Cynthia Breazeal, roboticist and social robotics pioneer, is pictured with Jibo, a personal assistant robot. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On our June 14, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, and Books Editor Dana Snitzky share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in Grub Street, The New Yorker, Gay Magazine, and The Verge.

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0:20 How a Cash-Strapped Start-up Became the Internet’s Food-Nerd Utopia. (Chris Crowley, June 18, 2019, Grub Street

“The ultimate distillation of a conversation going on with all the slow bits cut out and all the best parts included.” – Aaron Gilbreath

In 2006, Ed Levine launched Serious Eats, which quickly became a go-to place on the internet for the food obsessed. To coincide with Levine’s memoir, Grub Street created a “meta-food experience” by speaking with writers involved in the early days of the website. The Longreads team discusses how the oral history format seems to get people to lower their filter and allow personalities to come to the forefront. They also talk about the ambitious lengths people went to to get a story during this period of the blogging internet, and how that ambition often wasn’t reflected in the low rates and long hours they worked. 

8:20 The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship. (Daniel A. Gross, June 16, 2019, The New Yorker)

The Optics of Opportunity. (Hafizah Geter, June 19, 2019, Gay Magazine)

“Racism isn’t a revelation, it’s ever-present and we’re always dealing with it.” – Dana Snitzky
“And it’s not a surprising reveal at the end of a story.” – Catherine Cusick

The team discusses the New Yorker’s story about a secret literary fellowship funded by Barnes & Nobel owner Leonard Riggio’s family foundation and a rebuttal companion piece to the story from Gay Magazine.

Geter is a main character in Gross’s piece and both writers were participants in the fellowship but, as our editors discuss, the structure and framing of the pieces differ greatly. In Gay Magazine, Geter asks who gets to tell a story and critiques the New Yorker’s editorial choice to frame Gross’ piece as a story about wealth. The editors question the down-the-rabbit-hole structure, which posits racism as a mystery’s big revelation, rather than, as Geter shows, the glaring center of the story, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team talks about how opportunity and predation are intertwined, and the difference between people who feed hope and those who feed on it.

24:08 They Welcomed a Robot Into Their Family, Now They’re Mourning Its Death.  (Ashley Carman, June 19, 2019, The Verge)

“I didn’t expect my friendly home robot to die.” – Catherine Cusick

Jibo was one of the first social robots engineered to normalize the notion of “a robot in every home,” to appeal to children, and to become part of the family. Jibo’s eyes, facial recognition responsiveness, and personalized greetings fostered a bond with owners, who developed pet-like affection for the dancing digital personality. Now, the company that makes Jibo has been bought out, and Jibo owners have been put on notice. His servers are shutting down “soon,” but no one knows exactly when.

The editors talk about how to say goodbye to a robot you didn’t expect to “die,” the challenge of trusting the reliability of something that corporations can unplug at will, and how consumer relationships to home assistants are complicated by their intentional emotional appeal.

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