Bay Area Reporter Explores Technological Advancements in Sensory Perception
By Patrick Kruger
Kara Platoni is a journalist, author, and lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She spent eight years as a reporter for the East Bay Express, two years as senior editor of the environmental magazine Terrain, and, between reporting projects and teaching, co-hosted The Field Trip Podcast, which focused on science in the real world. Quite a list of accomplishments for someone whose behavior as a child had her parents taking extreme measures.
“When I was in elementary school and had to get ready in time to catch the bus, my parents made me get dressed in the bathroom, because if they let me get dressed in the bedroom I would sneak books… so then I started hiding books in the bathroom,” says Platoni.
Overcoming that tumultuous period—and one unshakable addiction (“Doritos are my kryptonite”)—Platoni published her first book, “We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians & Scientists are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time,” in December of 2015. The product of more than 100 interviews conducted across eight states and four countries, the book examines how technology is being used to expand human sensory perception, and attempts to answer some big questions: “Can technology help the blind to see?” “Can virtual reality be used to prevent PTSD in soldiers?” “Is there such a thing as reality?” and even “Is the single greatest miracle of food science Doritos?” Insightful, humorous, and mind-bending, “We Have the Technology” is a must-read even if you nodded off in high school biology, and it was the focus of the BCC Voice’s recent conversation with author Kara Platoni.
After graduating from the Berkeley School of Journalism, you spent eight years with the East Bay Express, covering what you’ve described as the “Nancy Drew Beat”—anything that involves a good mystery. As a starting reporter, how did you end up with that kind of freedom?
That was not my actual beat. Those were… my preferences, or the way I kind of took things. When I started at the Express, the staff was very small; there were only two reporters. Essentially, I covered Oakland and the other reporter covered Berkeley. We had a lot of freedom to cover whatever we found interesting. I started out mostly covering politics, and eventually merged that with science reporting. Regardless of my official beat, I was always drawn toward adventure stories and profiles of people who had interesting lives. I covered a professional ghost hunter. I covered an anti-rodeo activist and, because of that, spent a lot of time with cowboys. That one’s called “Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On.” By the way, that was my triumphant headline. I did a ton of stories about con artists; I’m fascinated by crimes of persuasion. I did a story about purse parties—the secret world of counterfeit purses. I did a story about smuggling money to the Middle East. Another was about a group of people who stole $400,000 from Home Depot by pulling a barcode switch. I was always interested in weird crimes and scams.
When did you get into teaching?
I started teaching at the J-School part time in 2009, and the job grew and grew. They kept giving me more classes to teach. By 2013, I was full time. Then I took a year off to go write the book, because by that point I was teaching so many classes that I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to research the book on top of it. So I took one year off, went out and reported as fast as I could, and came back to teaching in September of 2015. In fact, I went from the graduation ceremony in May of 2013 to my first interview for the book, which was the guy who gets all the magnets put into his fingertips, reported nonstop, wrote and wrote and wrote, and then I turned in the final submission—my full first draft—the morning that I reported back to teach in September of 2015. I filed the book and went straight to teach a class.
What was that feeling like, to submit everything and then, instead of going on vacation, you’re back at work that same day?
By the time I got to the classroom, I was on that alternate plane where you’ve stayed up all night and had too much caffeine, and you’re just kind of vibrating. But let me back up and say: The journalism community, particularly the community within UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, has been amazingly supportive of me in writing this book. Journalists know that everyone is working with a shoestring budget, everyone is trying to make something, and it’s hard out there to sell your product, whatever it is. So when somebody goes out on a limb and says, “I’m gonna quit my job and do a big thing,” people rally for them. People were amazingly helpful to me. I basically sofa-surfed my way through reporting the book. Once I had decided where I wanted to go—which labs or projects to visit—I would post on Facebook and say, “Hey friends! Does anybody know someone in Toronto? Could I crash with anybody in Pittsburg? How ‘bout Paris?” All along the way, people took me up, including friends of friends, family of friends, people I didn’t know. In two different locations, people put me up in their house even though they weren’t there; they just left a key for me. So I filed my book, emailed it to my editor, and then posted something on Facebook just to thank people for how supportive they had been. And I remember just crying, because it kind of hit me, how much work everybody else had done to get me to that point. I felt very grateful for that community; I felt like it was a group effort. After that, the class that I teach on Mondays is eight hours long, so there I was in class for eight hours. I remember walking in there, and everybody gave me a round of applause for turning in my book, and all I could do was say, “I think I’m going to have to just lean against the wall here for a minute.”
Was there any place you visited that ended up not fitting the book? Or even a place where you arrived, and you’re looking around, thinking “What am I doing here? This is not at all what I’m trying to write about”?
There was remarkably little on the cutting room floor. I talked to more than 100 people. Each chapter is pretty dense. Most of what I cut were things that duplicated something else. There were some things that I couldn’t have imagined what they would be like until I got there, but they were fascinating or beautiful or wonderful in their own way. Going to Paris to watch the olfactive therapy for dementia patients, and visiting the perfume company that was developing the scents—I had no idea what those things would be like, but they were marvelous once I was there. Same thing with visiting the Colorado military base to experience the virtual reality world: I never knew what to expect until I got there. That was one of the big reporting challenges of the book. Because it’s about perception, it’s very hard to interview people second hand about their perception. For all of the chapters with virtual reality, I had to get in the helmet myself, because asking people to relay to me what their experiences were like would have been a poor proxy for being there. It’s difficult to describe virtual reality, and memory fades fast. Same with taste and smell, it’s tough to get people to describe what they’re tasting and smelling. In fact, one of the main ideas of those chapters is to explain why it is so hard to describe our perceptions of taste and smell. So I knew I had to go smell for myself, eat for for myself, and do my best to be the proxy for the reader.
Even with that, it sounds like it was still hard to describe, hard to find a word for a taste that we don’t necessarily have a concept of.
Right. That idea, that it’s hard to describe a novel taste because we don’t have the vocabulary for it, the idea that vocabulary shapes your perception of taste, because it shapes what you pay attention to—I had no idea about any of that when I proposed this book. That was something I discovered along the way by actually doing these things, and realizing that I, and all of the other subjects, and all of the people studying it, were bumping up against the same problem. I would say to the researchers, “Wow. This is harder than I thought.” And across the board, they would say, “We know.” Culture also dictates what you smell, because it trains you to identify odors of certain foods, certain plants, certain products—cosmetics you might be familiar with. We might identify something differently in the U.S. than somebody in France or Singapore might, because we ascribe a different word or idea to that smell. I never considered that, and it only popped up when I went to the French perfumery and they gave me a bunch of scents that would be very easy for a French person to recognize, and I had no idea what they were. They gave me the odor of melon, and I kept thinking it was Jolly Ranchers or Hubba Bubba, because those were American candies that were familiar to me growing up. I don’t eat fresh melon the way people in France do, which is as a dessert. I kept getting it wrong. But the whole book was predicated on the idea that I would just launch myself out there and see what happened.
Your thesis—if there is a thesis for a book like this—seems to appear in the introduction, where you wrote: “By far the most important thing I learned is this: “There is no single, universal experience of “reality,” no objective portrait of the world we collectively share. There is only perception: what seems real to you.” What went into your decision to open the book with that idea, as opposed to saving it for the end?
To me, that was the big brain-breaker, the “Oh man, that is a big idea.” I think that concept is probably well-explored for people who are experts in cognition, psychology, or neuroscience, but I don’t think it’s obvious to the layman. It’s easy to assume your experience of the world is pretty similar to everyone else’s experience of the world. It’s easy to assume that you take in things as they are, without morphing that information or translating that information—leaving out or attending to certain details. We tend to take our experiences at face value. I thought it was important to say to the reader, “Hey, I’m going to proceed from this launching pad: reality isn’t reality. It isn’t the same for everybody. It’s not what we think it is.” Once that’s established, we can explore all the possibilities for mutating reality, whether that’s with a retinal implant, or a robotic limb that can touch, or magnetic implants, or something that we don’t even think of as technology, like language, culture, or Tylenol. The idea was to make it clear up front: “Hey reader, your individual experience is mutable and completely specialized to you.” The introduction presents that big idea. Then I wanted to start with the biohackers doing something that a lot of people would find strange—contemplating building a compass to put inside their arm—but not come back to them until the very end. In the meantime, I wanted each chapter to be kind of a wave that would push the reader closer to understanding what the biohackers are up to. I saw the structure of the book as: The biohackers are on an island out there in the distance. I’m going to show you where they are. Then we’re going to get in the boat, and I’m going to take you closer and closer to them. Hopefully, by the time we actually land on the island of the biohackers, you understand what they’re doing and why. Even if you don’t want to participate, you can understand how they fit into this larger field of inquiry.
What did you take away from your time with the biohackers?
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much we already have on our bodies that could be considered a cyborg technology or augmentation. I’ve started to think about how modified most of us already are, and how thin, or blurry, the line might be between what the biohackers are dreaming up and what we already do. One of the arguments I’ve made is that the vaccination is a body augment; we don’t think of them that way because they’re standardized, they’ve been around for so long, and they don’t light up. The body’s normal response to the measles virus used to be to get sick and possibly die. Now we don’t do that, because we have this invisible, technological change to our immune system. I have fillings in my teeth. I used to have cavities there and now I won’t, because I have this implant in my teeth that I never think about. Glasses, contact lenses—I think you could argue that for the cellphone, or watch—something you constantly have that gives you additional communication abilities or alters, standardizes your perception of time. I was doing an interview on KQED and we asked the listeners if they consider themselves cyborgs. We got an email from somebody who said, “No, that’s a terrible idea. I would never want to augment or modify my body.” Later, he wrote back and said, “Well, I do have a hip implant.” I think there’s a strong argument that we have long ingested, or worn, or implanted technologies that give us additional powers, or protections, or enhance or change our perception. Eyeborg, the guy I interviewed who has a camera in the socket of his eye, makes the argument that if you wear shoes or clothing you’re a cyborg, because we aren’t born with those things. I don’t know where exactly we draw the line between what’s medicine and what’s an augment or a cyborg technology. I came away from this research believing that we are all more modified than we think, and that the idea of improving the body is very human, and is something that our species has been doing for a long time.
Sounds like fodder for another book, perhaps a philosophy book.
I think I need to lie down for a while before I think about another book.