Jenna Wortham and Holistic Tech

The New York Times’ Writer Imagines a Screenless Future

  • Interview: Julia Cooper
  • Photography: Magnus Unnar

“I actually don’t give a shit about gadgets, you know?” says Jenna Wortham. As the tech writer for The New York Times Magazine, she imagines the future of innovation less conventionally than most. Wortham doesn’t buy into the high-gloss utopianism of Silicon Valley. Instead, she’s envisioning “platform agnostic creativity”—ways of experiencing the world that aren’t framed by a screen.

A Scorpio, she is magnetic, secretive, and deeply intuitive. Heeding this, she pays attention to the physical toll that social media and an unrelenting news cycle has taken on her body. The chaos is real, and self-care won’t happen on its own. As our WiFi connections reach further and our blood pressures rise, so too will our need for zen. So Wortham approaches her world and her work holistically. She can write about the racial politics of start-up culture in one breath and prescribe the healing properties of the color blue in the next. Her writing is perceptive and careful, and worthy, even, of a handwritten thank-you note from Beyoncé herself. She might just be a Black Bill Gates in the making.

Julia Cooper

Jenna Wortham

So, I brought you two things. One is a turmeric elixir, and the other is a cactus pear.

Oh my gosh!

You often talk about large scale ideas and shifts in culture and politics, but at the same time about tiny, small acts—like peeling fruit or using a spice—that people can do on a daily basis to help them be in the world. You grapple with the macro, while bringing it down to the micro.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about the micro. It’s definitely a coping mechanism for being in what I feel is a very high profile job. Trying to balance the dance of how much of yourself you reveal online. I love sharing and playing and being on the internet, but you have to be very careful and deliberate about how you do that for lots of reasons: security, safety, and also just energy conservation. I’m always trying to figure out how to move through the world. I love sharing a meal or breaking bread with someone because I feel those little rituals, those little routines, they keep me feeling grounded. They keep my ego in check. They make me feel connected. It’s just an experience of living. I take a lot of pleasure in waking up early and preparing breakfast for myself, even if it’s just peeling an orange, because it’s a moment to consider how I’m going to see my day. Just taking time to myself before getting sucked into the chaos.

“What does it mean when a bunch of men decide they want to thwart death?”

That intentionality sounds really important, and it sounds so easy. And yet, there’s something that feels radical about your provocation to slow down. Why is that?

I think part of it stems from practice. I’m trying to transfer this into my work, which means thoughtfulness in how I work, and the words I choose, and what I choose to write about. When I was covering technology as a business reporter there wasn’t a lot of room for nuance. Room for asking important questions, like, "What is the meaning of this?" We know that a company like Snapchat is worth billions of dollars and the founder is a documented sexual harasser—but there wasn’t a lot of room to ask those bigger questions when I was just reporting the news. That’s why I transitioned to The New York Times Magazine. There’s a degree of calibration that I’m trying to bring to my daily life and in my work too. I want to be very deliberate. Think about every action. Think about every question. Think about everything and not move so fast. Because that’s how we miss things.

As a tech writer, how do you reconcile what some people would understand as a split between your interest in tech and an abiding commitment to more holistic ways of living and healing?

I think there’s a lot more room to have conversations about wellness with our super modern, digital lives. We don’t assess what happens to our blood pressure when we’re in a tweet-storm. If you’re reading tweets all day, there is definitely a correlation. So, I feel like the integration of the two is very natural for my interests—or, maybe I’m forcing the two together—but they are very much in tune.

How so?

I started having more anxiety last summer. It was already in me, but it really flared up. I wrote about this a little bit, about trying to cope with the rash of police brutalities and police killings that were happening, and the way they were being pushed into my feeds. They’ve always been happening, but what’s new now is that I am forced to watch it over and over and over again. It actually gave me a rash, and I’ve still been really sick. I feel like my instinct is to be like, "These things aren’t connected," but they are connected, and I’m trying to figure out what it is that’s happening.

“I just want to see different stuff that’s not bracketed by a screen. That’s what my eyes are craving.”

What is this idea you’re exploring about collective-care rather than self-care?

I don’t want to talk about self-care, I want to talk about the ways in which care supports community. And it’s been really interesting since I’ve been doing more holistic training, herbal training, and getting into reiki—it’s all community-oriented. Everything I learn comes through a community. It makes sense that it goes back that way too.

I love that. As a culture we’ve begun to think that care is something individualized and that illness is something that should be kept behind the curtain. Even the ways that we recover have been divorced from community.

Although you sort of see that coming back a bit. We tend to collectively mourn along these lines—usually celebrity deaths, or black deaths, or trans deaths. We do talk more about the process of grieving I think. Even if we’re not talking about about it directly, we’re allowing it to marinate a little bit more. For me, I follow the logic that the reverse is true too: death is really healthy to be steeped in, but sometimes it’s a very violent and traumatizing experience—so there has to be a balance to that.

So what has that looked like for you since November 8th?

I’m finding that since the election I’ve been experiencing a lot of street harassment in New York that I don’t want to deal with if I can help it. I live alone, so I’ve been using my space as a gathering point. Sometimes I invite people to come share my space, and that’s something I’m seeing right now with a lot of brown, and black, and queer communities. It’s so insidious because that’s actually the point of some of the policies of Trump’s administration—to make us feel unsafe on the streets. So it’s actually a theory that’s working. But it has been really rewarding to realize that what I think of as self-care is actually collective-care. I feel best when I’m in a group of people that I adore and we’re just communing.

I was reading your interview with Marilyn Minter. She has this great line in there where she says, “The eye always craves what it doesn’t see.” What is it that you’re longing for right now that you don’t see?

That’s a really good question. I’m craving platform agnostic creativity. Creativity that isn’t about a good tweet or a meme that goes viral. There is such a demand to figure out how to maximize and capitalize on all this social technology, but I think I’m looking forward to an emergence of things that are independent from that. We’re limited by the tools we have because they’re the tools we are focusing on.

So, for instance?

I feel people’s interest in zines is a part of that, even though zines are a format too, but experimentation is so interesting to me. Not in a "Random House gave me a ton of money to do experimental fiction" way—though that’s great, that’s nice to have—but I want to see other types of things! I’ve been taking a lot of multimedia crafting classes, and ceramics and glass working. I’ve been going to a lot of performance dance, performance art, seeing some plays, and I just want to see different stuff that’s not bracketed by a screen. That’s what my eyes are craving.

If I were to ask you about tech and the future, it’s interesting to think the answer maybe isn’t all A.I. and robots. It might be a return to older blueprints for technological innovation that can be useful to us again.

Yes, and why we need them now. It’s not like people who had the internet always wanted to make zines. What are they not getting from the internet—which is supposed to be this democratic meritocracy of abundance? What is it failing to do that ends up creating this new need? I also feel hyper-critical and attuned to interrogating these systems that are in place. I’m less dazzled by a new app or gadget, I actually don’t give a shit about gadgets, you know? I never did, actually, never wrote about them.

“I don’t want to talk about self-care, I want to talk about the ways in which care supports community.”

What do you give a shit about?

I am really interested in the cultural, social, and now economic implications of the fact that everything is mediated through a mediator through another mediator. It’s really intense. I don’t want to be distracted by every press release or news announcement about every new feature—it’s all a kind of glamor. And I want to be thinking about the origin of Silicon Valley, and the origin of this idea, and what these people are trying to build. What does it mean when a bunch of men decide they want to thwart death? That’s not even something that’s sustainable. We can’t even keep the earth healthy enough for the people that are on it, and who are already dying of natural causes. So those are the questions that I’m just going to try to keep figuring out how to ask, and to figure out why it matters. I’m not just writing for the sake of writing. I’m learning. It’s all playing into my lifestyle now. It’s all about being very specific, about slowing it down, a slow future, slow technology. That’s what I’m here for.

  • Interview: Julia Cooper
  • Photography: Magnus Unnar
  • Styling: Delphine Danhier
  • Hair and Makeup: Ingeborg