This is a collection of short stories that examine the complicated relationship between technology and humanity.
March 4, 2020
My bags are packed.
I zip up each corner of my scratched luggage. Everything is intact.
I am ready to go to the airport for a two-week business trip to Israel and Egypt. I am on my way to Tel Aviv, to give a presentation to the local tech community. Next, I am going to Cairo for research. I feel gratitude for these opportunities.
But something doesn’t feel right.
I check my email.
The Cairo part of the trip is canceled.
Then, I check the news.
Over twenty coronavirus outbreaks are officially confirmed in the state of Washington, where I live. Two deaths are reported.
My heart sinks. My mind spirals.
Should I still travel to Tel Aviv?
I have 20 minutes to make a decision.
Then, as if it is fate, my phone begins to buzz.
I see three simultaneous messages, across three cities–Seattle, London, and Bangalore. While each buzz comes from different cities around the world, the message is the same.
“Are you still planning to travel?”
I now have 10 minutes to make a decision.
As my mind oscillates back-and-forth, it feels as if I am swimming against a strong current.
My thoughts are trained to swim with the currents of short-term thinking. But this decision requires long-term thinking. This isn’t about what the virus outbreak looks like today, it’s about what the virus outbreak will look like five days from now.
My thoughts are also trained to swim with the currents of individualism. But this a collective decision, not an individual one. What if I am unknowingly carrying a strain of the virus? If I travel, what if it affects other countries?
Time is up. I must make a decision now.
I’m not traveling.
As of March 9, 2020, there are over 113,700 confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world. 4,004 people have died, with 162 confirmed cases and 23 deaths in the state of Washington, where I live. Two deaths occurred before it was even known that the virus had spread in this state.
It’s a sober reminder, perhaps a recalibration, to take more thoughtful care of our everyday, collective health.
Thank you to the Tel Aviv tech community. They graciously allowed me to video chat into the event, where I told a story about listening, feeling, and uniting together when creating technology.
And in the end, sometimes the act of uniting together manifests as a personal sacrifice for the collective good.
Tel Aviv & Cairo, I hope we can meet again.
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.
HIS NAME IS SEAN
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.
“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.
A STRONG GRIP
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.
OF THAT WHICH WE CANNOT SEE
October 18, 2019
Deep Sky Star. July 20, 2019. 1:30am.
It was midnight.
I was sitting outside, in the middle of the Cascade Mountain Range in the Pacific Northwest.
I couldn’t see much, but I could feel the wind gently moving across the left side of my face.
I looked up at the sky, noticing the many stars above me.
I looked to my right, noticing a few friends sitting nearby, examining one of the most sage tools of our time.
They were looking through a Celestron Nexstar 6SE, a style of telescope with a long focal length that enables narrow-field deep sky viewing.
The design of this telescope is compact, making it quite portable, especially given the power of its aperture. It harvests light, and then focuses that light onto a camera sensor, making way for astrophotography.
The Moon. June 12, 2019, 11pm.
Jupiter and its Moons. June 15, 2019, Midnight. Jupiter is 11 times the size of Earth.
The telescope isn’t just a tool, it’s a process.
A process of searching.
A process of precision.
A process of shifting our attention to that which we cannot normally see.
Our attention is often focused on that which we can see, which
obscures the hidden truths of a situation. When we fixate on results, we neglect the process that creates the results.
And while the results of these photos are compelling, witnessing these details first-hand, through a telescope, is an experience that stands on its own.
For there is a profound difference between witnessing the evidence and analyzing it.
Let this truth enhance your own creative process.
Immerse in field research.
Go outside to places and events that you’ve never been before.
Seek out and meet with local communities.
Have real conversations, not just interviews.
For when we witness the real evidence, we come face-to-face with the details that are often obscured to us.
These are the kind of details that remind us of what really matters.
October 11, 2019
I looked down at my phone, checking to see if someone had messaged me.
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?
ON THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN FLOOR
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
OUR MOST INTIMATE, COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP
September 20, 2019
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.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
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.
*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?
LISTEN, FEEL, UNITE
September 13, 2019
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.
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 riders. It’s now launched across 16 countries across the world.
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.
FACING REALITY FOR WHAT IT IS
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.
And when I can’t always be there to celebrate, I can feel the joy and energy of a community in Nigeria coming together, adding new businesses and streets on the map for the first time.
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.
THE GAMES WE PLAY
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?
THE SYSTEMS THAT SUSTAIN
August 22, 2019
Last week, I came back to Kaua’i, a five million year old island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Kaua’i recently endured a spout of heavy flooding, but it remains resilient when things go wrong.
While visiting Kaua’i, I walked up to a local restaurant to order food. As I waited in line, the mood of the staff quickly turned from chill to panic.
The credit card machine stopped working.
The staff rushed into a series of procedures. Phone calls were made, the machine was reset, and an ATM was sitting right beside the cashier. It was clear that this was a common occurrence, yet a dangerous one, especially for a business operating in a predominantly cashless world.
“Welcome. Sorry. Cash only.”
“But we’ve got an ATM right here for you.”
The staff expressed their expertise as UX designers and engineers, finding their own solutions to the problem.
In the tech industry, new features and added content are lavishly celebrated, as a way to spark rejuvenation and growth for a brand and its shareholders.
Yet, no new feature can replace the need for reliable, resilient systems. The systems that acknowledge our situation, the systems that adapt with us, especially when things go wrong.
These are the systems that will sustain for years to come.
August 10, 2019
“I’m having trouble connecting with the internet. Take a look at the help section in your Alexa app.”
This was how the weekend began. I went on a trip with friends from the city of Seattle to the small town of Ocean Shores–a rural part of Washington state, where the internet costs $150/month, and the cell signal crawls up to one, maybe two, bars.
We had brought a cute, portable Amazon Echo device on this trip to play music, but we didn’t have access to the internet. Alexa continued to alarm us, but not help us.
“I’m having trouble connecting with the internet. Take a look at the help section in your Alexa app.”
In the midst of our breakup with Alexa, we looked over and saw an old Denon radio, sitting lonely on a bookshelf, likely made before we were born.
We turned it on.
Heavy metal. Sports. Christian music. Polka? This was the local soundscape of Ocean Shores–an amusing, discorded cacophony, that strangely brought us back to the present moment of where we were.
“Alright everyone, thanks for listening, and with that, I’m out like a belly button.” Even the DJ had his own local quirks.
After listening for about 10 minutes or so, my friend laughed and remarked, “I like this connection we’re getting with Ocean Shores.”
Connection. What an interesting word.
I had forgotten that we had no connection to the internet.
THE MAN WHO DIDN’T KNOW
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