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January 27, 2020

I looked outside the ferry window.

A small girl walked slowly to the edge of the ferry.

She began to spread her arms–like the wings of a sparrow, small but mighty. Her curly hair flailed with forcible freedom.

She was catching the wind.

Her mother stood near her. She reached her hand inside her puffy coat pocket and pulled out her phone. She tilted the phone horizontally, faced it towards her daughter, and began to take a picture.

The girl stood still for a brief second, then twirled around to face the water. She did not care to pose for the picture. Only the wind.

The mother laughed. She tucked her phone back inside her puffy coat pocket.

Then, the mother stepped to the edge of the ferry, faced the water, and spread out her arms.

All we have is now.

January 19, 2020 

I went to the eye doctor.

The doctor conducted the usual eye exam. A series of choices were projected in front of my eyes.

“Number one?”
“Or number two?”

The visit with the doctor lasted 8 minutes.

Then, it was time to select a new pair of glasses. An optician came forward and offered to help.

The visit with the optician lasted 48 minutes.

I looked at the optician’s name tag. His name was Sean.

Sean looked down at the computer screen with his eyes peered over his glasses. He began to type on his keyboard, entering information into a series of long forms, teeny-tiny drop-down arrows, and endless scrolls. He withdrew a heavy sigh.

“This software is a bit slow to get through. I apologize for the wait.”

I said it was no problem. He gave a look of surprise, almost as if I was the first customer to ever practice patience. Then, he continued to share more.

“You know what, despite how slow this is, our greatest fear is getting a new software update.”

“Your greatest fear?” I asked, with fierce curiosity.

“Oh yeah. A new software update causes a huge disruption for all of us. It takes months to get things back on track, and if we don’t adapt fast enough, it can affect our paycheck.”

He waved his hand in the air, aghast by the turbulent memories of past software updates.

In 2019, Oxford Economics reported that each industrial robot is on average replacing 1.6 human workers around the world, projecting that the number of displaced workers could reach tens of millions in the coming decade. And in 2018, the total sales of medical robots increased by 48%, compared to the year before.

In the United States, workers who become laid-off due to automation typically see a permanent 17–30% reduction in wages when they return to the workforce.

I looked back at Sean, conflicted by the choice of two emotions.

I wanted the time to complete this task to go by faster.

But I didn’t want Sean to lose his job.

But I wanted the time to go by faster.

But I didn’t want Sean to lose his job.

December 29, 2019 

I worked at my first job when I was 16.

It was a weird job.

It was 2005. I worked at a store called Babies-R-Us, and sold breast pumps to mothers. I had never used a breast pump before, but I was a great salesperson.

Portable technology. Improved comfort. A strong grip.

The store was located at a shopping mall in the state of Ohio. This mall opened in the late 1980s as the second-largest mall in the state.

In the 1970s-80s, on average, a new mall opened in the United States every three days. But in 2005, as I worked at this mall for over two years, I started noticing fewer people coming to the store.

And as the customers decreased, so did my paycheck.

In 2010, there were 35 million visits to American malls. By 2013, there were 17 million visits – a 50% decline in three years.

The mall that I worked at in Ohio is now mostly abandoned.

Except for the parking lot.

Cincinnati Mills Mall, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Further Reading: Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall by Amanda Hess for The New York Times.

October 11, 2019

I looked down at my phone, checking to see if someone had messaged me.

No messages.

I put my phone away in my pocket.

Then, 3 minutes later, I felt a buzz vibrating from my pocket. I pulled out my phone, checking to see if someone had messaged me.

Still, no messages.

What is going on? Am I missing the message by accident? Is my phone not working as intended?

In a published 2012 study from Indiana University, researchers found that 89% of the 290 undergraduates surveyed reported feeling ‘phantom vibrations’ in their bodies. Phantom vibrations are the physical sensation that your phone is vibrating, even when it isn’t.

Do you feel one?

Or it just me?

September 29, 2019

The shark gracefully floated through the water in a straight line. It’s gaze drawn to a sharp focus, looking onward at the vast, gritty seabed.

