Tag Archives: Technology

Who Knows?

27 Dec

I’ve got a challenge for you. The next time you want to take out your phone to look something up, and it’s not urgent… don’t do it.

You can look up logistics, of course. Check your train, map your route, verify a store’s hours. But for anything else: don’t do it. Not even if you’re in the middle of a debate about when a celebrity won an award, or you can’t remember the lyrics to a favorite song, or you just really want to know the answer to a trivia question you heard.

 Don’t do it.

We’ve been trained to get answers on demand. Thanks to our friend The Internet, we no longer have to sit with that feeling of not knowing something we want to know. We’ve become so impatient for information that we feel like we have to look everything up on the spot, right away. Even if we’re at dinner with friends, or on a scenic walk, or at a show. And usually, the answer isn’t that important. It’s just that we can look it up, so we do.

 I’m trying to get cozier with the discomfort of not knowing something, even when I could know it. I’m all about curiosity and research, but fast phone checks don’t lead to much longterm satisfaction. They basically scratch an itch, in the moment–and then you probably forget most of what you look up, anyway. I’m trying to get better at letting the curiosity linger, and the not-knowing settle. If it’s important to me, I’ll remember to look it up later. And if I never look it up–that’s ok, too. We don’t actually have to know everything, now or later.


Follow the Orange Blob Road

12 Jul

When we were in D.C. a couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I spent a lovely afternoon wandering aimlessly. But then we wanted dinner. And so we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps and looked for the orange blobs.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take a peek at this map. The orange blobs are how Google designates commercial corridors with restaurants and stores. I don’t know exactly how their algorithm works, but seems like the blobs call out the most densely commercial parts of a specific neighborhood. In this screenshot of northern San Francisco, the the big orange block around stretching east from Fillmore Street marks the commercial heart of a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. That’s where you’ll find the most restaurants and shops (and an absurd number of salons, too). Meanwhile, the blob over on Columbus marks the commercial heart of North Beach.

Orange blobs

In Google Mapland, orange blobs seem to be shorthand for “there’s something worth investigating over here.” As a tourist, the blobs are pretty helpful: they steer you to areas where you’re likely to find what somewhere to eat, shop, relax, etc. The blobs are practical.

But could those blobs also lead us astray? See that stretch of orange that’s south of the “Union Street” marker, toward the middle of my screenshot? That’s Polk Street, the main commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. But there are also a lot of restaurants on Hyde, just a couple blocks over. Hyde has beautiful scenery, great local restaurants and oodles of SF charm. So why isn’t that block orange? Are people missing out on Hyde Street’s wonders, just because their map doesn’t call it out?

And check out where Polk Street meets Pacific. There are businesses on those blocks, so I wonder why they’re not “important” enough to warrant the orange treatment. Does that mean those businesses are less valuable for some reason? Will those businesses get less traffic over time since they’re not marked on the map? And why did that one taco joint get a label? This is literally just a map of the area…I hadn’t searched for tacos!


These kinds of tools are incredibly helpful as we navigate the world around us. But they also give us a curated view of what “matters” in a neighborhood—and sometimes I wonder about the longterm cultural impact. In the longterm, will we limit our experiences to things called out on “top 10 lists,” marked on maps, etc.?

Think about it this way: if you only go to top-rated restaurants and only hit up the parts of town labeled on a map, you’re not actually optimizing for personal taste. You’re optimizing for convenience, easy decisions and probably some element of social cache. You could claim that technology is helping you find the best of the best…but how do you know? Maybe just a couple blocks from that orange blob, there’s a business you’d love if only you strolled by and gave it a chance.

The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr

Via YPulse

According to marketing agency YPulse, 50% of 18-33 year-olds say that getting a “like” on Facebook gives them a rush. This number goes down for younger audiences- but YPulse suspects it’s actually because “likes” are second-nature for them. They’ve grown up in a world of likes and retweets, so it’s possible that social media “affirmation” registers as a given. If you’re a teenager, you may not know life without social media. But for the rest of us, let’s think back to the days before we posted our lives and thoughts online. In a given day, we may have gotten compliments on our outfits, caught up with friends, or gotten into debates on heavy topics. But we didn’t have such a centralized, public platform to tell people about our lives. And so we didn’t have such instant access to affirmation – or lack thereof.

