized how much this problem was also present in the work of those who produce and ensure IT security. In this sense, metaphors and allegorical representations of subjects are used, which often are far from providing exhaustive resources that grant access to wider audiences. I started, then, to wonder how to get rid of the limitations brought by the use of such a representative media as photography is, embracing different points of view, allowing it to play on an experiential level, but still underlining a visual narrative. Indeed, there are several examples in this sense, especially if we look back at internet art in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, as a precursor to internet aesthetics such as ASCII art—which is still used in some cases to design the visual look of software such as malware. In my installation, therefore, I put together those elements, creating a narrative which underlines both the functioning and the aesthetic of malware– a quite visual ransomware called Petya to be specific—relying on the viewer’s individual experience to design a speculative process filling the gap between understanding and representation. 

The malware that has mostly attracted my attention has been Mirai, which made the news in 2016. I’ve been fascinated with it ever since. The name means “future” in Japanese and the software itself has been at the core of one of the most widespread cyber attacks of recent times. Hackers used it to infect an army of products: cameras, printers, coffee machines, and other items that are connected to the internet for no serious reasons. The malware created an enormous botnet of “zombie” devices which were used to launch various Denial-of-service attacks against websites and web infrastructure, such as the DNS service provider, Dyn. Human users had no idea about what was going on with their devices but they were unconsciously helping to almost shut down the internet. I can’t really think of anything more similar to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Internet of things… the not-so-new-frontier for hackers. You made a point here, as the expansion of internet services is also a point to consider during the Covid-19 crisis. Suddenly, we are aware of the fact that the network isn’t unlimited and, as with any kind of infrastructure, it relies on limited resources. As previously said, we can definitely trace a correlation among the spread of a biological virus and the increase of cyber attacks. A major part of the world population is massively using internet services, the infrastructure is under pressure, and user behaviors shift to patterns that facilitate the spread of digital viruses. Since its very beginning and despite its borderless promises, internet logic mostly referred to groups and closed dynamics. Therefore, in the context we’re discussing here, the concept of community plays a role. Community building is, indeed, one of the main goals for any online service, both for a marketing and communication strategy. This became even more visible with the rise of Web 2.0 and the new dynamics introduced with the development of participatory content fostering bottom down engagement strategies, and consequently, community empowerment. Recently, I read about an interesting study—by Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, Samuel V. Scarpino, and Jean-Gabriel Young, published in Nature Physics—aiming at demonstrating how complex contagions (such as political ideas, fake news, and new technologies) are spread via a process of social reinforcement while, on the contrary, biological contagions are thought to be spread as simple contagions (where the infection is not directly related to the social context in which it happens). They also mention another study on the spread of memes within and across communities, demonstrating how “the spread within highly clustered communities is enhanced, while diffusion across communities is hampered.” Hence, contagions  benefit  from  network  clustering. This was also said by a Google IT security expert who I met while working on my project. Talking about user behaviors and policies to avoid the spread of digital attacks, they underlined how the company is mainly working on bottom down strategies devoted to educating users to recognize threats and foster individual awareness within their communities. 

My university inbox was recently targeted by a phishing attack coming from a compromised account related to an organization that I’ve been in touch with. The text tried to persuade me to download an “important” text file. The file was called “safety measures in regards to Covid-19.”

Closing the circle! I bet you downloaded it. Jokes aside, I am still fascinated by how phishing techniques somehow maintain this old-fashioned nature. Between.txt files, stock photos of self-styled white collars impersonating CEOs of big and famous companies and institutions, improbable wins, and requests for information, the question remains the same: “Who’s going to trust it?”According to KnowBe4, one of the world’s largest security awareness training and simulated phishing platforms, 91% of cyberattacks begin with phishing emails. However, in some cases, it is possible to assist in successful cyber security awareness campaigns and, suddenly, many users seem to understand some of the dynamics of popular attacks and start to protect themselves. It is very common, for instance, to see laptops with webcams covered—sometimes in a creative way—by any kind of sticker, post-it, colorful tape, and so on. This makes me think that, perhaps, when the risk threatens the personal sphere in a more or less visual way, users are more inclined to adopt defense strategies. Of course, there are many kinds of cyber threats as, to stick to the parallelism we are discussing, there are many different infectious agents. But, among the most effective ones we can definitely mention the Zero-Day, a bug in a system unknown to developers that is targeted for system attacks. It is called Zero-Day because, after the vulnerability is discovered, the developer has zero days to fix it. In a way—and to play with analogies—it makes me think about the concept of patient zero: The sooner you find them, the faster you can find out how an epidemic was spread and develop measures to contain it.

Nothing is real

We live in an era where conspiracy theorists talk about human-made viruses launched into the air and government plots to seize our existence. But what if they are onto something? What if the world that we are living in is not a globe? What if we were created by an intelligent being, instead of a process of biological evolution? What if instead of embracing technology and its innovation, we feared it like a villain? This moment in time—one unlike what many of us have ever lived—is a pertinent one in which to question our human experience, and to wonder what will happen after we return to our post-Covid-19 lives outside of our homes. Will we live in a reality that we can’t even imagine yet? What if we end up questioning everything that we knew before? For some people, alternative thinking is reality.  

Mark Sargent / What if the world as we know it does not exist? 

On February 10, 2015, at 3 a.m. Mark Sargent had a revelation: “I don’t think it’s a globe anymore. I think we are in a building. We’re in a box. We’re in The friggin’ Matrix, or a big sound stage, The Truman Show.” 

Sargent, a former software engineer and professional videogamer, is a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist. In 2015, the American became interested in studying these alternative realities and proving them wrong, until he came to one that baffled him. 

“It turned into this big snowball where I’m staring at the globe, turning it over and over, again and again, and going, ok, how would I prove the globe in a court of law? And I could never come up with a satisfactory case for the globe,” says Sargent. “Apparently, I had unearthed something by accident that should not have been happening, and it just kept getting weirder and weirder, and bigger and bigger, and now we have conferences in multiple countries.”

Sargent is the protagonist in the 2018 documentary about ‘flat earthers,’ Behind the Curve, and shares his truth at Flat Earth conferences around the globe. He produced a series of videos on a YouTube channel which has 85,000 followers, explaining his ‘Flat Earth clues’ which are the basis of his theory about the flat ‘stage that we are living on—its southern outer limit is defined by a barrier in Antarctica, he explained. Sargent points to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by the United Nations in 1959, as evidence of this barrier. 

As he says: “Antarctica is locked-down, you can’t do anything there, it doesn’t matter how rich your country is.” 

Sargent also claims he’s found proof that outer space does not exist: So why isn’t the sky black? 

“If you had the ability to create a sound stage, a giant studio, let’s say you could make one that was very, very large, you could do just about anything you wanted on the inside of it, you know you could project stars and planets on the ceiling,” says Sargent. He adds that the sky, which is actually a big clock, also decorates the fabricated world that we are living in, and provides us with a (false) sense of inspiration, meaning, and hope.