Then, the shark voraciously opened its mouth and took a bite.

This was not food.

On December 14, 1988, the first fiber-optic telecommunications cable entered service on the bottom of the ocean floor.

It spanned a seabed distance of 5,846 kilometers, between North America and Europe, making way for phone and internet connection across oceans. The cable held the capacity of 40,000 telephone circuits, all fit inside of a space described as ‘thinner than a child’s wrist.’ Today, over 95% of all telecommunications traffic that anyone receives from overseas arrives through the cables on the bottom of the ocean floor.

But when the trial cables were first installed, an unexpected event occurred.

The high voltage of electrical currents running through the cables triggered a feeding reflex among sharks, resulting in a number of severed cables and electrocuted sharks. Protective sheathing was quickly added, yet the reliability of the new shield was never fully evaluated, and many sharks still attempt to bite down on the cables that exist today.

It’s a testament to the most forgotten law of physics, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I, too, was not aware of this occurrence in 1988.

I wasn’t born yet.

Watch the video

September 20, 2019

Lagos, Nigeria

I like to photograph people.

The camera allows me to capture the subtle–yet significant–details of how we’re evolving as human beings.

As I look through my collection of photos taken over the last 3 years, I can’t help but notice a strong, emerging pattern.

Jaipur, India

London, UK

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Hong Kong

Jakarta, Indonesia

Reykjavik, Iceland

Hawai’i, United States

Emerging patterns reveal emerging truths.

The most intimate and complicated relationship that we hold is not with our romantic partners.

It’s not with our friends, families, pets, or even with ourselves.

It’s now with our phones.

And the impact of this relationship is just getting started.

As of 2019, 62% of the world’s population owns a mobile device, with 5.1 billion unique mobile subscribers.

Imagine how different the world will be when that number reaches closer to 100.

The following internet services didn’t even exist 10 years ago.

Whats App*
Google Drive
Google Calendar*
Facebook Messenger

*Founded in 2009.

When you started using these services, how did the relationship with your phone change?

Take a look at the phone you’re holding right now.

How do your hands feel? How do your eyes feel?

How does it enrich your life?

Does it ever drain you?

Do you set boundaries?

Are you handling this relationship with care?

September 13, 2019

Jakarta, Indonesia

Do you remember learning the scientific method in school?

In tech, this method of experimentation is a highly popular way to learn and test ideas.

But this method is not the only way to learn.

We also learn by what we see, hear, feel, remember, and experience. And this type of immersive learning can lead to breakthroughs.

Throughout my time as a designer at Google Maps, the team and I have travelled across the world. Through these travels, we set out to learn by listening, immersing, and feeling the environment around us.

A few years ago, quantitative data informed us of how popular motorbikes were becoming across the world. Motorbikes are a great way to get around in cities where the traffic is incredibly dense. In India alone, motorbikes make up 70% of all vehicles registered by its 1.3 billion residents.

But in 2017, it was our immersive research that made it clear that motorbikes weren’t just a popular mode of transport. They were a way of life.

Jaipur, India

There was just one problem: Google Maps was designed for cars.

But before we could even begin thinking about a redesign, we had to unite six teams together–across time and space–towards a shared understanding of the problem.

Teams that drove cars. Teams that had never travelled to cities where the traffic was impenetrable.

So, we decided to immerse.

We travelled together, not just as a cross-disciplined team, but as a united group of researchers. We listened, we connected, we rode around on motorbikes for hours, getting lost along the way.

And for team members who could not travel with us, we captured photographs, videos, sounds. We even created a VR experience in the office to help people see, hear, and feel.

We kept the data raw. We kept the data real.

As one engineer so eloquently said, “You are more motivated to solve the problems that you can see, hear, and feel.”

Empathy is not a concept.
Empathy is not a framework.
Empathy is not a feeling.

It’s a practice.

And through this practice, we were able to unite teams together and properly secure the resources needed to build motorbike mode into Google Maps.