I believe that social media is net positive. On a given day, I may chat with a friend in France, pick up recipes from a friend in Los Angeles, learn about Chinese culture from a friend in Shanghai. I get to see baby pictures from friends who live far away, learn about events to attend, feel a sense of community with others living in San Francisco. Sometimes I worry I spend too much time online, sometimes I wonder about posting our lives as content – but overall, I think social media adds good to my world.


Facebook briefly tested a tool that summed up likes for you. I joked about it- but also kind of liked it…


And if YPulse had surveyed me, I too would have answered “yes” to the question about getting a rush from likes. I love getting likes on social media and on my blogs. I like getting compliments in real life too. Who doesn’t? It feels good. When I post things on social media and nobody interacts with them, I definitely wonder why. It doesn’t impact my self-perception in any way, but I do catch myself analyzing what drove the lack of interaction. Was it simply that Facebook’s algorithm didn’t show my post to enough people? Was it the topic I wrote about? Was it the time of day when I posted?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the quantified self: using technology to record data about how we live, in the hopes of self-improvement. You can track every step you take, every minute of sleep. I understand how this can help us improve. But I hope we don’t also enter a phase of quantified self-worth. I hope that, despite the rush we get from people affirming us online, we remember that our value doesn’t depend on likes or retweets or shares. I hope we can reap the benefits of social media, without letting the potential downsides soak in. I hope we can continue to separate social media content from real life. I hope that in a time of “influencer strategy,” we remember that we’re more than our likes.

I’ll still get a rush if people like this post. And I’ll be excited if anyone chooses to message me about it, whether they agree or not. But I’m personally trying to see social media engagement as a potential conversation, and not a game or popularity contest. If nobody likes this blog post- so be it. There’s always next time.


When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong

3 Apr

What do Cheez-It crackers and eyeliner have in common?


From a friend’s Amazon shopping page

Very little, you’d think. And yet, a friend recently posted this picture to Facebook. As she tried to buy eyeliner on Amazon, the “frequently bought together” algorithm suggested she add Cheez-Its to her cart. All for the excellent price of $6.77!

Made you laugh, right? Because these two products are so unrelated, this “suggestion” seems totally off-base. But if you think about your in-store shopping habits and translate that to the internet- it starts to make more sense.

Physical retailers often merchandise associated items near each other. A classic case of this “adjacency” strategy is putting peanut butter and jelly on the same shelf. Next-level adjacency strategy is used to “suggest” items you might want to add into your cart more spontaneously. For example, Trader Joe’s sells packaged olives next to its wine display, because they want you to trigger your interest in buying olives to go with your drinks. Another adjacency strategy comes via promotional displays: for example, a s’mores bundle promotion I wrote about a few years ago.

When you’re shopping online, physical merchandising and browsing are replaced by dropdown menus, filters and algorithms. These algorithms try to connect your current behaviors, past behaviors, and what other people “like you” are doing. Algorithms are supposed to be helpful, but they can’t always distinguish between patterns, and purpose. When the algorithm notices a trend, it takes advantage of that information. And so, while the Amazon algorithm “knows” that a lot of people apparently buy eyeliner and crackers at the same time, it doesn’t know why. The connection it’s making isn’t completely logical, and the product it suggested to my friend  didn’t make sense within the context of her shopping purpose. She was shopping for makeup- not food. So seeing food pop up on the side felt nonsensical and out of place.

But wait: there’s one more physical shopping “truth” we need to consider. You may think about makeup as a discrete category, but you’re also very likely to buy it while shopping for other things. Think back to your last physical trip to a big box retailer like Target- what ended up in your cart? I always marvel at the seeming “randomness” of what goes into my cart at places like that, everything from flour to soap to greeting cards. But unless you’re on a very mission-driven shopping trip, or at a specialty store, you’re likely shopping for more than 1 thing at a time. And once you walk out of Target, your cart may very well contain the seemingly unlikely duo of makeup and food.

So what we’re seeing here is a clash between our physical shopping behaviors, and our online shopping behaviors. When we shop online, we’re often in “research mode,” looking for helpful information. We expect websites to know our frame of mind, and cultivate a relevant experience for us. We expect to see helpful reviews and product information about the category we’re focused on, not a different category we may start shopping for later.

