The Longest Year
Fragments of an unusual year of solitude
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20…
When we look back at this year, 2020, I wonder just how clear its lessons will be. The pandemic shook up a lot of our preconceived notions. It exposed us to our frailties. The year underscored the eternal truth that nature always fights back.
The following excerpts are fragments from my year. I wondered about change and technology — who wins, who loses, where it’s all heading. Some are little more than notes hurriedly scribbled on a scrap of paper. On occasion, a full idea formed, and I was able to capture it in writing. All together, it is a haphazard recollection of ten months of aremarkable year spent unremarkably in solitude.
Like everyone else, I started the year praying at the altar of consumerism. I planned to be here, there, and everywhere. Instead, the only direction I traveled was inwards. I was forced to confront the only person I didn’t want to face — myself — and consider society from a distance. As the year ends, I have a better understanding of who I am not. I know what and who doesn’t matter. I recognize that social media is unsocial, that people help people, and that everything is ephemera. All that matters is the moment.
Between outright dismissal (crazy) and panic (understandable), there is a middle ground of being cautious. And that is the ground on which I am walking. It is not crazy to be cautious — we are all going to be exposed to this virus, whether we like it or not. In addition to being obsessive about washing hands and generally avoiding touching surfaces, I am doing something very difficult for me: not hugging. I am a hugger. I love people. I believe in the human touch.
The idea of being quarantined in my apartment doesn’t scare me much. I like being in my apartment. I have a gigabit connection, so it is ideal for me to do my calls. I am a fanatical user of Zoom and FaceTime.
Self-quarantine is a chance to reduce my carbon footprint — a tiny bit, at least. I am finding another silver lining: I can use the time to read more.
In the coming days, things are going to get a little difficult for us. Our media is built to extract maximum engagement. And that means scaring us with outrageous headlines and short snippets of information. That isn’t going to help. We have politicians who will use this pandemic as a way to garner votes and attention. It is not going to help. We will be swimming in a sea of lies. And someone always pays the cost of lies — usually, it is the everyday people. The best we can do is to use common sense.
In the end, it is all about trust. Once that is lost, it is hard to regain it.
Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have all lost my trust, as they have done very little to protect the veracity of the information on their platforms. Whether it is political lies spread by bots on Twitter, fake friends upvoting stuff and disseminating rumors on Facebook, or fake shit being promoted as “visual content” on Instagram, they have done little to maintain any semblance of truthfulness.
And why should they? Their whole algorithmic model is all about engagement – lots of it. The model is not concerned about the consequences. The more inflammatory the content, the more engagement it drives. The greater the engagement, the more viral the content becomes. And the wheel turns, and turns, and turns. This deliberate dereliction of duty is profitable for the platforms.
We are left to build our protection. We have to pay for their inaction with our own time and money. And sanity.
I will never understand the complexity of power, money, and human motivation. I don’t know why people do strange, crazy, and insane things. What I do understand is this: the line between a lie, a half-truth, and the real truth might be blurry, but it’s still a line not worth crossing, especially in a time of dire emergency. Words have consequences.
And if you are one of the many millions who watched the HBO show “Chernobyl,” you know what happens when lies become the narrative. Innocents pay the price — a big price. Time and time again, we see our elected leaders, our legislators, and those whose job it is to keep society’s internal clock humming come up with hollow words.
And now, as we are caught in a global pandemic when the truth is the most important (and perhaps, the only) real human currency, we are playing with lies, lies, and even more, lies. It starts at the very top — from the office that is supposed to be a beacon of hope, calm, and strength.
For almost two months, I have seen nothing but nonsense. And now, the country is shutting down — but for the wrong reasons. We are all a little scared, not because we are fearful, but because we are fumbling in the dark. To quote the writer Rudyard Kipling:
We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.Rudyard Kipling
Every tweet that enhances false information is going to cause real trouble for a real person somewhere. Every time a politician — no matter what their political affiliation — says to go out and have dinner or to go drink beer at your favorite bar, they are helping shape a false narrative. For them, it might just be words said to look good on television and get attention, but eventually, someone will pay with their life. Maybe more than just someone.
Every time a politician encourages you to go out and not worry, all they are telling you to do is to put others at risk. I am not a lawyer, but in the moral court of humanity, that should qualify as aiding and abetting. Why say anything except to urge caution? Everyone knows that we are not equipped to handle the crisis. How could someone encourage reckless behavior with lies that are, at best, political opportunism? What matters now — all that matters — is facts, truth, and nothing but the truth.
Lies cost lives.
It takes 797 round trips from one side of my apartment to the other to get to 10,000 steps each day. The preferable option is to get up at 4:30 a.m. and go out to take a walk down the Embarcadero without worrying about breaking any self-isolation rules by running into a jogger, biker, or some random walker.
That is exactly what I did this morning. I saw construction workers building apartments — those glass cages soon to be filled with members of the remote work revolution. I saw homeless people huddled next to each other, fighting off the cold that descends on San Francisco every night.
I saw Amazon delivery vans, UPS trucks, USPS vans, and even bikers carrying packages. Others were busy making the roads better for those who might want to ride their “scooters” on them. They had on their plastic masks and their big, thick worker gloves.
I was acutely aware of the chasms between the haves and have nots and how the latter are forced to play a daily game of Russian roulette. You, me, and every other knowledge worker who can work from home may sit and wax eloquent about the value of remote work on Twitter, but we all know that is just a big fat lie.
Our society, and the comfort it provides on a daily basis, only exists because of the unseen — those who toil because they don’t have the choice to stay at home. Those who, if they don’t work, they don’t eat, and their rents don’t get paid.
Sad as it is, it takes streets emptied by a pandemic to make these people visible. These are the people who are deep cleaning locations, keeping the grocery stores open, and making sure the food and essentials are delivered. They are the nurses who keep the patients in the ICU alive. And I wonder what we are doing for them? How much is enough to do for them? Will we do anything?
It doesn’t matter how long this pandemic lasts. It could be six weeks or six months. Either way, for many amongst us, this could be an event with repercussions that last a lifetime.
Every morning I wake up, go for a walk, and come home long before I have encountered any other humans. I don’t want to see another soul, being distrustful not only of them but of myself. Are they infecting me? Or am I infecting them?
It is the same sense of panic. It may be news from yesterday or the day before, or maybe it’s from today. I can’t tell. It all seems the same. And before it is even 8 a.m., anxiety envelopes my entire being. When will this end? Three weeks, six weeks, or six months? It already seems so endless. I am not sure how to deal with not knowing.
The modern human (or rather, the post-social human) knows it all. Whether it is Facebook or Twitter, we all are swimming in a stream of information — news, rumors, data, analysis, whatever — and we are used to knowing. Now, suddenly, we don’t know.
Yet, outside the window of my 600-square foot cage, the world looks the same. The sun is sharing its light and warmth, gently enveloping San Francisco. It seems so normal.
And still, I feel like the man in the famous Edvard Munch painting, The Scream. When he described the reason he painted The Scream, Much might as well have been explaining how I feel now: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. “
Sunday in San Francisco can be either warm and sunny or (as it usually is) grey, cold, and somewhat windy. Yesterday was no different. Highs of 61 degrees Fahrenheit, a low of 46. Small pools of sunshine trapped in low, grey clouds. It was my kind of Sunday, one that invites you just to enjoy laziness as a gift from the divine.
I call my parents. Sometimes, I call my siblings. But mostly, I do absolutely nothing. No work. No emails. No social media. Sometimes, I will sit in front of the screen and edit a handful of photos, because I find that therapeutic. I go for a walk with my tiny camera.
Sometimes, the walk extends to a few miles, and I end up at my favorite not-so-local restaurant, where I order a lovely late brunch. Few things are more satisfying than an egg over a Margherita pizza and a cup of Earl Grey to go with it. If an opportunity arises, I see my goddaughters, but mostly I don’t see anyone or do anything of substance.
If it is not too cold, I sit somewhere with the latest work of one of my favorite mystery book authors and get lost in their whodunits. I don’t think about technology, investing, or the complexity of our planet. People of biblical persuasion call it Sabbath. I just call it Sunday.
Yesterday, I couldn’t do any of that.
A rather unfortunate and unexpected turn of events — the spread of a deadly virus — has forced most white-collar workers to work from home and has triggered a new wave of interest in remote work. While it would be preferable if we cast aside our preconceived notions and came together around smart solutions without such a society-threatening crisis, sometimes this is what it takes.
I often tend to hibernate — work from home for a few days on end without leaving the apartment at all — and that training is coming in handy.
We have always known that there are two Americas: One made up of everyday people and another in which a convicted felon and rapist gets a COVID-19 test in prison because he also happens to be rich and famous. I would prefer not to focus on the fact that, instead of saving people, politicians are worried about their portfolios and the companies that stuff their wallets.
Common sense seems to elude many of us: Dead people don’t buy anything. The longer you remain deliberately ignorant about the virus, the longer it is going to kill people. So to our presidents, governors, state legislators, and other politicians: Please stop lying. Stop trying to blame others for our organizational mess.
Over a century ago, the Spanish Flu started in Kansas and killed millions around the world. It didn’t care where you lived. The same goes for the virus that emerged in Wuhan. How stupid must our politicians be to focus their energies on playing the blame game instead of trying to save everyone?
I woke up at 2 a.m. — three hours after trying to go to sleep. I kept worrying about the half-assed measures adopted by the Indian government. My old parents live there, and we can’t travel. Yeah, I am anxious. You probably are, too, though maybe about something else. Perhaps your next rent payment, or food, or maybe your kids are driving you insane.
I went on Twitter, got even more angry and anxious, and turned it off. I started doing some online window shopping, even though I didn’t want anything. I realized that others are passing the time in the same way.
Sitting at home with nowhere to go except on the computer screen can play tricks with your mind. And then you start doing strange things, like buying random stuff. America is buying a lot of Yoga Mats.
That the pandemic might be a moment for us to reconsider consumerism is a thought that comes naturally to some people. Of course, the concept of “less is more” runs counter to our current prevailing system, which is designed for unending and unstoppable growth.
The acceptance of the idea that we need to consume, consume, and consume is why we have become societies where even a trillion dollars can’t save the economy. Maybe this lockdown is a pause that will give us time to ask: Why? Why do I need all these things? Why do I need to consume?
I have been in self-isolation for 28 days now. I have been living out of a suitcase. All the clothes I needed for the month have fit into the suitcase. And it has been enough.
Two pairs of shoes are enough, though I do love my shoes. My books are on a Kindle App, and my music is on my Spotify App. With my phone and my computer (tablet or otherwise), I have everything. Sure, I love my watch collection, but every day I reach for the same one. In short, being forced to remain in my house has made me realize how little one needs. In the spirit of looking outwards, perhaps rather than consuming more, we should put more effort into sharing what we have acquired.
A friend sent me a link to a podcast where the interviewer is talking to Joseph Emmett. He has devoted a big part of his life to studying the Gita and Vedanta, a school of Indian philosophy. That got my attention. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you sit through the entire podcast, but there is a line that I remember from the conversation that is worth noting in the context of our collective present: “The universe is largely left up to chance, and the control you think you have… much of it is a delusion.”
I think, deep down, we all know that, but it takes a cataclysmic event to remind us. If there is one thing we can control, it is the self. Who we will be as a people remains to be seen.
When all this is over, I hope we emerge from this with a more realistic perspective regarding our shortcomings as a nation and more appreciation for the work we need to do to retain our place as a leader on this planet — not in terms of bombs and bullets, but more in our ability to create, innovate, and be resilient.
I sincerely hope that we can find leaders and legislators who understand that science and technology can help create new opportunities — not necessarily for us, but for your kids and for my goddaughters, nephew, and nieces. America 2.0 is not about us. It is about them.
Science and technology made America 1.0 what it was, a powerful nation that was the envy of the world. To move forward, we have to get back to being believers in these tools and their potential.
On the news, on social media, and in personal communication apps, there seems to be a continuous end-of-the-world vibe. Given that none of us can do much about the way things are going — except self-isolate and pay attention to the needs of each other — you get the sense that much of this is misery porn.
For me, today is Day 38 of self-isolation. It is the start of another work week, and I am doing what I would typically do on any day. After a month of being alone with my thoughts, I have started to make notes about what could be different.
Every time there is a shock to the system, things change — some for better, and some for worse. I think there is a better-than-good chance that our behaviors will change as a result of this pandemic. I am currently creating a ledger and thinking about opportunities, not just for innovation, but for a better humanity.
Between waves of productivity and relative calm, I am overcome with feelings of anxiety and panic. After all, it is bizarre to be locked up in your apartment, suspicious of the present, and unable to process the future. I have those moments.
And when I do, more often than not, I take a little meditation break. Life regains a sense of normalcy. At least, as normal as it can be in an unending pandemic compounded by politicians and their idiocy.
Of course, there are other ways to cope, like giving in to guilty pleasures: Mine are socks and coffee.
Today is #47. That’s how many days I have been stuck here.
When I woke up, I learned about the passing of Toni Lane, a crypto-currency enthusiast. I met her once — in Oslo, Norway — before I embarked on a journey northward. She was a lively soul, energetic, and filled with ideas. It was such a great conversation. No emails were exchanged. No text messages went back and forth. Just a few hours over coffee, dinner, and company with some other friends.
All that remained was a memory.
The sadness of her passing is only compounded by the general malaise I feel. Last night wasn’t the most comfortable. An old ailment got the better of me. I woke up more tired than I have in many weeks. Not physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally.
Everything seems the same. The day, the location. I can’t tell the difference between YouTube, Netflix, and Zoom. They are all coming from the same screen. I need people. The lack of social contact — in real life, not through a screen — is a problem. Many are on their third week of isolation. Wait till you get to week five. You will feel the anxiety.
There is nothing I would like to do more than sit with my friend Chris and talk about photography. Or visit those I work with and hug them. It seems like that is all from another time. As one smart writer put it: that’s B.C. (Before Corona.) Exhaustion is “a normal response to an abnormal situation,” she says.
It is not just work. Many of life’s arbitrary decisions that previously seemed normal now feel abnormal. Take food, for example. As someone who has to watch what he eats all the time, even in regular times, isolation has been a high-risk decision zone. Some have argued in favor of forgetting about exercise – go ahead and eat more, gain weight, and learn to live with the quarantine. That may be okay for some, but it’s not so good when you are a diabetic and have a heart condition.
This morning, I had to make a call that I likely would never have had to think twice about in the B.C. era. I wondered if I should go to the hospital to see my doctor, considering that I am more likely to catch the virus in a hospital than at home. In other words, was I willing to risk my health for my health? These are the insane daily decisions we are making, and no wonder it is exhausting. It is relentless.
And even though I feel as I do, I am overcome by guilt. How can I complain when others are putting their lives on the line making society’s essentials work for the 29% who can work from home? I should STFU. And get on with life, and do some work. I’ve made it this far, after all.
Today is the 50th day of my isolation. What started on February 29 as a precaution is now slowly becoming a way of life. I have not had much contact with the outside world. Three friends have dropped by and said hello from their car. One of them brought me a cookie, while another helped out with some coffee beans. And the father of my goddaughters brought them so I could see them through the car windows and talk to them.
We have to make a sustained effort, again and again, to cultivate the positive aspects within us.Dalai Lama
The only way forward is to acknowledge this reality. I can’t be working 15 hours a day, and I need my downtime, even if it means shutting down the screen and turning off the phones. It also means picking the medium of communication to experience emotions.
I feel so much more connected when I call someone on the phone, for there is no video to distract, just an expression and sharing of feelings through simple intonations of voice and hearing. The room to imagine the other, strangely, brings you closer to others. My friend Elise has been writing letters, so I decided to do the same. I am just dropping a note to random friends I have not seen in a long time. It is quite fun.
Life, work, and our real reasons for existing are part of a continuum. To continuously evolve, one doesn’t need to dwell on the past, which has a way of making one feel like a prisoner. Instead, one has to live in the present and experience it to the fullest while simultaneously imagining future possibilities.
I would be the first to admit that it is easier said than done. I have been on this journey before. After nearly dying, I promised myself that I wouldn’t dwell on the outcomes and instead focus on choices and make the best effort to live in the present. Despite being well aware that happiness is knowing that the present is reality and the future is a gift, it is easy to lose one’s way and wander into the illusory forest of control.
This lack of control has hit us in the face during this pandemic. We might know the how and the why of the current crisis, but the real lesson is that, even with the best-laid plans, we don’t ultimately control what the universe decides. So, enjoy the moment.
I was having a chat with a friend who was feeling a little tired and exhausted. The root cause of this exhaustion was sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods. She mentioned that, if she wasn’t working, it was as if she wasn’t being productive and was letting down her team and her job. I suspect a lot of us who are new to the idea of working from home are struggling with that dilemma.
The pandemic has resulted in the days becoming longer and longer. And for some odd reason, my efficiency has improved. What used to take about 10hours is now being achieved in six, leaving me with extra time on my hands. This prompts me to ask the question, “Am I productive?” Of course, when you ask that question, you end up in the same position as my friend: feeling guilty.
Instead, we need to ask ourselves this question: what is the big deal about productivity in this unprecedented time? How can we ignore the ambient anxiety of living in this new strange (for now) normal? We have to get normalized before we get caught in the guilt trap.
Video is now INTERNALIZED into a gazillion people’s blood. Pretending otherwise would be dangerous.Pip Coburn
Zoom is having a moment. And as the pandemic rolls on, our relationship with Zoom has changed quite a bit. I wonder if we are following the Kübler-Ross model — you know, that whole classic five stages of grief malarkey. Here’s how I see our Zoom experience mapping onto these stages:
- Zoom Zoom Zoom: We can get through this self-isolation with Zoom. Parties, dinners, meetings, dates. Let’s add Zoom backgrounds. Denial seems like the best way to deal with the harsh reality of the pandemic.
- Zoom Crashers: Who are these people crashing my Zooms? Where is the security? All these security problems make you angry.
- Make Zoom Great Again: Passwords and security are what we need, and that is what we will get. Problems are solved, and we still Zoom for everything albeit more carefully. We will bargain our way to a tolerable Zoom-based reality.
- Zoom Fatigue: You feel depressed because you find yourself constantly Zooming. You complain of Zoom burnout. Some scientific papers try to explain it, and the media lets you know that you aren’t alone!
- Zooooooooom: You finally accept that Zoom is great if you use it for the right reasons. You learn to Zoom with the video turned off.
As the Italians say, “Andrà tutto bene!” It will be alright.
There might be good tidings in store for online commerce. While the pandemic’s onset pretty much pummeled all companies, things are looking good for Shopify and Square, two significant enablers of online commerce. Square, for example, has seen a considerable jump in the number of customers signing up for its services thanks to a sudden need for curbside pickup and local delivery in this forced transition to contactless commerce.
A lot of these sellers wanted to get online and wanted to sell online, but just didn’t make the time to do so. This was kind of a forcing function to show them all the benefits of being online. I think what that ultimately does is they will have a lot more attention online as the offline comes back and be much stronger businesses.Jack Dorsey, Square CEO
The optimist in me believes that the change will be lasting. Whether it is ordering groceries online, getting food delivered, contactless commerce, or simply working from home, we are not going to forget these lessons we have had to learn so quickly. The real question is: How much will we remember about life before all this? How much of the change will be permanent? No one knows for sure, but all seem to agree that the “new normal” will fast become the “normal.”
The plague sweeping the world has turbocharged the growth of the internet and catapulted us into the future. In the space of March 2020, many businesses fast-forwarded to 2025.Michael Mortiz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, The Financial Times.
Yet another Monday in the pandemic — my 12th, to be exact. And just like that, I am on day No. 80 of self-quarantine. It feels as if life has always been this way. Today starts like so many of the others: Wake up. Go for a walk. On the way back, I see people jogging or biking along The Embarcadero. No one is wearing masks.
When I started this quarantine, the weather was not as lovely. Colder than usual, grey skies with occasional fog — it was as if the weather reflected our collective moodiness. These days, the sun rises early and shines brighter for most of the day. It is warmer, and it feels like May in San Francisco.
The silence of the lockdown is slowly becoming a distant memory. Overhead, trucks, and other vehicles are rumbling across the Bay Bridge. More cars are rushing along the roads, speeding faster, as if they could outpace the virus. You can anticipate the legions that soon, though not quite yet, are likely to rebel against the shelter-in-place orders in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On Twitter, like elsewhere in the media, things are back to normal. The divisiveness, the finger-pointing, the takedowns, the lack of empathy. Most notably, the cult of “me” is back in season. Instead of solving the problems, we have gone back to being the problem.
Today feels like just another Monday, the start of yet another long week. I don’t remember what it was like before the quarantine. Strange that this all feels very normal now.
The silence of the planet cleaned the river that ran through Delhi and the sea that surrounds Venice. For a brief while, the social web was full of kindness — a glimpse of people coexisting without filter bubbles. And then came the trolls, the bots, and the half-truths.
Deep down, I always knew that the break from our selfishness was temporary.
In our post-algorithmic reality, it is every man for himself. In our world of retweets, likes, and online friends, life is performance art. The pandemic, it seems, was just another backdrop — like Iceland or some exotic restaurant. Reality is a bit distorted when the social web dominates our lives. It is whatever your self-created bubble tells you it is. Don’t like it? Create a new bubble. The social costs of these lowest common denominator algorithms are only starting to show up in our real world.
Twitter is one of those products where I can see overuse making people have a long term problem with the product emotionally.Scott Belsky, chief product officer of Adobe.
80 days later, my own life has changed — maybe for the better. I have learned that doing things in two-hour increments is way better than trying to get everything done in one go.
I have two robot assistants now — iRobots, I mean. They clean and mop the floors. Once a week, every surface in every room is cleaned of any (even imaginary) dust. Doing dishes by hand before going to bed is better than waiting to do a full load in the dishwasher. Sunday is the day for laundry and ironing. (Pro tip: Wash your socks separately from the regular laundry load, and turn them inside out. This way, you won’t lose any socks, and they will last longer.)
My daily walks are a new habit that is going to go with me into the future. And the same goes for forced meditation breaks. Instead of the ambitious and often ambiguous idea of productivity, I have embraced efficiency — especially when it comes to my work.
If you don’t use the social web as much, and you don’t read pointless publications, you have a lot of time to get your work done in eight hours and spend the rest of your time learning. Reading books is a good antidote for everything.
You get a lot more accomplished using remote work tools — video and voice — and don’t have to spend 60 minutes on a meeting that can be wrapped up in 45 minutes. Life is too precious for preambles. And not everything is a zoom.
We have some people using the pandemic and lockdown in New York City to create viral videos that are nothing but cheap tricks — a demonstration of the destructive obsession with self that got us into this situation in the first place.
