Robyn Reviews: Sway – Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Agarwal also clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science from musings which have yet to be proven, presenting references for each argument made and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. Science is ever-evolving, and sadly this is an under-researched field.

Sway is split into several sections. The first, ‘Hardwired’, covers basic neuroscience and psychology – how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. It unravels the pathways involved to give a grounding to the lay reader. I have a neuroscience background, so whilst this was interesting I can’t comment on its accessibility to someone new to the field. However, Agarwal includes several diagrams to illustrate her points, and I imagine these will be very useful to those trying to picture the concepts she describes.

The second section, ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them. This was fascinating. It covered things like hindsight bias – believing after something has happened that we knew would happen from the start, even though we actually had no or very little idea. These are concepts which we rarely consider day-to-day but are incredibly important for acknowledging our own limitations and mistakes. We cannot confront our own biases and blind spots unless we’re aware that they exist. Agarwal includes plenty of examples and anecdotes to prevent the material becoming dry, again citing all her sources so that those interested can read further.

The third section, ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias – prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less – fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. Agarwal combines scientific data with her own polls carried out on Twitter, with some rather interesting results. After all, one of the well-known biases in science is research bias – those involved in research studies, including those on bias, are not representative of the whole population, but instead just of the population willing to get involved in research. This is a different group to those happy to spend a few milliseconds clicking on a Twitter poll. Agarwal doesn’t claim huge scientific accuracy to her Twitter poll data, merely including it as a point of intrigue – it supplements the more conventional sources very well.

The final section, ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. Technology is claimed by many to be the solution to bias – why would a robot care about race? The answer, of course, is that robots care about race because the humans programming it do, and the data sets they are trained on have their own intrinsic biases. There is a chapter in this section called ‘Good Intentions’ which covers the incredibly contentious topic of how trying to reduce bias can end up increasing or reinforcing it, which should be mandatory reading for everyone. Agarwal covers the issue masterfully and without judgement, merely presenting the facts and highlighting the importance of education and continual learning. Being completely unbiased is impossible – all we can do is continue to learn from our mistakes, learn our own biases, and act on them.

Overall, this is an excellent book – well-researched, informative without being dry, and highlighting some incredibly topical issues. Recommended for everyone.

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardcover: 2nd April 2020

Book Review: Imaginary Cities

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Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson, is vast in scope and scale. It looks at cities throughout time, their founding and evolution, the effect their existence has had on man. The cities discussed are not restricted to those which can be visited. They include cities which exist only in history, those of myth and legend, fictional cities, and those which were conceived but never born. The cities are examined from a variety of perspectives but always with a view to their influences and effect. This is a perceptive, challenging and fascinating wander through time and space whilst looking at how history is defined.

We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. We are unreliable narrators even to ourselves. Time is much more complex and relativist than our linear way of thinking permits.

A note on this review. As I read the book I made notes. Much of what follows is taken from the book, ordered and paraphrased by me. Sometimes it is hard to cut back on all that I wish to highlight to a potential reader. This is very much a book that I want to encourage those with an interest in the subject to read, because I will struggle to do it justice.

Cities are conceived as utopias yet it is worth recognising that all dystopias are utopias for some inhabitants at least. To create an ideal city is it necessary to dispose of non ideal inhabitants? From ancient walled cities to modern, gated communities the barriers were erected to keep the Other out. Those who benefit from the status quo fear change even though it is the polyphony of a city that is its beating heart.

Might we see the Fellowship of the Ring as sabateurs of necessary progress, a ragged luddite band of aristocrats, peasent revolutionaries and priests preventing necessary industrialisation of Mordor?

The future will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present. There is little in the behaviour of mankind to suggest we will abolish degradation, poverty and ruin given our inability to extricate from greed, power and sadism. With improvements in cleanliness and thereby health we exist, perhaps without realising, in what would once have been sought after as a utopia.

With cities as with people the condition of the bowels is all important. Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Power is the control of space: in prison, factory or stately home; in kettling, erecting walls such as currently exist in Belfast or Gaza; in backstage passes, first class travel, or the ability to live in freedom within our own homes.

Every vast Emerald city requires vast emerald mines yet the powerful demand that everyone be happy by whatever means necessary: behavioural conditioning, drugs, lobotomisation.

Many accept the premise that the more you own the more you are and the more deserving of it you have been.

The edifices of the powerful have always dominated the city skyline, from the spires of churches to the glass towers of finance.

This is but a tiny taster of the subjects explored by the author. The book is long but every word is worth reading. It is a challenge to consider the world we inhabit, how it came to be and what will replace it. This is an exploration of psychogeography, architecture and philosophy; what is real and what reality even means; man’s inability to escape his influences, including fiction and the fiction that is accepted in our present and as history.

These tales of alchemy, devils and gold, theft and ambition and death, we give the insufficient title, history.

I do not review a great deal of non fiction but am so glad to have been sent such an astounding and readable tome. The depth, breadth and quality of writing is phenomenal. This is seminal stuff.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Warmth

Day 5 of my countdown to Christmas and I am thinking about how lucky I am to be warm. Stormy weather is forecast for today which, with the recent drop in temperature, makes it a day best spent hibernating. I am sitting at my desk, wrapped in a duvet, a warm cup of coffee by my side. I feel cosy and content.

My preparations for Christmas are starting to take shape. I do just about all of my shopping on line these days so have been browsing the internet and placing orders each evening. The interesting looking parcels and boxes are starting to arrive and the items on my ‘to do’ lists are gradually being ticked off.

I realise, of course, how lucky I am. We have never been a family that has gone overboard with gift buying, but I know that there are many people who would struggle to afford the presents that we exchange. We are blessed in so many ways with our health, each other and the comforts we enjoy. I am thankful for all of this.

I pulled a new book from my shelves this morning as I felt I was ready to immerse myself in another world. After reading a good book I require recovery time so do not always have one on the go. An ending, no matter how satisfactory, forces me to set aside the characters whose lives I have become involved with. Sometimes it can be a regretful goodbye as I do not wish to leave their world. A good book is so precious and powerful.

The book I selected this morning has turned out to be an excellent choice for where I currently am in my life. It was recommended to me by a Facebook friend who I have also met in person on a couple of occasions. I believe that I would enjoy getting to know her better should the opportunity arise so her recommendation was of interest.

The book is ‘Human Traces’ by Sebastian Faulks. I have had mixed experiences with this author. I would highly recommend ‘Birdsong’ to anyone, it is a rare and brilliantly written book. I also thought ‘Engleby’ was excellent, so powerful and thought provoking. ‘Charlotte Grey’ disappointed me though as I found it weak compared to his other tales. As Engleby proved, I do not need to like the protagonist, but Charlotte Grey’s behaviour did not strike me as consistent; for a supposedly clever woman she behaved foolishly. ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ was entertaining but lacked depth. It was not a bad book, worth reading, but not as good as some of his others.

I had bought ‘Human Traces’ when it was recommended but knew nothing about the plot until I picked it up today. It turns out to be about two psychiatrists, which is apt and interesting to me, particularly at this time. I am currently in week five of a six week, distance learning psychology course offered by the University of Warwick. Naturally I am interested in the subject matter or I would not have signed up but, even so, the course has exceeded my expectations.

I enjoy being made to think and the videoed lectures, interviews and reading matter certainly generate plenty of new thoughts. They have introduced me to concepts and ideas about how the human mind functions and how we, as humans, cope with and react to life’s variety of situations. I hope that my recent learning will enhance my enjoyment of a book that explores this subject when it was in it’s infancy as far as the medical establishment was concerned. From his previous books I deduce that Sebastian Faulks carefully researches his subject matter before spinning a readable and sometimes demanding tale around it. I have high hopes that I will enjoy this one.

As part of my course I have been doing a lot of thinking about myself and those I know. Not the introspective naval gazing that can be selfishly destructive and judgemental, but a more dispassionate appraisal of behaviour and why we act as we do. A six week, part time course with a little additional reading is only ever going to offer a taster for such a complex subject, but a little learning can be enough to stretch the mind. I may feel better in myself after physical exercise, but I do enjoy exercising my mind rather more.

The strong winds outside are doing their best to blow the last of the leaves from the trees, and into my garden that I so carefully raked and cleared of debris earlier in the week. I will not be venturing out today though, other than to care for my hens. Rather I will curl up with my book and allow myself to be cocooned in the warmth of my home. I will relish this comfort as I immerse myself in a new and hopefully captivating world.

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Dreams

I have a recurring dream. What happens in the dream differs each time, it is the location that remains the same.

In each dream I am in a house with unusually shaped rooms. For example, there is a room with two levels and a rounded, all glass wall. Beyond this massive window is a conservatory, also rounded, always empty. The room is not large so the two levels make it awkward to furnish. Sometimes it contains a dining table, sometimes a sofa and chair; neither fits well in the space available.

The room is reached through a hallway, beyond which is a kitchen. The kitchen is large and airy with a door leading out to a gravelled parking area. Tall, wooden gates allow entry to the property from the road beyond. It is on a corner, near a busy junction.

The other side of the kitchen leads to a typical utility room which has a little used door. Beyond this door is a long corridor with several rooms off it, all on one side. This part of the house reminds me of a set of classrooms in a school. The rooms are large, square and contain random, untidy, seemingly abandoned items. The rooms feel cold and unused except as storage. In my dreams I am perplexed as to why so much available space has not been utilised.

The garden beyond the two levelled room is long and thin. It is laid to lawn, surrounded by trees and shrubs. The house and garden are bounded by a high wall, beyond which is the busy road. In my dreams I do not leave the house.

Dreams are strange things. I understand the science behind them; that our brains are processing thoughts, images and memories; that we only remember a portion of what we dream and only then if we wake after a certain type of sleep. What spooks me a little about this house is that I have no recollection of ever being in such a place, yet I keep dreaming about it in such detail.

I wonder if I will ever go somewhere and recognise it as the house from my dreams. I am unsure if I want this to happen or not.

Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness