Digital. by Sameer Vasta

There's a skit from an episode of W/ Bob and David that makes me laugh just thinking about it. In the skit, a "digital soothsayer," Shangy, steps on stage to deliver a stream of nonsense, each sentence punctuated with the word, "digital." The crowd laps up his every word; the television audience is left laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Back when I was working with my dear friend Meghan, we'd use that skit as reference for our amusement. Whenever someone (in a meeting, or at a conference) would say something ridiculous and everyone would nod their heads in agreement as if they had just received insight from a wise sage, she would simply scribble the word "digital" on a post-it note and pass it to me. We would chuckle at our inside joke; the word "digital" still makes me grin because of the Shangy sketch.

All jokes about Shangy aside, the word "digital" is an inherently powerful one. It means many things to many people, but at its core, it connotes a sense of possibility, of potential, of connection, and of creation.

Digital doesn't just mean things you can do on a computer, or online; instead, it means a new way of reaching out and interacting with the people, products, and services that shape our everyday lives. I believe that a connected world provides new opportunities to help others, to tackle big issues and solve big problems. What we once had to do in isolation, we can now do together.

As someone who has spent his career working in public sector transformation—specifically, on how new technologies affect the governance of society—I know that digital services are forcing governments to rethink how they operate and serve their citizens. This rethinking is more than just figuring out how to put things online, but also a fundamental restructuring of public service organizations, policies, and processes.

This transformation has been the core narrative of my career: I believe that digital technologies can help government better work with citizens to solve big problems, and I want to help government take advantage of the potential and opportunity that comes with embracing new ways of working.

Two months ago, Zeena Abdulla put out a recruiting call to build the new Digital Government office in the Province of Ontario. The mandate was clear: this team was to be on the forefront of Ontario's digital transformation. While a big part of the work was around technology, another large part would involve the transformation of policy and process—I knew immediately that I would apply.

How to apply? The posting was unlike most government recruiting paths: "If you’re interested, send us your resume, skip the cover letter and just tell us why this is your dream job."

I wrote a letter. It was long, and it started with my undergraduate research on digital governance and ended with my most recent work in open government. Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:

There's a thread that ties all of this together: the belief that digital technologies will fundamentally shift government, governance, and democracy, and that the right group of people focused on that future can make incredible strides in not just serving citizens, but redefining the public service, as well.
That thread has been my whole life. I've spent over ten years speaking at conferences about digital governance and digital anthropology, and have spent almost that much time working with public servants and politicians around the world to help them understand this in ways that make sense to them. I've done a ton of digital ethnography, am trained in user interview and journey mapping techniques, and have a theoretical framework that lets me see user behavior and global trends and synthesize them into action that works in a government context. I believe in the power of data and analysis but also the important of empathy, understanding, and storytelling. Most uniquely, I am fascinated by process and governance design, and can bury myself into talent management, human resources, performance management, and recruitment—all areas that most digital communicators find tedious, but I find fascinating.
So yes: not only do I want to work with you, and not only do I think I'll be a unique asset that has been doing this work for almost fifteen years, but I'm convinced that I was, almost literally, born to do this work. I believe in the power of the public sector, and know that digital transformation will help the public sector make lives better for citizens. It's at the core of what drives me to wake up every morning, and at the core of the amazing work you'll be doing at the Ontario Government Digital Service.

Sure, my letter was over-earnest, perhaps almost saccharine, but it was honest. This is the work I have wanted to do all my life, and I made that point very clear.

A month ago, I was offered a job working on Ontario's new Digital Government team, and I was ecstatic. Not only would I be doing work I care about deeply, but I would be working with some of the smartest, nicest, and most inspirational people I know. (Seriously, I'm so humbled to be on this list.)

The past month has been an adjustment. Going from being unemployed to having a full-time job, while trying to figure out the logistics of a remote workplace and staying connected to a team based in Toronto, hasn't been easy, but it surely has been fulfilling.

