More Proof That Social Media Is Hurting Young People’s Mental Health

A new study suggests that each hour of screen time
increases the severity of depressive
symptoms in teens

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by Nicole DeMarco

As we learn more about the effects of social media, many of us have tried to decrease the time we spend scrolling through our phones. Even with screen time limits, it’s easy to shamelessly click the “ignore limit” button as soon as it pops up, but maybe it’s time we start taking it a bit more seriously. A new groundbreaking study called “Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence,” published this week in JAMA Pediatrics journal links social media usage to depression and it’s one of the most comprehensive pieces of research on this subject to date.

Social-Media-Depression

While many studies have indicated that more and more teens are being diagnosed with depression, few have analyzed the relationship between screen time and mental illness over time. In surveying 3,826 high school students in Canada over four years, researchers found that each hour of screen time, whether it be spent on social media, watching television, or generally on the internet, increases the severity of depressive symptoms like loneliness, sadness, or hopelessness in teens. Additionally, of those surveyed, girls and those of lower socioeconomic status showed even more severe symptoms of depression.

Naturally, the type of content consumed via screen plays a role here. And there are a number of unsettling findings in this survey, for example — exposure to television that depicts idealized bodies leads to greater body dissatisfaction, comparing yourself to others on social media leads to lower self esteem (Instagram, get rid of those likes already!), and that people seek out content (not without the help of algorithms) that reinforces some of these beliefs.

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This study is so important because depression during teenage years can cause significant academic and cognitive impairment, often leading to substance abuse, poor interpersonal relationships, low self-esteem, and suicide. By 2020, mental health issues including depression are predicted to be the leading cause of death among young people. It’s time to take mental health, and perhaps screen time limits more seriously.

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Why Kids Invent Imaginary Friends

Make-believe companions can teach
children more than just how to play pretend.
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By Allie Volpe

On a recent Monday morning, 10-year-old Sasha told her mother about the current drama between her two best friends. Tentacles, a giant Pacific octopus, had told Sasha that he was in love with Coral, who is also an octopus, but who has “one extra tentacle that she’s learning how to use,” per Sasha. Coral was unaware of Tentacles’ infatuation, but had relayed a similar message to Sasha: She had strong feelings for Tentacles but was too shy to tell him. Sasha was stuck in the middle.

This romantic drama was news to Sasha’s mom, Charli Espinoza. “Oh my gosh, Sasha!” Espinoza, 39, said. “I didn’t know.”

Talk of Tentacles and Coral is common in Espinoza’s central-California home, from their intergalactic adventures to their love lives. Though the octopuses live with Espinoza, Sasha, and her 12-year-old sister, Emily, only Sasha knows what they look like. They are, in Sasha’s terms, “creatures of imagination,” or imaginary friends.

Sasha’s coterie of creatures of imagination also includes Cherry the reindeer, Vanity the manatee, and Toua the therapy mosquito, who stops the spread of malaria. Tentacles is the crew’s ringleader and was Sasha’s first imaginary friend, who came to life after tentacle-like shadows danced across Sasha’s bedroom wall one night when she was 6, Espinoza says.

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Read: Undercover teachers or imaginary friends?

The creatures of imagination have become a source of camaraderie for Sasha, who has autism, is homeschooled, and doesn’t often interact with other children.“They’re here to help me when I’m not feeling good and to talk to me when I’m lonely and Emily doesn’t want to play,” Sasha says, “and to go to space with me.”

Imaginary friends are a common—and normal—manifestation for many kids across many stages of development. In fact, by age 7, 65 percent of children will have had an imaginary friend, according to a 2004 study. Stephanie Carlson, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and one of the study’s co-authors, says that the prime time for having imaginary friends is from the ages of 3 to 11.

While psychologists agree that the presence of imaginary friends should not cause parents concern, what is less understood is what prompts children to create these personas or why some kids invent them and others don’t, says Celeste Kidd, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the primary investigator at the Kidd Lab, which studies learning throughout early development. “For the most part, there’s no widespread consensus on what triggers it,” Kidd told me. “There is, however, widespread consensus on it being a normative part of development. Not all kids have imaginary friends, but it’s very common and neither problematic nor a sign of extra intelligence.”

Imaginary friends are a symptom of developing social intelligence in a kid. For children to dream up peers, they must understand that people possess beliefs and desires and exhibit behaviors that differ from their own, a concept called “theory of mind,” Kidd said: “Understanding that somebody else can want something different than you want or can know something that you don’t know is something that doesn’t start to emerge until around 4 or 5.”

A handful of small studies have tried to dig into the psychology of kids with imaginary friends. One suggested that relationships with invisible beings fulfill a child’s need for friendship and are more common among firstborn or only children. Research has also suggested that girls are more likely to conjure imaginary friends and that kids who have imaginary friends grow up to be more creative adults than those who do not. In Carlson’s studies, she’s observed that little girls typically take on a nurturing, teacherlike role with their imaginary companions, who often take the form of baby animals or baby humans. Little boys’ imaginary friends are frequently characters who are more competent than they are, such as superheroes or beings with powers, she says.

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Imaginary friends help kids fulfill the three fundamental psychological needs laid out in self-determination theory, Carlson says: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Children feel competent when they assume a leadership role with their imaginary companions—that is, describing their invisible pals as “dumb” or having to teach them a skill. Although their companions are make-believe, children relate to imaginary beings in the same way they connect with real friends. (Though imaginary ones come with the added benefit of allowing kids to simulate social situations with zero consequences, Kidd said.) And imaginary friends facilitate autonomy when children use their existence to manipulate a situation, such as insisting that parents serve their imaginary companions dinner or buckle them into a car seat. “Imaginary companions are giving kids a sense of control,” Carlson says. “They get to conjure them up, they get to make up the stories, they’re not being intruded upon by others. It’s something they can own all to themselves. It’s an interesting way to take a little bit of control back. But it can be very frustrating for the parents.”

Anna Sale, the creator and host of the Death, Sex & Money podcast, knows this feeling all too well. When her 3-year-old daughter June’s imaginary friend Salad, a 4-year-old with red hair, first “appeared” in their Berkeley home in February, she was the family member preventing everyone from walking out the door on time. June would inform her parents of Salad’s desire to join family outings but that she needed a little encouragement to hurry her along. “When Salad first showed up, there was a period where we couldn’t leave the house, so we’d all have to say ‘C’mon, Salad!’ and wait for Salad before we left the house,” Sale, 38, says.

But for the most part, Salad is a welcome—and entertaining—addition to the family. Salad has a little sister named Book, and parents named Bobby and Eve (Eve is also the name of June’s newborn sister). They all live across the street, in a house with a windmill. For the most part, Salad doesn’t speak unless spoken to and is a mostly omnipresent companion for June. (While June and her family were recently on a road trip, Salad hung back in Berkeley.) But her existence, Sale believes, is helping June learn about friendship and storytelling.

