As the world around me has started to (pre-maturely regain normalcy), I have decided to deal with some of the to-do list items. The more I try to get things done, the more I realize that our “digital transition” is still in infancy, and any talk of a digital-first society is decidedly premature. 

Take, for example, medical care. Over the past few weeks, I have been grappling with some medical issues. I use UCSF for my core medical needs and have an excellent insurance plan. The medical provider uses an online portal to manage patient care and communications, but when it came to triaging my complications between three different specialists – the portal wasn’t much help. It took old-fashioned phone calls, voice mails, and phone calls – to finally resolve the matters and move forward. I will save you the details – because this isn’t a lament about the doctors. 

Instead, it is about the archaic nature of processes built into an institution built for a paper-first world. It has since added a digital veneer to it. The MyChart portal gives you an impression of being digital-first, but it doesn’t account for real-world situations. 

We have become so accustomed to new forms of communication and collaboration. Still, it is hard to do so in systems that have been architected on pylons from a different era. What happens when the world is video-call first, and the phone numbers go the way of the landline? How do medical institutions work with communication service providers to ensure that calls don’t end up in voice mails because we have stopped answering phones due to the crazy amount of spam calls? 

I compare that with my experience with something like One Medical, a for-profit company that offers primary care services and one’s ability to interact with the service almost entirely through its application. Given that it offers only a subset of medical services, it has been able to architect an experience that at least mimics how we experience the modern, consumer internet. 

And it is not just the medical system – even our civic services have been digitized by putting scaffolding over the aging processes. I had to get a passport renewed urgently. To get it done, I had to call multiple times before appearing in person. Without going into more details, the process was fraught with the friction of the past. 

We must look at how much of our past is defining our future. When I used to write about telecom and mobile, it was clear that most societies that didn’t have a “wireline” past embraced wireless and became mobile-first societies. China, India, and other emerging countries are good examples. Similarly, countries not hobbled by legacy wired networks embraced the fiber future. 

Something similar is happening across other aspects of our lives – banking, medicine, commerce, education, and everything else. Old processes conflict with the new behaviors of the post-internet society.

Let’s use online commerce as an example.

WHY AMAZON WINS

I am trying to shift as many of my dollars away from the big bad Amazon. I don’t mind paying a little extra if it means giving less to Bezos Inc. There is nothing I love more than supporting the little guys – the digital equivalent of mom-and-pop operations. And there are many more of them online these days. Shopify (and others) try to make buying from the little guys as easy as Amazon, but they are against a real behavioral barrier to entry.

I buy my tea from a New York family business called Harney & Sons. But when I buy something from them, it usually takes about five to six days to arrive in my mailbox. The same goes for my stationery retailer or from folks whose household items I prefer – they all have a “time overhead,” and speed costs much more than you realize.

This time won’t be a big deal in the ordinary course of business. Mail and packages used to take their sweet time to arrive before the Internet. However, after nearly a decade of Amazon Prime, I have become addicted to the convenience of a flat-price subscription delivering everything very quickly. Even with the recent price increase, $139 a year is cheaper than shipping one pays over the course of a year for non-Amazon retailers.

Amazon’s investment in its physical and last-mile infrastructure — its warehouses, Whole Foods, and its burgeoning fleet of trucks and planes — feeds us everything instantly and conveniently. If Shopify wants to beat Amazon, this is what it is really up against. This addiction to speed and convenience is new behavior, and as a result, every non-Amazon purchase’s time overhead has become a “time penalty.” 

It is why quitting Amazon (Prime) isn’t that easy. And it is not as if they will let you go quickly! 

As The Eagles song goes: 

‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

Hotel California

PS: By the way, since writing In convenience we trust, I have cut my Amazon spending by half and shifted it to non-Amazon, non-Walmart retailers. Still, as I have said repeatedly, this is not an easy addiction to break.


Randomly:

For the longest time, I assumed that Frenemy was a word created by web writers to explain the inconvenient relationship between large technology companies such as Apple, Google, Qualcomm, and Facebook. Today I learned that this is a concept from the late 1800s. 

“A potent mixture of friend and enemy, this oxymoronic portmanteau first appeared in the English language in the late 1800s, albeit with a different spelling (“frienemy”),” writes Jody Gehrman, a fiction writer. “In recent decades the word has been dusted off, streamlined, and given new life. Fueled by the duplicity of social media—the ability to behave one-way IRL and wear another face online—the Frenemy appears in more guises than ever both in novels and in films.” 


March 21, 2022, San Francisco

“The Great Resignation” is Clickbait

Paul Millerd, author of The Pathless Path, in an interview with Sara Campbell, points out:

This might surprise you but I think the framing of “The Great Resignation” is off. It seems like a successful media narrative that has helped generate clicks but doesn’t really get to the heart of what’s happening. The “great resignation” framing suggests there is a massive exit from employment happening. It’s not clear that’s the case…… Going deeper, however, I do there is a much more interesting shift happening. Before the pandemic when I talked to people about work, there was a lot of shame attached to the conversation. Previous generations resisted these conversations forcefully. Part of this was survival — there weren’t great alternatives to traditional employment. That’s no longer the case and people are starting to wake up to it.  

This is a great interview and worth reading. This comment really resonated with me, especially as I have started to contemplate the next phase of my life and my relationship with work.

With work as the central organizing principle of my life, the most important things were to always be progressing, improving, and achieving. One thing that’s helped me is to step back and try to define what work really is. This has enabled me to shift away from simply seeing work as something that comes with a paycheck towards it as any sort of activity worth doing.

Read article on Tiny Revolutions

A new variant of coronavirus is upon us. As is its wont, Omicron is more infectious and is spreading fast. While, in the past, the virus impacted only a handful of close friends and family, the recent spike has impacted quite many friends. A few of them are struggling, despite having been vaccinated. 

As I was researching the possible impact of the new variant, I couldn’t help but notice how difficult it was to find accurate, actionable information about Omicron and how to deal with it. Except for a handful of writers — Ed Yong of The Atlantic, for example –, one gets quickly sucked into a quagmire of hot takes and incremental information.

It leaves you even scratching your head, perhaps highlighting the problem we have in an Internet-centric information economy. Information is easy to produce, but intelligence remains in short supply. 

In the end, I ended up emailing a few friends — who are experts, doctors, or both, and they all pointed me to a handful of sources to make an informed decision. On their recommendations, I have been following Bob Wachter of UCSF on Twitter and Katelyn Jetelina (aka YourLocalEpidemologist) on Substack. They are pretty direct and clear in their communication about the virus and its reality.  

I was planning to travel for the holidays, but instead, I have gone into a self-imposed lockdown. Sure, I have been vaccinated and received the booster, but why take unnecessary risks. I hope you are doing your bit to keep yourself safe! 

December 21, 2021. San Francisco

grayscale photography of people walking in train station
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Ambition means different things to different people, but in the capitalist framework I am talking about, I think its defining feature is its linear trajectory. Think of all the highly driven and ambitious people you know working long after their basic needs are met: Are they ever “done” or satisfied with where they’ve ended up and ready to call it quits on achieving? Of course not. Ambition is an unquenchable thirst.

Since the Industrial Revolution launched a large subset of humanity into the illusion that we could conquer nature for our own purposes, linear ambition has been a kind of survival strategy. In recent decades, that’s certainly been true for privileged, knowledge-economy workers like me: We’re always trying to keep up in a world of work that seems to constantly get faster and expect more of us, leaving us too burned out and apathetic to deal with anything that doesn’t directly affect us or our families.

This is a wonderful read and a good reminder of lessons from the pandemic, that we have already started to forget.

Read article on Rosie Spinks