I've never really believed in a "dream job", but I have had a vision of my perfect type of employment: one where I get to work on a team of people who inspire me, to create meaningful and long-lasting positive change to society, while being led by leaders who teach and mentor while trusting me to deliver. One month in, all the boxes are being checked.

Digital might be a word that is overused these days, and is the fodder for a lot of jokes, but it's no joke to me. I believe that this digitally-connected world will give us an opportunity to make life better for so many people, and I'm so happy to have started a new job, to be on a team, that is hoping to turn that opportunity into action.

(If you're interested in following along with the work that our team will be doing, we'll be launching a Medium publication next month. Stay tuned!)

Brown by Sameer Vasta

What does it mean to have brown skin in the world?

It's a question I've grappled with every single day of my life since I can remember. I grew up undeniably aware of my skin color, extremely aware that, as a child, I was different not just because I was born in another country and my family moved to America with nothing, but because I looked different, too. Many of my close friends growing up—Elizabeth, Leah, Sean, Steven, Rachel—looked nothing like me, and while they never said anything about it, I noticed that difference, acutely.

This is the question that Kamal Al-Solaylee attempts to answer in his book, Brown. It is a question he tackles through the lens of history, of travel, of business, and of identity, coming to the realization that brownness is a spectrum that isn't about ethnicity or nationality, but instead of belonging and fit, of the space we occupy, the in-between.

I've always thought of my brownness as a particular kind of liminality. By being brown, I am able to float in-between, able to benefit from the privileges that come from being non-black, but also reap advantages that are afforded to me because of the cultural marker of being a person of color.

Being brown in school meant that I was seen as smart and motivated even if I didn't necessarily deserve the accolades. Being brown in the neighborhood meant that I could ingratiate myself with the variety of cultures surrounding me—in those days, in my area, primarily Jamaican, Somali, and Trinidadian—without being accused of appropriation.

Even now, my brownness allows for fluidity: I am non-white to some, non-black to others. I am liminal, I am in-between. It is a position of privilege that I have become more conscious of now, and question regularly.

I wasn't aware of the concept of the "model minority" until I read A. Sandosharaj's recent piece in The Millions, but it made sense: growing up, my brownness made me easy, approachable, undefinable, and easy to like, no matter what disposition I may have had.

Asians have often benefited from positive stereotyping, much of which stems from the 1965 Immigration Act. At the time, the nation was panicked by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; America desperately needed immigrants with technical skills for the space race. The immigration act lead to a large influx of highly educated Asian and South Asian immigrants. These doctors and engineers contributed to positive stereotypes and unfair comparisons to other minorities: the model minority myth.
This myth benefited even those like me, model minorities whose parents were not college educated. In the classroom being South Asian often meant being tracked as gifted. Was I actually gifted or did I benefit from the assumption I was gifted? Who’s to say. What I can say is that any student would’ve benefited from the privileges and dispensations I received — long before I had achieved anything — not the least of which were my teacher’s rosy expectations.

The privilege of brownness still continues, but it is tempered by a rising negative sentiment against "the other" in our current society. Recent political movements in North America and Europe have shown a disdain for difference, and brown skin is a clear marker of otherness in these contexts.

As a Muslim in post-9/11 America, I sometimes rue my brown skin, which serves to single me out as "one of those people" despite my actual ideology. Brown has always been a color of the in-between, but most recently, that liminality has come with a casting aside instead of integration. Brownness has become an excuse for isolation and exclusion.

I have grappled with these issues, consciously or unconsciously, since my childhood. My brownness has at times been positive, at times been negative, but it has always been evident. By being in-between, we are at once easily seen, and easily ignored. Mr. Al-Solaylee sums it up quite poignantly in his introduction:

Brown people are both visible and invisible in the city’s colleges, plazas, and office towers. Some of us show up to attend classes or cut multimillion-dollar deals, others to clean offices and get them ready for the next day.

Brown takes us around the world to examine these issues of visibility and invisibilty, and while it often seems more travelogue than criticism, it does a valiant job of trying to do the impossible: define and understand brownness.

The in-between is not something that can be pinned down, and is only defined by the markers outside of it; being brown is that perpetual dance of being a part and being apart. It is that dance that makes our own brownness so hard to understand, even to ourselves.

Friday Diversions: Mid-July by Sameer Vasta

The week has been heavy. The air has been dense, humid, unmoving, making it hard to breathe. Being back at work has been busy, tiring, an exercise in discipline after being away for so long, making it hard to think. The news, close to home and around the world, has been disappointing, frustrating, difficult to process, making it hard to sleep. Everything is heavy, so I sit, slumped in my chair, and sink into the cushion beneath me, until the lightness returns, tomorrow.

The year is too young to be this long.

Random, unrelated miscellany, gathered in short list form:

"Sometimes we need to burn our pasts, literary or not, to move forward. Trust that your words and secrets are safe, clouded in smoke, soon to become part of the sky." Everything Nick Ripatrazone writes is excellent. This is no different.

The FiveThirtyEight visualization of gun deaths in America is both impressive and sobering. I've written about guns and suicide before, but it's startling to see those numbers visualized so plainly.

My friend Ashley has been encouraging me to read The Lonely Life of George Bell since January, but I only got around to it a few weeks ago. She was right; the article is a tour de force, and really makes you think about what it means to die, to have friends, and to face the possibility of dying alone..

When it's so easy to snap a photo because we all have cameras in our pockets, what is the meaning of taking a photo? What is the meaning of looking at a photo? I've been thinking about this, recently, as I've noticed I've started taking fewer photos.

The Undeniables series on The Ringer are all excellent reads. I'd start with these, to get a taste: Hayao Miyazaki, Google Maps, Dwayne Johnson, The Internet Archive.

The Canada Week series on The Guardian is also pretty good, especially if you're not Canadian. No matter where you live, though, this piece on Iqaluit's struggle to become a modern city in Canada's north is fascinating.

"Learning to play music is an long exercise learning to to be kind to yourself. As your fingers stumble to keep up with your eyes and ears, your brain will say unkind things to the rest of you. And when this tangle of body and mind finally makes sense of a measure or a melody, there is peace. Or, more accurately, harmony."

It's no secret that I'm in love with public libraries. The local library in this city did an economic impact study, and found that it contributes $102 million to the local economy.

As someone who was diagnosed with bipolar type II in my early 20s, and who has spent some time hospitalized for it, I'm very excited to watch Lady Dynamite, especially after reading this review that says that the show is honest to the bipolar experience.

A Contemporary History of Walking to Work: "But sometimes, early in the morning — before the smell of the dew and the echo of the car horn are swallowed into the static hum of urban urgency — you realize that you are no different from the suits, construction vests, and taxis drivers all around you. You are a bit, an atom, a microscopic little definition that colours one pixel in the cityscape."

Are we all frauds on the internet? I'd like to think I'm the same both on- and offline, but we're all a little different, depending on the context.

What do you call the corner store? Most of the people I know here call it the variety store or corner store, but I've always called it a bodega, since I was a kid. Had no idea the word bodega came from the Spanish apothēca.

"Instead of valuing “parenting,” we should value “being a parent.” Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own."

America needs a hero, and perhaps that hero is wrestler Jon Cena. A great video with a great message:

Did we really eradicate smallpox? In a handful of laboratories around the world, there are still stocks of smallpox, tucked away in one freezer or another. Great op-doc by Errol Morris for the New York Times:

The Antidote by Sameer Vasta

I had a friend, once, who would spend her idle hours in bookstores, browsing the titles in the self-help section. Her interest was not necessarily in the content of the books—there was no rush for growth and betterment in her browsing—but instead in the delivery, in how self-help books, ostensibly, actually provide the help they claim.

The Antidote is exactly the kind of self-help book she'd enjoy. It bills itself as a guide for "happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking;" as such, it positions itself as a self-help book for people who don't necessarily believe they need help.

The message of The Antidote is simple enough: positive thinking can be a hindrance to achieving happiness. Instead, Oliver Burkeman focuses on seven other strategies, none of them groundbreaking, all of them self-evident but illuminating when put together.