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The novelist K. B. Hoyle’s youngest child, Edmund, first befriended an invisible merman/vampire named Ed shortly after turning 4. Hoyle, 36, believes that Ed, who has the head of a vampire and the body of a fish, serves as a form of wish fulfillment for Edmund, who used to go by Ed. “Something [Edmund] said over and over again is ‘Ed has a fridge that never runs out of food,’” Hoyle told me. “Edmund would eat 36 hours a day if I let him. He wants Ed to have what he doesn’t have, apparently.”

Though Hoyle and her family live in Alabama, Ed resides in South Dakota, in a giant house occupied by ghosts. Hoyle credits this detail to a road trip the family took to Badlands National Park last summer. To entertain her four sons during the long drive, Hoyle played an audiobook of The Hobbit. Once they were back home, Edmund pointed to a poster of The Hobbit’s cover art that hangs in Hoyle’s office, called it the Badlands, and claimed that Ed lived there.

Many aspects of a child’s life—from fictional characters to real experiences—often trickle into play, which includes imaginary friendship. “It’s an awareness of what’s going on around them,” Kidd said. “That can include things like what’s in the news, but it can also include what’s going on in their lives.”

Seven-year-old Ari’s life is direct inspiration for his invisible buddy Davin. “Whatever I do, he does, so we kind of copy each other,” Ari says. Davin first emerged when Ari was 3, right after his mom, Katie Trudeau, gave birth to her second child, and at 2 inches tall, he is truly Ari’s mini-me. Sometimes, when Davin’s cold, he’ll jump into Ari’s pocket.

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The crossover between the lives of imaginary friends and the real world can provide opportunities for life lessons. Davin’s existence has allowed Ari to approach sensitive topics. Recently, Ari came to Trudeau with a predicament: Davin was upset that his dad, whom Trudeau has never “met,” is a smoker. To Trudeau’s knowledge, no one in her son’s life smokes cigarettes, so the subject matter caught her off guard, “but I took advantage of it and said smoking’s bad and this is why,” she told me. “And we have Davin to thank for that.”

For parents such as Trudeau and Espinoza, it can be hard to fathom a day when the imaginary characters who’ve been populating their lives for so long simply cease to exist. Espinoza has grown particularly fond of Tentacles, the octopus. He’s been a good influence on the whole family, she says—teaching her daughters about compassion and friendship—even if her youngest daughter is the only one who can actually see him. “You know when you meet a cool person who’s doing interesting things, they’ve traveled to interesting places, and they know cool foods, and they’re really nice to people?” Espinoza says. “That’s who Tentacles is.”

 

Scientists shocked by Arctic permafrost thawing 70 years sooner than predicted

  • Ice blocks frozen solid for thousands of years destabilized
  • ‘The climate is now warmer than at any time in last 5,000 years’

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Permafrost at outposts in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years
earlier than predicted, an expedition has discovered, in the latest sign
that the global climate crisis is accelerating even faster than scientists
had feared.

A team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said they were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers had destabilised the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia.

“What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the university, told Reuters. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.“

With governments meeting in Bonn this week to try to ratchet up ambitions in United Nations climate negotiations, the team’s findings, published on 10 June in Geophysical Research Letters, offered a further sign of a growing climate emergency.

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The paper was based on data Romanovsky and his colleagues had been analysing since their last expedition to the area in 2016. The team used a modified propeller plane to visit exceptionally remote sites, including an abandoned cold war-era radar base more than 300km from the nearest human settlement.

Diving through a lucky break in the clouds, Romanovsky and his colleagues said they were confronted with a landscape that was unrecognisable from the pristine Arctic terrain they had encountered during initial visits a decade or so earlier.

The vista had dissolved into an undulating sea of hummocks – waist-high depressions and ponds known as thermokarst. Vegetation, once sparse, had begun to flourish in the shelter provided from the constant wind.

Torn between professional excitement and foreboding, Romanovsky said the scene had reminded him of the aftermath of a bombardment.

“It’s a canary in the coalmine,” said Louise Farquharson, a postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.“

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Scientists are concerned about the stability of permafrost because of the risk that rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises.

Even if current commitments to cut emissions under the 2015 Paris agreement are implemented, the world is still far from averting the risk that these kinds of feedback loops will trigger runaway warming, according to models used by the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

With scientists warning that sharply higher temperatures would devastate the global south and threaten the viability of industrial civilisation in the northern hemisphere, campaigners said the new paper reinforced the imperative to cut emissions.

“Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it’s happening before our very eyes,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonise our economies, and immediately.”

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Quantum Darwinism Could Explain What Makes Reality Real

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By Philip Ball

It’s not surprising that quantum physics has a reputation for being weird and counterintuitive. The world we’re living in sure doesn’t feel quantum mechanical. And until the 20th century, everyone assumed that the classical laws of physics devised by Isaac Newton and others — according to which objects have well-defined positions and properties at all times — would work at every scale. But Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and their contemporaries discovered that down among atoms and subatomic particles, this concreteness dissolves into a soup of possibilities. An atom typically can’t be assigned a definite position, for example — we can merely calculate the probability of finding it in various places. The vexing question then becomes: How do quantum probabilities coalesce into the sharp focus of the classical world?

Physicists sometimes talk about this changeover as the “quantum-classical transition.” But in fact there’s no reason to think that the large and the small have fundamentally different rules, or that there’s a sudden switch between them. Over the past several decades, researchers have achieved a greater understanding of how quantum mechanics inevitably becomes classical mechanics through an interaction between a particle or other microscopic system and its surrounding environment.

One of the most remarkable ideas in this theoretical framework is that the definite properties of objects that we associate with classical physics — position and speed, say — are selected from a menu of quantum possibilities in a process loosely analogous to natural selection in evolution: The properties that survive are in some sense the “fittest.” As in natural selection, the survivors are those that make the most copies of themselves. This means that many independent observers can make measurements of a quantum system and agree on the outcome — a hallmark of classical behavior.

This idea, called quantum Darwinism (QD), explains a lot about why we experience the world the way we do rather than in the peculiar way it manifests at the scale of atoms and fundamental particles. Although aspects of the puzzle remain unresolved, QD helps heal the apparent rift between quantum and classical physics.

Only recently, however, has quantum Darwinism been put to the experimental test. Three research groups, working independently in Italy, China and Germany, have looked for the telltale signature of the natural selection process by which information about a quantum system gets repeatedly imprinted on various controlled environments. These tests are rudimentary, and experts say there’s still much more to be done before we can feel sure that QD provides the right picture of how our concrete reality condenses from the multiple options that quantum mechanics offers. Yet so far, the theory checks out.

Survival of the Fittest
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At the heart of quantum Darwinism is the slippery notion of measurement — the process of making an observation. In classical physics, what you see is simply how things are. You observe a tennis ball traveling at 200 kilometers per hour because that’s its speed. What more is there to say?

In quantum physics that’s no longer true. It’s not at all obvious what the formal mathematical procedures of quantum mechanics say about “how things are” in a quantum object; they’re just a prescription telling us what we might see if we make a measurement. Take, for example, the way a quantum particle can have a range of possible states, known as a “superposition.” This doesn’t really mean it is in several states at once; rather, it means that if we make a measurement we will see one of those outcomes. Before the measurement, the various superposed states interfere with one another in a wavelike manner, producing outcomes with higher or lower probabilities.

But why can’t we see a quantum superposition? Why can’t all possibilities for the state of a particle survive right up to the human scale?

The answer often given is that superpositions are fragile, easily disrupted when a delicate quantum system is buffeted by its noisy environment. But that’s not quite right. When any two quantum objects interact, they get “entangled” with each other, entering a shared quantum state in which the possibilities for their properties are interdependent. So say an atom is put into a superposition of two possible states for the quantum property called spin: “up” and “down.” Now the atom is released into the air, where it collides with an air molecule and becomes entangled with it. The two are now in a joint superposition. If the atom is spin-up, then the air molecule might be pushed one way, while, if the atom is spin-down, the air molecule goes another way — and these two possibilities coexist. As the particles experience yet more collisions with other air molecules, the entanglement spreads, and the superposition initially specific to the atom becomes ever more diffuse. The atom’s superposed states no longer interfere coherently with one another because they are now entangled with other states in the surrounding environment — including, perhaps, some large measuring instrument. To that measuring device, it looks as though the atom’s superposition has vanished and been replaced by a menu of possible classical-like outcomes that no longer interfere with one another.

This process by which “quantumness” disappears into the environment is called decoherence. It’s a crucial part of the quantum-classical transition, explaining why quantum behavior becomes hard to see in large systems with many interacting particles. The process happens extremely fast. If a typical dust grain floating in the air were put into a quantum superposition of two different physical locations separated by about the width of the grain itself, collisions with air molecules would cause decoherence — making the superposition undetectable — in about 10−31 seconds. Even in a vacuum, light photons would trigger such decoherence very quickly: You couldn’t look at the grain without destroying its superposition.

Surprisingly, although decoherence is a straightforward consequence of quantum mechanics, it was only identified in the 1970s, by the late German physicist Heinz-Dieter Zeh. The Polish-American physicist Wojciech Zurek further developed the idea in the early 1980s and made it better known, and there is now good experimental support for it.

But to explain the emergence of objective, classical reality, it’s not enough to say that decoherence washes away quantum behavior and thereby makes it appear classical to an observer. Somehow, it’s possible for multiple observers to agree about the properties of quantum systems. Zurek, who works at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, argues that two things must therefore be true.

First, quantum systems must have states that are especially robust in the face of disruptive decoherence by the environment. Zurek calls these “pointer states,” because they can be encoded in the possible states of a pointer on the dial of a measuring instrument. A particular location of a particle, for instance, or its speed, the value of its quantum spin, or its polarization direction can be registered as the position of a pointer on a measuring device. Zurek argues that classical behavior — the existence of well-defined, stable, objective properties — is possible only because pointer states of quantum objects exist.

What’s special mathematically about pointer states is that the decoherence-inducing interactions with the environment don’t scramble them: Either the pointer state is preserved, or it is simply transformed into a state that looks nearly identical. This implies that the environment doesn’t squash quantumness indiscriminately but selects some states while trashing others. A particle’s position is resilient to decoherence, for example. Superpositions of different locations, however, are not pointer states: Interactions with the environment decohere them into localized pointer states, so that only one can be observed. Zurek described this “environment-induced superselection” of pointer states in the 1980s.

But there’s a second condition that a quantum property must meet to be observed. Although immunity to interaction with the environment assures the stability of a pointer state, we still have to get at the information about it somehow. We can do that only if it gets imprinted in the object’s environment. When you see an object, for example, that information is delivered to your retina by the photons scattering off it. They carry information to you in the form of a partial replica of certain aspects of the object, saying something about its position, shape and color. Lots of replicas are needed if many observers are to agree on a measured value — a hallmark of classicality. Thus, as Zurek argued in the 2000s, our ability to observe some property depends not only on whether it is selected as a pointer state, but also on how substantial a footprint it makes in the environment. The states that are best at creating replicas in the environment — the “fittest,” you might say — are the only ones accessible to measurement. That’s why Zurek calls the idea quantum Darwinism.

It turns out that the same stability property that promotes environment-induced superselection of pointer states also promotes quantum Darwinian fitness, or the capacity to generate replicas. “The environment, through its monitoring efforts, decoheres systems,” Zurek said, “and the very same process that is responsible for decoherence should inscribe multiple copies of the information in the environment.”

Information Overload
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It doesn’t matter, of course, whether information about a quantum system that gets imprinted in the environment is actually read out by a human observer; all that matters for classical behavior to emerge is that the information get there so that it could be read out in principle. “A system doesn’t have to be under study in any formal sense” to become classical, said Jess Riedel, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, and a proponent of quantum Darwinism. “QD putatively explains, or helps to explain, all of classicality, including everyday macroscopic objects that aren’t in a laboratory, or that existed before there were any humans.”

About a decade ago, while Riedel was working as a graduate student with Zurek, the two showed theoretically that information from some simple, idealized quantum systems is “copied prolifically into the environment,” Riedel said, “so that it’s necessary to access only a small amount of the environment to infer the value of the variables.” They calculated that a grain of dust one micrometer across, after being illuminated by the sun for just one microsecond, will have its location imprinted about 100 million times in the scattered photons.

It’s because of this redundancy that objective, classical-like properties exist at all. Ten observers can each measure the position of a dust grain and find that it’s in the same location, because each can access a distinct replica of the information. In this view, we can assign an objective “position” to the speck not because it “has” such a position (whatever that means) but because its position state can imprint many identical replicas in the environment, so that different observers can reach a consensus.

What’s more, you don’t have to monitor much of the environment to gather most of the available information — and you don’t gain significantly more by monitoring more than a fraction of the environment. “The information one can gather about the system quickly saturates,” Riedel said.

This redundancy is the distinguishing feature of QD, explained Mauro Paternostro, a physicist at Queen’s University Belfast who was involved in one of the three new experiments. “It’s the property that characterizes the transition towards classicality,” he said.

Quantum Darwinism challenges a common myth about quantum mechanics, according to the theoretical physicist Adán Cabello of the University of Seville in Spain: namely, that the transition between the quantum and classical worlds is not understood and that measurement outcomes cannot be described by quantum theory. On the contrary, he said, “quantum theory perfectly describes the emergence of the classical world.”

Just how perfectly remains contentious, however. Some researchers think decoherence and QD provide a complete account of the quantum-classical transition. But although these ideas attempt to explain why superpositions vanish at large scales and why only concrete “classical” properties remain, there’s still the question of why measurements give unique outcomes. When a particular location of a particle is selected, what happens to the other possibilities inherent in its quantum description? Were they ever in any sense real? Researchers are compelled to adopt philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics precisely because no one can figure out a way to answer that question experimentally.

Into the Lab
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Quantum Darwinism looks fairly persuasive on paper. But until recently that was as far as it got. In the past year, three teams of researchers have independently put the theory to the experimental test by looking for its key feature: how a quantum system imprints replicas of itself on its environment.

The experiments depended on the ability to closely monitor what information about a quantum system gets imparted to its environment. That’s not feasible for, say, a dust grain floating among countless billions of air molecules. So two of the teams created a quantum object in a kind of “artificial environment” with only a few particles in it. Both experiments — one by Paternostro and collaborators at Sapienza University of Rome, and the other by the quantum-information expert Jian-Wei Pan and co-authors at the University of Science and Technology of China — used a single photon as the quantum system, with a handful of other photons serving as the “environment” that interacts with it and broadcasts information about it.

Both teams passed laser photons through optical devices that could combine them into multiply entangled groups. They then interrogated the environment photons to see what information they encoded about the system photon’s pointer state — in this case its polarization (the orientation of its oscillating electromagnetic fields), one of the quantum properties able to pass through the filter of quantum Darwinian selection.

A key prediction of QD is the saturation effect: Pretty much all the information you can gather about the quantum system should be available if you monitor just a handful of surrounding particles. “Any small fraction of the interacting environment is enough to provide the maximal classical information about the observed system,” Pan said.

The two teams found precisely this. Measurements of just one of the environment photons revealed a lot of the available information about the system photon’s polarization, and measuring an increasing fraction of the environment photons provided diminishing returns. Even a single photon can act as an environment that introduces decoherence and selection, Pan explained, if it interacts strongly enough with the lone system photon. When interactions are weaker, a larger environment must be monitored.

The third experimental test of QD, led by the quantum-optical physicist Fedor Jelezko at Ulm University in Germany in collaboration with Zurek and others, used a very different system and environment, consisting of a lone nitrogen atom substituting for a carbon atom in the crystal lattice of a diamond — a so-called nitrogen-vacancy defect. Because the nitrogen atom has one more electron than carbon, this excess electron cannot pair up with those on neighboring carbon atoms to form a chemical bond. As a result, the nitrogen atom’s unpaired electron acts as a lone “spin,” which is like an arrow pointing up or down or, in general, in a superposition of both possible directions.

This spin can interact magnetically with those of the roughly 0.3% of carbon nuclei present in the diamond as the isotope carbon-13, which, unlike the more abundant carbon-12, also has spin. On average, each nitrogen-vacancy spin is strongly coupled to four carbon-13 spins within a distance of about 1 nanometer.

By controlling and monitoring the spins using lasers and radio-frequency pulses, the researchers could measure how a change in the nitrogen spin is registered by changes in the nuclear spins of the environment. As they reported in a preprint last September, they too observed the characteristic redundancy predicted by QD: The state of the nitrogen spin is “recorded” as multiple copies in the surroundings, and the information about the spin saturates quickly as more of the environment is considered.

Zurek says that because the photon experiments create copies in an artificial way that simulates an actual environment, they don’t incorporate a selection process that picks out “natural” pointer states resilient to decoherence. Rather, the researchers themselves impose the pointer states. In contrast, the diamond environment does elicit pointer states. “The diamond scheme also has problems, because of the size of the environment,” Zurek added, “but at least it is, well, natural.”

Generalizing Quantum Darwinism
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So far, so good for quantum Darwinism. “All these studies see what is expected, at least approximately,” Zurek said.

Riedel says we could hardly expect otherwise, though: In his view, QD is really just the careful and systematic application of standard quantum mechanics to the interaction of a quantum system with its environment. Although this is virtually impossible to do in practice for most quantum measurements, if you can sufficiently simplify a measurement, the predictions are clear, he said: “QD is most like an internal self-consistency check on quantum theory itself.”

But although these studies seem consistent with QD, they can’t be taken as proof that it is the sole description for the emergence of classicality, or even that it’s wholly correct. For one thing, says Cabello, the three experiments offer only schematic versions of what a real environment consists of. What’s more, the experiments don’t cleanly rule out other ways to view the emergence of classicality. A theory called “spectrum broadcasting,” for example, developed by Pawel Horodecki at the Gdańsk University of Technology in Poland and collaborators, attempts to generalize QD. Spectrum broadcast theory (which has only been worked through for a few idealized cases) identifies those states of an entangled quantum system and environment that provide objective information that many observers can obtain without perturbing it. In other words, it aims to ensure not just that different observers can access replicas of the system in the environment, but that by doing so they don’t affect the other replicas. That too is a feature of genuinely “classical” measurements.

Horodecki and other theorists have also sought to embed QD in a theoretical framework that doesn’t demand any arbitrary division of the world into a system and its environment, but just considers how classical reality can emerge from interactions between various quantum systems. Paternostro says it might be challenging to find experimental methods capable of identifying the rather subtle distinctions between the predictions of these theories.

Still, researchers are trying, and the very attempt should refine our ability to probe the workings of the quantum realm. “The best argument for performing these experiments probably is that they are good exercise,” Riedel said. “Directly illustrating QD can require some very difficult measurements that will push the boundaries of existing laboratory techniques.” The only way we can find out what measurement really means, it seems, is by making better measurements.

Man in clown suit prompts mass cruise ship brawl where passengers ‘use furniture and plates as weapons’

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A holidaymaker dressed as a clown prompted a mass brawl on a cruise ship
in which passengers used furniture and plates as weapons, according to witnesses.

The late-night fight in the buffet area onboard P&O’s Britannia left a member of staff injured as they tried to intervene while onlookers fled in fear.

The brawl, which took place in the early hours of Friday morning during the return leg of a week-long cruise to Norway’s fjords, reportedly followed an alcohol-fuelled afternoon of “patriotic” partying on deck.

The perpetrators were said to have been confined to their cabins for the last day of the cruise. A 41-year-old woman and a 43-year-old man from Essex were arrested by Hampshire police on suspicion of assault when the ship docked in Southampton on Saturday morning.
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Six people, including three women, were assaulted during the fight, resulting in a series of injuries including “significant bruising and cuts”, the force said. One of those injured was a staff member.

Richard Gaisford of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, who was on the cruise, said he was alerted to the incident when a 2am emergency tannoy announcement called for security to rush to the 16th floor restaurant.

Gaisford tweeted on Saturday: “‘There was blood everywhere’. Violent late night brawl in the buffet onboard P&O Cruises’ Britannia left staff who intervened injured, as passengers used furniture and plates as weapons. Witnesses told me they were so frightened they had to hide, as family groups fought.”

He said that, after hearing the tannoy, he went to the restaurant where he found “shocked” passengers. “One witness, part of a group involved in the trouble, explained to staff that things kicked off when another passenger appeared dressed as a clown. This upset one of their party because they’d specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress. It led to a violent confrontation,” he wrote.
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He added: “Britannia left Bergen at 14.30 on Thursday, the violence occurred 12 hours later after a black-tie evening. It followed an afternoon of ‘patriotic’ partying on deck, with large amounts of alcohol being consumed by many guests.

“The buffet area was immediately sealed off as medical teams went to help the injured. Staff told me they’d never experienced anything like it and those behind the violence were confined to a cabin for the last day of the cruise, waiting for police here in Southampton.”

Hampshire police said: “Officers are investigating following reports of a public order incident onboard P&O’s Britannia. The incident happened during the early hours of Friday 26 July while the ship was en route to Southampton from Bergen.
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“Six people – three men and three women – were assaulted. A number of injuries were suffered including significant bruising and cuts.

“Investigations are ongoing. Two people, a 43-year-old man and a 41-year-old woman, both from Chigwell, Essex, have been arrested on suspicion of assault and are currently in police custody.”

A P&O Cruises spokesman said: “Following an incident onboard Britannia on Thursday evening we can confirm that all guests have now disembarked and the matter is now in the hands of the local police.”

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Kickstarter game teaches players how to identify fake news

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Separate the misinformation from the real news.

By Georgina Torbet

Between fake news, viral clickbait and biased reporting, it’s hard to get a sense of what is really true when reading the headlines. So a new game being pitched on Kickstarter aims to take the public behind the curtain and show them how journalism works by putting them in the driving seat.

The idea of Misinformer is for the player to take on the role of a citizen journalist cracking a conspiracy. You start off as a moderator for a typical dull gardening forum, but things change when a wave of political spam arrives and you have to uncover the culprit.

It’s a text-based game which unfolds on a smartphone UI and requires you to identify the truth in a world of fake news and misinformation. Playing the game teaches the skills people need to identify and debunk misinformation in the real world.

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Online misinformation is destroying us,
click on the link below to see how we can fix it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeH3UfszxFo

The game is being created by Jay McGregor who runs the investigative journalism startup Point. For the sake of full disclosure, here at Engadget we collaborate with Point to produce a feature series covering technology, internet and political issues.

As an ongoing project, real investigations from Point‘s YouTube channel will be fictionalized and added to the game as downloadable content, so there will be plenty of new material to play and the game will stay up to date with the news.

The game is estimated to be completed by December this year. As with any Kickstarter campaign, there’s no guarantee that this project will ever come to fruition, even if it does make its goal of $23,027 (£18,500). If you’re interested in the idea, though, you can snag an early bird copy for $6 (£5) right now.

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‘Little Bird’: The terrifying possibility of what a Christian nationalist America could look like

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By Chauncey Devega

The most compelling speculative fiction takes something about the world as it exists and alters it in such a way that the familiar is made into something provocative. This disruption of the familiar lies at the heart of the best speculative fiction.

America at present is already a surreal nightmare. A mentally unwell ignorant violent racist sexist greedy and cruel reality TV show host is president. He leads a political cult. Christian Nationalists and Christian Dominionists want to transform the United States into a “biblically correct” society in violation of the United States Constitution and its guiding principle that church and the state should be separate. And Donald Trump, a proud and resplendent sinner, is viewed by right-wing Christians as god’s prophet and their savior. And the so-called resistance and other people of conscience are still struggling to create a cohesive and coordinated movement to oppose American fascism as birthed by Donald Trump’s adminstration.

Michael Pence — Trump’s vice president — is a Christian Fascist who does his movement’s bidding as he and the Republican Party work to overturn women’s reproductive rights and freedoms as part of an overall assault on human rights and human dignity in America and around the world. Pence and the Christian Right’s obsessions with supposedly “protecting the unborn” and “living the principles of Jesus Christ” (their distorted version of him) does not extend to having any empathy or sympathy for the brown and black babies, children, and adults being held in Trump’s concentration camps and otherwise terrorized by Trump’s regime.

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The corporation increasingly has power which rivals if not surpasses the nation-state. New technologies are radically altering the labor market and how people make sense of and perform their own identities. For example: the algorithm distributes resources and shapes individual’s desires, wants and life chances — all the while it remains invisible to most people. The American people are amusing themselves to death in a society where there are very high levels of loneliness but they are also “hyper-connected” to one another online. In total, the American people are under constant surveillance by corporations and the state. But most Americans do this willingly through participatory totalitarianism.

Director and screenwriter Darcy Van Poelgeest’s powerful new graphic novel series “Little Bird’ (from publisher Image Comics) is some version of this present day America and its malignant reality projected forward into the future.

“Little Bird” (with art by Ian Bertram and colors by Matt Hollingsworth) tells the story of a Christian nationalist America led by the religious zealot “Bishop” who rules from the “New Vatican” in a decades-long war of conquest against Canada.

Poelgeest’s story is one of family, human dignity and resistance against oppressive power as shown through the coming of age story of the titular character and hero Little Bird, a 12-year-old girl and member of the First Nations who is trying to inspire the Canadian Resistance to fight on in its freedom struggle against the conquering American forces.

In my recent conversation with Darcy Van Poelgeest, we discussed the origins of “Little Bird,” the ways that it is a meditation on resistance and human dignity, and what it is like to watch America lose its way from the hope of the Obama years to the terror and cruelty of Donald Trump.

Poelgeest also explains how even history’s great villains such as Donald Trump actually believe that they are doing the right thing. In this conversation, Poelgeest also shares how the humanity of “Little Bird” channels what he learned from his mother’s political activism and the bravery of his Dutch grandparents during World War 2.

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“Little Bird” #5, the final issue of the series, was released last week.
“Little Bird” will be available in a collected edition at a future date.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

“Little Bird” is such a confident story. There is no regret or second guessing in the story. Because of that “Little Bird” is also very efficient. There is not a lot of exposition. You and your co-creators present the world simply as it exists and on its own terms. That is a very bold choice. How did you decide to proceed that way?

I have a great amount of respect for the readers and I think that is where my confidence comes from. I write for them. I am creating stories the way that I would like stories to be told to me.

In many ways I suppose I am doing it for myself. I feel like some writers do not have that much faith in their readers. I don’t understand this. At several of the signings for “Little Bird” that I have done people come up to me and we chat. They understand the story. I love that. They are getting the details and the subtext. I would rather rather risk the reader being challenged than just flipping through the pages and not having to think.

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Where did that respect come from? This commitment to the truth of the story?

Long before you are a storyteller you are a story receiver. It always irritated me when I watched a movie or read a book — or any other type of entertainment for that matter — and I feel like it is being spoon-fed to me. It is not a nice feeling. Moreover, that means the story is not as engaging because by being challenged by a story we become part of it. We become invested in such a way that we are part of the story. We are made part of the process of telling that story. When everything is given to us by a story, even if it’s done in an exciting way, there is still that barrier.

Of course “Little Bird” reflects the angst — as well as hope — of this present moment of political and social tumult across the West and really in many ways around the world. When did you decide to write “Little Bird”?

In my first documentary project I interviewed indigenous youth who were incarcerated. I found myself in this jail for several days talking to young indigenous youth who had gotten in trouble with the law in some pretty bad ways. This was really an awakening to me regarding many of the challenges that the First Nations indigenous community in Canada are facing, specifically in British Columbia. This project gave me a very different perspective on their experiences and struggles. In the same project I also interviewed indigenous elders about the legacy of the residential school system here, the lasting impacts of that, most specifically on children being separated from their families.

As I continued to develop a relationship with the First Nations communities this became very important to me. More people need to understand these struggles and triumphs.

In “Little Bird” I do this by focusing on a young indigenous girl in a science fiction setting. And then of course while I was writing “Little Bird” Barack Obama was still president. I found his whole presidency very inspiring. But if you live long enough one gets to see the pendulum swings backward. So then I started wondering what happens after Barack Obama and that hopeful moment. When the pendulum swings back, how far does it go now?

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You are a Canadian. What does the United
States in this moment look like from afar? 

It does not look good. “Little Bird” is quite far-fetched — but it looks a little less so far-fetched every day with Donald Trump being president. This is all very scary.

There is a hard truth that many people do not want to look at: We are all flawed, and in general, people are working from an honest place. That is a tough fact to accept for most. As much as I dislike Donald Trump, I do not believe that he wakes up in the morning and says to himself, “how can I make the world worse?” Donald Trump actually believes that what he is doing is good. Now how do we define “good”? What he is doing is mostly good for him and he obviously does not possess much empathy, but I think Trump thinks he is also doing good things for other people as well.

The character Bishop is a Christian Nationalist who leads this future United States in a holy war against Canada. There is a speech in “Little Bird” which sounds like it could have been delivered by Michael Pence or any other Christian Fascist. Despite being the aggressor, the American Empire in “Little Bird” also believes that it is a victim. 

It does not matter how awful things are — there is someone doing these horrible things who actually believes they are doing the right thing. How do you change that person? How do you work towards changing such a person’s outlook on the world? That is very difficult, especially when it comes to religion. Those values, even if they are bad and dangerous, are so deeply embedded that most people are not even conscious of them. In “Little Bird” there are many discussions of the power of choices. But what are these choices that can really be made?

For Bishop’s speech I just put myself in that character’s head. This is easy to do when you accept the fact that these are truths for the character. That is really how they see the world. The character Bishop really does believe that he is doing the right thing. That he and his people are oppressed. There have been casualties on both sides. It’s very easy to convince people, even if they are the conquerors, that they are somehow oppressed if their cousin got murdered by someone in the resistance. 30 years into a war Bishop is able to speak from that place. There are people in that crowd who have been touched by the resistance.

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How did you create the world of “Little Bird”? Is there a detailed story bible?

 

There is a logic to the world. Yes, I have a giant book. I asked myself, what does the world look like 2,000 years from now, where there are people called “mods” who are genetically modified both as a form of self-expression but also as a way of being more efficient at their job? The labor market is so competitive that you literally have to start changing your body to get a leg up on the next person. And this all starts to spiral out of control.

Bishop is speaking from a place where he can say that science has run away from us. He can say “Look what we’ve become in the name of progress!” And what makes Bishop so interesting to me is that there is some truth in what he is saying. Quite often in history with the benefit of hindsight we can see how dictators will take a small truth and manipulate and twist and turn it into something monstrous.

Your family is full of truth-tellers and resistance fighters. How does that inform your work?

It is just part of who I am. I do not think of myself as a political person. But then when I examine my own history I think about so many of the things that my grandparents did working with Green Peace, Amnesty International and for indigenous First Nations rights. My mother stood in front of bulldozers to protect an old growth forest that was going to be cut down in British Columbia. At the time I didn’t think much of about what she did and why. But then later in life I thought back about what she had done  and my respect for her just grew immensely.

What motivates your art?

It’s nothing I’ve ever stopped to think about. I am a very sensitive person. I was also a very sensitive child. One of my earliest obsessions was Jane Goodall. When I  was really young I wrote her a letter saying, “I’m going to study chimpanzees”. Even at that young age I just saw us, our humanity in them, and it was just a surreal awakening. I got caught up in this idea of “I need to help them”. They don’t have a voice. And I actually wrote Jane Goodall a letter when I was about 10 or so years old. She wrote me back on rice paper from a hut in Africa. That letter is hanging on my wall right now in a frame. It is a  source of inspiration.

I was also inspired by stories on my father’s side of the family because my grandmother and grandfather fought in the Dutch resistance where they smuggled American soldiers to safety, risking their lives to do so. We’re not often put in the situation to do things that brave, but I’m just inspired by people who step up and rise to the occasion.

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Americans reported hearing torturous sounds in Cuba—and now their brains seem changed

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People with “Havana syndrome” have differences
in their brains compared to healthy people.

Beginning in late 2016, government officials from the United States and Canada stationed in Cuba started reporting clusters of symptoms that seemed a bit like a concussion: a sudden onset of headaches, dizziness, and confusion after hearing a high pitched noise. The illness soon became referred to as “Havana syndrome” and the cause has been subject to intense debate, and some experts have suggested that the condition is purely psychological. But a new study, which found that those affected have differences in their brains compared to healthy people, pushes back on that skepticism.

The research builds on a previous study from the same research team outlining the neurological problems experienced by people who lived in Cuba and who reported symptoms. “This is the imaging findings that underlie those clinical symptoms,” says study author Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology and a brain imaging specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
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The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), used brain scans to look at three different aspects of brain function in 40 people who were clinically evaluated after reported exposure to the as-yet undetermined phenomenon. It looked at the overall volume of various regions in their brains; at the fine structure of brain tissue in the cerebellum, which regulates movement and controls balance; and at the connectivity of brain networks involved in hearing, vision, and high-level cognitive skills like memory.

The authors selected those brain regions and networks based on the observed clinical symptoms, Verma says. “It seemed like there should be something wrong in the cerebellum, and that helped form our hypothesis,” she says. Patients in the study also reported visual, auditory, and memory problems.

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Images from the brains of those patients were compared with two control groups who had different educational backgrounds. “The first was matched to this population, with at least a college degree, good motor skills, and jobs that require multitasking. The second was a traditional traumatic brain injury control group,” Verma says. The team was not able to build a control group of unaffected government personnel also stationed in Cuba, which is a limitation of the analysis, says Dorina Papageorgiou, a neuroimaging specialist at Baylor College of Medicine. They also didn’t have scans available for patients from before symptoms started, which would have allowed them to have an established baseline for each person and thus pinpoint changes case-by-case.

The analysis found that the patients who had been stationed in Cuba had less volume of white matter, which contains the parts of neurons that connect brain regions together, than the control groups. They had differences in their cerebellum to the control groups, and had lower connectivity in the auditory and visual networks of the brain (though not those involved in executive function).

Notably, Verma says, the patterns of changes in brain volume and in the cerebellum, were unlike the patterns of changes seen in any other diseases—they didn’t look like the changes seen in patients with traumatic brain injuries, for example, or other neurological conditions.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is something unique to these patients,” she says. Seeing a new pattern, she says, is extremely rare.

The findings do indicate, though, that there are structural and functional changes in the brain that offer a potential basis for clinical symptoms. It’s a counter to some criticisms levied on the team’s prior paper that evaluated the neurological symptoms of this patient group, which included skepticism that their experiences weren’t just psychogenic. “The clinical element said there should be a problem in the cerebellum, and the imaging showed changes in the cerebellum. It’s an objective measure,” Verma says.

However, it’s not clear what the overall changes seen in this study mean clinically, for patient function, according to an accompanying editor’s note also published in the JAMA. It’s also not clear how significant the changes between the two groups are, says Gerard Gianoli, a neurotologist (someone who specializes in neurological disorders of the ear) at the Ear and Balance Institute in Louisiana. Gianoli says he’s more convinced by a 2018 paper that showed inner ear damage in those affected. The new paper, though, still provides important data. “It’s a part of the puzzle, and it adds a piece of information,” he says.

The changes in these patients, both in the brain and in the inner ear, could be caused by multiple different things, Gianoli says—this research doesn’t answer questions about the initial trigger. It may never be clear what happened, Verma says. “If you asked me, did something happen, I would say yes. But this doesn’t tell us how or why.”

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‘Ghost Ship’ Reappears After Missing for 9 Years With No Cargo and Crew On board

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By Louise Bevan

Are you ready for a ghost story?

A huge freighter, presumed lost, ran aground on a sandbar near Thongwa township in Myanmar’s Yangon region after disappearing almost a decade previously. Local fishermen were stunned to witness the reappearance of this “ghost ship,” tattered and time-worn but bearing no evidence of its journey since going off the radar.

Most mysteriously, the freighter carried no cargo or any trace of its original crew members. Neighboring countries had firmly believed that the container ship, named “Sam Ratulangi PB 1600,” was lost to the depths of the ocean. Fishermen reported the baffling reappearance before bravely boarding and inspecting the ship for clues. The navy, coast guard, and police joined in the hunt on the massive 177-meter-long freighter weighing in at an estimated 26,510 tons.
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“No crew or cargo was found on the ship,” said Thongwa municipality MP Ne Win Yangon, as quoted by the Myanmar Times. “It was quite puzzling how such a big ship turned up in our waters,” he continued. “The authorities are keeping a watch on it.”

After a detailed investigation, however, Myanmar officials found the answers they were looking for.

According to ABC7, the ship was being towed to a salvage yard in Bangladesh when the tugboat lost control during a storm. Broken tugboat cables were still attached to the freighter when it grounded. Myanmar navy representatives backed up the idea that the ship was being towed, reporting that “two cables were found at its head,” said the BBC.

Bangladesh was the likely destination. The country has a significant ship-breaking industry; hundreds of commercial freighters are scrapped in Chittagong every single year, and the Sam Ratulangi was probably destined for the same fate.
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Based on clues from the navy’s coastal radar, navy crew scoured the waters for a tugboat near the site of the washed-up ghost ship Sam Ratulangi, and found one. A tugboat vessel named “Independence,” said Straits Times, was carrying 13 Indonesian crew members about 50 miles from Yangon’s shores.

The 13 crew members offered up some illuminating information. The Independence had been towing the Sam Ratulangi toward a salvage factory in Bangladesh two weeks earlier. However, some of the ship’s cables detached in a bout of bad weather and the crew decided to leave the battered freighter behind.

The 18-year-old Sam Ratulangi was last spotted off the
coast of Taiwan in 2009, and bore the flag of Indonesia.
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The Burmese Navy inspected the ship on August 30, 2018, and discovered significant damage including rust and a huge split in the hull from having been beached on a sandbar for several days.

According to the Independent, the Sam Ratulangi is not the first ghost ship that has haunted Asian waters. In recent years, a number of mysterious vessels have been identified drifting off the shores of Japan. In some cases, the corpses of crew members were found on board; in others, the ships were deserted.

The Sam Ratulangi, however, is the first of its size to have emerged so mysteriously after so long lost at sea.
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Should There Be an Emoji for Everything?

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By Sophie Haigney

The people, represented by the group Emojination, had a simple request: consider the hippo. “The HIPPOPOTAMUS, or HIPPO for short, is one of the last remaining popular charismatic megafauna that still does not have its own emoji symbol,” its proposal, submitted to the Unicode Consortium in 2017, read. Nicole Wong and Jennifer 8. Lee, two writers who authored the proposal, pointed to the hippo’s status as one of the most dangerous animals in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are “highly aggressive” and pose “daily threats to communities.” The semiaquatic mammals were also experiencing a “digital renaissance,” with Google searches on par with those for the koala and just behind those for the giraffe. Perhaps most important, the proposers argued that hippos have abundant metaphorical potential: “Users want a HIPPO emoji not only because this particular species is widely considered adorable, but also because the HIPPO emoji can signify culturally what other animals cannot: fatness, hunger, and a whimsical lethargy.” A hippo emoji could warn fellow-humans of danger and tell your girlfriend that you feel fat in a good way.

The hippo’s symbolic connotations are particular,
marrying laziness, fatness, hunger, and cuteness
with an undercurrent of danger. But does it merit
its own emoji?

Wong and Lee are aligned with Emojination, a grassroots effort to make the emoji-approval process more democratic and inclusive. The hippo proposal followed Unicode’s guidelines closely, with “Factors for Inclusion” and “Factors for Exclusion” sections that anticipated possible criticisms and questions from the committee. Was the hippo distinctive enough, or could it be mistaken for an elephant or a rhinoceros? (No, the proposers wrote, because it would not have a trunk or a horn.) Would it be redundant, as people were already using the panda emoji to represent lethargy and the whale emoji to represent hunger? No, because the hippo also has a literal meaning and “the closest emoji one could use to represent the hippo species literally would be rhinoceros or elephant emojis, but these would be incorrect and provide poor representation for the hippo.” Also, the hippo’s symbolic connotations are particular—marrying laziness, fatness, hunger, and cuteness with an undercurrent of danger. Nor is the hippo likely to go out of style anytime soon: “The hippo is a relevant emoji symbol as long as hippos continue to graze in Africa and live in zoos.”

While it can seem like there’s an emoji for everything—a burrito, a yarn ball, a peach, an abacus, faces whose expressions span the breadth of the human condition—there are just over three thousand, all approved by the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit agency that develops an international standardized code for text data, including numerals and languages. The Unicode Consortium was incorporated in 1991, when there were no standards for turning written characters into computer “code points.” It was “an unholy mess,” Mark Davis, a co-founder of Unicode, which sought to clean it up, said. Unicode became the arbiter of more than a hundred and fifty modern and ancient scripts.
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The tech companies approached Unicode about regulating emojis in the early two-thousands. “We thought, ‘That doesn’t look like text to us,’ and we decided not to pursue it,” Davis, who’s still involved with Unicode as the chair of the Emoji Subcommittee, said. In 2006, Google started adding emojis to its products, and several Google employees (including Davis, who works there) put together a proposal that asked Unicode to encode emojis. They accepted. It was new territory: not only because emojis aren’t a language but also because the Unicode group was tasked with creating new emojis in addition to standardizing existing ones. When dealing with living or even dead languages, the encoding process—the assignment of code points to characters—consisted of observation and research: How does the punctuation behave? How do the line breaks operate? “All of these questions are, in theory, answered by how the script works in practice, so it’s about looking at the way people use it in reality, and with emoji there are an unbounded number of possible images,” Davis said. Suddenly, Unicode had the more difficult mandate of writing the rules of an evolving style of communication as well as following them, trying to balance creative license and whimsy with standards, and hemming in the infinite variety of possible emojis. They have become a clearinghouse of a novel mode of communication.

New emojis are added annually and undergo rigorous vetting, with proposals considered first by the Emoji Subcommittee, which meets weekly by phone, and later by the Technical Committee, which meets quarterly and is largely composed of representatives from big companies. If an emoji is finalized, Apple, Google, and Microsoft—who are all voting members of Unicode—will design their versions and release them. About seventy emojis are added each year, and it’s not easy to get an emoji accepted. Among the rejected proposals: a radish, rye bread, the Aboriginal flag, a cannabis leaf, a condom. One highly publicized rejection was of a proposed “period pants” emoji, to represent menstruation. Unicode did not specify its reasons for this rejection, but it did add a droplet-of-blood emoji in this year’s release—a compromise of sorts, offering a more general symbol that could be used, perhaps, to signify either menstruation or murder.

One reason for the limitations on new emojis is technical: the characters take up significant memory space on a phone. Another is more philosophical: emojis were originally intended to be more like accents to text, mimicking gestures and facial expressions; they weren’t meant to represent every single specific thing in the world. Emojis represent concepts: the smiley face gets at the concept of “happy” and the heart gets at the idea of “love.” But symbolic uses of emojis become complicated as the committee approves more of them and emojis become increasingly specific. There is no such thing as a generic dog. In emoji, there’s a poodle, a yellowish Akita Inu, and a dog-face emoji, which looks different in different interfaces but nonetheless has specific characteristics that exclude certain breeds. So why not also a golden retriever or a German shepherd? “Someone made a proposal for a couple dozen dinosaurs,” Davis said. “We winnowed it down to two, a brontosaurus-like dinosaur and a T. rex, sort of going for the carnivore and the herbivore. In general, people want to convey the general notion of ‘dinosaur,’ not ‘triceratops.’ ” This may be true for long-extinct beasts, but it has not placated white-wine drinkers, who are affronted that the concept of wine is represented through a glass of red. But to add white wine would be to start down a slippery slope—what about rosé?
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These choices become more serious when you move away from wine and dinosaurs and dogs. The representation of people is particularly vexed; after years of receiving complaints about the uniform yellow skin tone, Unicode added five skin-tone variants, in 2015. Though this move was generally celebrated, some thought it muddied the waters. “Because I’m black, should I now feel compelled to use the ‘appropriate’ brown-skinned nail-painting emoji? Why would I use the white one? Now in simple text messages and tweets, I have to identify myself racially,” Paige Tutt wrote, in the Washington Post. Interracial emoji couples were approved this year, but the emoji families remain the original daffodil yellow. Unicode is also attempting, slowly, to rectify gender imbalance in various professions and incorporate representations of people with disabilities.

There are also the national flags, which Jeremy Burge, an Emoji Subcommittee member and the founder of the popular emoji-search engine Emojipedia, said have the potential to be “a political minefield.” In a recent emoji update, the flags of Scotland, Wales, and England were added. The Emoji Subcommittee did not, however, add the Ulster Banner—a flag used in Northern Ireland by the national football team, but also by loyalist communities associated with ethnic nationalism. “The real issue is that Northern Ireland doesn’t have an officially recognized flag, except for the Union Jack,” Burge said. The imposition of an “official flag” is part of a bitter decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland that was itself deeply fraught with symbols and signs. As emojis come to represent the world more specifically and fully, they collide with the thorny reality that they reduce to a pictograph.

What, exactly, do we want from our emojis? A visual language of our universe, categorized and illustrated ad infinitum? Or a series of bright, whimsical accents for our text-speak? The most popular emojis tend to be gestural: faces, hearts, and hands. These types of emojis can also be difficult to propose to Unicode, because there are few metrics to suggest their worthiness or popularity. Gretchen McCulloch, an Internet linguist, said that the current standards would prevent some of the most-loved emojis—grandfathered in during the early heady days—from existing. “I’m not saying Unicode’s criteria are bad,” McCulloch said. “But it’s weird that, say, the smiling pile of poo, which was very important to emoji usage, wouldn’t make it through today. You could never get another inanimate object with a face on it added today. You couldn’t get a smiling apple through Unicode today.” But you could get through a hippo, which was encoded in 2018. As we collectively puzzle our way to the future of emoji, we are now never at a loss to depict a certain kind of lolling laziness.
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