The rise of fear-based social media like Nextdoor, Citizen, and now Amazon’s Neighbors

Get to know who your neighbors are — and aren’t — with Amazon Ring’s Neighbors.Why people are socializing more about crime even as it becomes rarer.

Violent crime in the US is at its lowest rate in decades. But you wouldn’t know that from a crop of increasingly popular social media apps that are forming around crime.

Apps like Nextdoor, Citizen, and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors — all of which allow users to view local crime in real time and discuss it with people nearby — are some of the most downloaded social and news apps in the US, according to rankings from the App Store and Google Play.

Nextdoor bills itself as the “world’s largest social network for the neighborhood,” where you can ask for nearby restaurant recommendations, buy used furniture, or report a stolen bike. In practice, its “crime and safety” section has been a hotbed for racial stereotyping that’s forced the company to rewrite its software and policies.

Citizen — whose previous form was called Vigilante and which appeared to encourage users to stop crimes in action — sends users 9-1-1 alerts for crimes happening nearby. It also allows users to livestream footage they record of the crime scene, “chat with other Citizen users as situations develop” and “build out your Inner Circle of family and friends to create your own personal safety network, and receive alerts whenever they’re close to danger.”

Now Amazon has thrown its hat in the ring — with Ring. It recently advertised an editorial position that would coordinate news coverage on crime, specifically based around its Ring video doorbell and Neighbors, its attendant social media app. Neighbors alerts users to local crime news from “unconfirmed sources” and is full of Amazon Ring videos of people stealing Amazon packages and “suspicious” brown people on porches. “Neighbors is more than an app, it’s the power of your community coming together to keep you safe and informed,” it boasts.

Nextdoor was the ninth most-downloaded lifestyle app in the US on iPhones at the end of April, according to App Annie, an app data company; that’s up from No. 27 a year ago in the social networking category. (Nextdoor changed its app category from social to lifestyle on April 30; on April 29 it was ranked 14th in social, according to App Annie.) Amazon Ring’s Neighbors is the 36th most-downloaded social app. When it launched last year, it was 115th. Citizen, which considers itself a news app, was the seventh most-downloaded news app on iOS at the end of April, up from ninth last year and 29th in 2017.

APPS CAN FUEL A VICIOUS CYCLE OF FEAR AND VIOLENCE

These apps have become popular because of — and have aggravated — the false sense that danger is on the rise. Americans seem to think crime is getting worse, according to data from both Gallup and Pew Research Center. In fact, crime has fallen steeply in the last 25 years according to both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of course, unjustified fear, nosy neighbors, and the neighborhood watch are nothing new. But the proliferation of smart homes and smart devices is putting tools like cameras and sensors in doorbells, porches, and hallways across America.

And as with all things technology, the reporting and sharing of the information these devices gather is easier than it used to be and its reach is wider.

These apps foment fear around crime, which feeds into existing biases and racism and largely reinforces stereotypes around skin color, according to David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

“There’s very deep research saying if we hear about or read a crime story, we’re much more likely to identify a black person than a white person [as the perpetrator],” Ewoldsen said, regardless of who actually committed the crime.

As Steven Renderos, senior campaigns director at the Center for Media Justice, put it, “These apps are not the definitive guides to crime in a neighborhood — it is merely a reflection of people’s own bias, which criminalizes people of color, the unhoused, and other marginalized communities.”

Examples abound of racism on these types of apps, usually in the form of who is identified as criminal.

A recent Motherboard article found that the majority of people posted as “suspicious” on Neighbors in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood were people of color.

Nextdoor has been plagued by this sort of stereotyping.

Citizen is full of comments speculating on the race of people in 9-1-1 alerts.

While being called “suspicious” isn’t of itself immediately harmful, the repercussions of that designation can be. People of color are not only more likely to be presumed criminals, they are also more likely to be arrested, abused, or killed by law enforcement, which in turn reinforces the idea that these people are criminals in the first place.

“These apps can lead to actual contact between people of color and the police, leading to arrests, incarceration and other violent interactions that build on biased policing practices by law enforcement agencies across the country,” Renderos said. “And in the digital age, as police departments shift towards ‘data-driven policing’ programs, the data generated from these interactions including 9-1-1 calls and arrests are parts of the historic crime data often used by predictive policing algorithms. So the biases baked in to the decisions around who is suspicious and who is arrested for a crime ends up informing future policing priorities and continuing the cycle of discrimination.”

APPS DIDN’T CREATE BIAS OR UNFAIR POLICING, BUT THEY CAN EXACERBATE IT

“To me, the danger with these apps is it puts the power in the hands of the individual to decide who does and doesn’t belong in a community,” Renderos said. “That increases the potential for communities of color to come in contact with police. Those types of interactions have wielded deadly results in the past.

“Look what happened to Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman was the watchdog. He saw someone who looked out of place and decided to do something about it.”

These apps can also be psychologically detrimental to the people who use them.

It’s natural for people to want to know more about the world around them in order to decrease their uncertainty and increase their ability to cope with danger, Ewoldsen said, so people turn to these apps.

“You go on because you’re afraid and you want to feel more competent, but now you’re seeing crime you didn’t know about,” Ewoldsen said. “The long-term implication is heightened fear and less of a sense of competence. … It’s a negative spiral.”

“Focusing on these things you’re interpreting as danger can change your perception of your overall safety,” Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told Recode. “Essentially you’re elevating your stress level. There’s buckets of research that talks about the dangers of stress, from high blood pressure to decreased mental health.”

These apps are particularly scary since they’re discussing crime nearby, within your neighborhood or Zip code.

“Because it’s so close, my guess is it has a bigger impact on fear,” Ewoldsen said.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?

Technology has essentially enabled people to do what they always wished they could: know what’s going on and where the danger is. Security cameras and their associated apps — like smart devices in general — are getting better and cheaper, and they’re finding their ways into more and more people’s homes.

Entertainment devices like smart TVs and streaming devices are the biggest segment of smart devices sales, but smart security devices are a close second, according to data from research firm IDC. The smart security segment’s annualized growth rate is expected to be nearly 30 percent for the next three years.

Like all new technology, we’re struggling to use it correctly.

“When anything is new, we have a hard time figuring out how to use it,” Rutledge said. “We jump in the deep end of the pool and slowly walk to a place that makes sense.”

But why would we use something that plays on demonstrably false fears and has so many negative side effects? Some say: evolution.

“We are preparing ourselves to understand the nature of our environment to increase our chances of survival,” Rutledge told Recode. “Our instinct is to get as much information as possible to figure out what’s a danger.

“Wandering around on the savanna, it was much more important to know where tigers are than flowers,” she added.

So even if you’re statistically safe, the instinct is to look for what could go wrong.

“You might know that only four out of 10,000 people get congenital heart disease,” Rutledge explained. “But if you’ve been one of the four that’s not reassuring. Similarly, if in your neighborhood you’re aware of things happening, the fact that crime is down 20 percent is not going to cut the mustard.”

The issue is compounded by the media, Ewoldsen says.

“If you see more coverage of crime you think it’s more of an issue, even if real-world statistics say it isn’t,” Ewoldsen said.

And all this is happening at a very contentious point in time, both politically and socially.

“Some of this has to do with the general level of discord and lack of comfort societally right now,” Rutledge said.

As Ewoldsen put it, “The president screaming about crime all the time — creating a fake crisis at the border and saying immigrants are stealing jobs, that Mexico and other countries are sending criminals — is reinforcing the idea that crime is going through the roof.”

The rise of fear-based social media apps might also have to do with the decline of local news. Cuts to and closings of local newspapers over the past few decades have led to news deserts: areas that no longer have reporters to cover goings-on that aren’t on a national scale.

For better and usually worse, social media has stepped in to fill the void.

“It’s about how people are exposed to news today,” Renderos said. “Social media is increasingly where people identify their source of news.”

These local social and news apps, with their air of authority and neighborhood-watch ethos, can seem like a good alternative. It’s not as though local news was immune to fear-based coverage, but new technology has the ability to amplify that type of information.

WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

Ewoldsen argues it’s a matter of media literacy and how people choose to consume media.

“We need to pay attention and to be more mindful in our consumption of the news,” he said.

That means realizing what posts on these apps are and aren’t relevant to you, perhaps by decreasing the radius for which these apps display crime or by turning off notifications. People also need to be aware of how their biases and those of their fellow app users could skew reporting and the reaction to that reporting.

The responsibility also falls on the makers of the technology.

“It would help if they eliminated all unverified reports,” Rutledge said. In practice, however, this would mean having to verify crimes before they could be posted, which would be very difficult if not impossible.

“It would help if it would say ‘these are three important geolocated things and these things aren’t important — these aren’t threats. Here are some tips.’”

Cynics might say that these companies are only trying to sell more door cameras and wireless security devices and encourage more app downloads, so breeding fear is in their best interest, but Rutledge thinks the companies should take the long view.

“A sustainable company will want to think about the longterm wellbeing of their customers,” Rutledge said. “Always going for a quick buck is not going to make you a sustainable company.”


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS.

perpetuates racism and harms people of color.

It also harms the people using these apps.

ert amount of ev that causes you to gain weight.

if you use something properly makes feel better, use improperly makes feel worse. Use FB to connect fiends or stalk an old boy enjoyable, look at tpeole with more than I do feel worse.

Most people can say this isn’t very useful looking at all these results but some people can’ omg look at these results.

Renderos says tech companies could use these apps to build on their already huge databases — this time with much more deliterious effects thn targeted ads.

He posits that Rekognition, Amazon’s highly controversial and flawed surveillance facial recognition tool, could be paired with video generated from these video doorbells.

FAceial recognitiuon ot police

https://www.vox.com/2018/11/5/18062008/amazon-ice-we-wont-build-it-all-hands-meeting-law-enforcement-rekognition

he technology has been marketed as a surveillance tool that can be used to monitor faces in group photos, crowded events and public places such as airports, and run those images for matches against mugshot databases.

#vox

Forget cars. We need electric airplanes.

Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro is one of the first production electric aircraft. Electrifying aviation is an important strategy for mitigating climate change.The race is on to build batteries big enough for planes to fly on clean electricity.

If we’re going to limit climate change this century, we need to electrify everything. That includes air travel, a large and rapidly growing source of some of the most potent greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, high-speed rail could displace some flights, but for longer journeys, travelers will clearly still have to take to the skies.

Which means we’re going to need electric airplanes. And while it might sound far-fetched, we may actually have a path to them. Norway was optimistic enough to announce last year that the country wants all domestic flights to be electric by 2040.

Aircraft engineers are jazzed about the challenge. “I believe it’s one of the hottest topics at the moment in aircraft engineering,” said Andreas Schäfer, a professor of energy and transport at University College London.

It may still be a few decades before buzzing motors will replace the roar of jet engines in the skies. We’ll need much more powerful and cheap batteries, and we likely won’t get them until the middle of the century. But when we do, electrification will radically change the design of aircraft and likely the business of aviation altogether while shrinking the environmental footprint of air travel.

WHY WE NEED ELECTRIC AIRPLANES

Air travel remains one of the most difficult challenges for climate change. Aviation is responsible for 2 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. And nitrogen oxides and particulates spewed by aircraft at cruising altitudes also have a warming effect.

According to the Air Transport Action Group, an industry association, aviation contributes $2.7 trillion to the global economy and supports 63 million jobs. And as the global economy keeps growing, aviation’s contribution to climate change will rise.

By the middle of the century, demand for flying could increase aviation sector greenhouse gas emissions by upward of 700 percent compared to 2005 levels, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. This linkage between air travel, the economy, and emissions is a key reason US greenhouse gas emissions rose last year after years of decline.

This looming surge in flying makes it critical to decarbonize aviation, though there are no binding emission caps for aviation in the Paris climate agreement. Most of the low-hanging fruit airline companies can tackle — fuel efficiency, better aerodynamics, improved route mapping — have been picked. Fuel is the single largest expense for most airlines, so they already have a strong incentive to use it judiciously.

“If you look at the opportunities for reducing aviation CO2 that have been looked at for a long time, then you’re running out of options,” said Schäfer. “The potential for reducing CO2 emissions is not sufficiently strong in comparison to the growth rate of air transport.”

What options are left? Some airlines are experimenting with biofuels, which in theory could be carbon-neutral. However, biofuels are still struggling with costs and scale. The other major strategy is electrification.

WHERE DO ELECTRIC AIRCRAFT STAND NOW?

As with electric cars, electric aircraft have the potential for emissions-free travel. They also unlock a whole new suite of airplane design and even new business models for air transport. Some critical engineering challenges remain, but researchers, and some in the industry, do expect electric planes to take off.

We’ve already seen electric aircraft pull off some impressive feats. In 2016, the Solar Impulse 2aircraft completed an around-the-world journey powered only by sunlight. Granted, the aircraft cost $170 million, carried only one passenger, and topped out around 45 miles per hour, but it showed what’s possible. Recall that the time between the Wright brothers’ first 120-foot flight and John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight was just 16 years.

In fact, there are already production electric aircraft like Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro, a two-seat trainer.

But electric motors also let you do things that you can’t do with a jet or piston engine, so engineers are experimenting with radical and bizarre new designs. NASA is trying out some of these ideas with its X-57 Maxwell, an all-electric test plane. Take a look:

You may have noticed a slight difference from most propeller-driven planes. Sean Clarke, the principal investigator for the X-57 at NASA, explained that the design helps resolve a key trade-off that plagues many aircraft.

“For this scale aircraft, one of the driving design considerations is the landing and takeoff performance,” Clarke said.

Taking off from the ground and getting to cruising altitude requires a lot of energy. It also needs a large amount of lift. For most aircraft, that means they need a larger wing surface area to provide adequate lift at lower speeds. But that larger surface area adds drag and makes cruising less efficient at high speeds.

Electric motors, however, are cheaper and easily scaled up and down. They’re also less mechanically complicated since they don’t need fuel lines, valves, and exhaust systems, so they fit in a smaller package.

“Our wing has the cruise propellers at the wingtip, and that reduces the drag of the wingtip,” Clarke said. “We also have 12 small propellers that are distributed across the leading edge of the wing. That increases the lift at low speed.”

For takeoff and landing, the small propellers are switched on, which means the wing can be much smaller than in a comparable conventional aircraft, which saves energy in flight.

A test of the wing design for the X-57 Maxwell.Tom Tschida/NASA
A test of the wing design for the X-57 Maxwell.

Beyond the hardware, electric aircraft stand to change airline business operations. Electric motors can allow for very short — even vertical — takeoff and landing, which means they don’t necessarily need an airport with huge runways. So rather than airlines, these aircraft could operate as air taxis.

“There’s a lot of urban air mobility targets where different air framers and operators are advertising a future where you can take an air taxi from somewhere in a metropolitan area to somewhere 10 miles away and fly over all the rush hour traffic,” Clarke said. “It is really exciting because it’s starting to grow pretty quickly around the technologies that we’re already working with.”

One company, Lilium, has already tested such a prototype.

But these technologies still need incentives and investment. Clarke said that batteries also introduce new safety concerns to aircraft that have to be managed. In 2014, Boeing had to ground its entire fleet of 787 aircraft due to fires in its lithium-ion batteries. Nonetheless, electric aviation is gathering momentum, and it could take off sooner than we might expect.

HOW LONG UNTIL WE HAVE A FULLY ELECTRIC AIRLINER?

Schäfer co-authored a study in the journal Nature Energy late last year that tried to get at this very question.

The key limitation for aircraft is the energy density of its fuel: When space and weight are at a premium, you want to cram as much energy into as small a space as possible. Right now, some of the best lithium-ion batteries have a specific energy of 250 watt-hours per kilogram, which has already proved viable in cars. But to compete on air routes up to 600 nautical miles in a Boeing 737- or Airbus A320-size airliner, Schäfer estimated that a battery would need to have a specific energy of 800 watt-hours per kilogram. Jet fuel, by comparison, has a specific energy of 11,890 watt-hours per kilogram.

While it would take a significantly more powerful battery to compete with a transcontinental airliner, the shorter routes are still a promising target. Sub-600 nautical mile flights represent about half of global departures, and they have an outsize environmental impact.

Short flights dominate the skiesNature Energy
Short flights dominate the skies, as you can see in this map of air routes.

“At very low distances, the dominating determinant of pollution is takeoff and climb,” Schäfer said.

The energy required to get to altitude means airliners are less fuel-efficient in short flights. The efficiency per passenger gradually increases with the distance traveled, but it decreases again on long-haul trips since the aircraft also has to expend more energy to move the requisite fuel for the flight. That’s why most of the fuel use in aviation is still in long journeys. If all aircraft on short routes were electrified, it would only reduce aviation fuel use by 15 percent, according to the study.

Schäfer estimated that battery energy densities have increased by 3 to 4 percent per year in recent years. If this trend continues, we’ll have an 800 watt-hour per kilogram battery by roughly the middle of the century, barring a breakthrough.

“It is certainly a long way, but because the time scales of aviation are so long, [airliners] tend to live for 20 to 30 years, we need to start looking at these technologies now so they’re available in 2050,” he said. One stepping stone in this direction could be hybrid-electric aircraft, but those designs still produce greenhouse gases and also depend on cheap, powerful batteries.

The other key variable, of course, is cost. Jet fuel is cheap right now and batteries are expensive. If jet fuel prices go up and battery prices come down, then it will be easier for electrics to compete. However, you also have to factor in the cost of electricity, as this chart illustrates:

There’s a sliding scale between fuel cost and electricity cost in making electric aircraft competitive. Nature Energy
There’s a sliding scale between fuel cost and electricity cost in making electric aircraft competitive.

The y-axis also shows what would happen to fuel prices if a $100-per-ton carbon tax were imposed. Electric airliners would only be as clean as the electricity that charges them, so pricing carbon would be one way to ensure that they aren’t trading emissions from jet wash for emission from a smokestack.

Taken together, this means it will likely be decades before you can book a flight powered solely by electrons. But it’s still worth hoping it takes off.

#vox

Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood trailer is glitz and glam and little else

But Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt make up for the movie’s weird week of promos.

Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly said that his 10th film will be his last — something the marketing for his latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems to corroborate. Dramatically emphasized as the director’s ninth film, it’s also his first in nearly four years; and now its first trailer suggests he’s spent the time since 2015’s The Hateful Eight further committing to this potential final film countdown.

Deepening that lore is Tarantino’s all-out commitment to darkly absurdist comedy that’s present in the trailer, the kind that might not fully come together until we see the whole movie. And it sure seems like he doesn’t want it to, if the film’s early promotional materials are anything to go by.

Here’s the gist: Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt unite — acting together for the first time ever in a feature film — for Tarantino’s surreal take on 1969 Hollywood. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the stunt double for DiCaprio’s leading man, Rick Dalton. The pair have a working partnership that seems to extend beyond the film set, but why, how, when, and where remain unanswered questions, among myriad others.

Further complicating Once Upon a Time’s apparent premise is the presence of several real-life members of Hollywood’s Golden Age, ranging from Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate to Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee, who are seen dancing and talking up a storm throughout the trailer.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST TRAILER CAPS A WEEK OF OTHER OBSCURE PROMOS

Tarantino is not one to show his hand too early. And both the trailer and the accompanying posters for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are in keeping with that tradition. Critics were quick to snark on Monday’s marketing kickoff for the film — perhaps not an unfair move on their part. Take a look:

The full teaser poster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt (standing on the left) and Leonardo DiCaprio.Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing
We’d like to see the Photoshop file for this one.

The list of perplexing design choices runs long here. The poster above is composed of some seemingly questionable editing work — that bumblebee-yellow car in the background does little to distract from Brad Pitt’s unrecognizable figure; DiCaprio and Pitt are apparently leaning against nonexistent walls; and beyond the blurry Hollywood sign that affirms the movie is indeed set in Hollywood, there’s very little hint of what the movie is actually about.

All of this sent Film Twitter into a tizzy and almost immediately spawned criticism, along with plenty of memes.

Not only did DiCaprio and Pitt’s leans against invisible walls generate some cause for concern, but Tuesday’s similar follow-up featuring Margot Robbie did too:

Margot Robbie (left) is featured on a teaser poster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino.Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing
We’re getting closer to some details.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WITH MOVIE MARKETING ON THE INTERNET TODAY

The glitzy ’60s aesthetic of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might not do much to contextualize the simplistic design choices of its posters. But the need to deconstruct such a small part of an influential filmmaker like Tarantino’s return to the screen — and the way it plays out on social media — is familiar, and not inherently misguided.

Social media’s best-known characteristic is emboldening people to speak their truth, civility be damned. No longer are audience opinions predicated on week-of-release review or even the movie itself; oftentimes, potential viewers make up their minds about a project shortly after it’s announced, for better or worse. And easier access to studios and filmmakers means they’re the ones held accountable by the most vocal consumers, for the good and the bad.

Think of the recent uproar over a poster for April’s Avengers: Endgame, which erased actress Danai Gurira’s name from the credits list, despite her inclusion in the artwork. It wasn’t a great look for the highly anticipated Marvel film, especially considering the continued impact of last year’s Black Panther. Marvel edited the poster and offered a mea culpa within hours of the oversight, but only in response to outcry on social media.

Disney also faced scrutiny after releasing posters for Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018; the company sparked cries of censorship by omitting characters’ weapons on Brazilian versions of the teasers, while a French pop artist accused Disney of plagiarism. Both were small developments in Solo’s long, harried road to release, but developments nonetheless — ones that can contribute to any heat on a film.

It’s doubtful that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s posters will do much to dampen the enthusiasm over a new Tarantino film, especially when this might be his penultimate release. And a badly designed poster — and an ambiguous trailer — are orders of magnitude less offensive than, say, erasing a black actress from the marquee of one of the year’s most anticipated movies. But the narrative around the film’s peculiarities began before we even saw any footage, and it will inevitably factor into how the film is received.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in theaters on July 26.

#vox

Bill Gates: AI is like “nuclear weapons and nuclear energy” in danger and promise

Bill Gates at a forum in Shanghai, China, in 2018.

In a Stanford keynote, Gates argues AI can transform medicine and education but warns of risks as well.

On Monday, Stanford unveiled its new Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. Bill Gates was the keynote speaker, and he spoke in more depth than he has in the last several years about both his fears for AI and his hopes for it.

“The world hasn’t had that many technologies that are both promising and dangerous” the way AI is, he said, according to the Stanford Daily. “We had nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, and so far so good.”

The comparison of AI — which today is mostly employed to show you ads, write storiesplay games, and generate photographs — to nuclear weapons might seem overwrought to some. But many experts agree with Gates that it’s warranted. There is a substantial risk that we’ll design powerful AI systems that have unintended behavior — and if they’re deployed carelessly, those experts think we might drive our own species extinct.

Despite those risks, researchers are enthusiastically proceeding with exploration of AI system capabilities, with several significant breakthroughs in just the last few months. Why’s that? There are probably lots of incentives — profit, fame, internal competition — but one motivation is certainly the belief that AI has the potential to have enormous benefits commensurate with its enormous risks. Gates spoke to those aspirations, too.

So far, he said, as far as ways AI has benefitted society so far, “I won’t say there are that many.” But he sees potential — especially in the areas that he’s dedicated his post-Microsoft life to: health care, education, and global poverty.

He thinks AI can be used to identify promising drugs and speed up the drug-development process, transforming global health. In fact, he argues that AI is already doing that. “If you give kids in some countries an antibiotic once a year that costs two cents called azithromycin, it saves a hundred thousand lives,” Gates said. “I do not believe without machine learning techniques we [would have ever been] able to take the dimensionality of this problem to find the solution.”

He’s hopeful that AI can also transform the field of education, by making it easier for students to have personalized instructor time from AI assistant teachers. He’s hopeful there are insights about education that AI will help us uncover, too. “With everything we have learned about education, you could still say that the best teacher ever had lived 100 years ago,” Gates said. “You could not say that about doctors.” He thinks AI might change that.

The potential benefits mean that no one is going to stop working toward more advanced AI systems. The potential risks mean that it’s essential this be done carefully and responsibly, with a lot of thought put into international coordination, inter-organizational coordination, and policies aimed at ensuring AI is deployed safely and benefits all of humanity.

That fits well with the mission of Stanford’s new Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, which aims to bring multidisciplinary expertise to bear on the challenges that AI poses. “It was obvious that not only would AI be foundational to the future — its development was suddenly, drastically accelerating,” co-directors Fei Fei Li and John Etchemendy wrote in an announcementabout the new department. “We must study and forecast AI’s Human impact, and guide its development in light of that impact.”

Stanford University and Gates are in interestingly similar positions here. Both drove the field of computing forwards to where it stands today — Stanford with countless top researchers contributing to the development of AI, and Gates as a driver of personal computing at Microsoft. Both are now taking a look at what they’ve wrought — with some pride, but also some apprehension.

Both are now pivoting toward ensuring that technological progress does good rather than harm — nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons. As AI progress speeds along, it’s a more urgent priority than ever.

#vox

What the college admissions scandal says about racial inequality

Stanford University (pictured) is just one school grappling with the college admissions bribery scandal. But the education issues highlighted by the scandal go much deeper.America’s broken education system fails poor black and Hispanic students well before college application season.

It’s been one week since federal authorities announced that 50 people — including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — participated in a massive scam focused on getting wealthy children accepted to elite universities.

The scandal has sparked an intense discussion about wealth, privilege, and access to America’s most selective schools. But the ongoing fallout, and other recent stories about race-conscious admissions at Harvard and growing racial disparities in New York City’s selective high schools, provide a chance to examine a larger issue: how racial, educational, and economic inequality and discrimination collide to create a system where low-income students of color — particularly black and Hispanic students — struggle to access a quality education.

The college admissions scam stands out for the extent of its deception. A 200-page FBI affidavithighlights the (often absurd) lengths parents allegedly went to to cheat, from paying SAT and ACT proctors to change answers on standardized tests to faking learning disabilities to get additional accommodations for students and, in some cases, presenting children as recruits for college sports they’ve never played.

And the FBI report notes that parents didn’t balk at spending large amounts of money. Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli, for example, allegedly spent an eye-popping $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California by bribing a school official who falsely presented the girls as recruits of the crew team.

The college admissions scandal has gotten attention for its participants’ brazen willingness to break laws, but observers note that it is far from the first time wealthy parents have tried to give their children a leg up in college admissions.

And the scandal is far from the first to highlight issues with race and education. Last year, a trial over race-conscious admissions at Harvard University included arguments that the school is discriminating against Asian-American students while admitting other students with lower scores, finding that the children of donors received the biggest advantage.

And this week, it was announced that New York’s ultra-selective Stuyvesant High only accepted seven black students and 33 Hispanic students in a freshman class of nearly 900, suggesting that many low-income students of color struggle to gain entry to elite schools well before college.

The three stories call attention to the ways educational inequality and racial inequality intersect. But they also highlight an extreme difference in how the public has historically discussed financial donations and legacy admission programs that benefit wealthy students, and programs like race-based affirmative action, which is aimed at helping underrepresented minority groups, especially black and Hispanic students, access institutions that were not made for them.

There’s plenty of evidence of the former influencing college decisions, but it is the latter that often comes up when we talk about merit and who “deserves” to attend certain colleges.

“It’s so written into the American imagination that these spots (at prestigious institutions) are for white people, and anytime a black student or a Latinx student gets in, it’s taking a spot away from them,” Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University and the author of The Privileged Poor, recently told CNN. “That’s not what’s happening.”

The past week has been a potent reminder that students of color and other marginalized groups are often locked out of the systems that help their wealthier peers. And the gap between these groups raises bigger questions of how merit has historically been defined, who that definition leaves out, and how continued inequality has made a broken education system worse.

WEALTH INFLUENCES A STUDENT’S EDUCATION WELL BEFORE COLLEGE APPLICATION SEASON

The bribery scandal has been a clear reminder that low-income students and students of color are far less likely to benefit from legacy admissions or inherited wealth, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to competing to get into elite schools.

The particular nature of the scandal has led many to draw comparisons between the rich, mostly white group of parents who have been charged, and parents of color like Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar — black mothers who were arrested and faced criminal prosecution for using the addresses of relatives and family friends to get their children into better grade schools. Their stories, the argument goes, shows how harsh and unequal the justice and education systems can be for parents of color looking to help their children.

But in many ways, the disparities highlighted by the scandal fit into an even larger set of gaps that don’t always draw the same attention. A recent report from a nonprofit called EdBuild found that on average, predominantly white school districts receive $23 billion more in funding than school districts that primarily serve students of color and those from low-income families (the difference is largely due to local wealth and taxes, according to the EdBuild report).

By the time a student reaches high school, that gap has influenced not only what the student has already learned but what they’ll learn in the future. Research has shown that students attending financially stable high schools are more likely to have access to Advanced Placement and college preparation courses, but more importantly than that, they are more likely to have acquired the skills to succeed in those courses.

Add in increased access to SAT and ACT prep courses, private tutors, and the ability (and time) to pursue expensive extracurriculars, and the already sizable gap between wealthy students and their less financially stable peers grows even wider.

It creates a disparity not only in who goes to college but in the types of schools students from different backgrounds attend. A 2015 analysis from the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank found that black students made up just 4 percent of those enrolled at top-tier colleges in America but made up 26 percent of students at the bottom tier of colleges.

A 2017 New York Times analysis found that even with race-conscious admissions policies in place, black and Hispanic students are actually less represented at America’s top colleges now than they were 35 years ago.

These disparities make incidents like the admissions scandal even more troubling for students of color. “It’s frustrating that people are able to obtain their opportunities this way,” Khiana Jackson, a black senior at Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City, Missouri, told the New York Times last week. “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough.”

In school systems like New York City’s, these sorts of tensions are fueling a serious debate over how to fix an education system where white and Asian students are far more likely to have the resources to succeed compared to their black and Hispanic peers.

There’s also the problem that even when low-income students of color make it to elite colleges, they are still standing on an uneven playing field.

Students “are perpetually made to feel as if they don’t deserve to be there,” Clint Smith writes at the Atlantic, “whether it’s while cleaning a classmate’s bathroom, stocking up on nonperishable food for spring break, or overhearing an offhand comment about how their acceptance was predicated on the color of their skin, or the lower socioeconomic status of their family.”

“Meanwhile, many wealthy students for all intents and purposes have their parents buy their way into these schools through private-school tuition, test prep, donations to colleges, and myriad other advantages,” Smith adds.

The college admissions scandal also highlights something that education experts have long noted about elite college admissions: that schools have often used “back doors” for the children of wealthy alumni and those who can make donations to the school, leaving everyone else to fight over the remaining spots.

As Vox’s Libby Nelson recently explained, “Colleges are increasingly seen for what they are: another system that the wealthy can game.”

THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL ADDS TO AN ONGOING DEBATE ABOUT AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

If the bribery scam has called attention to the ways that wealth helps students access America’s most selective schools, the backlash to the scandal has highlighted how students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the ones often tasked with proving that they “earned” their spots on campus.

It has called new attention to programs aimed at helping students from marginalized groups. Perhaps the most prominent of these is race-based affirmative action, which was established as a way to help marginalized groups who faced discrimination and were historically shut out of education and job opportunities.

But various judicial interventions have left affirmative action severely weakened, and the sorts of “racial quotas” that often come to mind when the term is invoked are effectively nonexistent.

Instead, schools are only allowed to consider a student’s race in extremely limited ways, and schools that do consider race rarely argue that they want to right historical disparities, instead focusing on claims that a diverse student body benefits all students.

Differences in how the public looks at race-based affirmative action and admission programs for wealthy students were most recently raised in a trial last year challenging race-conscious admissions at Harvard.

That case, brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that opposes affirmative action, argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants, and that this discrimination is the direct result of the school’s efforts to enroll black and Hispanic students.

A final decision is expected in the near future, but the case suggested that any attention Harvard paid to race was far outweighed by its attention to applicants whose families attended Harvard, or those with money to donate.

According to the Washington Post, data revealed at the trial found that the admission rate for children of donors and other applicants kept on special “interest lists” was 42 percent — far more than the single-digit admit rate for applicants without prior ties to the university.

Put together, the Harvard trial, the college admissions scandal, and the ongoing debate over NYC’s selective schools raise the question of how we should think about “merit” in education. America has always presented itself as a “meritocracy,” where success is solely the result of talent and hard work.

But for far too many, that has never actually been the case.

#vox

Us is Jordan Peele’s thrilling, blood-curdling allegory about a self-destructing America

Lupita Nyong’o in <em>Us.</em>

Our ugliest history is coming for us.

Jordan Peele’s Us, its title signals, is not a movie from which we as viewers can be detached. It demands from the start that we recognize an uncomfortable fact: Out in the audience, we’re part of the story.

And it’s a movie about doubles and doppelgängers, so of course the title is pulling double allegorical duty. Peele is a walking pop culture encyclopedia, especially horror and science fiction (he’s hosting and producing CBS’s Twilight Zone reboot, which premieres on April 1). So there’s no way he named his Get Out follow-up without self-conscious reference to Them!, the 1954 sci-fi film in which a nest of giant irradiated ants threatens Americans from tunnels beneath New Mexico, a recompense (a voiceover at the end tells us) for the hubris of the atomic age.

The title also obviously signals that this movie is about us — first-person plural, audience and filmmakers alike — but with some additional specificity: US = United States. As one of the characters rasps once the film cranks into gear, “We are Americans.” Us is a movie about America.

Rife with symbols and encroaching apocalyptic dread, Us is a big, ambitious fable about how a society develops willful amnesia, then tears itself to pieces. Like last year’s Hereditary and the upcoming The Lodge, it’s horror cosplaying as family drama. But unlike those movies, Us’s target isn’t intimate; it’s a whole nation that doesn’t want to remember the less savory parts of history.

It also works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much and stitch together a coherent mythology. Us is likely to frustrate people who crave plot points that can be coherently explained and mapped explicitly, directly onto the real world. In this way, it feels less expertly crafted than Get Out, though also more ripe for rewatching, considering from new angles; your mileage may vary. And what people see reflected in the film may say less about the film than it does about themselves. (It’s no accident that some posters for the film feature inkblot imagery to clearly mimic a Rorschach test.)

Evan Alex in Us.Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures
Evan Alex in Us.

But no matter who’s watching, the movie is richly entertaining and unnerving. Us is more intuitive than explicatory, more visceral than diagrammatic; it’s horrific in a way that hangs onto your gut when it’s all over.

US TURNS A FAMILY TRIP TO THE BEACH INTO NIGHTMARE

Humans seem to find copies of themselves terrifying. Traditionally, seeing your doppelgänger means death is nigh; in some cultures and times, twins have been considered so unlucky that one in a pair is killed after birth.

So it’s quite frightening when, at the beginning of the film, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) — a child visiting a boardwalk amusement park on the Santa Cruz beach with her bickering parents in 1986 — wanders away into a funhouse and, in the hall of mirrors, is confronted by her own self. Not a reflection of herself. A copy of herself.

In the present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is on vacation with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), at the family’s beach house near Santa Cruz. Gabe suggests they go to the beach to meet up with their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), who cordially despise one another in between raising their twin teenaged daughters (Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon).

Adelaide looks stricken at Gabe’s suggestion, but eventually agrees to go, though only warily. While they’re on the beach, Jason briefly wanders away, scaring Adelaide half to death. But soon, all’s well, and the family returns that evening to wind down and get some sleep.

The family in Us.Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures
Uh oh.

And then, they see four figures at the end of their driveway, holding hands, standing motionless. They won’t go away. When, all at once, they converge on the house, the family discovers to their horror that these aren’t mysterious strangers — they’re the family’s doppelgängers, their exact doubles, except twisted, angry, and out for blood.

US FOCUSES ON THE BROADER SOCIAL CONTEXT OF ITS HORROR

It’s a chilling premise that keeps expanding outwards, challenging what we think we know about the world of the film. Drawing on tropes from home invasion horror, monster movies, supernatural thrillers, and eerie social chillers, Us slowly builds the case that our greatest enemies are our shadow selves, the parts of us that we like to keep hidden.

But Us is less fixated on the individual psyche, more on the broader cultural and social implications of this idea, and how it’s shaped the way we talk, think, and act on matters of race and class in America. The family is hounded by their own doubles because of long-forgotten events they did not personally set in motion. America’s efforts to forget this history has led the country toward this apocalypse of its own creation.

This metaphor, by my lights, escapes being a little too obvious very narrowly. Peele largely manages to skirt potential clumsiness with the deft directorial hand (and punctuations of humor) so evident in Get Out. The film’s beats feel deliberate and solid, not ponderous. Anything could change at any second. Nobody is safe.

The doubles arrive, and they’re not playing around.Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures
The doubles arrive, and they’re not playing around.

Each actor has the especially difficult task of playing themselves as well as their own, twisted double — even the children — and their vacillations from frightened to wounded to deranged are the source of most of the film’s horror; there’s nothing scarier than a demonic grin on a young girl’s face. Everyone is uniformly terrific, but Nyong’o’s performance as the film’s narrative and moral center is virtuosically creepy and heartbreaking, like she’s swapping out souls between — or even during — takes.

The cast’s considered, meticulous adaptability to their dual roles fits with the rest of the film’s own eye for detail. Everything we see on screen seems intended for us to note and consider, from the VHS tapes on the shelf next to a TV in 1986 (GooniesC.H.U.D.) to the logos on the kids’ T-shirts (JawsHands Across America, Michael Jackson’s Thriller).

The funhouse into which young Adelaide ventures is called “Shaman Vision Quest,” with a cartoonish Native American figure draped over the name, but by the time the family revisits the beach decades later, it’s been changed to “Merlin’s Enchanted Forest,” with no remainder of its racist past. A recurring reference to the 1986 anti-poverty Hands Across America campaign (which raised $34 million, but only actually distributed about $15 million, less than half, to the poor) becomes more and more significant as the film goes on. And an early shot slowly pulls back on cages of rabbits, stacked on top of one another; a sea of white rabbits is punctuated by a couple of brown and black ones. That’s no accident.

None of this is accidental. In Us, everything matters.

US WARNS THAT A DESTRUCTION OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS IS COMING, AND IT STARTED INSIDE OUR OWN SOULS

Of all of Peele’s deliberate choices, the doubling motif is the most important. It furnishes the impetus for the plot, but it shows up in other ways. A man shows up on the boardwalk in both 1986 and the present day holding a cardboard sign, on which is written, in crayon, “Jeremiah 11:11” — “Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.”

The verse’s significance is more clear if you look at it in context, just as the movie only makes full sense with knowledge of America’s history-phobic culture: We prefer to forget the parts of our history that make us uncomfortable. In Jeremiah 11, God is speaking to the prophet Jeremiah about the covenant he made with the forefathers of the people of Israel when he brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The nation, God says to Jeremiah, has “turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers.”

Later in the passage, Jeremiah realizes the people are plotting against him, because they don’t want to hear this message. The nation has forgotten God and its history, and God has decided to give it over to destruction.

That’s an obvious warning for people who’ve forgotten their country’s history of oppression and bloodshed. What Us suggests is that, if we are headed for destruction, the destroyers won’t be invaders from the outside — the “other.” They will be, well, us.

Obviously, there’s no clear doubling theme in the verse itself (though God repeats the same warnings several times, almost verbatim, in the chapter). But Peele got a little lucky with the reference: 11:11 is, itself, a double of doubles. To make sure we get it, he repeats it on an alarm clock screen just before things start to go very wrong in the movie. And there are other doubles all over the movie: window reflections, twins, mirror images, and, of course, the doppelgängers themselves.

Lupita Nyong’o in Us.Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures
Lupita Nyong’o in Us.

The key notion in Us is that our shadow selves, our reverse negatives, are not separate entities from ourselves — we are simply our own aggressors. A nation of people who prefer to erase their misdeeds rather than acknowledging and rectifying them becomes, quite literally, a house divided. It’s going to fall.

Which is why Peele’s callback to Them!, a 65-year-old product of an era feverishly obsessed with the follies of the atomic age and a lurking Cold War menace abroad, is so important. There are clear parallels — both films are about underground tunnels in which lurk dangers, created by humans, that will someday explode to cause our doom. But Them!, from its title, fingers the danger as something other than humans (and in the movie, giant ants). Humans created the danger, but it comes from creatures wholly unlike ourselves.

But in Us, Peele brings the critique closer to home. The fault for our destruction isn’t that of foreign agents. The poison lurks in our own souls.

Us opens in theaters on March 21.

#vox

Aidy Bryant’s clothes in Shrill are a plus-size dream. Here’s why you can’t buy them.

Aidy Bryan (center) plays Annie in <em>Shrill</em>. Many of her clothes were made from scratch by costume designer Amanda Needham.

Costume designer Amanda Needham on how the fashion industry fails plus-size women, and why everyone was crying when they shot that pool party scene.

When Amanda Needham took the job as costume designer on Shrill, the new Hulu series based on writer, activist, and self-described “loud woman” Lindy West’s memoir, she knew that dressing plus-size performers would be a little tricky. “I was excited to take on the challenge,” she says. Lead actress Aidy Bryant, who plays Annie on the show, warned her that it might be harder than she thought — maybe impossible. “I was like, ‘No way, girl! I got this.”

The show captures Annie at a turning point in her life, as she consciously chooses to break free of the fat-girl tropes imposed on her and come into her own as a woman — a fat woman. The first season follows her as she pushes forward in her career (despite a difficult, anti-fat boss), tries to build an adult relationship with her juvenile boyfriend, and confronts the relentless and ridiculous biases that plus-size people face. In many ways, the show is about challenging those biases and depicting women like Annie as people with real, normal lives.

But when it came to creating Annie’s real, normal wardrobe, Needham quickly ran into a roadblock. As soon as she started looking for pieces, Needham learned the ugly truth about plus-size clothing: It is, for the most part, ugly — as well as cheap, poorly made, and, above all, limited. So she started from scratch, designing the majority of Annie’s clothing herself with the help of her team. Now she’s on a mission to make Shrill a conversation starter among clothing designers and retailers: “The fashion industry needs to catch up.”

First off, congratulations. There’s been such a huge response to Shrill, and to the style in particular.

My gosh, it’s been wild! I’m loving it, though. I’ve been getting all these people reaching out to me separately, just to say “Thank you for seeing me.” It makes me want to cry.

 Allyson Riggs/Hulu
Aidy Bryant as Annie in the first episode of Shrill.

I bet! Obviously, this show is a first in many ways, but as a plus woman myself, I’d never had the experience of watching a series and really taking note of the clothing and thinking, “Ooh, where can I get that dress?” It was a very pleasant surprise.

I think a lot of people feel that way. We never see women of size in fashiony pieces. I couldn’t even find anything for inspiration. You can’t find any examples of looks on people over, like, a size 8 — and even a size 8 is really a faux pas.

Before this show, I really believed in the fashion industry more. In the beginning, I think maybe I had a little ego about it. Aidy knew going in that this was going to be a struggle, and I was like, “Oh, there’s stuff for you out there, don’t worry! I’m about to show you the world, and it’s going to be amazing.” Then we ordered all this stuff and when it came in, it was terrible — all polyblend and so cheap. I was like, where are they even buying this fabric? It was borderline insulting. And the sad truth is there was nothing out there. It was a dead zone.

So how did you make do? How do you create a distinct personal style for a character when the options are so limited?

We just had to go back to the drawing board and make this world ourselves. It was absolutely a collaboration. Aidy has such incredible fashion sense, so I took a lot of cues from her everyday look and then added some moments where it felt more elevated in terms of colors and cuts, just to highlight and celebrate her body.

You literally had to make some of the pieces yourself, correct?

Yes, most of them actually. There are a couple off-the-rack items. She wears a Rachel Antonoff dress in the first episode, and a Mara Hoffman swimsuit at the pool party, but almost all the other pieces are custom. All the dresses.

 Allyson Riggs/Hulu
Annie (Aidy Bryant) in episode four of Hulu’s Shrill.

All of them? Wow.

I know. This is the hardest thing for me right now — answering all these questions from people reaching out to me on Instagram, wanting to know where they can buy these things. It really underscores the message that the fashion industry needs to start catching up.

