“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.
“You have to get offline. I’ll say it again. You HAVE GOT TO GET OFFLINE. YOU HAVE TO GET F***ING OFF F***ING LINE.” – advice from legendary E. Jean Carroll, of Ask E. Jean, America’s longest currently running advice column
Better advice could not be more emphatically expressed. I took it to heart for 4 months. 4 months of purposeful separation, living life offline, unplugged…or at least as unplugged as life can be when you have a smart phone and still tweet and email and you know, do almost everything except Facebook + Instagram. Still, give a girl some credit: pulling the plug on Facebook was a big deal, kind of like moving to a desert island. I even wrote a goodbye letter. (melodramatic twentysomething)
I remained pretty social on the island. Before I knew it, 3 months had gone by. One night I thought about the social network and tried to log back in. There were several tell-tale signs I had been gone for a while; for one, I couldn’t remember my log-in. My web history was clogged with news articles instead of the usual Facebook photo albums and in fact I momentarily forgot who some people in those albums even were. Months before, merely typing www—>> triggered automatic completion of “site-thou-shall-not-be-named”.com, and now… LinkedIn has replaced it as the most frequently visited site. If ever there were a sign of professional maturity (or boringness)…
Upon sailing Home a few days ago, Facebook almost seemed foreign, like returning to college after being abroad for a couple months. Soon, though, the falsely jolly, slickly disingenuous first-world details that had ceased to exist during my time away came trickling back into consciousness. Bloop! There went the little red notification. And here we go again…
Ignorance is bliss, I had told myself. But what I’ve realized is that the problem was never really about Facebook or the technology or all the obnoxious statuses out there; the problem was me. I needed to clear out my own cache of judgement.
I deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts on 12/12/12. Since it was supposedly the end of the world, I decided to enter the ‘new’ world with a clean slate. I wanted to return to the root of being social without the distraction of a buzzing phone, without feeling compelled to take pictures of my brunch, and without the aid of a red Facebook notification to alter my serotonin level. I entered detox mode.
My primary justification was personal. I thought that my personhood – the very root of my identity – had been reduced to a set of data points on Facebook. I was living my life out online. How could I allow a single website to simplify my life to a bunch of photos, text, and information? It was naval-gazing for sure, but I couldn’t shake it. So, I left to return to my offline roots but not before posting a status on Facebook asking people to send me their email; I would write occasionally with life updates, philosophical meanderings, and other angsty Thought Catalog-like topics. Several people did reach out and I was happy to keep my social network limited to these newfound thought followers, family, and close friends. It was my way of keeping in touch.
Life offline was revolutionary & simple. It gave me greater appreciation for things beyond the digital realm such as parks, museums, and coffee shops with no wi-fi. I spent a month at home in Tennessee, a month in San Francisco, another month eating a bunch of really really good food for my job back in New York. Normally, I’d be sharing & posting like it was my job but I restrained. I just ate, just observed, just explored. The ‘justs’ were more than enough. No one was validating the awesomeness of my adventure, so I could focus on the actual act of exploring. It was great. There were moments when I wondered if I was missing out (and for sure, I later found out there was A LOT) but I was aware of the really important things. In fact I remember secretly gloating that I knew about the new Pope before some of my Facebook-hounding friends did. (Twitter – 1, Facebook – 0)
Ultimately, however, I discovered a glaringly simple truth through deeper offline conversations : we’re lonely. Some more than others, but at the end of the day, it’s a large reason why social networks like Facebook and Twitter have taken off. Introvert or extrovert, we’re all searching for some form of connection.
Yet connection is thrown around like free lunch these days. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook mission, “to make the world more open and connected” is noble. But just like lunch, real connection never comes free. You don’t amass friends and spit stuff into the never-ending stream of content and expect connection to magically appear. (You also don’t sell that information to marketers, but that’s another topic for another day.) Facebook is not the magic ingredient. If we truly want connection, we must first change ourselves.
When I logged back onto Facebook a few days ago, updating my profile with an affirming Facebook status “They always come back”, I found myself digging back into connections – weak, strong, and the many in-betweens. While catching up with the lives of those I had almost forgotten about, I was reminded of life’s continuous march. Over the course of our lives, things happen, people change. In this digital age, social platforms are there to document it all. While I traveled coast to coast, going from San Francisco to New York, life for others did not stop and wait for me to press ‘play’ to be reenacted. People continued to post, comment, like, and tag whether I was there to participate or not. I had missed a Canadian friend’s trip to New York with her band. I had missed lovely photos from an acquaintance’s wedding. I had no idea the company I worked for had uploaded and tagged an embarrassingly hilarious video of me. (Self-scrutiny commence.)
Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that my view of personhood must evolve like the times. I am nostalgic for a Web that no longer exists. I’d like to think of myself, as author Zadie Smith puts it, “a private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and to herself.” But I am naive. I’ve taken 4 months time (and an entire Facebook timeline of inner sciamachy) to set aside this identity crisis. I come back because I want to write. Truthfully. Part of that means knowing people. Social media is a way to be part of a conversation you’re creating together with fellow beings. For all its clutter, social media can be rich and multi-faceted. On other days, it can be also be self-glorifying, artificial, and so damn annoying that I wonder if I should just disconnect again.
But that’s life. Life is not always beautiful. Take it or leave it; I choose to take it. Not being on social media means I will simply know less about what is going on with other people. That is not a bad thing. But even so, I firmly believe humans are not made to be fully removed from each other, whether that is physically or virtually. Do you want to participate and steer the conversation toward good? Yesterday’s Boston Marathon terror serves as an example. People gathered updates and news real-time to help those in need. Coverage through social media was a mix of qualitative and informative, creating a complete (while heartbreaking) picture of the unfolding scene. The Internet, if we choose, really can be a useful tool for good.
For all its good, though, we must be reminded that the data points we generate can underrepresent reality. Living offline is messier and more complex. Walking away from social media, at times, is not necessarily practical, as we live in an age where many of our communities and lives are built on these platforms. So what I’m granting myself is an approach, a mindset: one of connection rather than comparison. It’s easy to look at the filtered photos and artuflly written statuses as gunk that clogs our news feed. But lighten up. On the days you peer into the screen of your laptop and simply can’t find any semblance of relation to your perfectly posed fellow human beings, just remember that what you see is a mere half-reality and carefully selected portion of life. Life isn’t simply the story you tell about yourself on the Internet. It’s merely one of many.
This is my relapse. I’m back to listen, contribute, and document the evolution of our virtual selves. This time, I realize I am not above it all. While I can’t promise zero judgment, I welcome your sharing. In a sense, I agree with Zuckerberg: our selves evolve and like it or not, it’s a story worthy capturing.
On Thursday, I launched a new series for NextGen Journal, a platform featuring voices of the next generation. My column is called End of the Old World. While melodramatic in name, it’s hopeful in outlook. We celebrate those with ideas and solutions. Despite the messed-up economy, the young broke and beautiful can create their own opportunities. Each week features a pioneer between the ages of 18-28 who is scrapping the old for something new. Any suggestions for future features, let me know. Here is the first post!
But with the world ending, there is another world being created altogether. A world where not much more than yourself, an idea, a computer, and a little chutzpah is needed to – poof!- make something happen. Magic, you say?
Last year, the editors of Inc. magazine sorted through more people than ever to create their 30 under 30 list, a compilation of the hottest visionaries who have created their own companies. There are more people in their 20s starting companies than ever before. Forget the naysayers. The sky is no longer the limit; it is the new starting point. I am fueled with optimism for the future.
I am optimistic because what we lack in jobs, we more than make up for with a wild imagination. What critics see as mindless distraction, I see as talent. Talent to be found in varying forms – virtual communities, music remixes, self-started companies, and cat videos– all talent, nonetheless.
Ours is a generation in flux, in transit. With change comes opportunity and with opportunity, comes potential for something great.
Today, we kick off NextGen’s End of the Old World series, a weekly column that highlights enterprising people between the age of 18 and 28 who are building new companies, redefining age-old industries, and dictating employment on their own terms. These are people who refuse to be limited by circumstance and subsequently, designing their own profession. Using technology at their disposal, they are blowing art, business, design, engineering, journalism, and marketing categories into bits. As Harvard Business Review predicts, “countless new jobs will be created connecting these bits in unexpected but useful ways. And who better to name them than you?”
Join us as we celebrate the end of the world. We start next week with our first team of game-changers.
To those who read the following in its entirety, thank you. This is not intended to be a monologue but a conversation. In an attempt to practice the collaboration I write about, I welcome all comments- positive or negative – because they are the only way to combat my individual bias. Regardless, thanks for entertaining.
I sit at my computer periodically to compose my thoughts. I do this because most of the time my thoughts are an unintelligible mishmash and therefore cannot legitimately be considered thought. It takes a good amount of ‘me’ time to carefully sift through and transcribe my neurotic ideas to decide whether they are even worthy of the word, or simply bull. Call it naval-gazing, but it is a necessity.
I’m not here to complain about my poor brain’s strain from our overstimulated environment, and be labeled a philosophizing, good-for-nothing hippie. Unless my nostalgic soul actually decides to defy modern civilization and frolic in the fields (which would be great but I’d severely miss my iPhone), I’m stuck with the present life of chatter and noise.
Or am I? My musing today brings an idea that involves reengineering our environment to filter out the haze, one where we can breathe long uninterrupted gulps of fresh insight without being engulfed by dirty thought pollution.
I use this analogy to draw attention to the other environment that is being decimated as we graze the digital sphere: our mind. I opened my clean word processor to write this post but not before checking Facebook, mindlessly flitting between profiles that say a lot of nothing, including my own. It’s the soda of our information diet. Sweetening and yummy- despite zero calories and no sugar!- yet ultimately a nutritionally empty concoction.
I think we deserve better. And by that, I mean a better time-waster.
I often think about how to live a perfect life imperfectly. It’s unrealistic to be a 24/7 carrot-eating, Economist-reading, productive machine when cat videos and Ben & Jerry’s lie waiting. It’s more fun to have our cake and eat it too. But couldn’t our indulgence involve something more exciting than glancing through photos of people whose lives are obviously so much cooler than ours. Facebook makes me feel lame and ugly when all these people I never talk to are always out and about taking beautiful pictures!
“You are a mashup of what you let into your life.” We are what we eat and our creations are unique manifestations of our consumption, even during idle procrastinating time. So, wouldn’t it be nice to snack on something healthier?
Think of it as eating yogurt instead of ice cream, skim milk instead of whole, dark chocolate instead of white, wine instead of beer – just as tasty (if not more) and better for you!
Wasting time isn’t really wasting time if you’re learning and filling your mind with the right stuff. I see so much potential in our generation of Facebook gluttons. Between amazing music remixes to crafty DIY projects or ingenious apps built by tech-savvy coders, amid the trolling, we are talented! Heck even those Shit “insert ethnic group with overused stereotypes” Say videos require a commendable level of creativity and wit; even Leonardo DaVinci would laugh. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not confusing YouTube videos and tumblr reblogs with the resurgence of a creative class. We have potential to be renaissance folks- academics/professionals by day, artists by night, Tebows on the weekend- but it is strictly potential until we actively do. To do, we need a platform to encourage creation and original thought, rather than passive sharing and reposting. Ultimately, Facebook is just a sharing platform that reinforces old connections; nothing original comes out of it.
So imagine a platform that facilitates new connections, that bombards us not with images from last week’s drunken glory but with ideas, creations, substance; then fosters connections that enable us to collaborate on projects of mutual interest. Better yet, what if that type of platform stuck like candy? Talk about a good vice.
If we continue consuming this syrupy social facebook, our potential remains simply potential. We will be known as generation stuck. There are so many people graduating from college unsure of what to do and fearful of going after what they really love, what they really care about. If you like dancing, well go the heck ahead and continue dancing. Knock the world’s socks off. Financial concerns are understandable but with today’s technological tools, there exists a wealth of information online to enhance your trade, and with a bit of savvy marketing, you have all the resources at your disposal to make something of your interest at minimal cost. Content production, distribution, and monetization tools are becoming democratized through the web, enabling anyone to reach and build an audience directly through push-button creation and distribution.
To take this further, imagine a world where bloggers, producers, dynamic artists create their own curriculum, one that consists of a compilation of their interests, connections, and actual projects.
For instance, my curriculum would look something like this:
I know I want to learn about everything related to storytelling, education, and digital media.
To enhance my knowledge, I would actively produce and follow relevant content. I would publish my stories, digital media pieces, and write thoughtful commentary on education issues. These would be posted on my page as a knowledge portfolio/blog of sorts, demonstration of my expertise. I would also repost what I consider to be relevant material to the subject. This would be helpful to others also interested in learning about the topic. If they deem my portfolio useful, they could follow my “content package”.
I, too, have the choice of following people whose work I admire, gaining insight into where they get inspiration from, the books they read, and a direct understanding of what goes into their work. I can easily reach out to them for input on best practices and tips. Better yet, with a little bit of proof that my work is up to par (as displayed on my page) collaboration is possible!
I envision a world where we each create content for others to follow- not just status updates and photos- but real meaningful content. I believe we each have talents. We create. We are artists. We are teachers. On this theoretical platform, users create content packages. You gain followers, not based on friendships or acquaintanceship, but by the substance of your work and the things you choose to publish. You follow people for their “expertise”, their lesson plans, the packages they create.
Of course, this is all still a bit of a utopian shell in my mind. There are many holes and flaws in the proposition. How is this different from Tumblr? And how do you actually get people to actively produce, connect, follow, and collaborate? Doing this requires a shift from thinking “I’m going online to mindlessly browse through people’s photos” to “I’m going online to create something, to learn, to write a meaningful post about the Middle East filled with thoughtful analysis that others can glean insight from.” The former is a lot easier. The latter takes motivation, a lot more than some may have.
Such a platform is not for the faint of mind. But I never said this would be easy. This is where my thoughts go. I can’t do it alone. Only we together can build something great.
Or Tweet Me: @heyguey
Some of you may be familiar with Foursquare, the fast growing location-based mobile application that encourages people to explore local businesses and check-in for points, potential discounts etc. Like many, I was initially a bit hesitant with the check-in service because I couldn’t quite understand its value.
Two years ago, I asked an early Foursquare adopter what he got out of Foursquare. His response- “It’s the future”- didn’t quite satisfy. Recently, I took another unscientific poll. Responses ranged from: “It’s pretty cool- I get free shots checking in at a bar!” to “It’s pointless.”
Well, let me take a stab. This is primarily an argument for Foursquare, but can also serve as a general defense of technology. It is inspired by a thoughtful post from my dear friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross’s blog about Modern Day Nomads.
In prehistoric times, humans peeked their curious heads out of their caves and thought, “Maybe there’s something beyond this cave. Let me take a look.”
They found rivers to swim in, branches to swing from, and tribes to powwow with. Boom- the world became their playground. Barter systems were established, log cabins constructed, new hunting practices developed.
The world was changed.
Today, we operate on slightly different terms. We peek out of our mobile devices and think, “Maybe there’s something beyond the www. Let’s go out.”
We then venture into the concrete jungle- vastly more commercialized than that of our predecessors -and experience a world replete with social transactions.
The digital sphere thus serves as a supplement. Correction: a lifestyle. We garner Foursquare badges, spout tweets, and virtually check-in. The world whizzes by. It seems like the future has arrived before we’ve fully appreciated the present. But I’d argue it’s not much different from the days of the past.
To me, Foursquare check-ins are just new ways of saying “Hello. Check this place out. And hey, did you know x y & z about it?”- almost like a simple hand wave from one caveman to another. Almost.
In our ‘shrinking world’, it’s easy to decry information overload. Enough! Among my less technologically-inclined friends, I am often sub-consciously in defense mode when it comes to my technological habits. Why do I blog? Why do I tweet? Why do I check-in? Who cares?
Here’s my response. With or without all this virtual chatter, we are all explorers. Discovery is not new; it’s a prehistoric disposition. Foursquare simply aids an innate quality.
Since coming to New York, I’ve used Foursquare to explore my surroundings. I’ve gained helpful tips from user reviews of restaurants I would otherwise know nothing about. Last week, I discovered a new restaurant (The Masala Wala) through Foursquare’s Explore tab, which afterward became the first addition to my list of “regulars”- a compilation of my favorite ‘highly recommended’ places. Just as I have gained value from the opinions and feedback of others, I share and publicize so that others may find my tips helpful as well.
Foursquare is also being used at universities to enhance knowledge of historic buildings on campus. Some universities including the University of Florida are looking into leveraging the Foursquare API so locations on the map can have user-generated content, such as photos, according to Bruce Floyd, lead social media specialist at UF.
We don’t live in an information age, we live in an age of networked intelligence. Foursquare is at the center of this movement to help us discover good things that are worth our time and money through the most basic additions to our existence: fellow humans.
As our world grows smaller, I understand why skeptics continuously ask, WHY? And I appreciate it. To retain our humanity, we must continuously ensure that each new tool truly adds value, lest our minds be inundated with clutter.
For me, Foursquare’s value lies in its ability to tie the past, present, and future. We live in the future with the virtual check-ins, yet engage in communal practices originated from the past, while enhancing our experience NOW.
As Sarah describes, the modern day nomads are the people more businesses will want to resonate with:
The modern day nomads come in every shape, size and color. We are the people who break barriers. We are the people to introduce ourselves to someone who has never met an American, we are the people who eat tongue or intestines and enjoy it, we are the ones who learn the cultural dialect no one else speaks, we are the ones who are changing the world. Never staying in one place, the desire to experience the new, the unknown is unquenchable. Packing up and landing in the next place, the modern day nomads are a continuation of the nomadic developments since the beginning of time. We, however, are different in one very important way. We’ve got Facebook. ha. Just kidding. But really, we have the ability to spread our new-found knowledge, self and cultural awareness to others. Understanding is the only way to stop war, suffering, stereotypes and misinformation. So, fellow nomads, lead well, learn much, and share what you’ve learned so the world can learn with you.
We are explorers. Complain all you want, but technology like Foursquare taps into our human drive for discovery and social connection. Use it and you might find yourself saving money, time, and learning more about the world around you. What can be more basic and beautiful than that?