To be human today
Activist, innovator, and writer Polina Bachlakova discusses human nature with me: whether it be interactions on the streets of Denmark or major metaphorical quests in understanding our future.
︎︎︎SOFIA GARFIAS TORRENT / SOCIETY
Polina is a young Canadian writer based in Copenhagen. She is a critical thinker that quietly examines world events and social interactions in order to formulate new thoughts and conclusions. An innovator at heart, she leads public discussions and works for Space 10: a Danish research and design lab on a mission to create a better every day life for people and planet. She also does freelance work for Vice, Frame, and Plethora Magazine.
We first met at a talk in Amsterdam a few months back. Recently she has written for Open Democracy, a platform that unites journalists world wide to report on human right violations, and propose effective ways on how to combat them. In them she wrote about the Red Van, an NGO she volunteers for. We connected via Skype this past September to chat about what is it like to be human today.
Sofia: Polina, you volunteer at the Red Van, can you explain what it’s about? Polina: Yes so, basically it’s this NGO in Denmark that started a mobile safe injection site. The dude behind the NGO would drive the van across Denmark so people could inject drugs in a harm reduced setting. And then he was like, why don’t we start the same concept but for street sex workers to provide an in door space to work in? It started a bit over three years ago, and my team took over it two years ago. We are about 25 volunteers and we’re open every Friday and Saturday night.
“The mood on the streets is aggressive”
S: How has it been on the streets?
P: We’re actually very busy, Denmark wasn’t really hit with COVID until now. Customers feel very destigmatized to access sex workers since it is decriminalized in the country.
S: Has COVID made a difference in the way you guys have to carry out your work?P: The one thing we have noticed is that the mood on the streets is a lot more aggressive now than it was before. Ever since we opened it’s been mostly very peaceful; we go out with the van and people use it. This year every weekend some shit goes down, whether it’s some drunk angry customer, someone accusing someone of stealing money, neighbors coming down to yell at us, the strip club owner being really mean to us… there is just a heightened tension and that is how COVID has affected us. We have to be more organized in terms of how we go out, knowing the procedure and our rights, and how to deal with situations of crisis.
Aside from her activist work, we discussed Polina’s experience in the Space 10 lab. Based in Copenhagen, the design and research lab proposes futuristic concepts to big organizations like IKEA and Space on Wheels. Polina is currently taking a break from the lab due to the pandemic and has relocated to Lisbon for a few months. However before that, she was working on subjects like food to tech to urban projects.
S: You used to work for Space 10. Are there any projects that stood out to you at the time working there?P: There was one interesting project called Solarville. It’s a model for a village that can power itself completely off the gird by using solar energy. The idea is homes get energy from their solar panels, selling any excess to their neighbors. It’s a great project because when you don’t have electricity you also get other problems like no work opportunities, less gender equality…
S: Any project you would have liked to improve?
P: Another project is the Urban Village, it’s interesting because it’s affordable and sustainable. The main issue I have with it though is that it can’t work everywhere; each culture has its own ideas on what living well means. After I gave a talk in Ukraine about it, people weren’t interested because it’s so similar to the old soviet union. And I totally get it. So I think it’s a great project but it needs to be better fit with different cultures.
“Living sustainably is now a luxury”
S: It sounds like something more impactful than just a way of living, as with this model the power dynamics would shift and we wouldn’t be so dependent on the government but rather on each other.
P: Exactly, but I am a bit cynical about these things. What guarantees this wouldn’t turn into some luxury gated community? Living sustainably is now a luxury, people like me might move in there but what about the majority of people? I think it’s great IKEA and Space on Wheels are getting together to do this, they’re cool on a tech perspective but I don’t know how relevant they are to our life today and in the future. That said, it is good to do design for the sake of creativity sometimes.
S: Any topics Space 10 should focus on for the future? P: Something related to maintaining our mental health. We’ve all had to address to a lot of things, and the fact that our work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred… a project that comes up with solutions for this would be very relevant.
Looking into the future, our current circumstances have invited us to take a step back and reconsider our actions. In a piece commissioned for Plethora Magazine, Polina ponders in a more metaphorical level on human cycles throughout humanity. To do this, she looks back in history to reflect on the Airship.
“Airships: hovering blimps as metaphors for human nature”
S: I wanted to speak with you about your story for Plethora magazine. I found it to overlap the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’: it explains how big tech companies are growing exponentially and making critical decisions without understanding their consequences. P: I just saw that documentary yesterday. Regarding my story, I spoke about the people who created airships at the start of the 19th century. It was huge at the start, a groundbreaking concept to transport people across the oceans in the most effective way of the time. Quickly it turned out that it was not only not functional but dangerous; there were huge accidents, with one really big one in Germany.
S: However the Airship craze raged on right?
P: The hype about the airship should have died but it didn’t; people kept pushing forward this idea and tweaking it and trying to make it work. On the other hand, the airship has solidified its way into certain streams of popular culture, there is all this literature and film which depicts the airship as this kind of utopian symbol of travel in disguise.
S: Were you trying to make a point about humanity by using the airship as a metaphor? P: I cited some theory of a few philosophers on how this idea came out of quite beautiful human ideals. People sort of ignore the consequences because the airship taps into something very fundamentally human which is the desire to create something beautiful; beauty being aesthetic but also in terms of the hope it carries humanity, even though the hope is just proven time and time again it doesn’t really work.
S: A lot of people would argue this kind of mentality is long gone. P: Yes, but its not. In the past few years people have been trying to revive the airship, a lot of funding going into tech gurus building airships in England and the US. They talk about how it could transport food to remote areas or be a new form of luxury travel. So it is seeing a comeback even though history has proven time and time again, and that there are obvious risks to it. These people are doing it because of the need to create something that is nostalgic and a little dreamy, but without any sort of realistic approach to the consequences.
S: Do you find a parallel in that mentality today? Why do you think tech gurus keep pushing out ethically dubious inventions? Products that alter our lives in ways that are more destructive than ‘disruptive’.P: I think that in a way these tech companies made all these tools and products and tech inventions from a very utopian perspective; for example this dude invented the like button to spread positivity and love around the world, and then very quickly it sort of got out of hand. I don’t think that people were like ‘damn the consequences!’. I think they didn’t expect them, but moreover once, we keep on finding more proof that there is need for more regulation, that the like button for example is used for more nefarious purposes, but yet there is not much stepping in in order to change this situation. The way I look at it is that a lot of the dialogue of these tech companies say ‘Well what we are doing is fundamentally good, and the other problems that come we’ll solve them on the side.’
S: Do you feel like this mentality also exists in creative industries? P: Well personally when working in design, there is this mentality of ‘we can make the change that the world wants to see’ but I think people don’t necessarily look at the ingredients of what that would look like. At the beginning it’s always ‘If I come in it will be different’, whereas don’t you think that’s what they were thinking in Silicon Valley too?
S: What then should we implement in the process of creating new tech to aid with the issue?P: One is more diversity within the team: the people that are in charge of making decisions. I know it’s a big conversation at the moment but for example; Elon Musk (some privileged white dude) says ‘Let’s go to Mars!’ and all these big white guys jump to fund him, and this concept is born from this privileged positioned mentality. We need more diversity from the get go, both in identity politics but also in terms of thinkers. You have writers and artists and philosophers and scientists. To have several inputs considered when making these projects. Our diversity as people should come into the process a lot early on, not when issues arise.
Number two is decoupling the tech industry from capitalism: the fact that everything is constantly increasingly monetized. Our attention is now their currency. That’s what’s truly problematic and what leads tech to have a lot of consequences. But I don’t think that will ever happen. It’s kind of a pipe dream.