But the big question is, who built the sound stage?

Unfortunately, Sargent doesn’t know, but he has some ideas: “One option is a giant civilization that is much older and much more powerful than ourselves, or some sort of God—and at this point, I’m not going to start naming names. But whoever it was, it absolutely wasn’t us. We are talking about engineering on a scale that is way beyond us.”

You could say Sargent is referring to a being who is more intelligent than we are. But who is this “some sort of God”? Although he says he believes in God, he doesn’t definitively call out the creator of our reality. 

Randy Guliuzza, a former physician and civil engineer with a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, and the Institute for Creation Research where he works as a researcher and representative, however, do have a definitive answer about who created our world.

On an imaginary archipelago on Europe’s political periphery, isolation, social experimentation, and reconnection with nature infuse micro-societies. Archipelago, a look at the lifestyles of ecocommunities, eco-villages, and spiritual communities, started as Fabrizio Bilello’s research project about self-sustainable groups and progressively extended its focus on those embracing free sexuality, spirituality, and sustainability. Archipelago functions as a mosaic in which each portrayed community contributes to a counter cultural vision of society. In Chapter 1, the biotopes, the communities of Tinker’s Bubble and Yorkley Court Community Farm in the United Kingdom, and Tamera in Portugal, live with the duality of bonding and interdependence with nature.

Randy Guliuzza / What if humans were created by an intelligent being?

Proponents of Creation Science, or Creationism, say that our planet is so complex that the only way to explain its creation is by an intelligent being, who followed principles of engineering. Creationists, unlike Sargent, do identify the creator as a God, aka, Jesus Christ. 

As Guliuzza explains, according to Creation Science, we were made as fully-formed humans: “The biblical account is that Adam and Eve were created and all human beings were descendants from Adam and Eve. There were two of them and they were fully human. And we would say there’s an equivalent of an Adam and Eve for dogs. There was an equivalent of an Adam and Eve for cats. There was an equivalent of the original common ancestor for all the different types of creatures that we see today.” 

Guliuzza is an apt person to talk about Creation Science, because before he became a Creationist 30 years ago (he’s in his 60s now), he was a Darwinist. As a representative for the Institute, his area of expertise is explaining how organisms adapt, from a design and engineering point of view, such as noting that “all of our biological processes can be explained by engineering principles and the more they are consistent with engineering principles the more evidence there is to conclude that they were in fact engineered.” Everything we see on our planet was designed with a clear intention and purpose, by God, Guliuzza goes on to explain. 

How do you get past the fact that organisms seem to operate purposefully, and they behave purposefully and when I look at a heart, a heart seems to have a purpose, it’s pumping blood and the vessels seem to have a purpose, and all of this together looks like it’s a circulatory system and that has a purpose. How do you explain this design without a designer? Our explanation would be, yes, organisms do have an incredible amount of information, and in all of human experience we have only seen information come from an intelligent source.”

In Creation Science, the concept of purpose is not only about how our biological functions were designed, it is also about our reason for living. Guliuzza explains that by understanding Creationism, you can also embody why we are here on earth. 

“We are not adrift on a planet, spinning about with no reason for being here, through some purposeless origin of life in some warm little pond, with no goal in mind where it just happened that you stumble upon human beings. From what we can see, life looks pretty incredibly designed, and the more we dig down scientifically, the more complexity and unity we find. And the broader we look, the more we see how organisms work together in this incredible system where there is a benefit to each and every one of them.”

Guliuzza notes that with purpose could come greater meaning in our lives. Could that purpose be as simple as concentrating on the happiness and joy of spending time with others, without distractions?

The valley Valle de Sensaciones in Alpujarra in the southern mountains of Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, Spain is an ecovillage laboratory focused on free love and sexuality.

LaVern Schlabach / What if technology is evil? 

Arthur, Illinois, is an Amish community that is relatively unchanged since its founding more than 150 years ago. LaVern Schlabach lives there, less than three miles from the home where he was born 58 years ago. Like the other 900 or so households in the community, Schlabach’s has no television, internet, or cell phones. He’s used the internet a few times, but says “for me to find my way it would take all day.” Schlabach and his community, like other Amish, are Christians and they generally shun technology to keep a “safety net” around their culture, while at the same time contributing to the greater good when they can—like a community in Sugarcreek, Ohio which used their sewing and crafting skills to create hundreds of masks and face shields for Covid-19.

As Schlabach says, Amish culture is based around the family circle and keeping it intact, teaching children how to bake, care for animals, be self-sufficient, and above all, loved.

“Our salvation is not based on being Amish, it is based on accepting the blood of Jesus Christ and being forgiven for our sins, but we also recognize the safety of our culture,” says Schlabach. “If we don’t take care of that, our grandchildren won’t have that opportunity.”

In the last 20 years, some technology, like more landlines, and portable phones for construction workers have been introduced in Arthur, to support local businesses, and there might be a landline which a few families could share, Schlabach says. For example, Schlabach does have access to a landline, which he uses for his custom furniture business, which he started in 1988 and now employs 50 people, but that phone is in a separate building. He can also receive and send emails, but the messages are delivered to him from a third party via fax. It’s possible that as technology evolves, a ‘council of elders,’ the community’s decision-makers, might introduce more changes, he says. Maybe even the internet. He adds: “The world around us keeps changing, we are not trying to keep up with that, but we are still trying to communicate so we can do business.”

Schlabach has never known another way and says to allow technology in, would take away from the “family circle” focus on each other—his wife of 40 years, six children, and 33 grandchildren. 

“It’s not beneficial to the family circle—it creates individualism instead of togetherness. A cell phone used for business and business only, that is one thing,” says Schlabach. “In the evening, we like to get together to play games and do something as a family. Just sit down and visit. I don’t know how we would have time for that if we had smartphones and iPhones and all that. It’s quiet. There is no interruption from the outside.”

Schlabach says keeping the circle intact is particularly important for Arthur’s young people: “For a young person there is so much bad information available at the fingertip. TVs were big, now, today, a young person can reach out and put something in their pocket that is worse than any TV ever was.”

He’s seen the negative effects of technology while outside of Arthur (he only rides a bicycle or drives a horse and buggy, but will use a shuttle service if he needs to travel beyond the village), for example, at a business lunch, where he noticed a group of people at the next table who were more focused on their phones, than each other. He’s also seen what happens outside of the circle from a brother who decided to leave the community. 

“I think my brother realizes now raising children outside of the circle is much different than how he was raised. He is faced with things that he was never faced with growing up,” says Schlabach. He adds that protecting the circle is about maintaining a sense of peace and lack of fear. “How many people experience the rough roads and don’t know how to work it out? My grandparents and parents taught by example: They took us to church, we have our daily devotions that teach us how to work through the daily struggles. Do we ever run into situations where we are afraid? Yes, we do. But ok, it’s all in God’s hands. He will see us through.” 

Schlabach has his own reality, just like we all do. Whatever it is, it is based on what we are taught, on what’s around us. This ability to question it and develop new ways to make sense of it, is what makes us human. That’s true whether we believe the earth is flat, created by a higher power who is smarter than we are or who is guiding us to simple happiness.

Beyond palaeoanthropology

Not many nuclear physicists are actively engaged in studying human evolution. Claudio Tuniz, a scientist who works at the Multidisciplinary Laboratory of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (Italy), is one of them. He advocates applying advanced physics methods in palaeoanthropology and archaeology. Over the last six years, he has coordinated the SAPIENS project (an Italian acronym for “sciences for archaeology and anthropology to interpret our deep history”), supported by the Enrico Fermi Centre for Studies and Research (Rome). His research relies on geochronometers (radiocarbon and other natural radionuclides used for dating the past) and imaging techniques based on X-rays and neutrons. Clearly, these are not the classical tools of archaeologists or paleontologists, who are usually more familiar with brushes and chisels. Or, at least, that’s what laypeople think.

Indeed, Tuniz’s passion for exploring human evolution began with those tools. “I graduated in nuclear physics in Trieste—he says—and spent the ’70s researching fundamental physics at the Legnaro National Laboratories of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics. There I began to envision a more cross-cutting use of nuclear physics. In particular, I was looking for non-invasive techniques to date ancient objects. Radioactive decay, for example, requires many grams to date an artifact, a practice capable of damaging it. I found the solution in 1981 when I was offered a postdoctoral position at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where I learned to count atoms with a particle accelerator. Only a few milligrams of a substance was enough to yield an accurate date. However, at the time, I was involved with the history of the solar system. While playing around with various particle accelerators, my research soon took an interesting turn. Starting with samples of meteorites from NASA, I ended up dating ancient human remains. The step to palaeoanthropology was a natural consequence of this.”

Archaeopteryx Lithograph, 11th specimen, detail of claws and feathers, by Simon Sola Holishcka

He continues: ”In the ’90s, when I was leading the radionuclide dating center at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation near Sydney, I explored various fields of research. I applied the atom counting technique to archaeological applications, but also to study the paleoclimate in Antarctic ice cores and, in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to identify illicit nuclear activities from environmental analysis of rare uranium radioisotopes. Today, people seek my expertise in nuclear chronometers and microscopes, but I am more interested in the big picture of human evolution.”

While employed at the Australian laboratory, Tuniz also worked on radiocarbon dating of Aboriginal cave art in the Kimberley, with paintings dating back nearly 20,000 years. A process of progressive immersion into the human deep past took place. In 1788, when Captain James Cook first set foot in Australia, he discovered populations that—in his opinion—were living in the “Stone Age.” The idea that indigenous people were still living in the past has been used to support the expansions of the European colonizers, justifying  genocide, land occupation and forced religious conversion. Tuniz worked with the most eminent Australian archaeologists (also in cooperation with Aboriginal elders) and began to develop interest not only in the “technical” aspect of his work but also in developing the theoretical side of some of the issues he came across. In particular, concerning human evolution, he is now interested in gaining a better understanding of the circular processes that involve the connection of brain, body and instruments—the extended mind hypothesis—and the emergence of the first stratified societies as a result of the development of symbolic thought and human self-domestication.

It is in this latter aspect, in particular, that Tuniz reached some surprising and troubling conclusions. “We have always been told that the first complex human societies appeared with the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic, roughly 12,000 years ago—he points out—but this is not so. Social stratification already existed in the Upper Palaeolithic, tens of thousands of years before. Many factors confirm it, such as the early presence of privileged classes in sites where the dead were buried with ivory jewelry and beads, together with other precious ornaments. For example, the Sungir site, in present-day Russia.” Tuniz emphasizes the importance of economies based on mammoth hunting to make such a case. Indeed, people extracted most of their resources from such an activity: for example, excess food, shelter, artifacts, and clothing, among other things. “Those who managed to prosper thanks to these enormous animals acquired great wealth at the time. It was something they had to distribute, regulate, and defend. This led to the division of labor into specific roles and tasks, forming hierarchies, enabling the organization of larger and more complex societies. When the Neolithic came, everything was already set up. At that point, the population increase could take off as a result of the agricultural revolution and the end of nomadism.”

Archaeopteryx Lithograph, 11th specimen, detail of skull remains with upper and lower jaw, by Simon Sola Holishcka

Why is it so essential to determine when the first human society was established? Probably because by studying the past, we can find new clues to interpret the present and possibly the future.

“Modern pre-historic research tends to put ‘palaeo’ in front of everything,” Tuniz jokes. “We are becoming aware that much of the knowledge we need to understand our present-day world also applies to the past. Therefore, we speak of palaeoecology, palaeoeconomy, palaeoneurology. Palaeodentistry, for example, offers us interesting insight stored in the enamel and tartar of our ancestors’ teeth, such as what they ate or whether they experienced traumas during their growth. These are hyper-specialist studies but can provide an all-round view of many aspects of an individual’s life in the deep past.”

Initially, Tuniz applied his knowledge to ‘hard sciences’ like nuclear physics or chemistry. In his latest works, he has shifted to social sciences, which he jokingly calls ‘soft sciences.’ “As larger human societies developed, evolution selected the less aggressive individuals, those who respected authority, and who were willing to play and share. At the same time, the first distinctive signs emerged, enabling individuals to recognize their own group and to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’: particular elements of clothing and ornaments, body painting and tattoos were well suited to the purpose. Eventually, by sharing the same appearance, the number of individuals willing to collaborate and be supervised became very large indeed. “They just had to invent something to share and identify with it. Along this path, thanks to symbolic thinking and immagination, the idea of sharing a homeland has brought millions of people together; and religion has united billions.” This is why looking into the past is relevant to understand our present.

Another puzzling event, emerging from our deep past, is the shrinking of our brain. After millions of years of growth, this trend has reversed over the last 50.000 years. To explain this phenomenon, Tuniz uses the concept of cyborgs. “This term is a contraction of ‘cybernetic organism,’ and was coined by scientist Manfred Clynes  in the 1960s when the idea of augmenting the Homo sapiens for space exploration began to gather momentum. This new composite creature was envisioned as having integrated artificial prostheses as parts of its body.” The process of body extension initiated when we started to use the first stone tools. Since then, we have been delegating a broad range of tasks and functions to external objects, which have become our automatic prostheses in their own right. Indeed, Tuniz’s latest book, published by Springer in 2020 and co-authored with Patrizia Vipraio Tiberi Vipraio, is entitled: From Apes to Cyborgs: New Perspectives on Human Evolution.