Annies SaltinesWhen I tried to replicate my friend’s experience on my own account, I saw a lot of makeup suggestions- and then a suggestion for Annie’s Saltines. Which likely means that people do use online shopping to “stock up” on their essentials across category. And yet, from a merchandising perspective, we expect more from our online retailers. If they have our data, we want them to use it well. For these websites to properly influence our behavior, they need to take into account differences in our mindset as we go through the ecommerce journey- and not just suggest that “eyeliner + Cheez-Its = the perfect assortment”.

Just Wasting My Time

20 Dec

The other day we requested an Uber and the wait time said 7 minutes. “7 minutes!,” we exclaimed with profound exasperation. “Why is it so far away?!”

A few years ago, that 7 minute wait would have been a godsend. The San Francisco cab scene was tough when I first moved here. It was hard to hail them on the street, so I’d have to call a cab company directly and usually was given a wait time of ~30 minutes. An actual wait of 30 minutes meant you were lucky: sometimes they never showed up at all. I don’t really know why it was so terrible, because I didn’t have that many cab challenges back when I lived in Chicago. Still, it’s no wonder San Franciscans have so happily adapted the on-demand ride apps.

The thing is, now that we’re so thoroughly trained to expect “on-demand” service, our sense of time has shifted. We increasingly can order more instant goods and services, from manicures to groceries to package pick-up. It’s nice for so many reasons, but it’s also warping our sense of time. A 7-minute lull feels like a travesty, and injustice to our oh-so-busy and important lives.

We’ve being trained to think that every second needs to be used productively, and every action needs to be done efficiently. We feel like we’re “wasting” time when we can’t do anything with a particular sliver of moments. Think about how often you whip out your phone to “fill lulls” when you’re waiting or “not doing anything.” How often do you just stand still and WAIT for whatever it is that you need to happen- whether that’s waiting in line at the pharmacy or taking a 30-minute bus ride across town?

I’ve noticed myself much more sucked into my phone in the past year, and I am trying to stem it. I catch myself opening the Facebook app more often, reading my emails, checking the news. I’m trying to curb that, trying to curb the temptation to always be holding my phone, and always doing something.

For me, at least, I can’t blame it all on tech. I’m the queen of wanting to cram a lot into my days. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to do something, all the time. I brought books for every car ride my family took, even if it was a 10-minute ride to a restaurant nearby. Being absorbed in those books meant I wasn’t absorbed in the world around me- and I don’t think mental absence via reading is really that much better than mental absence via phone Facebooking, in the end.

I’m trying to resist the urge to cram every minute of my day with “something.” Not every moment needs to be productive, or fruitful, or “used.” In 2016 I’m challenging myself to put the phone back down, my eyes back up.

Meet Me At The Fair

2 Nov

What do sewing machines, electrical outlets, and elevators have in common?  They were all introduced to the public for the first time at a Universal Exposition, more commonly known as a World’s Fair. As I’ve written before, World’s Fairs used to be the go-to place to pioneer inventions and ideas. Sure, Fairs had rides and shows and concession stands. But visitors also expected to see inventions and get a preview of what companies were going to sell next. This was the public’s best chance to learn what was happening all over the world, to get excited about the future, and to feel engaged in the global experience.

While in college I stumbled upon a collection of diaries and newspaper articles written by people who attended the grand World’s Fairs of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. I got sucked into these travelers’ journeys, intrigued by what it must have been like to wander the fairgrounds. The combination of discovery, amazement and, often, disappointment, was fascinating. World’s Fairs inspired these travelers to think about their own place in society, analyze their homeland’s reputation, and predict how things were going to change next. Everything from their interactions with people from another country to their explorations through corporate-sponsored exhibits made an impression, and shaped their point of view.

Recently I read a letter written by Isaac Asimov about his visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. As a biochemist and author, Isaac was certainly qualified to analyze the technology he saw on display. But rather than simply talking about what he saw, he predicted what people would see at a similar Fair in 2014.  His letter starts by talking about an attraction sponsored by General Electric at the ’64 Fair: the precursor to Disney World’s Carousel of Progress ride. The Carousel of Progress is comprised of four rooms, each set in a different time period to show the evolution of American life and technology over time. The final room is set in the future, as a statement on what may come. With the Carousel as inspiration, Asimov dug into his predictions.

Some of his predictions are about technology: appliances without electrical cords, better robots, moving sidewalks that crisscross entire cities. Others are about food: the rise of non-meat proteins and algae as alternative food sources. He talks about how the population of the world will grow so big, cities will have to move structures and people underground to make space. That ceilings and walls will use electroluminescent panels. That we’ll have contactless, airjet travel instead of ground transport.

A few of his predictions have rung true – we do have 3D TVs and video-conferencing technology, and soy protein sure is on the rise. The most interesting prediction, though, is his expectation that we’d be bored. Asimov assumed that the world would be so automated, so machine-dependent, that humans would essentially have nothing to do. In his words: “the lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.” This hasn’t come true – but it’s certainly a big scare of our generation. We see article after article telling high school students what major to choose so their skills don’t become “obsolete.” We see warnings to find a job that can’t be automated. We hear about layoffs due to better technology. Of course, the concern today is unemployment and lack of income, not boredom.

There’s actually a World’s Fair next year – yes, they still happen. Expo 2015 is going to take place in Milan, with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Given the theme, I don’t think there will be too many of the inventions Asimov predicted to see in 2014. But I’d love to see someone take his letter to the Expo and compare it to the technology on display. Or better yet – why don’t I do it myself? Anyone want to buy me a ticket to Italy?

In 2008, I went to an International Exposition in Zaragoza, Spain. International Expos are smaller and shorter than Universal Expos like the one in ’64 and the upcoming Milan 2015. Zaragoza’s theme was “Water and Sustainable Development,” so a lot of the exhibits focused on water in one way or another. Here’s some shots to show you how that plays out.

Traces of History

30 Mar
A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas' Ransom Center

A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center

Last weekend I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I only knew it was a Gutenberg Bible because a placard told me so. Otherwise, it bore no signal of its importance. Just looking at its pages gave me no sign that it was one of the first substantial books ever printed with moveable type.

Last weekend I also saw what’s called the “first photograph.” It was barely visible, the actual image faded since its production over 180 years ago. I only knew it was the so-called first photograph because it was in a special exhibit with information cards that told me all about it. Otherwise, it just looked like a reflective surface in a decorative frame.

Sometimes, historical things just look like things. To the naked eye, neither of these objects looked particularly important. Sure, they looked old. But there are lots of old things out there, and only some are bestowed with a particularly significant meaning. For all the old books out there, a very small fraction are protected by layers of glass and temperature-controlled technology. To really appreciate these sorts of objects, you have to think about what they mean, not just what they look like. We’re quite used to books and photographs in today’s world, so why should an old book or photo catch our eye?

With all the books around us today, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, the Gutenberg Bible was proof of astounding innovation. Moveable type, and the inventions that followed, made it possible for more people to have more books. It improved literacy, and changed the future of education. It changed how stories were passed down between generations.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

Looking at the Gutenberg Bible, it sure didn’t look like much. But when you take a couple of steps back in your head, and think about what that book means  – it’s hard to not feel a sense of awe. That book represents so many changes to society, and so much wonder. The mere fact that the book was printed so long ago in 1454 or 1455 makes it pretty impressive. Then add on the layer that it took 3-5 years to print this single copy. Then the fact that there’s only 21 complete copies around today. Suddenly the book feels much more meaningful. Then take another few steps back, and reflect on how much this book changed society, forever. And suddenly, that weathered, leather-bound book in front of you shouts “revolution!” from its pages.

In 500 years, maybe someone will stand in front of a glass-protected copy of one of the first things produced by a 3D printer. And perhaps there will be placards explaining how the 3D printer worked, and why it changed society. Maybe there will be stories about 3D printers bringing clothes and food and medicine to the masses, improving health and nutrition all over the world. And a 20-something girl will find herself staring at the printer, wondering what it must have been like to live in an age where the mere act of instantaneous object-printing was something to celebrate. And she’ll take a step back, reflect a bit, and think about the traces of history before her eyes.

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