Charles Goodyear may have developed vulcanized rubber in 1839, but its origins are actually much older and more playful than you might imagine. After a visit to ancient Mesoamerica, Azhelle Wade joins us to talk about her career as a toy designer, patented inventor, and her latest adventures in the business of play as “The Toy Coach.”

The first public computerized bulletin board system predates the world wide web by nearly two decades, yet might exemplify just the type of “digital space” we still have too little of. With the help of co-creator Lee Felsenstein, we travel back to 1973 to understand why.

Josh Kramer of New Public then takes on a tour of what public digital spaces might look like in the future, and finally we sit down with Eugen Rochko, Founder of decentralized social media platform Mastodon, for a conversation about the decentralized web, restoring context online, and Mastodon’s unexpected success. 

Lee Felsenstein with a Community Memory terminal, 1984 (via computerhistory.org)

Episode Transcript

LEE FELSENSTEIN:

“people have always said to me, I don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Which I could accept. And I could never really explain it. It’s just it was always, “what till you. See, and then you’ll see.”

SCOTT HERMES:

In the early 1970s, computers were only used by well-funded scientists or the wealthy. Lee Felsenstein was neither.

Lee is a computer engineer, writer, activist, and co-creator of the first public computerized bulletin board system called Community Memory. It predates the world wide web by nearly two decades, and it was a computer in a time when most people had never encountered one, and yet might exemplify just the type of “digital space” we still have too little of.

Welcome to Look Both Ways: a podcast about what the often overlooked experiments of the past can teach us about problems of the present.

In this week’s episode: 

  • We talk with Lee Felsenstein about the Community Memory Project, the vision behind it, and what it means today. 
  • We’ll then hear from Josh Kramer of New Public about what parks and other public spaces can teach us about shaping a healthier, more accessible, and decentralized internet. 
  • We also talk with the founder of one of the most popular decentralized social media alternatives today. Mastodon Founder and Developer Eugen Rochko joins us for a fun conversation.

I’m Scott Hermes, a developer by trade, actor by other trade, and podcast host by clerical error. The show is made possible by my employer Kin + Carta, a digital transformation consultancy who exists to build a world that works better for everyone. As a quick shameless plug, we’re hiring for hundreds of positions right now in Chicago, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Columbia, and Denver, plus tons of fully remote opportunities. And by remote, we mean physically and not emotionally.

So if you’re an engineer, developer, designer, strategist, or researcher looking for your next step, you can learn more and see open roles at Kinandcarta.com/careers

A machine ahead of its time

The original Community Memory machine sat just inside the entrance of Leopold’s Records in Berkeley, California, next to a physical bulletin board for musicians looking for gigs or potential bandmates.

The original Community Memory terminal at Leopold’s Records (via computerhistory.org)

 In 1973, the word “digital” didn’t mean much besides….perhaps “pertaining to your fingers and toes.” So when Lee Felsenstein was tasked with explaining Community Memory, that very bulletin board became the best available frame of reference. 

The idea was simple enough: written messages could be recorded and entered into the machine, where they would be stored, categorized, and made discoverable by anyone through simple text searches. People would post information about events, attempts to organize, job opportunities, and other classified ads. Here’s Lee:

LEE:

One of the questions we entered as seeds was where can you find good bagels in the Bay Area? Now in 1973, there were very few sources of bagels that were of any quality at all, let alone good. And we got three responses to or what you might have expected. You know the names of places where you could get bagels, all right, but the third one was the winner. That said, if you call the following phone number and ask for the following person, an X bagel maker will teach you how to make bagels. This is Ivan Illich’s concept of the learning exchange, which occurred spontaneously.

SCOTT:

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich uses the idea of a “learning exchange” to argue that people learn most effectively when they’re able to seek the information they desire. 

Lee and the Community Memory team believed technology could help people find the information they’re interested in, connect with new people, and in turn, strengthen the Berkeley community. Here’s a passage from one of the group’s early brochures:

“Strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication–whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face–are the front line of reclaiming and revitalizing our communities.”

In a previous interview, Lee once described Community Memory as “sort of a noisy, sluggish craigslist.”

While some have called Community Memory the first form of digital social media, the important difference is where information went after it was entered. Or rather, where it didn’t go. Everything entered by the community was accessible by the community. 
Algorithms weren’t scouring vast data sets to predict what other breakfast-related content might keep you from remembering that you live in the physical world. Connecting people was about connecting people. Lee says the story about the Bagelmaker is often met with the same question.

LEE:

Now, people ask well what happened as a result, we don’t know what happened. We didn’t follow through, we weren’t doing a marketing study or sociological survey or anything. We were just making this tool available and seeing what happened.

SCOTT:

“What happened” was often surprising.

LEE:

We saw some people who we thought were on another plane of existence, doing some very competent searches there. 

And we thought that there would be three categories: jobs, cars and housing.

somebody entered a typewriter graphic of a sailboat. Now this is on a printing teletype at printing 10 characters per second ‘chunk chunk chunk chunk’, like that. Somebody say I actually entered on a keyboard the Terek characters for this illustration….We found a poet who would enter some sample verses and then at the bottom would be text ‘for more poetry, call the following number and ask for John.’

Messages from Commnunity Memory, 1975, (Courtesy Lee Felsenstein and the Computer History Museum, via alumni.berkeley.edu)

SCOTT:

For Lee, a particularly satisfying form of validation came through a chance encounter with Ivan Illich ( EYE-vin Ill-ick) himself, the philosopher whose thinking about learning exchanges was so influential early on.

LEE:

And I was able to talk too much about it when he came through town. Oh, great. He said, Why do you do what you do? Why do Why do you put a computer between people? You know, if I wanted to talk to Pearl over there at this party, I would just go over and talk to her. Why do you go “DDDDD” on keyboards and so forth? 

And I said, What if I didn’t know that it was Pearl that I wanted to talk to? And he stopped? He said, I think I see what you mean.

Context collapse

We first learned about Community Memory in the book How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by artist and Writer Jenny Odell. She argues that Community Memory can help us understand how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter contribute to what social scientists call “context collapse.”

Watch the full talk from Jenny Odell.

JENNY ODELL:

“Imagine if you went on vacation, and you came back, and you obviously would have a different version of the story for your friends, your family and your employer. And then imagine if someone threw you a surprise party and all of them were in the same room: What’s the version of the story you would tell them? It’s either going to be really boring or offend someone. 

SCOTT:

The way we consume information via social media is also all-too-easily void of context. Because providing context isn’t what platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to do. At the heart of any of the major social media platforms: including Facebook, Twitter,  TikTok, Linkedin, and Instagram is the same underlying, burning desire.

I want you to stay.

And the best way to make sure your eyeballs STAY put? Why something NEW, of course! 

Which means the idea of ingesting information with ANY sort of context becomes even more laughable. All it takes is a 5-second scroll through your feed to feel it in action: 

A debate about vaccines, photos of your cousin’s baby, an ad for KitKat, and a reminder that you went on a rollercoaster 7 years ago are all served up all at once, like a bad leftover stew that leaves you feeling mostly tired, bloated, and confused. As Jenny writes in How to Do Nothing, she imagines “different parts of her brain lighting up in a pattern that doesn’t make sense, foreclosing any possible understanding.”

She says Community Memory offers an example of technology designed to connect people while maintaining some sense of CONTEXT. In this case, a geographical location. 

Even when Community Memory installed new kiosks in new locations in the Bay Area, the content of the Community Memory terminal was unique to that location. Every message it held was entered by someone standing in the same place, on the same street, in the same neighborhood, in the same student-run record store. 

The context of community memory is not only its time and place but its original purpose. We asked Lee to tell us more about the inspiration for the project.

The free speech movement

LEE:

well, that goes back a little further than you might expect…

In 1964, I was a participant in the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley, and that was a little revolution in its own right, it overthrew the existing order of in loco parenthesis in which the university administration got to control the university students bodies lives.

Lee at 21, in 1966 at Prof. Westheimer’s lab, UC Berkeley, via LeeFelsenstein.com

It went over a period of two months. And it was victorious. Although we had a sit in with it, something like 763 arrests, I was one of them. But the university after the faculty voted to support our position of basically no administrative restrictions on the content of speech on campus. The university administration backed off and essentially adopted that policy nowadays, they celebrate it. 

Activist Mario Savio was one of the prominent leaders of the movement. Here he is from the steps of Sproul Hall at Berkeley: 

MARIO SAVIO:

I’m confident, that the students, faculty and university of California WILL exercise their freedom with the same responsibility they’ve shown in earning that freedom. 

LEE:

An important thing about revolutions is they do overthrow existing borders. And they are mass events, which was true in this case. But the third characteristic is that they have unexpected consequences far beyond that, which was originally envisioned.

And that certainly happened here. It was basically the beginning of the counterculture, certainly in the Bay Area.

The Free Speech Movement was built as a kind of a communication organization, not using the mass media, and, but it developed its own lines of communication on campus, which really reached out to a lot of people.

This is really a feeling of liberation, I would say, some students started controversial magazines. Everybody was writing their own leaflets and handing them out…I came out of that saying, I want life to be like this all the time. And what can I do with the technology that I’m learning to make that possible? 

And I was looking for media that was not broadcast media. Now,  I have to explain that broadcast does not here imply, you know, transmission over the air, but rather emission of the same information from a centralized point.

Technology & The Free Speech Movement

The free speech movement introduced what were seen as radical ideas into the mainstream. But the means of communicating those ideas were still limited to word-of-mouth, print media, radio, and television. But what was next? 

That was the big question. 

After dropping out of Berkeley in 1967 to work as an engineer, Lee re-enrolled in 1971, seeking people who shared his curiosity about how to answer it. 

LEE:

I went to work as a junior engineer, and was sent to learn computer programming, at least the basic language, which is a pretty simple language, and learned about computer networks, learned about file systems and classification and realized that a network of computers could be a decentralized and non broadcast medium. Which could be available widely. Now this is 1970 when I had that realization, and I remember sitting up and saying, but where am I going to get a computer?

Now within a year, I had found the answer to that a group of people had in 1970, left the University of California and set up to bring computer power to the counterculture.

SCOTT:

The group Lee is talking about was called Resource One, a collective sometimes described as a “technological commune” that convened in the warehouse of an abandoned candy factory. [sweet, sweet, candy]. It was home to students, technologists, artists, filmmakers – anyone looking to experiment, build things, and learn from one another.

LEE

They didn’t know quite how but they were able to perform an impressive hustling effort. And they actually got on long term loan, which really means don’t bother sending it back, the same mainframe computer that had been used by Doug Engelbart for his mother of all demos in 1968. And that’s that was one that revolutionized computing and created the concept of the personal computer.

SCOTT:

At Resource 1, Lee joined forces with Effrem Lipkin, Ken Colstad, Jude Milhon and Mark Szpakowski to form The Community Memory Project. Lee recalls an important early source of inspiration.

Community Memory group photograph with terminal, 1984, Lee Felsenstein Collection, Digital Archive, Catalog 102702620. From left to right, Carl Farrington, Michael Rossman, Phil Kohn, Lee Felsenstein, Karen Paulsell, unknown woman, Ken Constad. (via computerhistory.org)

LEE:

The original concept I had for community memory would be it was taken from a paper that was produced around in 1969, by a group of architects who call themselves peoples architects and his plan for Berkeley. And they envisioned a series of, a network in effect, of what they called Life Houses. And these were houses of people who were sort of naturals with community organizing, who would make a front room available during some hours for as a community information center. They didn’t talk about computers. But I did.

So the idea all along was to create and enable a network of communication at the neighborhood level, person to person.

SCOTT:

Their philosophy was clear, but knowing exactly how they’d bring it all together was less so. But for Lee and the community memory team, that was part of the fun. The need for experimentation… meant the need for play. Something Lee has always taken quite seriously. 

The importance of play

It took me a while in my career until I finally realized that I was a jock. In the sphere of engineering. I had always, you know, grown up thinking that, you know, the jocks were all just about the body, you know, and it’s superficial. It’s, you know, so it’s something they talk about endlessly

But as I went forward, and got involved in the personal computer industry’s formation, I saw firsthand people putting resources in so that they could play with the equipment in effect. Play means to use without really having a preordained outcome in mind.

I finally realized that yes, I take visceral pride and extend joy, when I can really let my mind work on a problem and create something that’s never been created before. It doesn’t happen all the time, but you alway try to keep getting there. 

And people did that. In the Homebrew Computer Club.

Lee & The Osborne 1, via The Retro Hour

The Homebrew Computer Club holds a special place in Silicon Valley Lore. It started as a hobbyist group, but if you were interested in how computers could change the world, it was the place to be. Lee was one of its original members. The Homebrew Computer Club boasts an impressive list of former members and contributors. Most notably, Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

The Homebrew Computer club is actually where the Apple 1 was first debuted in 1976. Steve Wozniak was Apple’s leading engineering mind, and a personal computing legend in his own right. To Lee, Steve Wozniak was a friend and peer. Wozniak even played a role in advancing the reach of Community Memory.

LEE:

it wasn’t until 1984. With assistance from Steve Wozniak, who contributed to us, that we were able to open the second system. And this was located in most of the co op markets.

SCOTT:

Several Community Memory terminals would come and go over the years across the bay area. The last was shut down in 1992.

Today, nearly 50 years after Community Memory made its debut at Leopold’s Records, Lee is very much still at it….building, experimenting, playing, and writing about his every adventure, and there are many. 

A legacy still in the making

Beyond Community Memory and the Homebrew Computer Club, Lee is recognized as a true pioneer in personal computing. He is often best known as the designer of the first-ever mass-produced portable computer called “The Osborne 1”. Now, I never used the Osborne 1, but we did have a DEC Rainbow 100 at my first job. It ran both CP/M (the operating system that was on the Osborne) as well as a version of DOS. What made it really popular was that it had dual floppy drives. NERD FUN FACT: You put the lower floppy in upside down.

You can read more about what Lee is up to at LeeFelsenstein.com. You can even check out his Patreon at Patreon.com/LFelsenstein.

Huge thank you to Lee Felsenstein for talking with us.

LEE:

I like to say that the project itself, opened the door to cyberspace and proved that it was hospitable territory.

The concept of community memory, I think, is still quite valid.

Part 2 Transcript coming soon!

For a special Thanksgiving bonus mini-episode, we drop by one of Benjamin Franklin’s electricity-themed parties. Franklin has promised the most delicious turkey ever tasted, cooked to perfection via electrocution. What could go wrong? 

Plus: How not to baste your turkey, where to cook your feast over an active volcano, and what you can do to prevent hangry family members. 

Is remembering George Washington Carver as “The Peanut Man” misunderstanding his legacy? Not only did most of Carver’s famed 300 uses for the peanut never make it beyond his “kitchen experiments,” but developing them as products was never his aim in the first place. With the help of Dr. Raymon Shange of Tuskegee University, we get to the root of why.

We then fast forward 100 years for an illuminating conversation with Emma Fuller from Corteva Agriscience about regenerative agriculture, the economics of sustainable change, and why Carver’s love for the “man furthest down” means not forgetting the farmers tasked with feeding the planet. 


Episode Transcript

Schoolhouse Rock Clip:I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, sitting here on Capitol Hill

Remember him? Of course you do. Do you remember any other part of the song? No it doesn’t start with “conjunction junction.” Different song, same genius of Schoolhouse Rock, circa 1973. Here’s the next verse:

(clip continues)

Unfortunately, young Bill the Bill on Capitol Hill is right. Statistically speaking, “dying in committee” would still make him luckier than most of his bill buddies. Because Congressional Committees are one of those things that sort of sound pointless but actually wield a tremendous amount of power. Like TikTok Dances, carbon dioxide, or the designated hitter.   

In the US, there’s ONE Congressional Committee that’s often considered the most prestigious and most powerful:

The US House Ways and Means Committee. Why? In a word, money. Any legislation that’s tax, tariff or otherwise revenue-related starts in the US House Ways and Means Committee. It also has jurisdiction over small little programs you may have heard of like Social Security, Unemployment and Medicare….

It’s a big deal. So testifying there is a big deal. That’s why a century ago, in February 1921,  it was national news that an African-American agricultural scientist by the name of George Washington Carver came to the still highly segregated Washington DC to testify before the committee. 

At the time, US Peanut Farmers were being undercut by low prices on peanuts imported from China, and wanted Congress to pass a tariff. The United Peanut Grower’s Association asked Carver to speak as an expert witness. Carver was given 5 minutes to share findings from his experiments at the Tuskegee Institute (Now Tuskegee University).

Several members of the committee refused to take Carver seriously. Some even thought blatant racism provided the most effective line of questioning. One Congressman asked Carver if he would like some watermelon to go with his peanuts. Carver, who was born into slavery in 1864, refused to be rattled, instead replying that he thought watermelon was fine, but as a dessert food it doesn’t compare with the pies, cakes and cookies he could make with the peanut. 

Soon Carver’s 5 minutes were up. But the committee wanted to hear more. 

He explained that the combination of peanuts and sweet potatoes can provide a complete, balanced diet. He shared recipes for peanut bread, peanut sausage, peanut ice cream, peanut coffee, but that food was still just the beginning…

Again Carver’s time ran out. And again it was extended. Carver talked about peanut-based gasoline, peanut shampoo, peanut soaps and peanut face creams. He talked about how natural paints could be made from soybeans, glue from sweet potatoes, and how the economic impact of it all could transform the lives of American farmers. 

Is Carver’s Legacy Often Misunderstood?

Carver’s enthralling testimony put him and his self-proclaimed 300 uses for the peanut on the map as “The Peanut Man.” Carver referred to his inventions as his “kitchen experiments”. Several of them WERE successfully brought to market. But most were never fully realized, and some flat out didn’t work as designed. But it never slowed him down. Carver developed hundreds of practical uses for crops that had largely been ignored by farmers, yet only filed for a few patents over the course of his career, and repeatedly turned down lucrative offers to leave his beloved Tuskegee Institute.  

So why go through all that trouble? Why the 300 uses…why the impassioned plea to Congress about the products to be made with his crops, if he wasn’t all that concerned with the process of actually making them? Why was Carver seemingly more interested in GROWING the peanut market, than trying to corner it himself?

Hello everyone, I’m Scott Hermes, welcome to Look Both Ways – a podcast about experimentation, world-changing ideas, and the willingness to get things wrong. 

The show is made possible by Kin + Carta, a digital transformation consultancy who exists to build a world that works better for everyone. 

Each episode of Look Both Ways follows a two act structure: First, the unsung experiments of history…the ideas, attempts and prototypes often overlooked in favor of their more famous and successful siblings. 

Act 2 then zips back to the present day to put the spotlight on exceptional people working to solve complicated problems. Often the same types of problems our heroes in Act 1 were working on. 

Today, we’re talking about Sustainable Agriculture. What it actually means, why it’s so very necessary, and a conversation with Emma Fuller, Science Lead for Carbon and Ecosystems Science at Corteva Agriscience, about how to make it happen at the scale necessary to overcome the very real dangers of climate change. 

But first: back to peanut shampoo.

George Washington Carver’s Land Ethic

Ask people what they remember learning about George Washington Carver, and the same answer will come up again and again: 

(clips of “The Peanut Man” and “Didn’t he invent peanut butter?)

Of the many concoctions credited to Carver, peanut butter actually isn’t one of them. But he did cover just about every category of consumer product you could think of, many beyond just peanuts. His inventions also included sweet potato rubbers and inks, Soybean cheeses and baking flours, wood stains from clay, concrete reinforcements from wood shavings, and road paving surfaces from cotton stalks.

Sounds like a budding capitalist right? So was that Carver’s plan? To introduce the world to a plethora of new exciting products and sell Carver Peanuts & Legumes LLC to Kellogg’s for millions? Not exactly. 

George Washington Carver’s obsession with peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes wasn’t for the sake of his wallet. It was for the sake of farmers and the land they tended. More specifically, for the soil.

The Post-Civil War American South was still dominated by the farming of cotton. Cotton sucks out important nutrients like nitrogen from the soil. So when cotton is the only crop farmed on a piece of land, that nitrogen never gets put back, and the soil suffers… which means yields suffer, and farmers suffer….and in particular black sharecroppers suffer, often falling deeper in debt to their landlords. A devastating domino effect that starts with a lack of nitrogen.

Growing crops like peanuts puts that nitrogen back in the soil. By alternating between growing the two, cotton yields would remain strong, the soil would stay balanced, and farmers could harvest peanuts by the bushel.

But what to do with them? 

Carver had a few ideas. 300 to be exact. 

Growing the Peanut Market

Carver knew that smarter choices and greater crop diversity could help lift southern farmers out of poverty. Developing an abundance of uses for those crops set up the same type of economic incentive that made cotton farming so lucrative.

Today we call the practice crop rotation. As a principle, it dates back to ancient civilizations. But before Carver, conservation-minded farming methods were effectively unheard of, particularly in the cotton fields of the American South. 

DR. RAYMON SHANGE:

I think at least in some schools of thought people would call it a land ethic.

My name is Raymon Shange. I am currently the Associate Dean for cooperative extension on the college agriculture and environment Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee University, and also serve as Director of the Carver integrated Sustainability Center here at Tuskegee University.

SCOTT:

We talked with Dr. Shange about the driving force behind Carver’s “kitchen experiments.”

DR. RAYMON SHANGE:

The inventions and uses for these different plants was almost, I will call an accident of his, of his ethic. I think you could force that many inventions out of a plant nowadays, but it will probably take you an entire team of researchers to do but I think it goes to show when the scientist or an academic has a certain powerful perspective, such as land ethic that it could really inform their perspective a lot more you know, then I’m here to actually rip apart this peanut and make money or profit off of it you know.

SCOTT:

The object of Carver’s focus is the same thing at the heart of the regenerative agriculture movement today: The soil. Here’s what Dr. Shange had to say:

DR. RAYMON SHANGE:

Because I mean, it’s the most important thing. I mean, when we see the degradation of soil can degrade civilization, right? I mean, that’s what our entire food system is based off of. some of us in the field, see soil as the digestive system of the planet.

we’re actually rediscovering now is that diversity is the key to soil health., I mean, imagine if you ate one, if you ate one particular thing for your entire life. You know, that’s not going to promote good microbial gut health. And that’s the same thing with soil health. 

And some of those practices came through in the teachings of Dr. Carver who promoted using composting animal waste in that organic matter, and adding it to soils. And there’s actually a bulletin, where he talks about maintaining the version for fertility of soils.

this is the microbial world, you know, we sometimes center ourselves in it….in terms of what keeps the planet systems functioning, microbes are the key to the planet.

SCOTT:

Carver aimed at the mindset of farmers, one hungry skeptic at a time. When he was teaching and working at Tuskegee Institute, he put his classroom on wheels. Carver called it The Jesup Agricultural Wagon – named after Moris Jesup, a New York banker and philanthropist who financed the project. 

Carver would load up the Jesup Wagon with peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes, pecans and other legumes, and talk with farmers about how growing new crops could transform their soil. Some even credit Carver’s Jesup Wagon as the first ever food truck. So yes, the next time your day is rescued by a well-timed Empanada truck…you know who to thank.

Carver taught at Tuskegee for 47 years, focusing on crop rotation methods, developing cash crop alternatives, and helping new generations of African-American farmers learn how to farm self-sufficiently. Dr. Shange says the key to understanding Carver’s impact, at and beyond Tuskegee, is to take as wide a view of his life as possible.

Understanding the Whole of Dr. Carver

DR. RAYMON SHANGE:

When we take account of him as a total human being, and the things that he actually contributed to, for all humankind, we saw that he was a spiritualist. He was a scientist, a humanitarian, a healer, engineer, a teacher, a mentor, an inventor, and so much more. When we accept this whole being approach, we see how how magnanimous of a man that Dr. Carver was.

SCOTT:

Carver’s closest attempts at turning his work into a thriving enterprise only bring his humanitarian side further into focus. For example, he started the Carver Penol Company, which sold a peanut based-medicine to treat diseases like tuberculosis. Carver’s hopes were high, but sales never took off and the FDA eventually deemed it ineffective. 

He also developed a peanut-based massage oil, believing it could help treat infantile paralysis, aka Polio. While it was thought to work initially, researchers eventually determined it was the massage, not the peanut oil that was helping restore some mobility to paralyzed limbs. 

Experimentation has always lived at the heart of agriculture. In his work, Carver helped farmers and students learn to even further embrace the principles of good scientific thinking and the trial and error that comes with it. There are not many audio recordings of Carver speaking, but here he is; speaking about his “kitchen experiments”, courtesy of Iowa Public Radio: 

The laboratory is simply a place where we tear things to pieces. Sometimes we can get them together again if we want to put them together, and sometimes we can’t. But nevertheless we can tear things to pieces and get to the truth that we’re searching for.

The New Generation of Leaders in Agriculture

Thomas Edison once offered Carver a $100,000 a year salary to work in his labs, which Carver declined, staying with Tuskegee and his $1,000 a year salary. When Carver died, he even donated his entire life savings of $60,000 to the Tuskegee Institute to ensure they could continue the work…..of tearing things to pieces and getting to the truth. 

Today Dr. Shange, his colleagues, and the students of Tuskegee University are doing exactly that. As the Director of the Carver Integrative Sustainability Center, Dr. Shange leads a group of faculty and students focused on finding new ways to enhance the profitability and sustainability of small, historically disadvantaged, and underserved farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.

DR. RAYMON SHANGE:

We are a very young sustainability center. We are kind of a ragtag group of people that have the same are we want to have the same ethic and work with the same ethic as Dr. Carver, Earth first and then humans, and just try to do our best wherever we land. We try to utilize appropriate technology. And we do probably a majority of our work is outreach, we do some applied research in the field as well. We’re still young, still growing. But if you just go to tuskegee.edu and look up CISC, we’ll pop up. We also actually do have a magazine as well that’s free for distribution. And if it’s not currently on the site, you can actually reach out to me at rshange@tuskegee.edu

SCOTT:

We’ll include links to all of the above on our website at lookbothways.kinandcarta.com. 

Dr. Shange started his PhD program at Tuskegee in 2006. He says he’s somewhat shocked but absolutely delighted that conversations about microbial ecosystems and soil health are making their way into the mainstream. He said he hopes people continue being curious about not just HOW their food is made but by who is making it. 

DR. SHANGE:

You know, it being in the space where people are kind of just buying without thinking about what they’re buying, whatever it be, puts us in a dangerous situation. But the fact that I’m running into more and more people that understand more about the food system is very encouraging.

What else makes me encouraged is to see people thinking more about how to support black, brown indigenous farmers. To me, there’s always kind of been, there’s always been a little bit of hush around the conversation. But I think it’s been brought to the at least a national forefront in the past two years. We’ve seen first of all, we’ve seen a great decrease in small farmers regardless of their race. But then, to look in specifically black and brown farmers, has been an even greater decrease. So seeing people actually asking questions about that as well, and seeing young people of color that are getting into farming is very encouraging.

The Man Furthest Down

When welcoming new students to Tuskegee, Dr. Shange says he often relies on one of his favorite quotes from Carver. The quote reads:

“The primary idea of my work is to help the ‘man furthest down‘, this is why I have made every process just as simply as I could to put it within his reach. How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.”

