When the podcast Curiosity with Jonathan Van Ness first aired in 2015 with an episode titled “What is the difference between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims and why do they not like each other?” in which then Gay Thrones Star spoke with a UCLA professor to discuss the centuries-old difficult struggle. The show was a modest success, but three years later, Van Ness was caught by Netflix to become one of the strange eyenew Fab Five and unexpectedly turned out to be loved by millions of new fans.
Van Ness has since written a memoir, a children’s book, and a collection of essays; was nominated for several Emmy awards; spent time in DC lobbying for LGBTQ+ rights; be both non-binary and HIV positive; began touring with a live show combining stand-up and gymnastics; and even launched his own line of hair care products. He also turned the podcast into show netflix.
Despite all this, Van Ness still found time for his podcast. curiosity will release its 300th episode last week. Topics along the way ranged from fatphobia to great british pastries, and Van Ness claims that he will cover anything if he is sincerely interested in it. “I’m just really curious to know how we live in the United States, how things came together and how we got to where we are,” says Van Ness. “I feel like I grew up on this show and a lot of what I know about life I learned while recording this podcast.”
In an effort to share some of that education, Van Ness cut a huge curiosity from the library to his nine favorite episodes, choosing for WIRED the one he hopes will “get more people into their passions.”
Van Ness: [Data journalist] I often refer to the work of Meredith Broussard. Techno-chauvinism in general is the idea that machines know how to do things better than humans. She cited a set of automatic blinds as an example. It’s nice to press the button and make it go up, but when it breaks, you can’t fix it. Whereas if you had manually operated blinds you would just walk up and lower the blinds with a rope and everything would work just fine. It would be easier to fix.
A more important example she talks about is her work with algorithmic bias, such as how a police scanner or facial recognition system can’t identify a gender non-conforming person. Many of these algorithms are a reflection of the people who create them, and most often these algorithms are made by men. The people who create algorithms are not very diverse. Raising such issues in these places is not encouraged, and dissent is usually unceremoniously suppressed.
So, techno-chauvinism is embedded in systems that have a really important impact on our daily lives. For example, if you are at the TSA scanner, you may be pulled out of the queue because you are listed as a male, but you are wearing a long shirt, so you may be searched, which someone else cannot do. , only because these algorithms don’t know how to recognize nuances that the human eye could.
Van Ness: Tina Lasisi is an evolutionary biologist who studies human hair variation, but she also studies how we got there, such as the evolution of human hair and scalp variation. A lot of the stuff I learned at the hairdresser about why curly hair is curly, why wavy hair is wavy, why straight hair is straight… it’s all lies. It’s not even true. At the barbershop, we are told that if you have curly hair, it looks more like beans. Curly hair looks more like an oval while straight hair looks more like a perfect circle. But in her work in the lab, they actually found every type of hair in all these forms.
The scariest thing about it is that all this false hair science was used in crime scene investigations in the 80s and 90s, like: “That hair was there, and because it’s shaped like a bean, we know it was black man”. There are more nuances here.