TEDxMileHigh Imagine speaker Dr. Veronica Barassi is an anthropologist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Communications, and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London. Her research focuses on the anthropological and democratic impact of data technologies and artificial intelligence in society

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As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up? 

To be honest, I think I pretty much do what I wanted to do, although I didn’t really know the job existed. I’m not sure I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I was a kid, probably a writer of fiction, or a marine biologist. I was also very much interested in people. I liked observing people—people watching. 

I wasn’t attracted to people watching for the sake of it. What really fascinated me is how society came together and what we could do to make it better, more just and fair.

Today, I haven’t become an author of fiction or a marine biologist (although I love whales), but I write. I’ve just finished my second book. As an anthropologist, I’m a professional people watcher. I observe, I talk to people, I study them. Then I write about it. I’m led by what interests me, by the changes in society that I see and experience, and questions about social justice.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

I grew up in Milan. My mom raised my sister and me as a single parent in the 1980s and taught me about freedom and courage. She also taught me about the importance of learning languages and being exposed to different cultures and beliefs. Later in life, together with my step-dad, they encouraged me to move to London to study. 

Moving to London was a turning point in my life. Coming from Milan, the change of surroundings and culture was dramatic. It’s where I learnt most about life and myself. London is where I met the most inspiring people in my life. I met leading researchers in my field, who—with their critical thinking and amazing minds—have taught me the type of person that I wanted to become. I also met my husband. Over the last 10 years he has been not only my home, but my source of enthusiasm, support, and continuous motivation.

But, the biggest turning point in my life was when I had kids. With children, life is forever changed. For me, having children also meant that I radically changed my research goals and found my voice. 

I witnessed how much data was being produced and collected about my children. And, I realized that in the age of artificial intelligence this data could be systematically used against them. I decided that I needed to do something. 

This drive is what gave me the strength to focus on my new research project. I truly believe we’ve created a world where children are screwed from the moment they’re conceived, and that if we don’t do something about it, we seriously risk compromising our democratic futures.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I draw. Not often enough but I always return to it. I’d love to create a graphic novel
  2. I was adopted by my step-dad when I was 32-years old
  3. I secretly got married in Las Vegas. We only told our daughter at the time. She was two and our only guest 

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most?

  1. Professor Natalie Fenton. She has been the most inspiring person in my life. First as a supervisor, then as a manager, and then as a friend. She taught me about work ethics, commitment, generosity, strategic vision, and the importance of fighting for what is right. By example, she showed me the price that women pay as they try to juggle their family life with a successful career and the strength that we need to find to do that
  2. Paul Brennan, my husband. Paul taught me about being passionate in life and working hard to fulfill your dreams, with courage and positivity. I learn every day from his ability to manage stress and not to be deterred by things when they go wrong. He taught me that we can change our life many times, always in search of a new challenge and adventure. I learn from him every day and I love him for that
  3. Professor Jon Kabat Zin. Mindfulness meditation is now a multi-million-dollar industry that needs to be carefully scrutinized for its ethics. However, I owe much of who I am today to the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, who founded the first Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program. His work taught me the value of meditation and moment-to-moment awareness in my everyday life with my daughters and in my work 

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk? 

My favorite Ted Talk is by Cathy O’Neil. She explores, with simplicity and determination, why algorithms cannot be trusted.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

If you do something that you are passionate about, then you really have the potential to excel. 

If you haven’t yet found something that you are passionate about, write something every day. 

Even if it’s just what you had for breakfast. Writing your thoughts by keeping a diary is a great way to keep growing and searching.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

There are not enough hours in the day. There’s no real way to change that! My biggest challenge is trying to protect my time with my daughters without distractions and multi-tasking. Being there for them, playing with them, and listening to their stories and thoughts.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

Algorithms. There are so many algorithms dictating our lives. Playing a fundamental role in the prices we get, the jobs we get, and our access to specific services.

My research has shown that a big part of society is not aware of what is happening to themselves or their children when they give away their data. 

There’s an attitude where people say, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care if big tech surveils me constantly.” What we’re not thinking about is that it’s not whether we are doing something wrong, it’s that they are doing wrong with our personal information. A good first step is to start looking at algorithms for what they are: a social and cultural construct. 

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

I would like to see my book published, which is currently under review. I would like to continue to campaign and raise awareness around the fact that the data we produce is our private property. It is not something that can be taken from us at will. I also would like to find the funds to launch my new research project on the politics of artificial intelligence and social change.

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea? 

Change your mindset. Start recognizing that your data is a human right. And, the continued mining of it for profit and political control is a breach of our collective human rights.