I've been told that I come across as permanently-happy, and overly-positive. The truth is that my happiness and positivity aren't results of positive thinking, but instead of the same strategies Mr. Burkeman elucidates but that I had never named or thought of in a regimented fashion: stoicism (don't get bothered), Buddhism (feel and experience deeply), goal eradication (embrace uncertainty), self-release (you are not your mind), failure (don't hide your errors), and memento mori (contemplate mortality—something I do often, it seems).

The strategy of insecurity, that we should be comfortable with impermanence, is the one I struggle with most. Insecurity (particularly in the form of financial worrying) brings me anxiety; instead of embracing that insecurity, I fight that sentiment, much to my detriment. This is where I wish Mr. Burkeman's book was more than just a lit review. While The Antidote is excellent at positing theory and providing anecdotal and academic reference for those ideas, the information sits mostly at the surface level. There is a paucity of depth, and it is this reluctance to dive deeper that makes this self-help book feel like all the others, no matter what its claims.

Mr. Burkeman's "literature review" on happiness strategies pitches itself as just the kind of self-help book that would intrigue my friend, but fails to deliver on that pitch. There are some nuggets of goodness, but that is all they are: tasty morsels, but inherently not-filling. It's a book to pick off the shelf and peruse, but then return, fairly quickly, and continue browsing down the aisle.

Friday Diversions: Canada Day by Sameer Vasta

It hasn't been the easiest week; life comes at you fast, and sometimes, you're just not prepared to cope with that speed. Between being overwhelmed with things to do, pushing through some triggers with my mental health, and fighting off a cold that's taking a toll on my stamina and strength, I've been a bit glum, maybe even grumpy, over the past four or five days.

Today's holiday is a good one, not just because it gives me some respite and offers me an excuse to relax, but also because it reminds me that I'm lucky. I'm lucky to have the support I need to get through a tough week, to live in a place where I have access to services that will make my life easier and better, to be surrounded by people who are looking out for my well-being.

Sometimes, a national holiday provides just the kind of perspective you need after a long, rough week. Here's to holidays, and here's to Canada, 149 years old today.  Cheers!

Random, unrelated miscellany, gathered in short list form:

My undergraduate anthropology thesis was on new forms of governance (democracy, nationalism, etc.) in a world where our baseline of connection is no longer proximity. I wrote it before any of the big social networks existed, and before we had computers in our pockets, so it's fairly dated now, but I'm glad that issues of eNationalism and eDemocracy are finally mature enough to be debated and discussed.

Lots of gems of wisdom in this recent piece by Ethan Zuckerman: "Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change."

We still don't know what the far-reaching implications of the #Brexit vote will be, but we do know that, at least in the short term, England just screwed us all.

"Whether for health, the environment, or the economy, nutrition is the dominant issue facing the world today." Why isn't food a bigger policy issue in our current election?

I listened to the This American Life episode on fatness and was pretty impressed, but something didn't feel right. This article by Virgie Tovar encapsulates that discomfort perfectly.

"Our quest for thinness is actually making us far less healthy—even killing us—and not for the reasons you’d think."

I once got stung by a Western Honey Bee and thought it was one of the most painful stings I've ever experienced. I can't imagine taking the time to classify and write (poetically) about the stings from over 70 different insects.

Humorous, incisive: a Lexus review for Jalopnik. If every single car review was written like this, I’d do nothing but read automotive reporting all day.

"Black noise can easily be dismissed as antagonistic, abrasive, and futile, but it is survival. It forces people to acknowledge black experiences and oppression, and it’s loud even when no one wants to hear it."

Six million years of human history, explained in 10 minutes. I need to pick up a copy of Sapiens and add it to my reading list:

One day, I'd love to attend Pitti Uomo. I might even buy a new outfit. I'm even more fascinated by the menswear festival now after watching this footage of the fashionably dressed gentlemen attending Pitti Uomo, paired with David Attenborough-esque commentary about peacocks: