This is a collection of short stories that examine our complicated relationship with technology.
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.
MOMENTS OF PAUSE
October 11, 2019
Every day, there are ~235 billion emails sent and received. The average office worker receives 121 emails a day.
How many emails do you receive per day?
We are living in a time of gluttonous, accelerated, mass information.
What is truth? What is fiction?
In a published 2012 study, 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 right now?
How can we make healthy decisions when anxiety triggers are all around us?
I often hear the following statement from my fellow makers of tech.
“We have these compelling, short films that capture real life scenarios. These videos can empower better decision-making of how technology gets shaped. But when I send them over email or chat, no one watches them.”
“Even when I write in bold letters that THE VIDEO IS ONLY 1 MINUTE, they still don’t watch it.”
In an age where the rate of information outpaces and scares away our ability to comprehend, moments of pause are the only way forward.
And these moments of pause are especially critical if you are a decision maker for a tech product.
Show the video in a meeting, when they least expect it. On a big screen, with clear volume. Ask them to put their laptops and phones away.
Create moments of pause for the decision makers who need it the most.
Create moments of pause for yourself.
Set aside dedicated time to read email, so that you aren’t a slave to it all day long. Then right after you’ve read, set aside another dedicated amount of time and look away from the screen. Use this time to write down and reflect on the information you’re receiving, and what you plan to do with it.
We can’t wait for these moments of pause to come.
We have to design it.
IT IS WIDE AND IT IS DEEP
September 29, 2019
On December 14, 1988, the first fiber-optic internet cable to ever cross an ocean entered service.
It spanned a seabed distance of 5,846km (3632 mi) between North America and Europe, making way for internet connection across oceans.
When these cables were first laid on the ocean floor, 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.
Watch the video
Protective sheathing was quickly added, yet many sharks still attempt to bite down on the cables that exist today on their ocean floor.
Even with the best intentions and inventions, there are many unknown environmental effects that our work creates.
It’s hard to predict what those effects will be, but we can no longer afford to neglect this challenge.
It is wide and it is deep.
Recent dives to the Mariana Trench reveal that plastic bags are now inhabiting the deepest part of the Earth.
Despite these hard truths, what a time to be alive.
We get the opportunity to re-examine how our everyday work connects to this greater challenge.
“But I design for screens”
“I just write code”
“My task is to figure out what color this button is, not save the ocean”
“I manage people, not the planet”
“But we gotta prioritize the ‘low hanging fruit’
Remember the shark story.
Our work has an effect on the environment in some way, it just may not be immediately known to you right now.
Examine the ‘user problem’ through the lens of climate change.
What happens with the experience beyond the screen?
Ask your leaders to get curious, too.
How is your organization’s culture and process reacting to climate change?
Be more intentional when you travel, especially by airplane*.
* Note to self
And if you feel afraid or uncertain about taking these actions, know that you are not alone.
Torino, Italy. Posted by Greta Thunberg
Montreal, Quebec. Posted by Greta Thunberg
New York City. Posted by Greta Thunberg
“As the oceans rise, so will we.”
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, IN TURN, PLAY US
August 30, 2019
World of Warcraft.
This bewitching video game made a return this week, in its classic, original glory, first launched in 2004.
The demand to play this game has far outpaced its server capacity, leaving many players waiting hours to enter.
But time be damned, their patience endures for the classic version of this game.
My partner plays it.
My sister plays it.
My friends play it.
My friends’ friends play it.
My friends’ ex plays it.
My colleagues play it.
Even if you don’t play it, it feels like you do, because this game has a clever way of shaping the routines, environments, and relationships of those around you.
Over the years, I’ve heard many conflicting stories about World of Warcraft’s bewitching effect. People finding love, people losing love. People finding jobs, people losing jobs. People finding new communities, or reuniting with old communities.
When it’s classic form launched this week, the number of simultaneous viewers peaked at over 1.1 million, far more than the game’s current format, where simultaneous viewership recently averaged at ~50,000.
Whether this game excites you or triggers you, World of Warcraft is a phenomenon worth noticing. It demonstrates real evidence that technology is more than just ‘a tool’; that nostalgia is more than just ‘a feeling’.
And if we continue to define technology and nostalgia in these limited terms, we will continue to overlook the powerful capabilities that these forces have on our relationships, our economies, our environment, our decisions, our lives.
So, here’s a new definition.
“Technology is a set of tools and techniques for shaping reality, which in turn, shapes us.”
- Jonathan Harris, Artist & Computer Scientist
Perhaps it’s time to pay closer attention to how the games we play, in turn, play us.
Here is a collection of real stories that were shared to me after I published this story.
August 31, 2019
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.
TURNED OFF, TUNED IN.
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 with the purpose of playing 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 locally weird 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 choice of words. There we were, sitting in a room with no connection to the internet–yet because of this–we were experiencing a deeper connection to Ocean Shores.
When we travel, we now see our trips through the lens of cameras and filters, likes and comments. What if we turned it all off and tuned in with the surrounding environment? What would we see?
What would we hear?
WHEN WE PROCESS, WE FEEL. AND WHEN WE FEEL, WE ACT.
August 5, 2019