Archaeopteryx Lithograph, 11th specimen, detail of spine and ribs by Simon Sola Holischka

“We first delegated our ability to hunt (and make war) to stone tools, then metal knives, and then firearms or other lethal weapons. Likewise, we initially entrusted our memories to cave paintings, then writing, and ultimately to the address books of our smartphones. Our sense of direction is now rooted in maps and GPS devices. We can thus delegate complex problem solving to artificial intelligence,” says Tuniz. “Our species is increasingly capable of completing awesome tasks. As individuals, however, we are less and less ‘capable’ because we have delegated most actions and information to something or someone else. Humans have been doing this for at least 2 million years. As Homo sapiens, our destiny as cyborgs was probably already written in the Palaeolithic.”

It is precisely by studying skulls from the deep past that we learned that the brain of Homo sapiens, after having grown and developed its globular shape, has slightly decreased in volume since the first complex societies were founded. Strikingly, the same phenomenon affects dogs and other domesticated animals. As adults, they still feature the physical and behavioral traits of younger individuals. In practice, according to Tuniz, to be social, modern humans have had to tame themselves: and look and act as if they are forever young. The direction of this great collective game is now increasingly entrusted to digital agents, and this is a cause for concern if intelligent algorithms keep increasing their learning capacity at the current rate. 

Blending nuclear physics with palaeoanthropology spans multiple fields of action. “Our X-ray laboratories at ICTP and at the Elettra synchrotron have generated virtual brains and teeth of many ancient hominids,” says Tuniz. “Our interdisciplinary team, which also includes an archaeologist engaged with physics—Federico Bernardini—continues to carry out advanced analyses to study human evolution. We keep hoping that, by studying humans remains from the remote past, we will be able to gain a better understanding not only of what our ancestors were like—which is already a great accomplishment—but also what ‘we are like’ in the present, and perhaps how we will be in the future: New hybrids are already appearing, made of physical bodies, digital devices and enhanced organic materials, all connected by an intelligent system of people and machines. This new enhanced humanity would certainly have a common destiny. And whether that will be for the best or the worst, it is still up to us to decide. Maybe.”

Alternative progress

Alfred Russel Wallace

Imagine developing a cornerstone theory of modern science, and yet people use another scientist’s name when talking about it.

ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE (1823-1913)

That happened to Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently conceived of the theory of evolution through natural selection—what we’re used to calling “Darwinism.” Born in Wales, the eighth of nine brothers, Alfred started collecting insects at age 22, while working in the countryside as a land surveyor. A strong believer in the transmutation of species—the altering of one species into another—in 1848 he decided to leave Wales for the Amazonian rainforest, where he stayed four years, collecting specimens and selling some of them to museums to fund his trip. In 1854, he left again, travelling for seven years through the Malay Archipelago and collecting more than 126,000 specimens, mostly beetles. There, he wrote his essay On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species, drawing the conclusion that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species,” from which it evolves. He started corresponding with Darwin, who was working on the same research for decades but had not yet published it. In February 1858, Wallace sent Darwin his On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type essay, where he theorized natural selection, although never using that term. Darwin found the work so similar to his own writings that he decided to send them both to the Linnean Society of London, where they were presented jointly on July 1, 1858. One year later, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which is considered to be the foundational work of evolutionary biology.

GREGOR JOHANN MENDEL (1822-1884)

Gregor Johann Mendel

The Augustinian friar famous for inventing genetics from peas was born–named only Johann—in Silesia in the Austrian Empire. During his childhood he worked as a beekeeper, a passion he cultivated his whole life. He struggled to pay for his physics studies, and became a friar because that enabled him to earn a degree without having to pay for it. When he joined the Augustinians, he was given the name Gregor. At St. Thomas’s Abbey in Brno, Czech Republic he began his studies on heredity using mice, but his bishop did not like that one of his friars was studying the animal sex, so Mendel switched to plants, starting experiments on edible peas. Between 1856 and 1863 he cultivated and tested some 28,000 plants. Mendel worked with seven characteristics of the pea plant: height, pod shape and color, seed shape and color, and flower position and color. Taking seed color as an example, he showed that when a true-breeding yellow pea and a true-breeding green pea were crossbred, their offspring always produced yellow seeds. However, in the next generation, the green peas reappeared at a ratio of one green to three yellow. To explain this phenomenon, Mendel coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’ in reference to certain traits: the green trait—which seems to have vanished in the first filial generation—is recessive, while the yellow, is dominant. He published his work (Experiments on Plant Hybridization) in 1866, demonstrating the actions of invisible factors—now called genes—in predictably determining the traits of an organism. Nevertheless, the paper was largely ignored by the scientific community, cited only three times in the next 35 years. 

THOMAS HUNT MORGAN (1866–1945)

Thomas Hunt Morgan

Mendel’s work on peas was rediscovered around 1900, and with it, the foundation of genetics. At the time, Thomas Hunt Morgan—born in Lexington, Kentucky, in the same year in which Mendel published his main research—was a professor in experimental zoology at Columbia University in New York. During his career, Morgan became increasingly focused on the mechanisms of heredity and evolution: He was, nonetheless, initially skeptical of Mendel’s laws of heredity, as well as the related chromosomal theory of sex determination. With his experimental heredity work, Morgan was seeking to prove Hugo De Vries’ theory that new species were created by mutation. Around 1908, he started working on the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, encouraging students to follow him. He mutated Drosophila through physical, chemical, and radiational means, beginning cross-breeding experiments to find heritable mutations, with no significant success for two years. Then, in 1910, he bred mutant white-eyed flies with normal red-eyed females. Their progeny were all red-eyed, but second generation cross produced white-eyed males: A sex-linked recessive trait, which displayed Mendelian inheritance patterns. In a paper published in Science magazine in 1911, Morgan concluded that some traits were sex-linked, that the trait was probably carried on one of the sex chromosomes, and that other genes were probably carried on specific chromosomes as well. Morgan’s Fly Room at Columbia became world-famous, and he found it easy to attract funding and visiting scholars: The Fly Room is also a 2014 independent film based on the story of Calvin B. Bridges, one of the scientists who worked on Morgan’s team. 

STEPHEN JAY GOULD (1941–2002)

Stephen Jay Gould

One of the most influential authors of popular science, Stephen Jay Gould—born in Queens, New York, from a Jewish mother and a Marxist, war veteran father—spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University. He was a palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian. In his 1996 book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, he favored the argument that evolution has no inherent drive towards long-term “progress.” Even if commentary often portrayed evolution as a ladder of progress—leading towards more complex and ultimately more “human-like” organisms—Gould argued that evolution’s drive was not towards complexity, but towards diversification. Given that life is constrained to begin with a simple starting point (like bacteria), any diversity resulting from this start, by random movement, will have a skewed distribution, and therefore be perceived to move in the direction of higher complexity. But life, Gould said, can also easily adapt towards simplification, as is often the case with parasites. Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in reviewing Full House, suggested that he saw evidence of a “tendency for lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the numbers of features which combine in adaptive complexes.” “By this definition, concluded Dawkins, adaptive evolution is not just incidentally progressive, it is deeply, dyed-in-the-wool, indispensably progressive.”

The fall of beauty standards

It was about time for inclusivity to take the beauty industry by storm. It all started in 2017, when Rihanna redefined the meaning of “nude” by launching Fenty Beauty. But inclusivity is not just about 50 shades of nude: it is about broadening the traditional definition of what it means to achieve your ideal self and promoting a spectrum of race, gender, size, validity, or age as defining what is considered beautiful.

The beauty industry that has been relying on exclusion for years, was forced to reboot in front of Millennials, or Gen Zers who are used to personalized products and services, and hungry for authenticityat least perceived authenticity. For these empowered individuals, deconstruction of standards is a part of their process to grow, and beauty becomes a source of creative inspiration to explore their identities without any boundaries. In this context, what is “appropriate” for one’s age, position, or status becomes a flux in constant redefinition.

This new perception of beauty impacts the industry at all levels, on positioning, on products themselves, on their ingredients, on marketing material, and even on their business models.

A meaningful positioning

New beauty brands come with a clear purpose as their clients consume brand values as much as the product. A good example is Superfluid; a makeup brand born from feminist GenZ-orientated Italian media, Freeda. The vegan, toxic, and cruelty-free brand promotes gender fluidity and sells its products as playful gender-neutral tools for identity emancipation. 

Self-care products

The product offering itself slips into self-care to become more inclusive. Instead of product masking flaws, a new range of brands creates products to celebrate natural beauty. Anti-ageing becomes flat-age skincare at 19/99. Foundation to cover acne also shifts to skincare at brands like Versed. Hair straightening serums are replaced with afro-textured and curly hair health specific brands like Cocunat.

Personalized formulas 

Being inclusive means catering to all clients in a personalized way rather than by category, impacting the formula and ingredients. Mood-boosting brand Murad uses neuroscience to create new products and personalized services that reduce stress to improve your skin. Ellis Day looks at your microbiome to prescribe a serum that will regenerate your skin, while genomic beauty brands like My Beauty DNA or Epigencare are going one personalized step further by assessing your DNA to prescribe a product.

Authentic marketing 

Beauty brands shift their marketing towards achieving confidence rather than traditional aesthetics, displaying models of all sizes and imperfections. For example, Gucci Beauty made headlines when launching an ultra-realistic campaign featuring Dani Miller shot by Martin Parr. It was a polemic to which Alessandro Michele, Creative Director for Gucci, answered that he designs “for an authentic person who uses makeup to tell their story of freedom.” 

Peer-led business models 

This plurality of beauty and voice means that brands no longer have a monopoly on prescriptions. Beauty communities are taking central stage. For example, the Korean beauty brand Villa de Mûrir included a YouTube recording studio inside its retail store for its clients. Baalm went further by making the community the center of its peer-to-peer beauty platform, where consumers themselves distribute products.

The new beauty isn’t defined by body shape, hairstyles, age, or skin tone standards. It becomes less of a matter of aesthetics and more about self-awareness, individuality, and personal swag. Modern beauty doesn’t ask us to come to the table without judgment. It simply asks us to presume that everyone in attendance has a right to be there.

Fahrenheit 451

Evolution is an intriguing concept to analyze. To study the evolution of a phenomenon, a living being, or a system, one has to connect the dots in reverse order and figure out what happened and why. Why did one path work, enabling the organism to multiply while the other one failed and led to extinction? Which characteristics facilitated adaptation or helped to seize evolutionary opportunities, and which ones limited it?

This kind of reassessment is absolutely fascinating and extremely useful to understand why the human brain has certain characteristics or why plants have evolved and adapted to their environments. But also why certain organizations have survived, and others have vanished.

Quite another thing, and to some extent more complex, is to predict how a subject or a system may evolve because that would mean being able to predict which characteristics would be suitable for which future contexts. And this, considering a sufficiently long timeframe, is very difficult for obvious reasons: It means being able to forecast the rise of new situations and contexts and to anticipate the type of adaptation and ‘fit’ in relation to that context. This is why trying to understand what will be needed and trying to force evolution in that direction to increase the chances of survival and success is a strategy that cannot be sufficient to ensure survival or success. In many ways, the future is unpredictable, and 2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as the year many understood the concept of the ‘black swan’ theory and reconsidered their perception of the complexity of predicting future scenarios. That is why it is more important to nurture evolutionary capabilities than to try to guess which features will work best.

It is quite likely that the future will be increasingly unpredictable and will bring about major and sudden changes. Not being able to anticipate how it will be and what will work, to survive and succeed, people and organizations will have to rely on the ability to react swiftly and adapt as they evolve. The ability to seize opportunities will depend on being able to recognize and deal with them, and this, in turn, will require flexibility, diversity, and agility. We must look up: people should focus on education that develops these skills instead of focusing everything on knowledge; and organizations should place more emphasis on how things are done, rather than just focusing on what gets done. Being prepared also pays off when it comes to evolution. And the best investment a person or organization can make is to focus on improving their adaptability and ability to grasp and ride change.

A bit like everything else. After Gary Player, a famous golfer of yesteryear, sunk a shot from a very difficult bunker, a spectator said to him: “Hey Gary, that was a very lucky shot.” He replied, “I guess you’re right, but you know, it’s funny: The more I train, the luckier I get.”

Social innovation and sustainable development

Mona Itani is a Lebanese engineer, entrepreneurship and business development expert, professor at the American University of Beirut, and a published author on ethics, innovation, entrepreneurship and engineering education. 

She is the founder of Riyada for Social Innovation SAL, an enterprise providing high-quality training to help participants build capacity to develop tech solutions for social problems. This approach and vision align with the universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Itani also co-founded Girls got IT and trained over 3,000 girls in technology and engineering, all over Lebanon.

On July the 16, 2020 she spoke as a role model at UNIDO’s International Online Conference “Women in Industry and Innovation,” placed within the framework of the UNIDO project, “Promoting Women’s Empowerment (PWE) for Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development in the MENA Region.”

We might say that you stand at the intersection between technology, social commitment and business …

I graduated as an engineer and started working in the telecommunications sector. After a year spent working between Dubai and Beirut, I did my master in engineering management and it was then that I got to know the business world better.

I took a course about entrepreneurship and was placed in a group with real entrepreneurs. Some of them were Lebanese female role models in the field and they inspired me a lot. I moved another step forward when I started studying the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as a researcher. Eventually, I caught the entrepreneurial bug myself.

Sometimes I felt very conflicted in terms of how I should perceive myself: an engineer, a businesswoman or a professional committed to social good. Only four years ago I connected all the dots when I started my own business.

You definitely have connected the dots because your company, Riyada for Social Innovation, pursues social good as much as profit. 

Exactly, and we think that combining the two factors is not just an ethical choice, but will end up being a very positive business case. If we merely pursue profit, without taking social and global challenges into account, we will only earn short-lived achievements.

Social innovation is putting the social good at the core to move forward, to make a real change in terms of environment, pollution, education, and healthcare. Covid-19 is clearly showing how much innovation is required to overcome crises, but if we just keep a profit mindset we won’t get far.

What’s the vision behind this approach?

I truly believe that we’re all responsible for one another and the planet. We’re all linked, we’ll be all safe or all doomed.

That’s why we need to center our innovation efforts toward solving social problems and pursuing sustainable development goals. I have taught this in the engineering department at the American University of Beirut for 10 years now. I encourage my students to always remember their social responsibility and to go the extra mile to serve humanity by creating innovative solutions to make the world a better place.

When it comes to women’s empowerment, what is the main challenge you think of? 

We have to advance women in tech. I am an engineer and I know that women excel in STEM fields, all over the world. What we have to do is remove the cultural stereotypes about women and technology that still hold female tech entrepreneurs back.

How can we do that? How do you do it, for instance?

In my environment I’m pursuing women’s empowerment in a very indirect and subtle way, mainly working with young people. I don’t create “female-only programs,” because in my opinion this would create a bubble and change nothing.

I want women to work with men, even though I also make sure to always include a certain percentage of women which should never drop below a specific threshold. I just don’t advertise it, it is a communication choice. And I make sure that there is no room for gender discrimination in my programs, this goes without saying. I just create the conditions for boys and girls to explore technology together.

You also founded Girls got IT, which led the way for Lebanese girls in technology, and has supported many people.

We wanted to help as many high school girls in Lebanon as possible. After the first huge success, UNICEF Lebanon provided us with a budget to launch the second and further editions.

We also had the chance to train a group of Syrian refugees. It was not easy because they could only speak Arabic whereas tech subjects are usually taught in English, but we could eventually manage it by offering them tailor-made workshops and the initiative was covered by the New York Times.

Are you in touch with some of those girls?

Many of them have become part of very interesting programs. At the moment, my company is partnering with the United Nations Development Programme for the Youth Leadership Program and several girls from Girls IT are included.

It’s very rewarding to know that we have been able to have those girls develop an interest in innovation and technology. I’m very proud to see how much they are now inclined to think outside of the box and create untraditional solutions. This was the goal beyond Girls got IT. To provide them with a set of skills that might change their lives forever.

You are an ambassador for UN Global Compact Network Lebanon. The UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt socially responsible policies. This sounds a lot like you.

Exactly. Here we’re talking about sustainable and more conscious businesses and private and corporate sectors acting responsibly and caring about society, the planet and the “global goals” in general.

I’ve always shared this vision and appreciated the initiatives of the UN Global Compact Network. Eventually, they asked me to be an ambassador and I’m very committed to spreading this new mindset based on responsible business and innovation.

For instance, I was a training facilitator and a mentor in their latest young social innovators program, which is tailor-made for corporate employees who are part of the network. It was fascinating because we were working within the company, and with young teams of employees developing their social initiatives, aligned with business purposes. I am not a fan of purely philanthropic social responsibility, I believe in connecting business achievements, innovation and social good.

In conclusion, the Global Compact Network is doing a great job in Lebanon and I feel like I definitely belong to the project.

What are the hopes for the future of your company and how will you keep promoting your vision?

As an engineer, I strongly believe that we can use innovation to fix all of the social problems that we are facing and achieve positive and long-lasting progress. This is where I find myself combining all of my areas of interest and my goal is to create a new generation of social innovators and change-makers.

We are addressing global challenges, severe financial crises and a pandemic, and our old mentality is not helping. We have to build a new scenario on new foundations if we want to rise. Therefore, I’d like to grow my social enterprise, and the mindset behind it, to reach as many young people in the world as possible and help them become responsible leaders of the future.

Harvesting misunderstanding

For centuries, philosophers, logicians, and linguists have tried to answer the legitimate question, “Why can’t we understand each other?” According to the anthropologist Franco La Cecla, professor of visual anthropology at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan, “While philosophers took their time seeking an answer that they have not yet found, in the real world, the one with cultural and social practices, people have managed just fine even if they didn’t understand each other, because, although we are indeed all the victims of misunderstandings, it doesn’t stop us from talking to each other.” La Cecla is the author of Il Malinteso (The Misunderstanding), in which he reveals how positive and creative misunderstanding has been throughout human history.

Even Charles Baudelaire, in Mon cœur mis à nu (My heart laid bare,) wrote: “It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. For if, by ill luck, people understood each other, they would never agree.”

For La Cecla, as for Baudelaire, misunderstanding, being a constant in human relationships, is not a passing stumbling block along the bright path of comprehension but rather represents the engine that drives the evolution of connections among different cultures. “Far from being an instrument that creates conflict, that in the long run no person and no society can sustain, misunderstanding is an instrument that aids coexistence and tolerance among people and cultures that are too different to understand each other. An instrument that, when manifesting itself on a battlefield of confrontation, becomes an engine of evolution that generates not a synthesis, but a totally new reality,” La Cecla explains.

Of course, that misunderstanding can be the engine of cultural evolution might seem counterintuitive: If we haven’t even understood each other, you could say, how can we hope to progress together to give life to something new? “This objection stems from a mere illusion, the illusion that two people can really understand each other, let alone two cultures. According to the French philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch, in every human relationship there is an ‘almost-nothing,’ a nuance which has something to do with the intimate nodules of identity, which are never entirely comprehensible to the other.” This nuance generates misunderstanding. There is no point in saying, “if we had talked more, we would have understood the problem,” because it is not a matter of a lack of communication that can be improved by dedication and willingness, but rather a true “design flaw.”

“The same goes for cultures. There are untranslatable differences between one culture and another, just as there is always something that is untranslatable from one language to another. This is because cultures are unfathomable and immense: You can lay them side by side, but they never match up, they don’t fit perfectly. Despite all our efforts, despite the falsely egalitarian myth that integration is possible at all costs, misunderstandings between cultures cannot be eliminated.” There are obviously different types of misunderstandings; there are misunderstandings that lead to breakups, but they are not the majority. In life, most of the time, misunderstandings are dealt with. “We could call it an accepted superficiality: it is not important to reach deeply into the other, but to manage relationships so that we can get along,” continues the anthropologist.

So if the misunderstandings can’t be eliminated, it seems safe to say it is worth accepting the fact that we will never fully understand one another, and avoid all encounters. “Or else,” says La Cecla, “accept it as a fact of life and go ahead anyway. We anthropologists may have many defects but also a virtue: we are pragmatic. We look at reality and start from there, not least because the object of anthropology, i.e., cultures, are, in turn, absolutely pragmatic: They do not follow rules and attempt to escape those that are. They are living entities seeking their own evolutionary path. Contrary to what Claude Lévi-Strauss believed, cultures are not ‘cold’ entities, with immobile traits, they are very ‘hot’ instead. People, and the cultures they belong to, are fluid entities, their identities mutate continuously, they adapt to situations, to encounters, to forced change. This is the most interesting aspect and must always be kept in mind. Sure, we mourn because seven languages die in a day, but at the same time, another seven are born somewhere else. It’s just that we find it difficult to realize it.”

In what context are these new languages born? “They come from a terrain made fertile by misunderstanding. It must be clear that despite continual misunderstandings, both people and cultures continue to have relationships and connections. We are forced to confront each other and carry on, we can’t fool ourselves into believing that we can shut ourselves up in our own paddock and live without our neighbors. Such a choice would be sterile; it would lead to nothing.” We only have to glance back at history: cultures meet, even when they clash. “In doing so, they are not following rules from above, nor are they following a moral code. Nor do they need to follow the logic of politics, with its rigidity and premeditated actions. Rather, anthropology teaches us that cultures go ahead on their own, they elastically find informal agreements with each other based on what could be called day-to-day etiquette, common courtesy,” La Cecla says.

In practice, the different societies create their own forms of regulation of mutual relations, they set themselves unwritten but substantial rules in order to be able to live together: non-rigid rules that work well. “They are situations based on a superficial history of cases, with the experience of day-to-day relationships, that enable people to not fight continuously. The place where this agreement is reached is the same field of action where misunderstandings arise. What is more, the agreement is closely linked to the misunderstanding, because it creates a sort of necessary buffer zone that protects us from reaching the point of conflict, so we can stand side by side without getting hurt.”

In La Forma Bruta, Martin Bollati questions the validity of human history and the foundations of our knowledge. His images create a study of the past that may generate possibilities of other futures, activating dormant stories, and understanding that history has the power to change the present.

It is a blurry area that has, according to La Cecla, over the centuries, had many different manifestations, including spatial, involving specific areas, or, in certain eras, entire cities. At first sight, the main locations for misunderstandings would appear to be borders. A“border,” however, is a vast concept: There are more than national borders. There are, and always have been, borders between cultures and even within cities and neighborhoods. “A border is a place of misunderstanding, a place that can be both attractive and repulsive. People meet, and curiosity prevails, but clearly, the opposite can also occur. We have seen this frequently: Border areas are characterized by isolation and hostility, all contributing to magnifying misunderstandings, especially when politics come into play. However, when cultures are left to interact freely, well, then, a border becomes permeable, it becomes a place of exchange.” This is also true of situations that the popular mind struggles to think of as places of exchange.

Such as the case of the ghettos where Jews were segregated more than five centuries ago. “It may seem like a paradox—or a misunderstanding, in fact. For centuries, the Jewish ghettos, especially in Italy, had a dual purpose, internal and external. The community took advantage of its isolation to find its own identity, to close its ranks, and also visually reaffirm its presence. So, over the years, several historians have reinterpreted the symbol of segregation as a means to defend the community. Not only: by doing so the groups (the Jews, but also the Chinese in San Francisco or the Italians in New York) stopped being invisible, as often happens to the migrant communities of our contemporary cities, where there is the tendency to dilute the other one to hide it. In those situations, they stopped hiding and even established a different relationship with the city: They closed themselves in to be able to be more open. An opening that became culturally fertile.”

This is what tended to happen in many European cities—places that are real links among different cultures. Cities like Sarajevo, Thessaloniki, Trieste, and Alexandria prospered precisely because they were based on a balance of cultures which perhaps didn’t truly understand each other, that based their relations on misunderstandings, but that in the end not only tolerated each other but created fertile places for cultural and social evolution. Open places that 20th-century nationalism swept away. “Nowadays, all this is more complicated: In daily practice, people handle relationships differently. And above all, there is a marked exasperation, a continuous attempt to overpower, to convince others to integrate at any cost. In world cities, which instead were truly cosmopolitan, there was no such pattern. It was a problem they didn’t even consider: The other was left to do its own thing,” La Cecla explains.

It was right here, in this territory of misunderstanding that encounters occurred, the continuous negotiation that led to the spontaneous creation of something new. “These cities, like the colonial cities or those of immigration around the planet (like San Francisco, for example) were wonderful meeting grounds, full of misunderstandings, but also great places for blending together. All this used to happen in areas where it was simple to come into contact with each other, because they were places of immediate comprehension for everyone involved, regardless of their culture of origin. I am thinking of music, or cooking, two of the cultural areas where changes initiated by misunderstanding manifest themselves first because it doesn’t take too much contemplation, just tasting.” In these ‘everyday’ areas, where theoretical elaboration is non-existent, the creative laboratory is always open, and new realities are generated. “Food and cooking, with their everyday and necessary nature, are the most accessible thresholds of a culture. The lowest border wall, and for this reason, the first to be knocked down or crossed. Because eating other people’s cuisines—whether from a distant country or, as we see in Italy, from the next region or town over, represents the first crossing of the threshold, through tasting,” La Cecla says.

“Cuisine thus becomes a translation zone between cultures, a translation that takes place through taste. When I taste something, I can love it or dislike what I am experiencing, I can understand it based on the scale of flavors of my culture, or loathe it. This is an initial relationship, and most of the time it generates misunderstanding as it is normal, because taste is also culturally determined, and is not universal.” Take spicy hot, for example. What for us, might be very hot, isn’t spicy at all for a Mexican person who is used to jalapeños, or for a Chinese person from Sichuan who is used to their black pepper. So, in a hypothetical encounter at a restaurant, if we ask a Mexican waiter, “How hot is this?” He might answer: “Medium, just a bit spicy.” Our mouths, though, might be in flames, creating an unfortunate experience of misunderstanding.

Yet, in the long run, this misunderstanding could be overcome, both because I can adapt to different tastes, and because, above all, the Mexican restaurateur will try to meet customers’ needs, adapting traditional dishes to local palates. Is this a betrayal of authenticity or the creation of a new reality, and therefore a culinary evolution? “The various ethnic restaurants around the world represent the true threshold of our culinary encounters. In general, they are all the offspring of misunderstandings, which soon mutate into understandings.” In a sense, for economic reasons, they adapt the cuisine of their homeland to the tastes and habits of the places where they have transplanted themselves. The initial misunderstanding has within itself the seed of its own overcoming. People appropriate other people’s cultures, adapting them to their needs, transforming them into new cultural icons, in a continuous process of invention and reinvention. In these cases, the origins lose their importance: Who cares if the basic elements of pasta, the identifying dish par excellence of Italy, come from other continents and from other cultures. Italian culture appropriated it, making something new out of those elements. Just as today in an Italo-American restaurant, perhaps managed by Slovakians or Puerto Ricans, someone is cooking Fettuccine Alfredo: An example of a spurious dish that has nothing to do with the original, which was born out of a misunderstanding, but nevertheless exists, is ordered and is eaten.

From La Forma Bruta by Martin Bollati.

“The interesting feature about cultural exchange dynamics, is that he who appeared to be a loser, the party destined to succumb because he was poorer and subjugated to those in power, becomes, perhaps not a winner, but manages to better develop something that is decidedly new with greater promptness and inventive ability,” continues La Cecla. “Something that takes possession of elements from all cultures, because people aren’t victims of their cultures, rather they wear them. And in most cases, they are ready to transform them.” Thanks to misunderstanding, not only does the old change, but above all, the new is born. “Intermediate zones are created which act as a testing ground for the encounter, for a new start. So, from the initial ‘not understanding each other,’ a fruitful confrontation develops, which leads to something different, where everyone remains themselves, but also internalizes something of the other. This process has many possible definitions in anthropology: creolity, syncretism, hybridization.” Concepts that are, in many ways, interchangeable and go hand in hand with contamination, an ancient practice that doesn’t require total comprehension or translation. “Everyone takes what they need, chews it, and makes it their own, stealing or simply borrowing. The result is a product that is a sloppy translation, full of slip-ups and misunderstandings, but still original.” A product that is a new step in evolution, more material to add to the eternal circuit of creative misunderstandings that animate our dynamic societies, our journeying cultures. With the certainty that only complete outsiders can really educate us.

Disruptive design

Human Centered Design is a powerful methodology for innovation. By putting users’ needs at its core, it frames new relationships among a brand and its consumers, and defines a better customer experience. With Human Centered Design, we often mean a solution that is usable and useful for humans, viable for the business and feasible in terms of technology.

That’s the foundation upon which designers work to craft better experiences: starting from users’ needs and pain points to solve business needs and pain points through technology. When we do it right, it produces incremental innovation. But what happens when, rather than improving what already exists, you want to disrupt an industry? What happens when you have envisioned a solution that could solve tomorrow’s needs instead of today’s? Trying to solve current needs is not the solution.

To really build breakthrough innovation, we have to bring around the design table business designers and trend forecasters, enriching the current human-centered approach to CX. While human-centered design is working with ‘as is’ human behaviors, tech and business viability, we try ‘to be defined’ in one of these three dimensions. While human-centered design is meeting the demands of present-day solutions, we try to focus on possible future solutions from a behavior, tech and business perspective.

We ask how broader, cross-industry and long-term phenomena could impact consumer experience in the future? And also how consumer centricity and data analysis can help us spot and seize new business opportunities as well as providing delightful experiences?

If you ask consumers what they want, they probably won’t know the answer. Yes, we can observe their pain points and try to figure out what could solve them, but our assumptions would be based on their current behaviors. To avoid shortsighted understanding of consumer behaviors and attitudes that could affect the way we redesign experiences, our proposal is to investigate cross-industry phenomena directly with consumers prior to any experience design activity. We believe that taking into account the endorsement level of transformative cultural shifts in the targeted audience—whether conscious or not—would help us to design solutions that have a higher chance of being more resilient and react better to sudden changes and shocks.

For example, last year, during the Fast Company European Innovation Festival hosted by Gucci in Milan, H-FARM scouted innovative technologies that could be relevant for the topic of the conference—super-intelligence and AI. For this, H-FARM designed a concept that enabled the experience of technologies in an alternative way through an interactive exhibition that used AI technologies to explore human senses. Senses and emotions are at the moment an impassable limit, a border that separates mankind from intelligent machines, incapable of experiencing the whole range of human feelings. Sensorium was an emotional investigation of this border. A journey in the realm of human super senses, where experiences were designed and integrated in a seamless way using advanced technologies and art work with innovative solutions to express and amplify emotions.

Through meticulous research and study of AI technologies and human emotions, we were able to come up with a unique concept and design: a 300 square meter immersive experience with six interactive installations that explore emotions like love, fear, wonder, excitement, deja vu and empathy, using AI technologies, 3D sound effects, visual and sensory manipulation, brainwave tracking, and digital art. This is an example of how experience design could make a brand a pioneer, exploring new behaviors and technological boundaries.

How can consumer centricity and data analysis help us spot and seize new business opportunities as well as providing delightful experiences? What about cases that are more business-driven? Often, a client asking for a CX redesign wonders: How am I sure that redesigning a particular experience will be worth the money? Even if human-centered design is actually framing business viability as one of its core principles, we believe that it could provide a more solid answer, such as: How can consumer centricity help to disrupt an industry?

To address the ROI question of CX investment, we are adding ROI scenario modelling to be run with firsthand data collected through consumer research, and drawing worst/best investment scenarios. Including a business analysis tool in the experience mapping process therefore helps strengthen the areas of opportunity evaluation and provides a solid method to make better business decisions and facilitate stakeholder buy-in. This approach, combined with thorough landscape research, helped us to go further by also considering new revenue streams as CX opportunities that could enhance the overall experience.

A good example of this is what we did for a leading insurance player, Zurich. Traditionally, insurance companies strongly rely on their motor portfolio. But in an access economy, rather than ownership, the rise of sharing services and electric mobility is pushing insurance players to redefine their role if they still want to be part of the consumer journey: Extending their focus to non-owners and multi-modal transportation users.

To do so, we worked on both current and upcoming emerging mobility lifestyles, identifying new business opportunities beyond traditional ones. Through a range of scenario models that were redefining the very role of insurance players as tech and service providers, we envisioned a value proposition focused on New Mobility where the insurance player can partner and digitally integrate within existing mobility services. It allowed for reaching a new audience and scale though this ‘beyond-insurance’ ecosystem. In this case, coupling humans, business, and tech helped to produce breakthrough innovation to disrupt the insurance market as well as the consumer experience itself. It ultimately provided a more seamless journey which better matched emerging mobility needs.

Any breakthrough innovation disrupts the way teams work. So being collectively aligned and co-creating the vision that this new CX should take and the story it will tell to sustain relationships, is the best catalyst for change.

In the end, customer experience is a human relationship. For clients, it supports both the brand and the business. For customers, it is the difference between a solution they use and one they love. A forward-thinking approach to behavior, business, and tech is key to achieve these results. Human-centered customer experience helps us to come up with delightful solutions. We believe it could also lead to breakthrough innovation.

The secret weapon is to make the best use of data and human perception to forecast changes but also to never forget that beyond any organization there are humans supporting these changes. The best CX will only be the reflection of the people who orchestrate it. That’s where we start from at H-Farm where H stands for Human.