DR. SHANGE:

it’s a statement of, of his ethics, but even more so, a statement of his humility, and dedication. We talked about some of the some of the Dr. Carver’s accomplishments and just The legend himself someone with all of this imbued with all this talent and genius that will say you know he was offered a job at Ames college was was would become Iowa State but he turned that down to come to Tuskegee Institute and stayed his entire career to me that’s the that makes a huge statement someone that be someone that talented can make that choice you know who am I then to not lend you know my small talents to continue in that I mean if we don’t care about the person furthest down who do we really care about then?

Growing Enthusiasm

Modern agriculture is relatively unmatched in the scale, complexity and urgency at which sustainable solutions are needed. Dr. Shange says it’s daunting, but that he’s encouraged by a resource that’s historically been somewhat scarce:

DR. SHANGE:

I’ve got a lot of colleagues at other universities too, that work in ag. And the, the, the excitement of young people right now around farming, food. Just agriculture in general, is, is empowering and makes me love to go to work every day. So it may be a different future, it may look different. I mean, because this next generation is very much into the technology, technologies that will make farming easier. But at the same time, to see that there’s more people interested, especially at the small scale, I think is a wonderful thing for the country, as well as the world yeah.

SCOTT:

Huge thank you to Dr. Raymon Shange, for taking the time to speak with us. 

George Washington Carver has become the type of American folk hero whose legacy is sometimes simplified down to what can fit on a bumper sticker. But pinning him as “The Peanut Man” tends to overlook what he valued most in favor of a “food-inventor” type identity that could be just a couple steps away from the Orville Redenbachers or Oscar Meyers of the world. 

Like Dr. Shange said, Carver’s many uses for the peanut were an accident of his ethic. Understand the soil, understand the earth’s natural processes and work within them, not against them….

George Washington Carver was preaching sustainable agriculture over 100 years ago. And he was simply continuing what indigenous tribes and other ancient civilizations had been practicing for hundreds of years. 

Today, no surprise, a great deal of modern agriculture does NOT follow these sorts of practices. And it costs a lot to feed the planet: in the US today, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture account for about 10% of total emissions. Specific practices known as regenerative agriculture present an extraordinary opportunity to not only emit less, but actually SUCK carbon OUT of the atmosphere and store it safely in the ground. Unfortunately, in the overall landscape those types of practices are still a small fraction of what agriculture looks like around the world. 

So how do we close that gap? How do we feed the planet AND avoid climate disasters? In Part 2, we talk with someone working hard to answer those questions.

Part 2: The Road to Sustainable Farming

In Act 2 of today’s episode: A deep dive with Emma Fuller, The Science Lead for the Carbon and Ecosystem Services Portfolio at Corteva Agriscience. You’ll hear Emma talk about what regenerative agriculture and sustainable farming look like in practice. She’ll talk about things such as cover crops, crop rotation, and no-till planting vs full-till planting.

In the agricultural world, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers fall into a broad category of “inputs”, and selling inputs is one part of Corteva’s business. You’ll hear from Emma that there are important nuances worth understanding about how those types of inputs are used, and why it’s not always as black and white as we may want it to be. 

Second, like most businesses in the world, Corteva knows it’s critical to become as environmentally sustainable as possible. They’re working towards very ambitious goals to achieve by 2030, including reducing on-farm emissions by 20% while strengthening yields for farmers; and training 25 million growers on soil health, nutrient and water stewardship, and biodiversity conservation. 

The short of it: Creating environmentally sustainable ways at scale that keep up with the demands of a rising global population is, well, complicated. Emma is someone taking a fascinating hands-on approach to getting the science, economics and daily farming operations to all work in harmony. So we’re thrilled to get to chat with her. 

A couple other terms to know: 

 Indigo and Nori. These are both carbon marketplaces. A carbon marketplace is where carbon credits can be bought and sold. So people or businesses looking to lower their carbon footprint, for either ethical or legal reasons, can use companies like Indigo and Nori to buy carbon credits from farmers who are using regenerative methods to pull carbon out of the air. Emma is also a big believer in the critical role marketplaces like Indigo and Nori can play in making large-scale sustainable agriculture possible. 

I also just want to add that I do have some experience working in the Agriculture sector, including work with Corteva, although not with Emma. So please excuse the nerdery and excitement you’re about to hear. 

Okay with bases covered,

We are joined today by Emma Fuller, Science Lead for Carbon and Ecosystem Services at Corteva Agriscience. Hi, Emma, welcome to the show.

SCOTT:

We are joined today by Emma Fuller, Science Lead for Carbon and Ecosystem Services at Corteva Agriscience. Hi, Emma, welcome to the show.

EMMA:

Glad to be here. 

SCOTT:

For people who don’t really know corteva, would you mind explaining a little bit about what corteva does, and then talk a little bit about your role at the company?

EMMA:

Yeah, Corteva sells inputs and tools to farms. So those fall into three big categories. One is seed, corn, soy, alfalfa, those sorts of big broad acre row crops, types of seeds, and then also what we call crop protection. So it would be herbicides and pesticides to help support those crops production and control weeds and pests. The third business platform that we have is digital software. And that’s where I live. And so that’s a broad suite of agronomic and profitability focused tools to help farms run their operation and manage their business and understand profitability. What I do in my day job is I am the Director of Sustainability Science. I really focus on where and how our software can make a difference in accelerating and solving some of the unique challenges that we have with agriculture, and especially on the environmental side of the house.

SCOTT:

So first off, sustainability can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. So it for your job and for what you can affect at Corteva? How do you define sustainability?

EMMA:

Yeah, I’m really pleased that that’s the frame that we’re starting with because I have this terrible love-hate relationship with the word sustainability. it’s not a useful term because you have to say, Okay, well, what do you actually mean by that? So specifically, when I think about sustainability, I am mostly focused right now on environmental sustainability. … it’s primarily issues around water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity – those are general themes that come up again, and again, soil health, those sorts of interconnected issues of what’s happening with the land, the water, and then the crops, that you’re not growing up the animals that you’re not raising what’s happening with them.

EMMA:

the issue is, is not been with the science, right? It’s not been with the tech, it’s been with the value proposition both upstream and downstream to farmers, right? Like there was just not a lot that value farmers are going to get. So that’s been the sort of focus of my work at a really global scale is where is there enough persistent value for farms to make it worth their time to enter in all the sustainability data? Or how do we make the capture of that data cheap enough to reduce that side of the cost benefit equation?

So in the last couple of years, carbon markets have really exploded, and so a lot of my attention has been focused there. And I started kicking the tires of that in 2019, with our like, very early, what I would call alpha with nori, and one of our customers Trey Hill, and sort of hack that together, Trey and I and the head of product of nori put that together to sort of test that value prop. And so that’s been, you know, we can talk more, but I’ve been somewhat bullish despite a highly uncertain area and a very new space.

Understanding Carbon & Farming

SCOTT:

So explain how farmers fit into carbon markets and carbon credits.

EMMA:

There are many different ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. Some of them are engineered by like climeworks, and other sort of direct air capture buried in the ground sort of stuff. And then there’s also what we call nature based solutions. So these are ways to cultivate our landscapes and our oceans in ways that can accelerate the amount of carbon sequestered and reduce the amount that’s emitted. Soil is one of those huge opportunities in the nature based climate solution space, basically, farms can increase the amount of biomass, they grow, the amount of carbon goes into the soil and reduce the amount that’s decomposed that’s lost out through respiration. And through that net, increase the amount of carbon are pulling out of the atmosphere relative to that, what’s returning to it in the cropping cycle. There is a ton of landmass devoted especially to row crops. In the US, it’s like 280 million acres, right, just a tremendous base. And what’s really exciting about farming is that much of this, I would say, pretty much all of the practices we’re talking about right now, don’t cause yield impacts. So there’s not a concern of competition. So it’s like you get both your ecosystem service of production of food alongside an increase in ecosystem services of carbon sequestration. So it’s this win-win and the technology is present today. So this is not depending on an innovation cycle, right? Where in five years, it’s going to be scalable and cost effective. These are practices that farms have been doing for centuries at this point, like this is not new. And it’s crazy. When you look back into like the 1800s. They were talking about the same things. So that’s what’s profoundly exciting about it, although that underscores the challenge. Like if we’ve known about it for so long, why aren’t we doing it? But I think that’s what’s really exciting about this is this is one of the many tools we will need an toolkit to be able to address insect make a dent in climate emissions.

What does business as usual look like?

SCOTT:

Awesome. So maybe walk us through one of those things of like, if I if I, again, because most people on our audience are not farmers, you know, so the if I grow, let’s just take corn as an example, because that’s, that’s a pretty common one, I would think, or, you know, work or soy, but you know, sort of like what would be a way that I would normally farm it or, you know, and what would be the way that farm that wouldn’t be helpful for carbon capture, and then what are the changes I would make, to be more to capture more carbon?

EMMA:

Yeah, so in the business as usual sort of scenario for farming, corn has often been what we call fuller conventional till. So really turning over the soil, the top of the soil completely to flip and bury the crop to prepare the seedbed, so that it’s a fresh  bare soil landscape in which you’re sort of planting seeds. You think of that sort of typical stock photograph of the seedling or whatever, and that soil is clean and brown, and there’s nothing in it except for that little seedling. That’s what sort of baseline business as usual, sort of full till conventional tail might look like, that’s, you know, can be achieved through a variety of ways. But if you also think about the stereotypical farmer with a plow, often behind a horse, they’re using a moldboard plow, which will flip that. Small side note: my husband and I have a small farm, use draught animals and for our power, talking old school stuff. And we plowed so we can talk about that to the fact that I work hard to address that, but I do it at home. So there’s lots of complexity here. And so that would be the sort of full till. The other way that you’d often do it is say, you plant your cash crop through the growing season, and then you harvest it, and at the end, you’re done. You leave your field fallow for the winter, right, because you don’t want to spend more money on planting more crops or whatever. And so everything’s sort of, especially in temperate, northern latitude, where things get cold enough that it won’t grow, you don’t need to do anything for that ground. That’s conventional.

The regenerative flipside that sequesters carbon is no till, completely getting rid of the till. So leaving that soil intact, adding a cover crop over winter; adding more crops to the cycle, so that you’re having something growing in the fall before winter hits, and then again in the spring before you terminate to start your cash crops, you have more biomass. And then also adding a diversity of crops. So starting to add alfalfa into the rotation or legumes, beans into the rotation, and then possibly including livestock, so helping them graze down your cover crop, adding more organic amendments, like manure into your system. Those are all examples of quote unquote, when people are talking about regenerative AG, those are the practices.

SCOTT:

It’s me, future Scott. Just jumping in to give past Scott a break. 

Regenerative agriculture has incredible upside. The practices Emma just described: no-till planting, using cover crops and animal grazing rather than artificial fertilizers, using a diverse set of crops to balance the soil like George Washington Carver taught us…the superpower these practices unlock is the ability to sequester carbon out of the air and store it in the soil. And as carbon emissions continue to trap heat and warm the planet, the ability to not just cut emissions but actually take it OUT of the atmosphere will be a vital tool in fighting climate change. 

According to the Columbia Climate School, the Earth’s soil could actually store as many as 4,000 Gigatons of carbon. Even the 2,500 gigatons stored in the soil already is about three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. So it’s an extraordinary weapon in fighting climate change, and it all starts with farmers. 

So we asked Emma: what’s holding us back?

The Economic Challenges to Regenerative Agriculture

Complexity. So regenerative AG is a more complex set of operations. you’re juggling many more species, you’re juggling, you’re trying to cultivate the natural system to take on a lot of the synthetic inputs you were doing yourself. So you’re trying to increase nitrogen capture from your late your, your legume cover crop, right? Rather than putting in synthetic nitrogen yourself, right. So you’re starting to try to like, build up the resilience of your soil to take off some of the help that you had to provide as a farmer. But the nice thing about being, you know, putting that in is you can measure really precisely exactly how much you put down. It’s much harder to estimate how much nitrogen your cover crop took in, and exactly what the microbes are doing with it.

It takes a lot of experimentation to figure out what’s the right mix of cover crops, how to do the you know, increase residue, like when you don’t go to no till you’re not incorporating the crop biomass, you don’t harvest back into the soil? How do you manage that, how you might get new pests, potentially new weeds that come on the scene. So all of that it’s complex. 
The benefits, like we said, accrue over time, right, like five years, seven years, you know, sometimes you see the festive three, but it’s overtime long term. And the magnitude is really hard to predict, like, I can’t tell our customers. Yeah, in three years, you’ll see a, you know, 25% reduction in nitrogen, like you might see a 7% reduction in seven years. <ost of these farms are operating with very slim margins. You know, they’re not able to take that necessarily, despite whatever they may want to do that really a lot of times operating year to year in terms of making investment and management decisions on the margin. So it’s hard to say spend a bunch of time and energy and possibly startup capital to buy new equipment, buy new inputs, those costs are concrete and their immediate for these diffuse long term benefits. So that’s what’s really hard.

How Carbon Markets Can Accelerate Change

What carbon markets do in that landscape of challenges is they provide more concrete value up front. They say, there is a value here to carbon sequestration. There’s a value here to reduction in greenhouse gas and we can pay for that. We can start paying you for that in year one. That also ramps over time, right? You get bigger benefits the longer you go in carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions, the longer that you do these practices, but there is another value. So I would say that today, with price carbon prices where they are, carbon markets alone do not pay for these practice changes, but they can help accelerate these practice changes, they can help de-risk of these practice changes. 

So that of a farm is already considering this on some of their acres to address some of the other agronomic issues they have, whether it’s erosion, or pest pressure, which these practices can help with, here’s one more reason to help you say do it this year, don’t do it next year, do 100 acres, don’t do 20 acres, this is the year to do it.

Farmers Adopting Technology

SCOTT:

So I, we talked a little bit on this, and we’ve touched on, you know, we have these technologies. But sometimes it’s difficult to get farmers to adopt them. And again, you you just laid out a great case. Why Right? Like is it financially viable? Is this going to be successful? Right? Is it worth the investment? Right? So how do you go about that? I mean, like, how have you approached that problem in terms of farmers who are even, you know, again, using not advanced technologies here? You know, how is the how’s that happened for you, or anybody at Corteva, to try to get people to adopt technology?

EMMA:

most of our successes have come from listening to farmers themselves, right? Them telling us what they need and what they want. And I think one of the things I love about working at granular and corteva is that we are listening to our customers every day, we have the ability and access to those farms to say, tell me why this isn’t working for you? What’s the barrier here that you’re facing? Or what’s the cost that you’re trying to reduce? I think often people fall into that trap of trying to improve the returns on the land without thinking about the increasing cost to labor. So you have a new irrigation tool that helps improve your water efficiency, right. So per acre, you’re seeing an increase in yield relative to the amount of water that you’re using. But it’s a new tool that’s complicated to use. And like, you know, if you train a new guy on it, and stuff like that, and they don’t have the time for that, or the appetite for that, and the returns per acre are not enough to be worth it in their mind. So I think that’s sort of the structural challenge that I think everyone in ag tech falls into, at one point or another in their lives is like, yes, this net, like makes another dollar per acre and I’m doing it like, I don’t care. I don’t have the time.

SCOTT:

I think you mentioned that your original background is not in farming, but you’re now into farming. So what would you know? And then obviously, you’re you get to go out and meet farmers as part of your day job. What was like the sort of the biggest epiphany that you had, or one of the biggest, you know, early on discoveries about farming that, you know, sort of shattered some misconceptions.

EMMA:

This was like a real surprise to me coming into farming in the agricultural space as a data scientist at granular just, you know, we run at home a very typical family farm in like the public eye, right? Like we have about 15 acres, we do a farm stand, we do a CSA, like we do that sort of scale, farmers market fare, direct to restaurants, direct to customers sort of thing. When you look at our customers in Granular and Corteva, they are also family farms, but they are running thousands of acres. Right. And it’s crazy for guys on this operation that run 5000 acres and you walk out and it’s planted perfectly and precisely. And all of that has been because labor is so expensive. And so what’s hard about regenerative Ag is that it just makes it more complex to manage, you need more people that are more skilled and have the time and bandwidth to be able to, to do that. And the acre base that you need to do it on. It’s so big that that it gets it gets hard really fast.

How We Got Here

SCOTT:

Hey it’s me, future Scott again. What I really appreciated about Emma’s perspective in helping us understand these challenges was that she actually kept reinforcing what George Washington Carver became famous for saying: Caring for the man furthest down. In this case, the farmer. It’s easy to retweet something snappy about agriculture destroying the planet in between bites of a PB&J whose ingredients came from 4 different countries and traveled thousands of miles to get to my kitchen cabinet.

It’s much more difficult to be a farmer, whose livelihood depends on an unpredictable crop yield, being tasked with both adjusting to the realities of climate change, AND transforming their way of life as quickly as possible. 

Which was about the part in the conversation I kept asking myself, how did we get here? 

The short answer to that question is the same answer to why Carver created hundreds of ways to use the peanut. Incentives.

EMMA:

The reason that we have a cropping system, a food system, the way that we have today is because we have paid exclusively for yield. Right? That’s all all we pay for. Right? Like a  farm’s profitability is directly tied to the amount of grain they can grow per acre. They are not, they are not, they don’t field the costs of water quality downstream. They don’t field the costs of water scarcity until like, literally, there’s no water left, right? All of these things are priced outside of that, both for good and for bad. They also don’t get any value out of the services they do in terms of water filtration, or greenhouse carbon sequestration, right? So there’s no value in it to them to invest in. …what’s exciting, you know, in our, our partnerships with Nohrian, with Indigo now is starting to see these corporate, business-focused machines starting to now optimize on something more than just yield, right? So starting to say, how do we scale this commercially, because commercially, this is now a priority. This is not just, it is also a sustainability, societal priority for us as a company, to you know, do the right thing. But it’s also now a commercial focus for us. And that just fits right into the way that capitalism works. And so we’re trying to make change in the system today, not talking about capitalism, which would be another fun conversation. But yeah, what’s Yeah, like, if we’re gonna make change in today, in the next five years, just sort of my timeframe for thinking about these solutions. We need everything about what’s going to happen in the next five years, we need what’s gonna happen in the next 10 years when you think about what’s gonna happen, the next 30. But I think one of the roles that we can play, especially in a big company, like Corteva, is how do we accelerate change in the next five.

The Data Challenge

SCOTT:

Yeah, that’s absolutely great. I love to hear that. Because it’s very, like you say, you’re using technology that is well understood. It’s available now. And now it’s just aligning the incentives to the outcomes. And I love you calling out also the value that farming provides that there is no financial recompense for at this time, and also to make sure that they understand that they are the incentives are aligned with the behaviors that we want, which, which I think is you had some fantastic call outs there. So it’s really great to hear those. You’ve talked a lot about what you’re currently working on? Seems like that’s starting to pick up some steam. So what are the biggest obstacles that you and your team are facing right now?

EMMA:

Man, one is just actually not that fun. It’s climate accounting. The guidance for how you map and track and give credit to all the companies that need or want to take credit for that is, is is a headache, and it’s moving slow. And that’s it’s hard. It’s complicated when you do get it right. But that’s I think causing a lot of when I talk about, you know, how do we make sure that buyers are showing up, provide that value for farms so that they start to orient towards delivering some services, those buyers themselves are feeling unsure of the quality of these offsets these credits, they’re buying the land? Will they be able to get credit for it? Right? If they spend money on this? Are they going to be able to tell their investors and meet their commitments to their investor groups that they’ve made on climate, and that slows things down? Because then if we don’t have a reliable source of value, we can’t go show up to farms and be like, you’re going to get paid,  And then we turn around and be like, yeah, maybe it’s gonna be next year, right? Like, that just undercuts the speed at which we need to see this transition. So that stable source of value is impeded by this challenge. And a lot of the climate accounting, again, like it’s a hard problem, but we just need a stable policy environment, and one that really accelerates and clarifies the ways that these credits can count and the quality of them, because there’s a lot like, I look at the landscape myself. And I didn’t know the ins and outs of all these different programs, having thought a lot about the science. Gosh, like, you know, some people will say, like, what’s the one thing that you can do? It’s just like, oh, geez, I can’t even give you one thing, because it’s a complicated landscape that needs to go down, for sure to make this this easier on the buyer side.

often folks will say, Man, carbon offsets are not the solution, because what that’s gonna undercut people’s ability to cut their own emissions. To which, what, what I say strongly is that it’s not an either or, that if we are in an either or situation right now, with like, either you’re gonna cut your emissions, or you’re gonna buy offsets, you’re totally screwed, that it has to be everything, all of the above, right? If you read the last IPCC report, we’re going to need all of the emissions cutting, and we’re going to need all of the offsets. And so I really want to encourage folks from all sides of the aisle to not get committed to one thing, and I think there’s so much need for change, that buying a few offsets is not gonna actually insulate any of these companies from the need to reduce their emissions. I think that’s just and it slows down, it slows down these markets, which are going to take years to develop, and we don’t, we don’t have years anymore to develop these markets. So that’s, that’s a, that’s a, an anxiety provoking conversation of like, we just can’t choose between the two at this point.

SCOTT:

Yeah, I agree. 100%, I hope that people are starting to realize that it’s like all levers, all pedals being pushed to the point, right?

EMMA:

direct air capture nature based solutions, those are not in opposition, either. Everything. Let’s do it all the time. Yeah.

SCOTT:

All right, I’m ready to go to Glasgow.

SCOTT:

Emma, thanks for joining us. It’s been really great talking with you about sustainability and specifically environmental sustainability, and also agriculture. I can talk about agriculture for a long period of time now. I’ve really grown to appreciate it through my exposure, both to the people who are working on the commercial side of it, and also the farmers themselves. And so it’s, it’s a fascinating subject. And that really enjoyed hearing your take on it. And I really do. I love the energy and passion that you bring to it. And also just your very sort of pragmatic approach of what what can I do, what can we do now to help start moving things now to get things going? Right. I think that’s really critical, and addressing the many challenges that are facing us. So thanks for joining us, and good luck and hope that we talk to you again soon.

EMMA:

It’s been my complete pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Episode Wrap

SCOTT:

That’s a wrap for this week! 

Thank you again to Emma Fuller of Corteva. Thank you Dr. Shange from Tuskegee University. We’ll include links to learn more about George Washington Carver, The Carver Integrative Sustainability Center, and much more at lookbothways.kinandcarta.com

This episode was written and produced by Maxx Parcell with limited quippery from me, Scott Hermes. Sound Engineering by Chris Mitchell. Original music by Ethan T Parcell and Lucas Parcell.

Follow us on instagram at lookbothwayspodcast and be sure to subscribe on your podcast dispenser of choice to not miss an episode. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to give us a 5 star rating. You can also leave a comment at lookbothways.kinandcarta.com. Or if you want to contact us in a carbon-negative manner, you can spell out a message in the row crop of your choice this Spring and we will be sure to pick it up from our Look Both Ways satellite in the Fall. 

See you next episode!

Humankind has a long history of trying and failing to “fix” language. What can Benjamin Franklin, Esperanto, and A Klingon Christmas Carol teach us about how language affects us? And for the thousands of indigenous languages at risk of extinction, how can the knowledge they hold be preserved, protected and revitalized? Featuring:


Episode Transcript

There’s at least one thing we know Benjamin Franklin wasn’t good at. Resting. 

It’s 1779. The dust is still settling on the bloody revolutionary war, the streets of Philadelphia are bustling as the heart of the newly formed United States of America. Ben Franklin, at the spry age of 73, decides it’s about time he does something with his life and declares war on a new enemy.

Bad Spelling. 

Because what good is freedom if your neighbors think Philadelphia is spelled with an “f”?

There was some recent success for big revolutionary ideas that aim to improve on existing models. So what was Franklin’s solution? A new alphabet. An American English alphabet that would do away with the frivolities and messiness of English in favor of a more refined, logical, and intuitive approach. 

Benjamin Franklin’s Failed Alphabet

First order of business: cut the fat. C,  j, q, w, x, and y would be voted off the island and replaced with newer, sexier letters. Letters for a new generation. The Pepsi to English’s Coke. 

Some new letters would represent blended consonants like the “th-” sound in “think” or “there goes Ben Franklin, the guy who publicly shamed my son for spelling Philadelphia with an “F”. 

Other letters brought new vowel sounds so the existing vowels weren’t asked to wear so many hats. The “uh” sound in “umbrella,” for example, would get its own letter, represented by what looks like an upside down “h”.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Franklin first proposed the alphabet in 1768, but put it on hold as tensions with the British boiled over. Also, it seems nobody was particularly interested in Franklin’s crusade against misspelled words and silent letters. That is, until a young writer and educator by the name of Noah Webster …came to Franklin with similar ideas of his own. 

In 1786, Webster was working on a book of American English, full of grammar lessons and pronunciation techniques. He shared his work with Philadelphia’s most famous and adored man – Dr. Benjamin Franklin, now 80 years old. Webster was 28.

In sharing ideas with one another, they quickly found common ground.

“”Knock” starting with a silent “k”? Yes, quite preposterous!” 

“C sometimes sounds like a “k”, and sometimes an “s”? This is both chaos and a circus.

Piece of pie and world peace, flour for baking and a flower in my garden?!”

To Franklin and Webster, homonyms and homophones were practical jokes and simply unacceptable. That’s when Ben Franklin poured himself a cup of tea, read The Declaration of Independence by candlelight, and went to bed. Because he was 80

No, of course he didn’t. Franklin dug out his old alphabet to prove to the young whippersnapper that he might just have the answer to their language woes. The print blocks with his new proposed letters had collected dust for 7 years, but perhaps would have better success in Webster’s hands.

They did not. 

Built on Franklin’s alphabet, Webster’s campaign for spelling reform failed to take hold in the minds of a new American public who saw it as too complicated to learn. Print blocks would need to be changed. Old books would be rendered obsolete. Plus it turns out that being at war for 8 years is…exhausting for most people. 

Franklin died in 1790, and Webster carried on. Each version of his system compromised a bit more with what the American public was used to. First he ditched Franklin’s alphabet and tried new, more logical spellings using the existing alphabet. No redundant “double letters” like the “Ts” in…letters. No double vowels like the “e-a” – so words like “please” become p-l-e-z. Everything should look exactly as it sounds. That didn’t work. 

Then he tried eliminating only silent letters. Surely we can all agree that words like climb and crumb have no need for the B at the end, right? Wrong. Old habits die hard and change sucks, Mr. Webster.

While the spelling revolution was not a success, it did lead to Webster’s most famous work: The American Dictionary of the English Language. Nothing like it had existed and its 70,000 words became the new standard for educators, authors and newspapers across the country, including a few new spelling victories. 

What we now consider differences between British English and American English…multiple spellings of words like color and favorite – either with / without a “U”…had long been considered interchangeable… Until Noah Webster’s dictionary solidified the “u-less”  “simpler” version as the American version. The Brits followed suit claiming versions with a “u” as correct English, starting a long tradition of red squiggly lines in Microsoft Word and confusion between American and British colleagues about whether “personalization” should be spelled with a “z” or an “s”. And whether z itself is pronounced as zee or zed. Let alone what the hell football means.

A tradition alive and well  with my Kin + Carta colleagues across the pond. Which is our seamless segue to saying – hello and welcome to Look Both Ways! I’m Scott Hermes, and I’m your host. 

Look Both Ways is a podcast about experimentation, world-changing ideas, and the willingness to get things wrong. Each episode follows a two act structure: First, an unsung failure of the past. And second, an unsolved challenge of the present. The show is made possible by Kin + Carta, a digital transformation consultancy who exists to build a world that works better for everyone.

On today’s episode: Language. 

In Act 2: what is lost when languages die? And can technology help revitalize the culture, tradition and knowledge embedded in languages at risk of extinction? We’ll hear from Daniel Bögre Udell of Wikitongues and Stephanie Witkowski of 7,000 Languages. We’ll also talk with Renata Altenfelder, Global Brand Director at Motorola Mobility, about how they’re making their operating system more accessible to communities often left behind by the tech industry. 

But first up: the fascinating failed attempts at invented languages, also known as constructed languages, or con-langs. Linguist Arika Okrent (Air-ik-a O-krent) helps us uncover what they can teach us about human creativity, the bizarre nature of language, and how the words we use affect how we think. Because as we’ll see, Ben Franklin’s impulse to FIX language is by no means a new one.

John Wilkins & The Language of Truth

The graveyard of proposed and failed “invented languages” is more vast than you might think, and while the thousands of documented invented languages vary greatly, they all have at least two things in common: 

  1. They make Ben Franklin’s desire to change a few letters seem perfectly reasonable. 
  2. They’re all born from a deep belief that language is messy and therefore should be fixed by, of course, the ingenuity and sheer will of the human mind.

Arika Okrent is the author of “Highly Irregular” And “The Land of Invented Languages.” Whether she intended to or not, she’s become the de facto expert on the aforementioned invented language graveyard, and was kind enough to take us on a tour of all its weird, fascinating glory.

ARIKA:

Well, I started looking at these projects as a linguist with total derision. You know, who tries to make up a language? First of all, that never works. Second of all, what makes you think you could do that when, if you study language, you know how complicated it is.

SCOTT:

In 17th century England, a man named John Wilkins felt he was up to the task. 

He ALSO felt that English, and any spoken language for that matter, could do better. 

Source: Good Housekeeping

Wilkins thought that language failed us because words don’t inherently communicate anything. For a child to learn that the word “dog” refers to the canine animal that walks on four legs and barks at its own shadow, and likes chasing tennis balls…you simply have to memorize the association. The word dog itself doesn’t actually help you understand its meaning. 

For Wilkins, the problem was that words could mean too many different things. The word “clear” could mean that something was understandable or coherent. But it also could refer to the physical transparency of glass. To call the sky clear meant that it was without a cloud, but to clear an obstacle meant to go over something.

To Wilkins, the fact that the word clear was itself so UNCLEAR was nonsense and needed to be fixed at once. The TRUTH is what mattered, and words should express a single, CLEAR truth about a concept. He was also a man of science, and wanted to make scientific thinking more accessible to the general public, and more easily shared around the world. Ambiguity of meaning was slowing it all down. 

Can Language be Engineered?

Surely there’s a better way, Wilkins thought. He took inspiration from an important new breakthrough in scientific thinking.

ARIKA:

It will be like using this new invention called mathematical notation, which was new. It was “Wow, we can express these mathematical concepts with variables, and symbols, and anyone can understand it, no matter what your language is, doesn’t matter what language you speak.” This is the truth. There on the page. So let’s do that and make that kind of mathematical notation, but it’ll be language and we can say everything with it.

For thousands of years, there was no plus sign, no minus sign, no symbols for multiplication, no equations. The concepts existed, but they were expressed in words. A plus sign doesn’t leave room for interpretation. So John Wilkins thought, what a beautiful thing! Why couldn’t language work the same way? Why couldn’t the word dog be expressed as a sort of….equation? Where each individual symbol contributes to a singular, specific truth. 

A sample translation of the Lord’s Prayer using Wilkins’ language. Source: Wikipedia, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

SCOTT:

Wilkins’ language became a series of symbols to work exactly that way. Every shape had a specific meaning. “Dog” would have been pronounced as “Zita” Z-i-t-a.  Each sound points to a different characteristic of a dog. The “Zi” sound means the word belongs to category XVII (17) of BEASTS. The “ah” sound at the end meant a bigger but docile beast…and the “t” sound in “Zita” meant subcategory V (5) of…

ARIKA:

Oblong headed beast. So you, you distinguish it from cat, and which is round-headed, or you have to get to the truth of everything, you have to also distinguish it from what it’s not. 

Let’s say we need a word for you know, butter or something? Well, what is butter? Are we going to focus on the way it’s made? Or what it tastes like? Or what the shape is or what we use it for? Then you start running into trouble. Because it’s a lot harder than you thought to determine the exact meaning of every word you might want to use or every concept you might want to use.

SCOTT:

“Piece of cake.” Wilkins thought. All I have to do….is map out and categorize every single thing in the known universe. Which is exactly what he did.

ARIKA:

He sat down to make a map of meaning, a map of all the concepts in the universe of giant tree diagrams basically, of where everything fit.

Wilkins called his system a “Real Philosophical Language.” In her book, Arika demonstrates just how thorough Wilkins’ system was through a colorful and frustrating journey to figure out how to say the word “shit.”

It’s an amazing document of what the 17th century English person thought of the world and where everything fit. But it didn’t make a usable language. 

Because if you want to say anything, before you choose your words, you’ve got to decide what exactly you want to say. And we don’t do that when we talk. We discover what we’re saying, as we’re speaking or as we’re writing, we don’t know exactly what we want to say before we pick the words. And that’s what speaking logically makes you do. It’s like if you had to write computer code spontaneously to get meaning across. And that would take us a lot longer than language does.

SCOTT:

As all of my fellow programmers know, “spontaneously writing computer code” is the only way to do it. 

Void main(){printf(“I am coding spontaneously. Woo hoo!\n”);}

John Wilkins may have been one of the first to pioneer this hyper-logical approach to language, but he was far from the last. 

Arika says the reasons most invented languages fail to catch on reveals something very important about what language is, and what it isn’t.

Because if you want to say anything, before you choose your words, you’ve got to decide what exactly you want to say. And we don’t do that when we talk.

Arika Okrent

ARIKA:

it’s not just a way of packing up a message and sending it along to someone else….The messiness of language gives it the flexibility that we absolutely need in order to be able to use it. 

We have to be able to talk about things that we’ve never seen before, that have just come along new events, new technologies, we don’t freeze up and say, ‘Oh, how can we talk about this?’ We just keep going and invent words on the fly, or we stick endings together, we make new sentence structures when we communicate. And that makes language messy as it develops.

But messiness doesn’t sit well with people who need to solve problems in order to feel useful.

ARIKA:

A lot of language inventors, through history during this project had been kind of megalomaniacs. They think they’re the first one to think of this idea, which they don’t know they’re not. And then they think they have the brilliant solution, which they don’t. And they’ve if they push it out they think everyone should pay attention to them because they are genius, and because their ideas are so perfect. 

…But Zamenhof didn’t start that way.

The Hopeful Language

The Flag of Esperanto. Source: Wikipedia Commons

SCOTT:

“Zamenhof” is Ludwig Zamenhof, the polish ophthalmologist and inventor of the most widely spoken invented language…the one you’ve likely heard of if you’ve heard of any: Esperanto. 

First published in 1887, Esperanto was designed around the belief that language barriers were the root of conflict around the world, and that if Esperanto became everyone’s second language, clear communication would be possible and world peace would prevail.

So his ambitions were certainly just as lofty, but Arika says part of Esperanto’s success can be drawn back to Zamenhof, its creator, doing what others couldn’t. Letting go.

ARIKA:

Zamenhof let the community do the language and didn’t didn’t fiddle with it too much. And  also the language itself was very bare bones. Here’s the 16 rules, and here’s a bunch of word roots. And there weren’t a lot of rules so that a person could speak it differently.

SCOTT:

Those “roots” were what made Esperanto tick, and supposedly what made it easier to learn than any other language.

ARIKA:

So the roots would be either from Germanic or from Latin, kind of mixed up and the word for and he chose from Greek and he chose some words from Yiddish and it was supposed to be a sort of mix, but also very, very easy to learn because no irregularities so no irregular past tense, the verb is always inflected the same way the the words you learn this  group of root words and then you learn this limited set of endings, you can stick on them and then you go and you don’t have to learn the exceptions and twists and all those things that make languages difficult.

SCOTT:

Those 16 basic rules have remained largely unchanged. Nouns end in “o”, adjectives in “a”, adverbs in “e.” Which never changes so you can always recognize what part of speech a word is. The roots also never change. 

  • “Vero” (veer-o) is truth. 
  • “Vera” (veer-uh) is true. 
  • “Vere” (veer-ay) is truly. 

So once you learn the root of a word, you can trust your intuition with unfamiliar words.

The same type of intuition that can’t be trusted with English, like when a child says they “ated” something, and we laugh at how adorably wrong they are for thinking they can rely on a nearly universal rule to express themselves…ha, kids…

For verbs in Esperanto, future tense ends in “-os”. For past tense the word ends with “-is”. 

So “I will eat” is “Mi mangos”. Which means “I ate” is “Mi Mangis”. And they all share a root word so you can learn related concepts very quickly. Food, for example, is “mangajo”

The “open source” nature of Esperanto also means that it’s up to the community to help the language evolve with the times. Esther Schor is a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, and Esperanto speaker. From the TEDx stage in Rome, here she is explaining how this community-driven approach happens in practice. 

ESTHER SCHOR:

They’ve had to be very resourceful about coming up with new words for a new times but that’s part of the fun and take a look the word for Internet in Esperanto is interreto. And notice that Esperanto hasn’t just swallowed the English word for “internet” whole. They’ve invented the word Esperantically for net which is “reto” inter”reto”. A cell phone or mobile phone in Esperanto is a poŝtelefono, or a pocket phone. And lertofono is literally a smartphone although I’ve heard on Esperantist refer to his as cromserbo “a spare brain”.

Becoming an Esperantist

ARIKA:

But the people who were attracted to Esperanto were less about the language itself and what the roots were, what the endings were, what the details of the language were, and the sort of Messianic message that Zamenhof was communicating with world peace. People latched on to that, and they had their first conference in 1905 international conference where they got to meet each other and get together and really get on board with the idea with the romantic and inspiring idea behind it. And that’s what then became the driving force of the growth of the language, not the language itself, or how good it was, or how elegant or, you know, easy to learn. It was, it was the mission behind it. That’s what really got people going on it.

SCOTT:

Ludwig Zamenhof (Source: Wikipedia)

Esperanto took shape as a movement as much as a language, starting with Zamenhof. In fact, “Esperanto” means one who hopes, but it was originally not the name of the language. Zamenhof originally called it “An International Language,” and published it under the pseudonym “Dr. Esperanto.” He was The Hopeful Doctor. As his creation garnered more support, his followers started referring to the language as Esperanto…and there was no turning back.  

Today true believers aren’t just Esperanto-speakers, they’re Esperantists. This is what drew Arika closer in.

ARIKA:

I think my dad had some books when I was growing up, and that I’ve flipped through. But I, there was a big story of someone who had devoted their life to this, but they actually got people on board. They actually had a fan club, and then people who started learning the language and using it, and I and I thought, huh, really, though, what do they do? Are they using it? I’m gonna go find out. So I went to some Esperanto meetings, conferences to see – “what are they really doing? And they were really doing something. And that was very interesting.

The Culture of Esperantoland

ARIKA:

There’s definitely a type like, you can totally roll your eyes and be like, Oh, my God, that’s so Esperantoland, and everybody knows what you’re talking about. And that means there’s a culture.

SCOTT:

Again, we’re only considering Esperanto a “failed idea” in the sense that it did not live up to its original lofty goal of…you know, total world peace. By the standard of invented languages, Esperanto is the golden goose – the “Ora Ansero” in Esperanto. 

Today estimates put active Esperanto speakers between 10,000 and 2 million. It’s the only invented language with a population of native speakers. Around 2,000 people were raised speaking Esperanto as their mother tongue. Esperanto is spoken in at least 7 countries, there are Esperanto conferences every year, and as of 2018, you can even learn Esperanto on Duolingo.

How “Universal” is Esperanto?

SCOTT:

One of the chief criticisms of Esperanto as a “universal language” that borrowed from languages all over the world, is that in reality…it wasn’t.

It borrows from European languages. Mostly English, Spanish, French, Italian, German…

The syntax and grammar of Esperanto, like reading left to right, or the subject-verb-object sentence structure, most closely resemble Western European languages. It uses the same Latin Alphabet so it would be easy to recognize…if you spoke western European Languages. 

So if you’re one of the billions of people living in places like China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam who DON’T speak a European language, Esperanto doesn’t feel very universal. So Zamenhof’s claim that anyone could learn Esperanto in a matter of hours is only close to holding up if you forget….roughly half the world’s population.

In The Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent writes: “This is a story of why language refuses to be cured and why it succeeds, not in spite of, but because of the very qualities that the language inventors wanted to engineer away. “

ARIKA:

Nobody sits down and writes out, here’s what French is, and now everybody learn it. They use it. And you know, eventually, yeah, you’d get grammar books and spelling books and things like that. But that’s not what made the language at all. But that always comes much, much, much later.

SCOTT:

Language is a natural and deeply human thing. Which means of course it’s flawed. But as Arika reminds us, those flaws aren’t really flaws at all. They’re the relics of history; evidence of something that was once useful, but isn’t any longer, like your appendix or wearing a tie.

ARIKA:

You know, that is what irregular verbs are. Why do we say you know, “I went” Instead of “I goed,” well, it’s leftover, it’s from this old previous part of the language.

The Art & Science of Invented Languages

SCOTT:

That embracing of illogical, seemingly flawed aspects of language also provides an interesting clue to understanding a different invented language:

Klingon, The language spoken by the fictional “Klingon” species in Star Trek. Klingon never aimed to solve the world’s problems, but has proven to be a lot “stickier” than most of the languages that did. 

Look Both Ways host Scott Hermes, pictured here on a Tuesday night at home.

It was created for strictly artistic purposes, crafted by linguist Marc Okrand, building on early ideas from Star Trek producers, to bring the alien species and their culture to life. It was crafted to deliberately sound “alien” and is quite difficult to learn and speak, so true fluent speakers might be scarce, but the enthusiasm and community surrounding Klingon is extraordinary.

There are Klingon conferences held every year, where attendees are expected to speak only Klingon. You can learn Klingon on Duolingo. On Netflix, you can watch the series Star Trek: Discovery with Klingon subtitles. Theater companies in Chicago and Arlington, Virginia have even put on Klingon Versions of a Christmas Carol.

Which begs the obvious question “How do you say ‘bah humbug’ in Klingon? We did learn that Qapla means Success! And is a common way to end an interaction.

So what made a language designed to be brutal, hard to learn, and even violent sounding, more successful than those created to bring world peace and make misunderstandings a thing of the past?

ARIKA:

It had irregularities, it had dialect differences, it had really, really hard to pronounce sounds and really, really complicated grammar, it’s very difficult to learn. it doesn’t solve any of those problems about language. But people who really got into it decided, hey, let’s translate Hamlet into Klingon. And they did the whole thing into this, this really difficult language. 

SCOTT:

Because that’s actually what language is. A language for a specific group of people with specific customs, flaws and traditions. As is true with any art form – acts of creative expression will always provide a necessary piece of the puzzle that is human nature. In this case, it’s simply what role language holds for us. When a language is crafted for artistic purposes, not linguistic ones, it seems we actually get a lot closer to what feels real, useful and human.

ARIKA:

No one’s out shopping for a better language. And you can’t sell a language with like a washing machine, this one has really great features…and this one’s a lot more logical than that one, this one has easier sentence structure than that one. People don’t look for languages that way. They’re like, Who are the people speaking that? Okay, that’s, this is why I need to get with them.

The Dangers of Any Universal Solution

SCOTT:

Other critics will fault Esperanto for it’s original premise: That differences in language are inherently a problem, and that a universal shared solution was the answer. 

Pressure to learn any universal language, including English, can have harmful effects, particularly for minority or indigenous communities whose unique languages play such a critical role in their traditions, history and way of life. 

More on this shortly as we dive into Endangered languages….

The Impulse of Language Creators

So it’s clear the impulse of invented languages prevails throughout history.

So for future generations, does Arika Okrent, linguist and tour guide of the invented language graveyard…does she think it’s best to ignore that impulse? Not exactly. 

ARIKA:

But the point is not to cure language. It’s using natural language as your starting point as your inspiration. Like, wow, right? We did this really cool language and, you know, Siberia that does this really weird verb thing. I really like it. So I’m going to create a language that does that, too. But, what if we mixed it with, you know, Greek? And people do people follow their own vision for what they would like a language to look like, and they follow through and create it and then they take it to meetings to have other people look at it and critique it and appreciate it. That’s the new face of language inventing and it’s so much better for the inventors. There’s not years of toil and struggle and losing everything while you try to get the world to pay attention to you. There’s joy and fun and creativity. 

You know, and some people would say, “it’s useless and why don’t why don’t you try, you know, saving an endangered language instead, and why are you doing this…” But it leads you to linguistics. Many kids that get into languages and end up doing, you know, revitalization of Hawaiian or something, they start with Tolkien and being interested in ‘how do you put words together with smaller pieces? And that can bring you to linguistics and other kinds of language activity.

SCOTT:

If you’re looking for a way to engage with the weirdness of language, and English in particular, Arika’s new book is a great place to start. It’s titled “Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through and Dough Don’t Rhyme and other Oddities of the English Language.”

Chapter 1 is delightfully called “What the hell, English?” and tackles questions like “Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?” and “What is the deal with the word colonel?” 

ARIKA:

…kids will ask you these questions, and you have no answer. My daughter asked me once, “why do we order a large drink and not a big one?”

And you stop and think okay, I’ll explain it. “You see, it’s, it’s it’s. I don’t know.” There’s no answer. But actually, there is an answer. And that’s what the book is.

SCOTT:

Go buy Highly Irregular and The Land of Invented Languages, there are so many more fascinating stories that we had to leave on the chopping block. Thank you Arika for your time and insight.

So to recap so far:

Ben Franklin probably still has enough energy to roll over in his grave every time someone explains what a “silent K” is to a 2nd grader. Language is a strange, natural, culture-shaping beast that refuses to be tamed…and the things that make our mother tongues unique are clues to follow, not flaws to fix. 

Which brings us to Act 2…

How Can Endangered Languages Be Revitalized?

MAXX (PRODUCER):

Hi Everyone, Maxx here, I’m a producer for the show. I normally prefer to stay far from the microphone, but before we get into part 2 of the episode, I just wanted to add a quick note and a content warning, particularly for any listeners from indigenous communities. 

The beginning of the segment features a recording of a highly respected elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation who has since passed away. As you’ll hear Scott explain, his name was Jerry Wolfe. In the recording, Jerry shares a few examples of Cherokee words and phrases and talks a bit about the role the Cherokee language plays in their community. So again, out of respect for the sensitivity around hearing from an elder leader who is no longer with us, the section featuring Jerry’s voice is about 2 and a half mins long if you’d prefer to skip ahead. 

JERRY:

When you meet people there are several ways of greeting those people. One is ‘o-si-yo’ that’s the main one. That’s Hello. Or howdy, we all say ‘Howdy.’ Seo. (Cherokee), are you okay? Or you can say. (Cherokee) and that means the same thing. Are you all right?

That’s Jerry Wolfe, a highly respected elder of the Cherokee Nation in Western North Carolina. The recording of Jerry is from a video recorded in 2013 by Wikitongues. It’s one of thousands cataloged by the organization to help preserve and revitalize endangered languages around the world. Here’s Jerry explaining more about how the Cherokee Language works and why it’s so important to the Cherokee people. 

JERRY:

Now the plurals are in the beginning of a word. However, we say in the very beginning of what we’re going to speak on, we can put the plural in the very beginning, the first character on ni, Ni, like a, nr, our ni, gel again. And that means the group, that’s the plural.

If we did not have a language, we would not be Cherokee people. But we are Cherokee people. And I’m very proud of that. Most of all the elders are gone, that spoke the language. They’re out of 14,000 members here Turkey, there are only less than 500, maybe even 400 Cherokee speaking people…some of the children learn it , but that were just about fading away.

SCOTT:

UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) tracks the state of languages around the world at risk of extinction. According to the most recently available data, there are an estimated 1,000 people left who still speak Jerry’s mother tongue. Unfortunately Jerry Wolfe passed away in 2018, bringing the Cherokee language a step closer to “fading away” as Jerry described.

MAXX (PRODUCER):

Hello – Maxx here again to clarify and highlight just a couple additional things that came to light as we were editing the episode. First, according to a 2019 ceensus, there are actually between 1500-2100 fluent Cherokee speakers today, more than the 1,000 estimated by UNESCO. There’s also remarkable work being done to increase that number – including robust learning communities within Cherokee Nation and growing early childhood immersion programs. There’s now a Cherokee Wikipedia site, they even became the first native tribe to use motion and facial capture technology to help preserve and promote the Cherokee Language. We’ll include links to all of the above at lookbothways.kinandcarta.com. So check it out to learn more. Okay back to the episode. Here’s Daniel:

DANIEL:

7000 languages are spoken and signed today, but 3000 languages could disappear in 80 years, marking the loss of half of humanity’s cultural, historical and ecological knowledge.

My name is Daniel Bögre Udell, I’m the co-founder and executive director of Wikitongues.

We spoke with Daniel to learn more about their work and why language revitalization is so important. 

DANIEL:

So Wikitongues helps people keep their languages alive. We safeguard at risk languages, expand access to mother tongue resources, and we directly support language revitalization projects.

What’s Lost When a Language Dies?

Daniel and his team are working to build a massive bank of all the world’s languages by crowdsourcing audio files, lexicon documents and video oral histories like the one you just heard of Jerry Wolfe. Clearly no small feat. And it’s actually just part of what Wikitongues is currently working on. Because to Daniel and the growing number of language activists aiming to save endangered languages, language extinction isn’t just a loss of words.

STEPHANIE:

The consequence of losing a language for all of us is that we lose knowledge. Hey, everybody, my name is Stephanie Witkowski I’m the Executive Director of 7000 languages. 7000 languages is a nonprofit organization that works with indigenous communities around the world, to help them teach, learn and sustain their language through technology.

Stephanie and Daniel were gracious enough to be our guides for this portion of the episode. 

STEPHANIE:

As a society, we lose knowledge and lose knowledge about what is possible, what languages are even capable of. And by that talking, you lose knowledge about what human cognition is capable of.

DANIEL:

One of my favorite facts and if there are any linguists listening to this, they might roll their eyes because I’m going to say something that’s a little reductive, but I think for like general purposes, it’s salient. There’s only about a couple 100 concepts that have a word in every language. And yet daily speech in every language is somewhere between like three to 5,000 words, and most languages have many, many, many more words than that. I think English gets 150,000 words. So the vast majority of vocabulary in any language is unique to that language. So when you lose a language, you lose all of these other things that the language encodes. And what are those things? One of the really big ones is knowledge of the natural environment in which the culture emerged, right? 

So there are actually fields of science that fall under this umbrella of ethno-biology in which biologists and linguists work with speakers of different languages to unravel ecological or bio cultural knowledge of local plant and animal species that are encoded in that language to accelerate conservation efforts. Indeed, sometimes new species are actually identified by the scientific community that way, right? Because, you know, this culture has been here for centuries, if not millennia, and they and they know this ecosystem better than anybody.

SCOTT:

As Daniel mentioned, 3,000 languages are at risk of extinction over the next several decades. Organizations like Wikitongues and 7000 Languages are doing everything they can to prevent that from happening. Which often includes clearing up exactly how languages go extinct in the first place.

How Do Languages go Extinct?

STEPHANIE:

languages don’t necessarily die a natural cause of death

DANIEL:

I think one of the greatest misconceptions of the 21st century is that cultural diversity is waning as a side effect of globalization. When your average majority language speaker…So we’re talking about speakers of English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Russian, right?… When they think of endangered languages or dying languages, they think… 

STEPHANIE:

Oh, well, what’s the big deal about language loss, its natural languages evolve. We don’t speak the same English that we used to speak. 

DANIEL:

Latin morphed into the romance languages we know today or that nobody in the English speaking world talks like Chaucer anymore. And while it’s absolutely true that languages develop and wax and wane over time as culture changes because languages are a dynamic reflection of culture, the current language extinction crisis is not a result of that phenomenon. 

STEPHANIE: 

those are two very different scenarios where languages are changing versus being exterminated… versus it being connected with human rights violations.

DANIEL:

…The current language extinction crisis is the result of policies that were ubiquitous until the 1970s and 80s. 

SCOTT:

In the United States, it was legally mandatory until 1978 for indigenous children to go to boarding schools where they would be assigned English names, and often abused if found speaking their native tongue. Canada had a very similar system. In Mexico, it was legal until as late as 2003 to ban kids from speaking indigenous languages in public schools.

DANIEL:

You know, for context these are languages like Yucatec Mayan, Nawat, which is the official language of the Aztec empire, and so on. In Europe, similar policies took place well into the 1970s and 80s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the predecessor to the European Union passed the charter for regional and minority languages, there was a quote by George Pompidou, the President of France in the 1970s. That kind of embodied the attitude of language policy in Europe, which was there could be no place for minority languages in a France destined to make its mark on Europe.

You don’t need to be a student of history or politics to see how language extinction is something that went hand in hand with colonialism and genocide and other kinds of recent and you know, some would say ongoing atrocities, pick any endangered language and look at the history of the people who speak it. 

If you don’t have your language, you don’t really have access to your culture. And without your culture, there’s, you know, a certain kind of psychological and spiritual gap, or hole, right, that then can lead to, you know, destabilized communities and broken generational bonds.

Conversely, language revitalization actually fixes a lot of those things. So you know, in Australia, they recently in Arnhem Land, which is an indigenous majority region, started integrating language revitalization into core school curricula. And for the first time, graduation rates are above 50% There’s no, you know, nonprofit, you know, run by white English speakers that could have come in and fixed that graduation rate problem better than the actual integration of language revitalization into the program, you know, by the communities themselves. So there’s just, there’s so many reasons that it’s good for humanity, its, you know, its education, its economic developments. It’s scientific research. Its, you know, its cultural sovereignty. It’s a form of reparations. 

Welcoming New Generations

SCOTT:

So what can be done? At 7000 Languages, Stephanie and her team are focused on the intersection of language education and technology. Through a partnership with language learning software company Transparent Language, they work directly with Indigenous, minority, and refugee communities to build custom language courses that anyone can use, at absolutely no cost.

Sarah Silas, a Benhti Kenaga’ Elder, works with a student to record phrases for a demo course. (Source: 7000.org)

STEPHANIE:

What our technology does really well is create courses for these users of the language. So we create vocab courses, we create grammar courses, conversation courses, it’s really a robust tool. So we work with communities to get their language data. And we funnel that into the transparent language tool. So that the output is that they have this really beautiful language course that they can use on their phones, that computer tablets, they can easily even use it offline. 

SCOTT:

Whether it’s immersion-based Language Nests, classroom learning or even just through play, Stephanie says there’s no one path to language revitalization. What matters is getting children to try, make mistakes and feel excited about putting language to use.

STEPHANIE:

They are little sponges, children are meant to learn language, they’re born ready to do it. And you just speak to them, you just talk to them, you don’t have to tell them, oh, this is actually a past participle, right?

You know, it’s really community led and it has to be… Sometimes there’s an idea even linguists are really guilty of, saying ‘Well, language revitalization looks like this, looks like people sitting in a room and speaking in a language for one hour” Whatever, whatever idea it is. I’m of the mindset that all goals are good goals. ..So you know, even if a community says we just want our children to learn how to say, “hello,” we want our children to learn animal names, and we want our children to learn songs. Great. That’s language reclamation, that’s language revitalization.

Wikitongues at Work

SCOTT:

Daniel says he thinks about Wikitongues as spanning across three interlocking approaches that support language diversity. First is documentation: preserving a language through recorded speech, dictionaries and written texts. Next is revitalization, usually by reintroducing a language back into daily life and ensuring adults have what they need to pass it to a new generation. 

The third is activism. 

DANIEL:

Language activism is a little more nebulous, but it involves all the awareness raising and political action that could be part of creating an environment where language revitalization and documentation are more possible and accessible.

So we actually started just with documentation, we were crowdsourcing videos in as many languages as possible, ideally, every language in the world with all the caveats that come with a statement like that. And as we worked on that project, people started reaching out to us asking how do I save my language?

SCOTT:

History shows us that languages CAN be saved. Hebrew was virtually extinct as a natively spoken language around the second century. It was revitalized nearly 2000 years later in the 1800s and has since become an even more critical part of Jewish identity around the world. Daniel also shares the story of Donna Pierite.

Donna Pierite (Source: Louisiana Anthology Podcast)

DANIEL:

Donna Pierite is a member of the tunica Biloxi tribe of Louisiana, and she is the sole person who spearheaded the revitalization of their language in the 80s. And it originally had gone extinct in 1948. And the last speaker of the language worked with the linguist before he died to leave a dictionary behind. And so Donna would go to Baton Rouge and New Orleans and photocopy dictionaries and other old documentation books about the language and bring it home, she would teach her kids, then they started sending out newsletters about the process. And then they got other families involved. And today, 10% of the tribe is enrolled in immersion courses.

But you can imagine that that whole process, the original process was like, just go get the book about the language. And then the next thing was like, let me teach my kids. And then the next thing was, let’s get someone else involved. And then the next thing was, let’s get the tribal government involved. And you know, so the toolkit is really meant to help you walk through that whole process to think in terms of really project management in a funny ways, not unlike running an organization or a company or an activist project, right?

SCOTT:

The toolkit Daniel mentions is the Language Sustainability Toolkit, designed to create a roadmap for people seeking to revitalize a language at risk of extinction. 

People like Windy Goodloe. Windy is a member of the black seminole community in Texas. Their language is called Afro Seminole Creole. Today there’s only 20 speakers left. With the goal of doubling that number, and armed with only the knowledge of those 20 people and a 1,000 word dictionary…Windy came to Wikitongues for help.

DANIEL:

And that’s and that was in the 70s or 80s I think and that’s all they have to to bring this language back. So Windy has been part of a cultural revitalization for Afro Seminole Creole, since the 2000, like early 2010s. And it started around the effort to save a cemetery in their community that were a lot of their community members were buried. They set up a museum, a small museum, and a nonprofit around that. And so language revitalization was kind of like the next step, right? Because in Wendy’s words, a cultural revitalization without the language like you know, how many, you know, events and t shirts, are we going to sell, right? Like, what do we do next? What carries us forward and on to the next generation?

So I’m really excited about is next year, we’re going to be opening this process up to public application, and we’re going to provide funding and training to 75 revitalization projects by 2025.

So if you’re listening and want to start a revitalization project, write us an email at hello@wikitonuges.org and we will let you know when the application process is open.

Technology & Inclusive Design

Whether it’s the robust learning software from 7000 Languages, the vast database of languages from Wikitongues, or even a recent app developed by Google called Woolaroo which uses AI to document and teach endangered languages, technology can clearly play an important role in solving the problem of language extinction and accessibility. 

But… tech can also contribute to the problem itself….and sometimes in ways that many dominant language speakers would likely never even consider.

DANIEL:

Having access to media in your language and having access to core technology in your language is absolutely a form of linguistic privilege, right? There is research that would indicate that the inability to use your language on your device can accelerate language loss because there’s something subconscious that happens where if your phone is talking to you, and whatever the locally dominant languages it kind of sends a subtle message that your language isn’t important and that you shouldn’t really speak it anymore. If you want to be modern, if you want to be part of the global economy. So, you know, multilingual support is absolutely critical for inclusive design.

SCOTT:

One company that seems to be of the same mindset…Motorola Mobility. Back in May of 2021, Motorola announced that the latest version of the Android Operating system on Motorola phones would feature two indigenous Latin American languages: Kaingang and Nheengatu.

Kaingang is spoken by communities in Southern Brazil, and is classified by UNESCO as “definitely threatened” which means children no longer learn it as their first language. Nheengatu speakers are mostly found in the Amazon region, including parts of Colombia and Venezuela, and is considered “severely threatened” meaning it’s only spoken by about 6,000 people and primarily the older generations. 

For Motorola, it’s part of a broader focus on accessible design and awareness about the role technology plays in language revitalization. To learn more about it all, we talked with Renata Altenfedler, Global Executive Director, Brand & Marketing at Motorola Mobility. Here’s my conversation with Renata:

Feature Interview: Renata Altenfelder

Scott Hermes: 

Okay. We are joined today by Renata Altenfelder, Global Executive Director, Brand Marketing at Motorola Mobility. She is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and was part of a team that recently added support for two endangered languages to Android 11 running on Motorola phones, welcome to Look Both Ways Renata. 

Renata Altenfelder:  

Hello, how are you?

Scott Hermes: 

I’m doing great. Thanks for joining us. So just to dive right into it, can you tell us about how the decision to include the endangered languages of Kiangang and Nheengatu? Hopefully that’s close on the pronunciation, how that decision to add those two languages into Motorola smartphones came about?

Renata Altenfelder:

we are always looking for ways to be disruptive to look at new technologies, and how to apply technology for the good. So how it comes to this program was the group of globalization and the group of languages that realize that there was a lack of a presence of indigenous endangered languages in the digital world. So they came with the project of saying, “what if we use our knowledge and our expertise in order to make those languages available into our smartphones?” So it it was well received. And then we got in contact with a professor, Professor viewmont vangelis. That is from unicam, one university, a big university in Latin America, and he works with endangered languages. And so looking at all of the endangered languages that exist today, we ended up choosing Kiangang and Nheengatu. Two, which are two very important languages in Latin America, not only in Brazil. And when we think about why we chose them, they are from the two biggest tribes of language we have in Latin America, there are the Marajoara, if I’m pronouncing it correctly, and the other one is the Tupi. So very important languages in our culture overall.

Scott Hermes:  

And maybe just help us a little bit in were in Latin America or in Brazil, would you find native speakers of those languages?

Renata Altenfelder: 

Yeah. So Kaingang in on the south, south east of Brazil, and then Nheengatu is in the Amazon area. So it’s also Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela.

Scott Hermes: 

That’s great. And when you went to start working on this, obviously, you said you talked to a professor, but did you also work with the native speakers of those languages? And how did you find them? And how did that work out? 

Renata Altenfelder:  

One of the things that for us was crucial was to have to have credibility. And to have the truth behind this project, we need to work with the people who really talk and live that language in that culture. So a group of people that had people from the University, from Motorola from another partner that works with us on languages, they helped us to identify people at the Nheengatu and Kaingang communities to work with us. So we have native speakers working with us on the whole project. So they help us on doing the whole language in this whole vocabulary.

Scott Hermes:

And I think even in one of the languages like the dialects as well would vary, right? So how did you go about resolving some of those issues?

Renata Altenfelder:  

I think is more than the dialect I think it would happen is they are two different languages. They have different expressions, the way that they refer to things are different, not only between them, but also among all of the other languages that we know. So at Motorola, we already supported over 80 different languages when we started this project, right, but this was a new one. So this group of people from the professor, the language experts from Motorola, and the people from the community together, they also had to work and identify the meaning of each one of the expression. It’s like we always say: there is this one word in Portuguese, “saudade”, then a lot of people know about it, which is about missing someone, but it’s a little bit more than missing. They also had their “saudade” words, and we need to explain what it is, and they need to explain what it is. And we found new expressions. And the opposite was also true. Like, because what is what is the importance of having those languages is that by having it, we are giving access to the people who are native to the whole digital universe, because they are able to communicate themselves with others, they are able to translate what they don’t understand into their own language. But also for those, like people who don’t know the language to know something different. So in order to do that, we also need to translate our own expressions to those two languages. Right? So it’s not just one way, it’s the both ways that we need to, to work here. So we’re learning from, from both sides, or three sides here.

Scott Hermes: 

Yeah, for sure. If you have any good examples of say, I think it’s a great example of words that exist in one language, but don’t necessarily have a counterpart and others. So what coming from sort of the very highly technical world of computers and smartphones? I mean, is there anything stands out in your minds of a word that was difficult to translate back into either Kaingang or Nheengatu

Renata Altenfelder:

There was not specifically on the technical side, but inside of our phones, we do have some specificities, in terms of features. And one of them is what we call Moto actions. In Portuguese, or in English, the translation is very direct. On Nheengatu and Kaingang, and it was not like this, we need first of all, because Moto, and then action, so the way of talking about action is different, they don’t have the word for action. How to explain that. So there was a whole world of discussions about how to make it clear for them Because that is that those are expressions that they don’t use in their daily lives. They also didn’t know what it meant. So some of them were not used to using that in their daily life. So they needed to look at it in a different way. So that was, that was super interesting. So it’s all about as I was saying, I think it was learning from both sides on languages and also expressions, ways of working. So as you can imagine, some of them we’re not used to the timelines of a global company project. Especially on the technology side if you are locking a software version and if you miss the deadline, it means that whatever you are developing won’t be available on your phone when it’s launched. So we need to work very tight timelines, So also, there was something that we needed to find a way to combine those timings and make sure that this would work for both sides.

Scott Hermes:  

Yeah, that’s interesting. I prefer if you figured out a way to make that sort of non deadline driven time apply to software development, that would have been a great breakthrough that I would have supported 100%.

Renata Altenfelder:  

Agree. Yeah, but I think that is good, right? Like it’s really, really working on, what is this process of digitization, like how to work with different professionals from all across the globe? And there was a lot of different translations in this path, right? Because we are talking about not only we had Brazilian professionals, so the professor, the person who came up with this idea was a Brazilian guy. And then we had Juliana was the the manager who was leading this project on the globalization team. They were all Brazilians right. But the universal or the overall language that we expect, there’s a lot of on the English version, so that we had to translate from Nheengatu to Kaigang into into Portuguese for the conversation, but then we need to translate it into English, because a lot of the discussions on our side from the from the engineering part was happening in English.

Scott Hermes:

Wow, that’s, that’s a lot of work. 

Renata Altenfelder:

That was a lot of work. But it was, he was so excited, we were like so much in love. And then we didn’t even thought about it. The other day, we count the number of words or expression, right, that the word translated or created somehow, for this, and that was over 500k. Wow, a lot of work, a lot of work. And so it’s, it’s, but it’s so much in line with what we believe, what I believe, which is really using technology to have a positive impact, right? This is not only about the language itself, it is about preserving your culture, right, your language is a very important part of the whole culture, because it does communicate and it does translate the way that that specific group of people think the way that that specific group of people act, right. So having this translated and having this into the digital world, which is where a lot of the things are most of the things that we have today, if not the total, almost the totality, are is guaranteeing somehow that this is have a continuity. And for me, this is super important. And and we need to make it like those languages at the base of the language that we speak today. A lot of the a lot of the words in Portuguese came from from languages like Nheengatu and Kaingang, so it’s, it is a way also for create and generate curiosity on the people to understand what is kinda and what is Ganga to write from younger generation, because they start, you know, seeing it on the news, they start seeing it on their own phones. We know young generations are always playing with their smartphones. And people are playing in so they see a different language there. When they look at they have a different language G on the keyboard from Google. What is this? So they start going after and trying to understand and this is a way of making the culture alive.

Scott Hermes:  

I think that’s great. And preparing for this interview, we found a quote from a native ninja to Speaker we said, “Over time Nheengatu has been weakening more and more many times to discrimination on the language. People are ashamed to use it.” Do you feel like that by this action of including it more? So it’s now part of the you know, the future? Right, this is the present? Do you think that’s going to help with that?

Renata Altenfelder:  

Yes, yes, I think and I really hope because what we know talking with them. And also talking with some people who study like indigenous languages across the globe, what is not happening is that young people feel ashamed because they think this is old. They think it doesn’t look cool. So you know, like, they don’t even talk with their grandparents sometimes on their own language. So having it on the smartphone, I think it’s the way also to show this, this youth that this is the language of today also, this is not a language that this is a language that they should be proud of using it, it carries much more than what they think. And I think also by having it classify as a language in this world also gives help other people also to break this barrier. We had an example of one of the guys who has been working with us on the expertise that made me sad when I heard and make me make sure that what we are doing is the right thing. He went to the city he lived in, in the in the Amazon, right so he went to the city code to look for a job. And then the guy asked how many languages did he speak? And he said two and then the guy said Okay, so to speak Portuguese, an English Portuguese in Spanish? And then he said, No, I speak Portuguese and Nheengatu and then the guy said, “Nheengatu is not a language.” That’s right. This is brought out this is this is this is killings how, like, you know, like this is this is killing everything in terms of culture, you know, like self confidence. So having itin places where people can look at and you know, you can pick up your phone and say look, how is it not a language? It is listed together with the other 80 languages in the world. And I have it here on the keyboard. So also, this was an important work that the team has done with Google. So all of the new androids, you will also be able to download it on your keyboard and type it in that language. So that’s what I’m saying – definitely this will help the languages to be accepted and to be known by a wider number of people.