Since motorbike mode launched about a year and a half ago, it’s daily usage has grown from one million to five million daily riders. It’s now launched across 40 countries.

Now–more than ever–is the time to invest, sustain, and support immersive learning.

Let it light the way.
Let it navigate us out of the bubbles that no longer serve us.
Let it reconnect us to one another.

September 6, 2019

I don’t live near my family, which is hard sometimes.

But I do have the privilege of working and teaching with people from all over the world. Because I travel often, my life partner and I have been in a somewhat-on-going-long-distance relationship since 2007, when I first left for university.

My life is often surrounded by vast, physical distance between me and the people closest to me. And yes, the internet is a direct reason for why this physical distance exists.

But everyday, I’m amazed by the unique power of the internet and its ability to cut through the constraints that it creates.

When we video chat, we are entering back into each other’s daily reality, despite the physical distance between us.

I can see my sister’s cat walking into the camera. I can feel the motion of my dad’s laughter by the way the camera shakes.

When the camera flips, I can look down at the crib, smile, and talk to my newborn niece, Eloise.

When we’re on opposite sides of the world, I can witness real evidence of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, reminding me that despite the distance, we’re still moving together on the same planet.

These moments are so real and delicate that having a poor connection hits your emotions deeply, directly reminding you that the constraints of physical distance are real.

But when the connection works, these are the spaces of the internet where reality is, indeed, being augmented.

Video chat bridges that gap of physical distance, giving us the freedom to see, hear, and feel the daily life of each other, in real time.

But what if I couldn’t see the shaky motion of my dad’s laughter, or hear Eloise talking to me in her crib? How can we make these spaces of the internet more accessible for all types of humans? What are the parts of reality that are missing from this experience?

For when we come face-to-face with our own beliefs and biases of what reality is, we will find new ways to cut through the constraints of it.

If you have a story or screenshot to share, send it my way.

Also, some of the students I’ve taught have also created presentations and research on the power of video chat, and for that, I am most grateful.

August 30, 2019

My partner plays it.
My sister plays it.
My friends play it.
My friends’ friends play it.
My friends’ ex plays it.
My boss plays it.

In August 2019, World of Warcraft returned in its classic form, first launched in 2004. When it made it’s classic return, the number of simultaneous viewers peaked at over 1.1 million. The demand to play far outpaced its server capacity, leaving many players waiting hours to enter.

I don’t play it.

But it feels like I do. This game has a clever way of shaping the routines, environments, and relationships of those around me.

“My ex-wife left me for a guy she met on WoW. It does have an effect on people for sure.”

“My aunt got deeeeeep in it for a long time. Totally fucked with her sleep. She also had an identity crisis because she was gaming with teenage boys and they had no idea that she was a 50-something year old woman. She now keeps a timer and sticks to it.”

“This game gives me a chance to hang out with some friends, which I don’t get to see like ever, in a virtual world. Yeah we play games, type in Discord, and sometimes voice chat. But when we’re fucking around in WoW, it’s different.”

“It is more than just a game, damn it. I met Lucas through this game. And Miguel.”

“My ex-boyfriend, whom I lived with for four years, played it nonstop–and smoked about 40 cigarettes a day while doing it. In our 50 square meters apartment. Because I moved into his flat, the 20-year-old insecure me thought it would be too much if I asked him to cut back on either one of those two things. Oh gosh.”

The more I received these anecdotes, the more I felt puzzled. 

Is this a game we play, or does the game play us?



August 5, 2019

This morning, a friend told me a story.

He was at a restaurant and saw a man sitting at a table, disheartened by recent news of a mass shooting in the United States.

The man initiated a conversation about it, as a way to process the event.

“I can’t believe what happened in El Paso, Texas. This is difficult to grasp.”

My friend took a heavy breath. He couldn’t find the words to tell the man that a second mass shooting had just occurred in Dayton, Ohio.

The man didn’t know about it yet.

He was reading from a printed newspaper.

© Lauren Celenza, All Rights Reserved