Truly, designing this show would have been impossible to do off the rack. You actually cannot create a look for a plus-size character without a tailor and the resources to create customized pieces for their body. Because the retail stuff — it doesn’t seem like it’s plus-size people designing them. It’s like they’re guessing what a plus-size body is shaped like. There’s no attention to detail, and once you get past a certain size, it really seems like the designers are … uncomfortable with those bodies. There’s so much shame around weight, I’ve realized, and we’ve got to get rid of it. I want the industry to just celebrate whatever size we are and work with it. It’s like, stop building tents and caftans for anyone over a size 14.

Amen. Speaking of celebrating bodies, let’s talk about the pool party. What was your goal for that scene?

I wanted it to feel like an oasis. I wanted lots of color and a lot of really stylish moments. Often I think plus-size swimwear can be so one-dimensional. I mean, how many black bathing suits can you look at before you’ve seen them all? And at a certain size, everything starts to get bigger and really drapey, and it’s more about covering a body than celebrating it in any way.

I just felt so upset that there was nothing available for these women that I worked even harder to give them options. I really didn’t want to just roll into there with one rack. So we built a lot of those pieces and ordered as much as we possibly could. We wanted to present a world that made everyone feel accepted and seen. There were so many tears that day. It was incredible.

What was it like working with the women in that scene? Was everyone comfortable, dancing on camera and being exposed like that?

Oh, I’m not kidding you when I say everybody was crying, myself included. It was crazy. I remember our call time was really early and we all got there before sunrise. By the time the sun came up, everyone was dressed and everyone was in tears. It was because everyone felt like they were heard and everyone felt so beautiful. My team catered to every single woman there, and everyone got the full works — swimsuits, bags, bracelets, bags.

Lindy West had a cameo, and I think her look was one of my favorites. It was a black suit, but we designed it with all these cutouts, and we gave her a beautiful flower crown. But there was not one single person there where we were like, “Oh, I’m sorry, we have nothing for you.” No. It was, “Oh, you’re a size 24? Here are your options.”

 Andrew Eccles
Annie (not pictured) and Fran (Lolly Adefope, center left) attend the Fat Babe Pool Party.

Options! That’s huge! Just hearing you say that, I can understand why everyone was crying.

It really felt like we were a part of something bigger that day. I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and there are a lot of special moments and great times when you’re producing and building characters. But I’ve never been a part of something so … humane? Something where you’re actually working with a part of our population that is just not seen or heard. It was just so cool to be a part of that process.

There’s a part in that scene where Annie compliments another woman’s skirt and says how hard it is to find plain staple items like that — without ruffles or garish prints. I really appreciated seeing Annie sometimes dressed in just basic jeans and a T-shirt. Were any of those off the rack?

Yes, some of the basics were from Asos. The T-shirt where she’s walking with her mom was from there. But the brand we used the most was Tuesday Bassen. It’s an LA-based designer, and they make XXL-5X. They’re so on it, and they use recycled fabrics too.

Much of this season is about Annie really embracing and embodying herself for the first time but struggling with some moments of insecurity along the way. Did you try to reflect that journey in her wardrobe?

Y’know, we did have those conversations during prep, but my stance is that I didn’t want it to be about the wardrobe. Aidy is a genius, and she doesn’t need the clothes to tell the story. And no one wanted it to be like, oh, here’s the part of the story where she’s suddenly Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, coming out in this crazy outfit. I really wanted it to be about her trying, and showing vulnerability when she wanted to — and oftentimes we did that without clothes. There are these incredibly vulnerable moments where she’s not wearing clothes, like when she’s with Ryan.

I wanted to ask about those scenes, and the lingerie specifically. Those moments are so intimate and emotional, and I imagine it’s hard for anyone to be exposed in that scenario. How did you and Aidy work together to find looks that felt comfortable — and also just not crappy-looking underwear?

Oh, my god, the fittings for those scenes were amazing. It was really just Aidy and I in her trailer, and we have such a good relationship, thankfully. She had to do sex scenes where she was exposed or straddling the actor, and we rehearsed a lot of them, just to get a full look at what the lingerie was going to do — where the underwear was going to go, how the bra was going to look in different positions.

We did custom-design a lot of that, but we also used Rihanna’s Fenty line, which was a real hit. She has some really beautiful pieces that go up to a 2 or 3X. But with most of the lingerie, again, once you get over a certain size, it’s like everyone has to look like a nursemaid or something. It’s all really padded and the straps are really thick.

 Allyson Riggs/Hulu
Annie and Ryan (Luka Jones) in their intimates, in Shrill.

Plus intimates are often enormous. As with other clothing, it seems like it’s more about hiding a body or obscuring its shape, rather than just dressing it. Would you agree?

I would wholeheartedly agree with that. That’s the biggest thing.

And … okay, everything’s been really positive for the most part, but there are also people sliding into my DMs saying things like, “Why are you celebrating obesity?” First of all, what I’m celebrating is people feeling good about themselves and having no shame. And second, just because you are a bigger person doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. I know skinny people who can’t run a mile. Good health and poor health comes in all different forms. There’s such a misconception with that.

Yes, misconception and bias. It’s really telling when someone brings up health or uses phrases like “promoting obesity.”

Yeah! I see those messages and think, how do you know? Who are you to look at anybody and tell them they have health issues? I don’t see a doctorate after your name, so back off. It’s so wild! But it also makes me feel so happy to take a stand and have conversations like this one.

You know, when I was asked to do this project, I had just wrapped another show. I have two little girls and I was thinking I just couldn’t jump into another series right away. But the producers asked me to just please read it, so I did. And at the end of the day, I realized this is the work I want to do. I want to be in people’s corners — those who feel like they aren’t being represented in fashion. So that’s why it was really important to me to push through and do this. These are the conversations I want to be having.

What do you hope others in the industry take away from your work?

This should be a wake-up call. It was, truly, for me. We cater to people on the other end of the spectrum all the time. We’re making J. Crew in XXS, but designers can’t even think of making something in XXL.

What kills me is the designers who argue that it’s extra fabric, and that’s why they don’t make those sizes, when, of course, the XXS is not cheaper than the medium. It doesn’t make sense.

It is such bullshit. And it is so important to me to be at the table for those conversations. There are some designers and retailers out there doing good work, like Asos, 11 Honoré, and Wild Fang. Anthropologie just announced a plus-size line. But it’s still kind of a dead zone out there. Zara has nothing. Eloquii is okay but it all looks the same after a while.

I’m hoping Shrill lights a fire under people and starts opening things up, because I would love to be able to put off-the-rack clothes on Aidy for the second season. Designing the clothes is really fun, but on a human level, it would be much better to see plus-size people represented in the same way that tiny, tiny models are — who don’t represent the general population. That’s my motto now: Catch the hell up.

#vox