A New Social Infrastructure: Empathy Through Technology

By Andrea Thompson / May 16, 2019
Image courtesy of Shared Studios


Emerging technology holds vast promise to augment the human experience. Enterprise companies and governments tout the
impact that AI, ubiquitous high-speed networks, and big-data analytics are having on society, while evaluating how to sustainably and ethically leverage new levels of transparency and connectivity to make humans smarter, more efficient and productive.

Within this evolving landscape, the fuzzier realms of humanity — our capacity for empathy and exchange — have remained largely analog. Indeed, some of the most prominent features of technology’s social disruption — creating social network echo chambers and promulgating false information — can be more estranging than affirming. A few visionaries, however, such as Shared_Studios, are turning to technology to build connections across distances that might be otherwise unbridgeable.

Shared_Studios, who is currently scaling their business out of New Lab in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, seeks to create a new social and technological infrastructure that facilitates the exchange of knowledge and experience. In conducting novel social, political, cultural, and creative dialogue, Shared_Studios turns the human experience into a valuable public resource.

The New Library

Led by co-founders Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader, CEO Luke Baker, and a growing team of a former journalists, policy advocates, and entrepreneurs, Shared_Studios designs Portals that create a sense of shared space through cutting-edge video and audio technology: a Manhattanite speaking with a refugee in Iraq; a high-schooler in Greenwich, Connecticut sharing class with teenagers in inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Image courtesy of Shared Studios

 

Each Portal is a gold-painted space in the form of a shipping container, inflatable room, or bus with a uniform interior. The design constructs the illusion that one space stretches into the other and dissolves the awareness of the interface: the image is full-body and life-size, the camera angle promotes eye contact, and there’s no distracting “selfie” image in the corner.

“Over the past 500 years we’ve had teachers, librarians, curators—human infrastructure—to help extend access to human knowledge,” states Bakshi. “We need something similar in the tech age to create connections across distance and difference.” By seeking out strategic partners — universities, cities, foundations — and pursuing grants, Portals operate as a for-profit company and also remain open as a public good, free to individuals and community groups. Recently, the team has identified opportunities in the corporate space, offering ways for enterprises to run team-building exercises across an international workforce.

A father and daughter outside the Portal at the Harsham Camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Erbil, Iraq, connected to a Portal in Philadelphia, USA. Image courtesy of Shared Studios.

“We’re looking at technology through a community focus,” describes Bakshi. He points to the Portal they placed in a refugee camp in Iraq, where people had been essentially isolated from the outside world for years. “Technology must serve communities and connect different communities; if you only engage with your own type, it’s not beneficial to you nor our growing, global population.”

Portals launched in 2014 with a single portal at an experimental art space in Manhattan and another in Tehran. As Bakshi explains, “when we began, art felt like the remaining institutional domain that didn’t prescribe a certain relationship between participants. There has always been a definition of art that allowed two people to enter without an agenda; you have the freedom to create your own meaning.”

As the network has grown — 40 Portals are now active around the world, with new openings each month — so has the understanding that the technology itself sets the context. “Art helped us get to where we are. Now, we need to apply that to the interconnected age,” says Bakshi. “We have the ability to create bidirectional mediums, so what does that look like? We’re making conversations. Our medium is this Portal.”

Human Capital

Shared_Studios may be the rare start-up that deemphasizes technological prowess in favor of their social capital. “Our core value is the human network we’ve built,” states Bakshi. The team has seventy-plus Portal Curators around the world whose sole responsibility is to connect their community to another.

Curators hail from various backgrounds — community organizers, entertainment, academia — and share intrepid curiosity, imagination, and self-awareness. The vast majority of individuals approach a gold Portal with trepidation. “The curator is an expert resource — similar to a librarian or docent — who helps guide and encourage the knowledge exchange and experience,” illustrates COO Jake Levin.

President Obama speaking to entrepreneurs in (from left to right) London, UK; Erbil Iraq; Seoul, South Korea; and Mexico City, Mexico through Portal_Screens at a Global Entrepreneurship Summit event hosted by Google for Entrepreneurs. Image courtesy of Shared Studios.

Each Curator works across Shared_Studios global community to create comprehensive opportunities to connect and create. A Curator, for instance, might help an English teacher in the U.S. set up weekly meetings with an Arabic-speaking class to discuss antecedents for Romeo and Juliet in Arabic literature. Portals have hosted meals, performances, and mentoring relationships. The technology has even been used by President Barack Obama to speak with entrepreneurs around the world.

Social Innovators

In Portals, human tendencies in technology — to retreat to the familiar and affirming; to connect a single influencer to a million followers — gets flipped upside down.

“Just like the TV in the 50s and the internet in the 80s, there is an economic and social logic to how it unfolds,” says Bakshi. “How technology percolates in society is not inevitable. This is why we are building, brick by brick, community by community, a common culture around the use of this technology, which is more important than the technology itself. What we’re doing is a social innovation around technology, as opposed to a technology that forms a society.”

Portals offer space for reflection and connection; a way to venture into the unknown and challenging. It’s not about using technology in isolation, but in conversation.

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