Scott Hermes: 

So now, the languages are embedded into a version of Android that runs on Motorola. What’s the what’s the broader plan for now that you have this mapping? Because I’m sure this is valuable to or useful in sort of many other situations. How does that information gets shared out for other versions of Android or just generally for use in the technical community?

Renata Altenfelder:  

Yeah, so this is this is not for only for Motorola. So I think as I, as I said, the beginning our we started doing it. But since the beginning, we know this is bigger than one brand, right? Not only bigger than one all, I think this is bigger than any brand. This is about all of us. So this is an open source. And it is available on Windows 12 if I’m not mistaken. 

Scott Hermes: 

Windows 11 is the next one coming up.

Renata Altenfelder:  

Yeah, it’s 11, I’m already on the next year. Already, it’s going to be available in all of muralla products, and on the G board, you already can download it. 

Scott Hermes:

That’s great. That’s awesome. 

Renata Altenfelder:

This is very important for us, right? Like this is not something that we want to be only for Motorola users. This is a part of who we are in our DNA that is really about disrupting the status quo and bringing technology that makes a difference in the lives of people.

Scott Hermes:  

So obviously, this was a great success for you. Is there a plan to start on other languages? And if so, how do you decide which ones you might start on next?

Renata Altenfelder: 

Yeah, we are now making studies across the globe. We don’t have the next one yet. But we are looking together with experts and professors to really understand what is the roadmap we keep working on that. It’s also really important to call out here that this is the decade of indigenous and dangerous language at UNESCO. So there’s also we believe that it’s going to bring attention to the topic. And we want to continue being part of this conversation. 

Scott Hermes:  

Okay, that’s great. Keep track of that and see see what’s so outside of language. What else are you doing, I mean, this is this is sort of very classic, inclusive, inclusivity and accessibility, what other kinds of things that are going on at Motorola that also make sure that Motorola continues to be both accessible and inclusive.

Renata Altenfelder:  

A lot. So as soon as I was saying we had this pillar of inclusivity, in everything that we do, right, so I previously talked about Moto actions. And for me, that’s also one of the examples of how accessibility sometimes can be easy, but people don’t necessarily think about it. So when you when you look at the Motorola phones are some some tools there like the way that you can access your camera or your flash, just moving your hands and in, in a different movement, and then you can access the camera, the way that you can play with the size of the letters, the way that you can play with the colors of what you have in your phones.. On top of that, also, we had a lot of panels discussing what are the needs of the people in the future, and working together with the engineers to bring this to life into our products. So there’s a lot of things from the software execution from also like point of sale, we are developing furnitures, it’s really thinking about how people are going to enter we do have like stores and kiosks across Latin America and the globe. So how will people going to walk inside of our stores? What is the height of the furnitures that we have internally? How can they can grab the phone? So all of these are our thoughts, not only for one group of people, we’re thinking about different needs. So I think when we say that we have in our core inclusivity it’s important to say that it goes beyond the product itself. It’s in everything that we do.

Scott Hermes:

What do you think gets misunderstood about inclusivity? and inclusive and accessible design?

Renata Altenfelder:  

When talking about inclusivity, in my view, it’s all about creating a new norm, right? People, we still have this concept that the majority is the law. And that the different groups don’t have the same rights. So I think by the moment that people understand that when you work with your minds, and you work with different people with different means, and you understand what they are looking for, and you start giving them this as a company, right? This actually is very positive for your results. Not only because people will look at you in different ways, but because you are going to access a different type of like different group that currently doesn’t have access to your products, because it doesn’t really solve their needs. There are people who think that doing something for a specific group or with a specific need is extra work, because it’s not worth it. And I can tell you, it’s worth it for different things, and not because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also because this is going to bring you more money. So as a company, look at this as also a generator of results.

Scott Hermes:

Absolutely. So I mean, I think you just nailed it with this, that it’s the right thing to do. It’s the ethical thing to do. But then also you’re increasing your audience. So why wouldn’t you do that? Right? And so a lot of the things that make for good, accessible and inclusive design make for good design, right? So it’s not like they are two arbitrary things. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s not like, oh, if I make it accessible for more people that I’m making it worse for everyone, which is, you know, or worse for the majority, right? You can, you can do both, right, like I think we just demonstrated by, we have the ability to change languages on our phone, why not have as many languages as we can have time to get in there, just just do them, right? Like once it’s in there. And once everyone shares that, that translation base that you guys just started on, right, that’s just it’s easy to plug in now. So I think it’s just like, like you said, it’s, it’s trying to meet people where they are instead of expecting them to come to you, right? So you’re always gonna, it’s always the right thing to do. And it’s also a profitable thing to do. So I don’t see how you can not do it. 

Renata Altenfelder  

I think we have this statement aside when you are not excluding your excluding, right. And I think it’s exactly like this because when you are not looking at all of the totality of the needs, in your excluding the other one is like you have this block it, right? But when you are willing to open your mind and see you’re gonna see so many opportunities that you can jump in, and then you can do amazing things in that. Right. So I think that is for me the ultimate goal of all of us, we should have as humanity, right, like, stop putting people in boxes and just look at the good for everyone.

Scott Hermes  

I can’t think of a better way to end our interview, Renata. But thanks for joining us, I really appreciate you spending the time and I really love to hear the work that you’re doing and the fact that I think it’s gonna mean a lot to the people who speak those languages and other people who are in the same community as the people who speak that language is to help better understand them and get curious about that language and start to want to learn more about that culture. So I think that’s also going to be another great effect of it.

Renata Altenfelder  

Exactly. So and I thank you I thank you for the opportunity. It’s always good about like talking about that is always good about talking what we say like is technology with heart right? This is how can we humanize technology? How can we bring this up to everyone so very, very thankful for the opportunity.

Engaging With Indigenous Communities

Thank you to Renata for an excellent conversation. And thank you again to Stephanie and Daniel. To get involved and learn more about their work, visit wikitongues.org and 7000.org.

And if you’d like to simply learn more about the history and culture of indigenous people, we thought we’d leave you with some sage advice from Daniel. 

DANIEL:

I think one really, really easy step that anybody can take is to learn about the original language of where you live. .. Maybe learn original place names. if you live in New York, learn that it is also the Navajo King, right? Learn about what was here, right and, and learn about what is still here, just in a, you know, in a state of political marginalization. More broadly, learn about what your languages were…the vast majority of us don’t speak the same language that our grandparents or great grandparents did.. So consider reclaiming one of your languages. 

if everyone is involved in language revitalization, you know, their own personal language revitalization, that kind of normalizes it, for everybody else, right? And the more you normalize multilingualism, the more you make it easier for speakers of marginalized languages or at risk languages to use their languages, you know, everywhere, right?

That’s a wrap! 

We hope you enjoyed our super-sized episode, or as you hopefulists out there would say, “Granda Epizodo.” If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to our podcast on the podcastery of your choice. You can also follow us on Instagram at lookbothwayspodcast. 

This episode was written and produced by Maxx Parcell with sound engineering from Chris Mitchell. Ear candy with light dusting of “humor” was provided by Scott Hermes. Original music composed and recorded by Ethan T. Parcell and Lucas Parcell.

If you have an idea for a podcast episode, visit lookbothways.kinandcarta.com and leave us a note, in English preferably, but if you wish, feel free to invent a new language and a new alphabet and leave us a note using it.

Safely beaming electricity through the air is officially not science fiction. We revisit our season debut episode with a look at the future of wireless energy with Emrod Energy CEO & Founder Greg Kushnir.

The Future of Wireless Energy

Back in August, we kicked off our season with a deep dive into Nikola Tesla’s unrealized dream of wireless energy transmission. As a special follow up episode, we’re putting the spotlight on Emrod Energy, a New Zealand-based company setting out to make Tesla’s vision a reality. Founder & CEO Greg Kushnir joins us to explain how their technology can help accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy…without harming any innocent birds along the way.

Episode Transcript

Hello everyone, welcome to Look Both Ways. I’m Scott Hermes. 

This show is made possible by Kin + Carta, a global consultancy who believes in making the world work better for everyone. 

Each episode of Look Both Ways follows a two act structure: First, an unsung failure of the past. And second, an unsolved challenge of the present. In our first episode of the season, act one told the story of Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower and the visionary inventor’s pursuit of wireless energy transmission. Act 2 put the spotlight on Geothermal energy: a less-talked about form of renewable energy with both extraordinary potential and plenty of unanswered questions.

If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, we highly recommend doing so, to gain proper context for what you’re about to hear. Because for today’s episode, we’re actually going to veer from our usual format and bring you a follow up to the Tesla episode. The section of the original Episode devoted to Tesla is about 20 mins long.

For a quick 20 second version:

Tesla was born during a thunderstorm in Croatia, came to the United States, bested Thomas Edison, invented our modern system of electricity, believed he could pump voltage into the ground and air to provide wireless power to the entire world, built a giant tower in New York to prove it, ultimately failed to convince enough rich people to finish the tower… and 100 years later we mostly know why it would have failed anyway, and Ethan Hawke sang a Tears for Fears song as Nikola Tesla in tribute to it all.

Energy Transmission: The Neglected Middle Child

In talking with Greg, he explained how the energy industry can generally be divided into three categories. First is generation. Developments in wind, solar, and geothermal all fall into this bucket. On the other end of the spectrum is consumption: How that electricity is used or stored.

In the middle sits: transmission. The awkward middle child. How electricity actually travels from a power plant to an outlet in your home. Aka – the massive network of underground wiring and above ground power lines that make up “the grid.” Of the three categories, transmission is probably the one you’ve thought about the least. Greg says that’s because it’s barely ever changed.

GREG KUSHNIR:

We’ve moved from horses to nuclear powered spaceships within 100 years, but we haven’t moved at all in the way that we move electricity about.

This is where Emrod is focused. In the most basic terms, Emrod’s system uses tall antennas to beam energy from one point to another through the air.

GREG KUSHNIR: It can be connecting a new solar farm to the grid, it can be powering a new cell tower, or an EV charger, it can be just used as a replacement for line and poles when you’re crossing difficult terrain. So really, anything between, you know, a few yards and many miles is well within the scope of what this technology can do.

Improving the TRANSMISSION side of energy, has HUGE implications on the other two: How it’s generated, AND how it’s used. For example: an electric truck delivering disaster relief supplies doesn’t need to also haul a giant battery if it’s being charged ALL THE TIME…THROUGH THE AIR. Crazy right? 

Renewable Energy & Disaster Relief

Here’s more from my conversation with Greg.

SCOTT: (38:30)

What are some of the challenges that those energy providers face and how can you help them overcome them?

GREG:

...our next field deployment, or it might be the next after that is demonstrating connecting a solar farm belonging to a company that has nothing to do with the energy generation, but they have a piece of land that they want to monetize. So they want to put in a solar farm. Now, in order to make money, they need to connect that solar farm to the grid. The local line company is not very helpful. I’m not gonna go into the details of why, but they’re essentially captive. Just like many other sustainable energy entrepreneurs. Yes, they can be put into generation sometimes, it’s even cost effective, but they still need to bring it to where it’s going to be consumed….

Now, we can help facilitate that. We can help make many, many, many more sustainable energy projects suddenly viable.

SCOTT:

One of the use cases that you talked about earlier that sort of stuck with me was the idea of, you know, we’re certainly seeing storms taking out our energy grid. And so that reminded me of in the 70s, or the 80s, there was a bad ice storm in Quebec in Canada, and I think it took a month to restore the energy. Is this an area where your technology can help out? Does it do well, in cold weather? Is that a problem for wireless transmission?

GREG:

Yes, absolutely. And I think you, you’ve pointed out one of the most important use cases for this technology, which is disaster relief….one of the applications that we are working on is mobile units, so truck mounted pair of antennas, if you have on scheduled or unscheduled maintenance in the grid, you can bridge that gap in the grid wirelessly by deploying, essentially two trucks with a transmitter and a receiver. So for disaster relief, that’s, I think, really crucial. It literally means lives. It’s not just convenience. So yep, truck mounted mobile outage response units are, I think, I hope would be quite interesting to see in the field. And I hope they will do a lot of good.

The Battery Problem

So remember the three major food groups to the energy pyramid? Generation, Transmission and Consumption. Emrod’s wireless transmission system can help new renewable energy sources get connected to the grid and it can help relay power to communities when it’s lost. What about how it’s consumed? Well this brings us back to the electric truck that never has to stop to charge. Greg explains:

GREG:

in the shipping industry, when those large ships come into port, container ships keep running their huge diesel engines, so the refrigeration and the electronics keeps keep working. Now that’s not very efficient, or very eco friendly.

You can’t say, Yes, I’m going to, you know, make my plowing machine electric, when you don’t have a way to power it, when it’s going to be sitting in the shed for 48 hours to charge. So really providing the infrastructure that facilitates going electric, across all the industries, I think, is the main contribution of Emrod’s technology to sustainable energy. And indeed, to decarbonizing generally.

not everything can carry around heavy batteries. So for example, for a truck or a bus or ship to have these huge batteries that would enable it to store all the energy it needs for the trip. It’s a technological challenge. It’s also not very ecological, because you need to move around a whole lot more mass. So the idea is to utilize wireless powering technology. In those cases, rather than having huge batteries. You can think I think, I think thinking of a drone of keeping a drone in the air indefinitely, for example, without requiring charging, will give you some sort of a taste of what is it good for have been able to do that would open up opportunities like drone delivery, for example, or airborne sensor platforms.

Is Wireless Energy Safe?

Right about now you might be thinking: this sounds incredible, but also incredibly dangerous! Like we know to stay away from power lines, but now imagine invisible power lines? 

Greg says no, that’s not how this works. Part of the problem goes back to Greg’s point about energy transmission being effectively unchanged for 100 years. Therefore our only frame of reference is power lines or other wired forms of transmission. Emrod’s technology works quite differently.

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