Greetings from my new stoop. Fall hasn’t officially begun, but it feels a lot like the end of summer. Cooler weather, a return to regular work hours, evening showers, and finally! – an excuse to hole myself indoors.
It’s been a busy summer between surfing in the Rockaways, upstate hikes, and eating drunk noodles at 2 am. My liver might have aged a few years, but I am reminded of the blessing it is to be young and alive and eat/drink/dance ’til the sun goes down.
I am also really freaking exhausted.
Last month, I moved into a 1 bedroom in the East Village which is the first time I’ve lived alone since…well, ever. It has been an empowering, frightening, dare I say life-transforming experience. I’ve had roommates since college. In NYC, it’s been 6 apartments across 6 different neighborhoods over the last 6 years. I’ve shared space with 13 wonderfully unique characters, many of whom I still count as dear friends. There are unforgettable stories: the roommate who accused me of using her precious Kiehl’s shampoo without her permission, passive-aggressive exchanges with sleep-talking roommates, a post-modern Chelsea loft straight out of an IKEA catalog (cool in theory, but a bit too close for comfort between sliding glass doors). One of these days, I will write a book about that special time in my life.
Living alone is a paradigm shift. My decision was both pragmatic and misanthropic. I’m starting a yoga teacher training program later this month and want the space to stretch out in the middle of my living room for extended periods of time without feeling like a parasitic sloth taking up others’ shared space. Plus, after 6 years, I can afford it! (You know you’ve made it in New York when you can live in a box of your own…)
But the bigger reason is to remove the distractions that come from constantly being surrounded by people. Call it stubborn individualism, getting old, or just a need to repair years of catering to others’ whims and desires. Whatever it is, it’s something that I can only sort out in a space of my own. I can’t pour from an empty cup and lately, it’s been running a bit dry.
I often fantasize about going to India and meditating on the top of a mountain in serenity. I tell myself I’d be a little Buddha – brilliant, kind and utterly loving – because there would be no struggle or glimmer of discontent. I’d be contained from the highs and lows of this world, unphased by its demands and steady in my gait.
The present-day version is me sitting in my lovely, cheap NYC apartment with no Friday night plans, no people, just books (and maybe a good Netflix show or podcast). Self-confidence, health, happiness, the equanimity of the Buddha: all could be mine. And yet 30 days into this new life, that scene is so far from my reality. I even tried a social media sabbatical in August to cultivate a more intentional approach to presence and the way I spend my time. Rationale >>
- Eliminating Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter would surely bring less distraction and more focus to the things that really matter.
- Reality: I just went out and drank more.
- Instead of perusing filtered images and carefully pruned status updates/tweets, I’d read and write more quality literature.
- Reality: I have yet to finish any book, and this blog post is the sole thing I’ve written.
- I have more time to buy groceries and cook, so I would never be tempted to hang with other dilettantes in the heart of the East Village, a mecca of bars & restaurants.
- Reality: Of course not.
All this reminds me of a passage from writer Sheila Heti:
Why do we go out? Because if what we want more than anything is to attain self-confidence, health, energy, and peace of mind, we should stay in.
I’m always super-aware of how whenever I go out into the world, or whenever I get involved in a relationship, my idea of who I think I am utterly collides with the reality of who I actually am. And I continue to go out even though who I am always comes up short. I always prove myself to be less generous, less charming, less considerate, not as bold or energetic or intelligent or courageous as I imagined in my solitude. And I’m always being insulted, or snubbed, or disappointed.
And yet, in some way, maybe this is better. Each of us could suffer the pangs of withdrawal from other people and gain the serenity of the non-smoker. We could be demi-gods in our little castles, all alone, but perhaps, deep down, none of us really wants that. Maybe the only cure for self-confidence and courage is humility. Maybe we go out in order to fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to be people.
For those of us who search so fervently for our calling, perhaps this is it: to be in this world, to be immersed in others’ lives – engaged, overzealous, and exposed to all its flaws – that is, to be people. Tempting it may be to hide under the covers, I’m realizing that the isolation I crave is merely an illusory antidote, for the instant I step back into the world and encounter a single person, the chaos of life will flood back, along with all its self-doubt, anxiety and fear. A beautiful mess that I better learn to love.
I’m excited for this new season, not so I can hole myself in my apartment for a never-ending book party, but so I can address all these inhibitions head on, alone or in community. I can lie in my living room in shivasana as long as I want. Or I can go out, dance, say embarrassing shit, and move on. The choice is mine to make – until it isn’t – so carpe diem.
The social media echo chamber is reverberating with astonishment at how a nation of free, seemingly well-meaning people could vote someone like Donald Trump into office.
What happened on November 8 is one thing. More concerning is how we missed all the signals leading up to it: a preponderance of fake pro-Trump anti-Clinton stories, a 300K subscriber-strong The_Donald sub-reddit, and a major voter suppression digital campaign. These are just a few ways that a rabid but dedicated online army of Trump supporters slid right under our smug noses:
From the earliest days of his campaign, Donald Trump has been buoyed by a contingent of 4chan devotees who pass around memes, swastikas and campaign slogans with the same winking irreverence. Their pursuit of lulz is explicit: They trend hashtags like #Repealthe19th and #DraftOurDaughters to “trigger” feminists; they juxtapose Stars of David with pictures of Clinton to — in the word’s of one troll’s Twitter bio — “offend you if you are Liberal, Politically Correct, Feminist, Democrat or Piers Morgan.”
– Washington Post, “The only winners in this election are trolls”, 11/3/16
I remember dismissing these annoying memes as nothing more than perverse Internet antagonizers looking for a sick laugh. Also, most never even made it to my echo chamber because the majority of friends are Hillary supporters. Little did I know that a whole town of Macedonian teens had been quietly planting pro-Trump propaganda into the digital streams of millions of Americans, spreading misinformation and making digital gold. Meanwhile most of us continued to clap our hands at an all-but-assured Hillary victory. Pwned by the trolls, as they would say.
While we could decry this as a sign of the times, the echo chamber itself is not a novel concept. Clustering effects can be traced back to prehistoric days, when we stuck to our tribes and kept safe distance from opposing ones viewed as potential dangers. It’s not surprising that we’ve formed the modern equivalent with digital tribes: information silos where we avoid perspectives that fail to jive with our own, not because they are a threat to our existence, but because they’re uncomfortable or an inconvenience.
Instinctively, I think we know that reality does not mirror our online lives. We know that getting hundreds of likes on a post doesn’t mean a thing in the real world, that it merely reinforces our confirmation biases by validating our opinions and letting the algorithm know to prioritize similar updates so we can continue to be validated. And yet, eerily so, this is how we become an extension of the machine. With regular exposure, our view of the “human experience” can become distorted and ultimately, altered by these somewhat arbitrary measures of online engagement.
It happens each time we scroll through our Facebook feed and peek innocuously into the lives of our friends, many whom (if you’re like me) come from similarly elite insulated perches. Socially-correct commentary, snaps from the latest jet-setting adventure, and trendy NYC/BK/SF/LA updates become our frame of reference. Repeat this prescription 3x a day and gradually, it becomes easy to forget that most people don’t live our lives. That middle and working-class people don’t like the same things we do. That statements which seem so blatantly racist to us are simply a social norm for someone who lives in a small town with little exposure to anything multicultural beyond the Mexicans who do their jobs for half the pay. (This isn’t to excuse hate crimes or racist statements, but it is a call to understand why people say the things they say instead of instantly dismissing.)
In short, we’ve fallen victim to our own social utopia, becoming far too self-involved and boutique-y in our causes – – myself included.
Our information diet has literally changed the kind of people we are and how we relate to each other. We’re more connected than ever at a superficial level, but out of touch with the broader world. I’d like to believe that media is better than this. At its best, media should encourage us to question, seek truth and think deeply about the beam of our shared plight, instead of reinforcing the same arguments with the same people who will vigorously raise the same concerns that we all nod our heads to. Ay! (See SNL’s Bubble sketch for a humorous, albeit sad but true, reenactment.)
So, how can we be more intentional media consumers and civic citizens? Several ideas come to mind. They are simultaneously complex and primitive. Most are a variation on the “being human” theme, and therein may lie the biggest challenge. I’ve culled them from various online sources – Medium, WaPo, NYT, and yes Facebook – ironically, the outlets most accused of being entrenched in the echo chamber. I share anyway because I believe this is a unique opportunity for me and my fellow liberal upper-class college-educated friends to reach across the aisle, cooperate, and do some good. (Note: I call out this group specifically, only because I do believe our education and privilege makes us well-positioned to wake up and step out of our cocoons more than other groups who face systemic disadvantages or have been marginalized.)
– Educate/Advocate: For those with the privilege and education, in all its varied forms, let’s bolster those who don’t have the same advantages. That starts with getting informed on the topics. Here is a list of resources with a handy script on some of the issues that will certainly come under fire under President-elect Trump (immigration, criminal justice, climate change etc). Just this morning, I found this Call to Action site that easily helps you find your Congressional representative and call him/her with a single tap.
– Listen: What we lack in material needs is surpassed only by our dearth of empathy. Expand beyond your usual circle and listen with an awareness of the vast range of opinions that a democracy both allows and depends on.
– Create Community: Legendary feminist and academic Angela Davis says,
“How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer.”
Create groups to air grievances, then collectively take action. It doesn’t have to be a march or protest. I’ve come across everything from issue research groups to fundraising groups to call centers. Set up booths and small speaking panels. It can also be as simple (and fun!) as inviting friends over for dinner to create a space to talk and being intentional about seeing people in the flesh.
– Innovate: If you’re a coder or designer, build tools to encourage empathy and consensus. We talk a lot about innovation through the lens of the latest startups and STEM education, but another question to consider is how we are innovating to bridge the divide with displaced workers. This is a large contingent that voted for Trump (those who lost their jobs in manufacturing, auto plants, or steel mills). And with the oncoming tide of artificial intelligence , more jobs are at risk of being swept away. Let’s think about the role of labor and how technology can enhance rather than displace their lives.
– Thoughtfully Curate: Here’s something easy for the plugged-in digiphiles. We’re blessed with a panoply of media sources, so there’s no excuse to be passive consumers. Let’s be intentional about what we read and share. At the moment, we don’t know what the algorithms will serve so we must rely on our own flawed yet human minds to curate smart and well-researched pieces . Run up the clicks and views of the best of journalism. Follow smart people on Twitter or Facebook with whom you disagree. (Nick Kristof shared a list of conservative accounts who I’m now following.) Support journalism and pay for a subscription to a news source that you like.
– Lastly, get up and get out: Talking to our perfectly coifed online selves is not where hearts will be won. Resist dwelling in an echo chamber and have those hard conversations in the public square.
Personally, I am making a commitment to write more and proactively talk to people outside my social circle more often. Details on a writing project, centered in conversation, to come.
In some ways, I am hesitant to act. I see a wave of grassroots activism on Facebook and am tempted to believe that others have been sufficiently stirred. Why must I add to the pot? I’m not a political activist and would much rather continue posting perfectly pruned statements from my cocoon. But the reality is that close to half of our nation voted for a shouting orange-haired bully who is proposing to build a wall and create a Muslim registry. Call them silly ideas, but isn’t that we said about people taking ridiculous memes and fake news seriously? About fascist dictators sending people to concentration camps? About a Trump presidency?
Perhaps I am overreacting with hyper-paranoia. But the future dystopia that we predicted would never happen is now our very present reality. If you take anything away from this, please sincerely and earnestly engage with people you don’t understand on a heart-to-heart level. I’m not asking for a fight, just for you to fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. Collectively, that will remind us of who we all are, fundamentally, as humans.
You can wait for others to lead, or you can create your own power.
In late November, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a week-long mission trip to Mumbai.
The trip was part of Redeemer Presbyterian’s short-term missions program, which coordinates dozens of trips each year to assist and serve international nonprofits and NGOs in various capacities. Thanks to the generous support of family and friends who contributed financially and prayerfully to the cause, I was able to embark on this eye-opening journey into the heart of India.
Words can never adequately describe the full experience, but I attempted to share some highlights and takeaways. The following is adapted from an email I sent to supporters shortly after the trip:
With open hearts and minds, the Mumbai mission team traveled into the heart of India for Redeemer’s 4th mission trip centering on human and sex trafficking issues.
Our team of 13 doubled down on efforts to bring light to the victims of sex trafficking through spiritual, educational, and artistic activities. This was made possible thanks to a blossoming partnership with 2 partner organizations on the ground: International Justice Mission, and another organization (whose name must remain hidden for security purposes).
Our team split time between two locations: 3 days in Mumbai, and 4 days at a school/shelter in Badlapur (a small town about an hour outside of Mumbai).
Below is a day-by-day summary of how our time and dollars were spent.
Day 1: Context
We started our trip in the Red Light District of Kamathipura, Mumbai, arguably the world’s largest hub for sex trafficking (it is reported that 40% of the world’s human slaves live in India).
It’s an ironic truth that within the sprawling confines of Mumbai, there’s a booming industry – one that runs counter to the city’s moniker, “City of Dreams” – where thousands of women are stripped of their dreams through violence.
After worshipping at the Red Light District Church alongside women (some of whom still work in the brothels), we drove through the Red Light District’s noisy and winding roads. Though we were shielded from view in a car, the scene was a harrowing glimpse of the reality that some 300,000 women experience daily in Mumbai.
Women stood wistfully on the streets, platform-heeled & sari-bedazzled, while men casually eyed ‘goods for consumption’; it was an image reminiscent of a meat market. Grotesque as it was, what we saw doesn’t come close to capturing the full situation. All-told, the Red Light District houses more than 1000 brothels, with most hidden from sight within the District’s dark alleys.
Days 2 – 5: Badlapur
We traveled to the ATC Village*, a recently-built educational facility an hour outside of Mumbai, where approximately 40 rescued children of women in prostitution receive a free, high-quality education.
Here we spent the next 4 days leading Bible Study, financial literacy classes, arts and crafts activities, and homework help. Most of the girls’ mothers are still enslaved or undergoing HIV/AIDS treatment. Despite their lack of parental figures, they were eager to learn: many speak fluent English and have dreams to attend university, have a career, and become financially independent.
At one of the shelters we visited, rescued women underwent job training and learned to make beautiful handmade quilts, jewelry, and handbags, with the ultimate goal of creating their own businesses.
To top it off, our Events team “made it rain” with sprinkles and glitter at each of the three facilities (including a shelter home for rescued women and their children as well as a dedicated home for HIV positive children). Dressed to the tee in fedoras, glowsticks, and fancy shades, the girls (and boys!) had a blast posing at our instant Polaroid Photo Booth.
Days 6 and 7: Mumbai Slums
If the first part of our trip was “service”, then our last two days were serious “education”.
On the final leg, we returned to Mumbai and served food to the homeless at a food mobile truck. We also met with International Justice Mission (IJM) to learn more about their unique 4-prong strategy to protect the poor from violence.
Not only does IJM conduct raids to rescue victims from sex trafficking, they actively work to change the system through prosecution of the perpetrators, legal advocacy, and policy-making. As of December 2015, they’ve trained 10,000 Indian police officers to more effectively enforce the law and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice!
Equally important is their rehabilitation work that restores current victims to their community through educational and health services. We were blessed with the opportunity to meet with a leader of one of these Mumbai outreach ministries, Pastor Guy. Guy is an inspiring and energetic soul with a heart for the poor.
He took us to a slum community where he ministers; there we met with a family who graciously welcomed us into their home and we then prayed over each other.
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to purchase a plentiful stock of groceries for the family, as well as a new motorcycle for Pastor Guy! We hope that these gifts can nourish the family’s health and facilitate ease and convenience for Pastor Guy’s work in the slums.
More than anything, this trip reinforced a nascent view of mine about simple grace and generosity. There were several moving moments, but one in particular stands out.
At an evening devotional with the girls, after prayer and worship, the group of 40 girls prayed over each of us. The fervor and depth of their murmurs were more heartfelt than anything I could ever muster! It hit me then: this belief that we came to “bless” was a misnomer, for along the way, I received more than I gave.
“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”
– 2 Corinthians 8
More importantly, I left Mumbai with hope that organizations like the ones we worked with are providing victims with opportunity to start new lives in a protected environment of love.
IJM provides a great overview of the human trafficking issue at large, if you’d like to learn more. While more healing is needed to restore the spirits of those affected by the scourge of human slavery, I am personally blessed by the “votes of confidence”: friends who listened to my doubts trusted counselors who nudged me to take this trip, as well as all who generously donated to the cause. Words never suffice, but thank you.
*Christian organizations like the ones we worked with, have recently been the target of hardline grassroots organizations who oppose spiritual freedom in India. A partner organization’s name and its facilities are hidden in this post to protect its identity.
…in less than 2 weeks!
I’ll be carrying some winter pudge; nonetheless, I’m excited and honored to be running on behalf a charity team close to my heart, Apex for Youth (Apex).
Apex is a mentoring organization for underserved Asian American youth that I’ve been involved with for 3 years as a middle school mentor. My mentee Melanie (pictured at right) and I have been together since she was in 6th grade, and it’s been a lot of fun to learn and grow with each other.
This year, instead of sharing some of the personal milestones experienced in 2014, I’ve decided to compile a few of my favorite reads.
We are what we read, and these 12 thought-provoking and compelling essays helped shape my perspective as the events of the year unfolded, shedding new light when I veered astray.
As we turn the page to a new year, I hope a few of these digital treats provide literary inspiration— as it did for me — to make the most of this one beautiful life we have.
In 2014, I enjoyed the exhilarating, at times torturous, freedom of singlehood.
While it’s been fun, this NYT Modern Love essay echoed a nagging worry that perhaps many other single women experience: are we becoming selfish cat women?
“I worried that my single years were shaping me, hardening me into a woman too finicky and insular for a lifetime partnership.”
Reading this piece reinforced the notion that while being single can be hard, sometimes all you can do is simply learn to do your best and leave it at that. And there’s value in that.
Along similar lines, Joan Didion’s classic 1961 essay on self-respect was a go-to as I continued shedding a number of pleasant certainties, an act I now associate with the growing pains of adulthood. To quote the lady herself,
“I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, and that passive virtues would guarantee me happiness, honour, and the love of a good man.”
But to be freed from the expectations of others, to give back to ourselves — there lies the great singular power of self-respect. Thank you, Joan Didion.
Having a shitty day (literally)? Roll with the punches. Take a line from improv. Life is funny, and the only way to keep a scene going is to say “Yes, and…”
Questioning Habits and Beliefs
Why go out? Especially when it’s cold and PJs are so much comfier. As an introvert, it’s always kind of a personal victory when I decide to go out for a night on the town since 9 times out of 10, I come home more depleted than energized. In this hilarious and super real essay, writer Shelia Heti posits that we should go out precisely because we fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to bepeople.
On that note when we do socialize, why do we drink? To feel liberated for a fast second, only to be entirely useless the next day? What does it do for us?
I justify why I drink because I’m stressed and need a drink to calm down. But it turns out that there are legitimate spiritual reasons for drinking in our quest for ritual and self. Read this and drink in peace.
The expanse between 10 pm when we first left our cramped apartments in search of an ecstatic experience until 4 am when the bars closed was what the ancient Celts called a “thin place” and a “thin time” — places and times where the veil between heaven and earth, between the temporal and eternal, wear thin.
Stereotypes. We all have them, so how are they formed and how can we correct them?
“Jews are so crafty and short; of course they’d succeed at basketball! Asians are so intelligent and short; why would they be playing basketball?”
This smart, thoughtful NPR piece uses the Jew-Asian basketball analogy as an example of why we need to ask questions that expose where our stereotypes have disguised themselves as explanations, calling us to search for the real explanations, in all their complexity.
Technology and our Networked Society
2014 marked immense progress in technology, including the reveal of a new Apple Watch and a record $22 billion buyout of mobile messenger app WhatsApp. But is it technology we’re obsessed with or the consumer-ification of tech?
Some of the most interesting stuff I read showcased a growing gap between what we think of traditional tech and its evolution into tech as a “service”. (Think Uber-type services.)
Paralleling the arc of manufacturing to services, this shift has created a deep rift between old and new companies, hardware vs. software, enterprise vs. consumer-focused businesses. At its core, it raises the question of whether this brave new world is really making our lives all that much better… or if we’re simply creating more apps that cater to our instant gratification impulses.
Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem is a fascinating NYT magazine article penned by a member of the new tech elite that nicely summarizes this old vs. new rift.
A major trend to watch in 2015 is algorithmic accountability. It’s not just an Internet issue, it’s a human rights issue. Read how it may have affected when, where, and how you heard about the Ferguson protests in the aptly-named, What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson by sociologist Zeynep Tufecki.
A larger global transformation is taking place, thanks in part to the growth of the Internet economy. At the center, is a frayed tug-of-war between old power and new power.
Understanding New Power lays out the framework of this emerging new order. An important read for anyone wanting to participate.
On old age and death
It’s morbid, I know. But in reading about death and what those on the brink of it value, I am reminded that we have this one precious life which can be ripped from us at any moment. So, why not spend it on things that make it meaningful?
Take it from this old man, he’s learned a thing or two.
These last two selections brought tears to my eyes.
What the Dying Really Regret, written by a hospice chaplain who spends time with patients in their final months, puts body shaming…to shame.
“There are many regrets and unfulfilled wishes that patients have shared with mein the months before they die. But the stories about the time they waste hating their bodies, abusing it or letting it be abused — the years people spend not appreciating their body until they are close to leaving it — are some of the saddest.
What we believe about our bodies affects how we treat other bodies, and how we treat each other’s bodies is how we treat each other.
Finally, this Father’s Day account from a journalist whose father’s health is faltering, struck me, for one because the author’s background (a second-generation Asian American growing up with traditional scholarly parents) paralleled mine. His advice deserves extra attention:
Make peace with your family, whatever that looks like, if it’s at all possible. Make amends, forgive others and forgive yourself. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Reach out now. Our time is limited. And even though I know this in my bones, I have to remind myself. All of this will pass.
But here we are.
I wonder why I take the time to put pen to paper and share these things. I’m well aware that artfully-worded essays won’t change our circumstances nor make life easier, but time and again, I say the same thing.
A well-told narrative, framed from a lucid and sincere perspective, can lead to wisdom and a higher order of understanding. Or at the very least, a reminder that we’re not alone.
“We should interrogate the code of cyberspace as we interrogate the bills of Congress.”
Last week I joined 70,000 others in Austin for the interactive rodeo known as SXSW, a breeding ground for ideas & creativity. This meant a lot of pedicabs, food trucks, open bar parties, and hashtags.
A lot of my friends have asked what the experience was like. Questions range: What did you learn? What’s the next big startup? Was it overrun by hipsters? Did you eat a 3D Oreo? It’s like I had been hurdled into the outer reaches of space and back to return & report on the other-worldly activities of those “techies”.
The fascination is understandable. It’s not everywhere you see people wearing Google Glass and dancing with robots like it’s perfectly normal. SXSW represents everything emerging, innovative, and techie….buzz words of the decade.
I’ve decided to share a few thoughts on the conference – both positive and negative – because there is clearly a curiosity. But my commentary is less about the festival itself and more about tech as a “phenomenon” (spurred by an observation that the term “techie” has been rabidly used in recent months).
Lesson 1. South by Southwest is not so much about innovation in tech as it is about innovation in marketing.
When did all this nerdy stuff become cool? One word: brands. Years before I even touched a computer, South by Southwest was just a humble little conference fostering relationships between indie filmmakers, bootstrapped technologists, and garage bands.
A purist would say these early builders are the real technologists, the ones who actually built the memory chips that make up each of our computers. Since the dot com era, however, that definition has changed. Marketers have accelerated the mass commodification of “pure” technology with their ability to package previously bulky tech items into hip and accessible tools for all. At SXSW, it’s the marketers who now run the show by connecting with the early adopters whose products they evangelize, and then ultimately attract mainstream attention. We all buy into it.
My personal gripe with today’s loose application of “techie” is that those who self-appoint that term, including myself, often only understand the external aspects of technology- the result of the internal wirings, but not the wirings themselves. As consumers, our understanding is rather limited to the outer ecosystem of online communities, landing pages, and sharing platforms.
But I digress. I guess it doesn’t really matter who “techies” are anymore. We’ve moved into a world of platforms and social feed-based behavior that allows anyone to create without knowing a line of code. Which means that aside from developers and designers, most of us don’t actually spend time building like the Leonardo da Vincis of the dot com era…and don’t need to. Have a computer? Claim your domain!
Which leads to my second point: Tech is not limited to hipsters.
A recent phrase I’ve heard to characterize tech’s intruding influence on cities is “hood to hipster”. It implies that technology has resulted in increased gentrification, which the numbers (sadly) do support.
Admittedly, there were a lot of bikes, Warby Parker glasses, and converses at SXSW. And yes, participants in this “brave new world” are often SEO, CMS, Java, and Twitter gurus, overlapping with members of the “#selfie, #hashtag #excessive, Trader Joe’s” demographic.
The problem with describing tech as a strictly hipster phenomenon is that it precludes tech’s reach. The people who are going to adopt something early are often going to be upper-class “hipsters” with the means to. But as technology seeps into more areas of our life, it will inevitably become the underpinning of every industry. Tech is not so much an industry but a lifestyle everybody, regardless of class, will be adapting to.
This is why the public sector’s role in technology is crucial. The only way technology’s benefits can be experienced beyond a select population is when government prioritizes basic infrastructure upgrades that increase access to fast, reliable Internet, while implementing education training programs that make the less technologically-inclined prepared for tech-related jobs.
Chelsea Clinton noted in her keynote at SXSW that the distinction between “technologists” and “policy makers” is a false dichotomy. The “hood to hipster” phrase excuses the responsibility we each have to learn about this new world. There’s no excuse: we are all technologists.
So, what gives?
“Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”. Even this accurate depiction of an important tech issue leaves me stuck. Pitting the old tech guard against today’s hungry youth yields nothing but balding folks angrily shaking their fists at millennials, a hardly desirable solution.
I don’t know the answer. One thing I do know: the new code of power lies in technology. Something we can all do, regardless of age, is to increase our tech literacy. Algorithms are the new gatekeepers: they affect our search results, what we read, what is deemed “news”. That’s enormously powerful! To that end, we should be asking more than just “what is the news?” but “how did this information find me”? Understanding this basic code will set the framework for healthier, more proactive digital lives.
My overall feeling after leaving SXSW is a a mix of overwhelming awe at the explosive advances in tech, coupled with a cynicism that none of these advances are leading us toward a world all that meaningful. But my real angst comes from the frightening prospect that the majority of us, including mild consumers of technology like you and me, aren’t technologically literate enough to understand the algorithms controlling SO MUCH of our daily online lives. How does our current consumption feed future consumption? What is data being used for? When are algorithms harming us? (To learn more about algorithmic literacy, read this.) I also worry about the growing knowledge gap for those with absolutely zero technological prowess.
I’m aware of the irony. I work in technology and the very things I decry are fueled by my own actions: a love for the packaging & commodification of technology, which leads to a voracious appetite for more, which exploits our largest human vulnerabilities, which leads to compulsive behavior. Yet that’s why I question it, knowing that speaking up is a privilege afforded to those with the luxury of access and with the hope that these questions can improve our evolving relationship with tech.
For all its messiness, 2013 was a strangely awe-inspiring year. It was the year I found 3 professions, separately, in 3 very different industries. It was the year I failed, took a leap of faith into full-time writing, and discovered that it wasn’t for me. It was the year I lived in 3 apartments (6, if you count the 3 Air BnBs in San Francisco), started a group, and learned to like brussel sprouts. It was the year I traveled alone, got off Facebook, accepted that I am not Carrie Bradshaw. It was the year I became a public servant.
It was a year of relentless change.
I toasted to the occasion at a New York City bar. Like every other year, smooching couples basked in their “Auld Lang Syne” moment. I took note of those other trusty sidekicks. The buzzing ones. The plastic babies clamoring for our attention, crying “How dare we live in the moment”. This was the year we reflexively gave in, coddling our smartphones shortly after the midnight kiss because the moment is not to be lived; it’s to be created.
The moment has become a customized stream, a fully immersive sensory experience sprouting from multiple devices and directions. The moment is filtered, with selfies never more beautiful, words never more prophetic. Gifted to you, me, everyone – the most democratic of platforms – it’s social. 2013 was the year the megaplatform ruled the Internet, and we, the people, developed our megaphones. The once-scrappy kids on the block (Facebook, Twitter) became the establishment. We created a life by documenting and connecting because our lives are better when shared, if slightly embellished. No longer a phenomenon, the sight is ubiquitous: bouncing thumbs on the subways, streets, and most pervasively, our heads.
I suppose we celebrate the year’s end because it’s proof that we’ve lived and have more to live in the next. But does proof lie in the act or the memory? Now that 2013 is over, I wonder – if I don’t write this post and preserve the moments- will the year’s significance be lost?
These are tough questions that may not be resolved this year, next, or anytime soon. But we can aspire to greater conscientiousness and become regular customers of our own repair, all together now, tapping once, twice, thrice to the beat and eventually finding our balance to this strange but beautiful amorphous dance of life.
2014 will be the year of liberation. Carpe diem.