This virus has been, both literally and metaphorically, a disease of modernity. Why? Because It attacks via the vectors of modernity: trade linkages, obesity, diabetes, air travel, mass transportation, urban density, social media, etc. Understanding long-run change requires understanding where modernity itself is under threat, and whether those threats will lead to meaningful and investable change.Paul Kedrosky, Philosopher/Investor
Facebook has become one of the largest proponents of remote work. It made headlines for considering allowing people to work from home permanently. In doing so, it joined the likes of Twitter, Square, and Shopify, all of whom are recent, post-pandemic converts. (The idea is not so new to companies like GitLab and Automattic.)
The same company that compelled employees to move closer to Palo Alto, the one that resisted the idea of a San Francisco operation, is suddenly the poster child of “working from home?” Why this abrupt shift in the management philosophy of companies like Facebook?
To answer this question: money.
Those fancy offices, catered lunches, and all the other luxuries that allow people to pretend that they are still in college and getting paid for it — that all costs money. And those costs were going higher, especially as the real estate market remained tight in the region. For employers trying to keep up with the Joneses, each employee in the San Francisco Bay Area costs an extra $20,000 to $35,000 per year, depending on how big you are as a company.
This is a great opportunity for companies to shift the costs of operations to employees. And technology companies are no different, except they have public relations armies to polish up their dollars-first thinking with the veneer of ideological transformation. Working from home is a good and easy get out of jail card for Facebook and the new converts. It not only removes any legal liabilities, but it also shifts the “operational expenses” to the employee.
So, you want to work remotely for Facebook? Great! All you have to do is figure out your own office space (much like how an Uber driver is responsible for the upkeep of their vehicle) — oh, and settle for less money relative to your colleagues living and working closer to the Bay Area.
Yup, It is always about money.
San Francisco was a very bleak place in the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown that began in the spring of 2000. Every day of that summer, I woke up to the news of more layoffs, more shutdowns, and a general sense of despair, which only got worse when the tragic morning of September 11, 2001, brought a swift end to whatever innocence and optimism remained. I remember feeling like I was under a constant pall of gloom, going about with a dark cloud over my soul and tears in my eyes. The months that followed that horrific event were challenging, but I found that writing helped.
I am reminded of those days now, but it feels like we’re wading through an even larger, still unfolding tragedy. More than 38 million Americans have filed for unemployment. The disparity between America’s haves and have-nots has been laid bare. The inefficiency of our legislators has made us the laughing stock of the planet.
Being quarantined in our homes, we can’t seem to figure out whether to work or curl up and go to sleep. An invisible enemy has brought us to our knees, and it is as if we have lost all hope. We want to do something, anything — even if it is risky — to give ourselves the illusion of being in control.
While we couldn’t appreciate it at the time, the bursting of the Internet bubble and the ensuing recession was a net positive for the technology ecosystem and entrepreneurs. Before 2001, the technology industry in general (and Silicon Valley specifically) was overrun by arrivistes and posers with too much capital competing for last-minute opportunities. The bust cleared them all out. That cleansing brought clarity and simplification — precisely what was needed to set the table for the next big thing.
Look around you, right now. We have all been forced back into our cubbyholes. Our lives have become a lot simpler. All the useless noise in the ecosystem, the sound and fury signifying nothing.
No one is forecasting a clear return to business as usual. The new now means that we will incorporate new ways, means, and methodologies in how we live, work, and exist.
Yes, the future is unknown, and it is worrying, but pause for a minute and think about what the future of work looks like: less peer pressure and office politics, less need to run around looking pretty or showing up to show you’re there no need to chase crazy trends and shiny objects, and a lot less emphasis on working just to make sure people see you working. This is a rich opportunity to find a new work-life balance of one’s own, to shed the meaningless friction of a commute, to turn off Slack, silence the phone, and focus and work on new things. I saw that in 2002 and 2003. Why not now?
A downturn is like a snow day from school. It gives you permission to work on just one thing and be okay with that choice. It’s okay to not pay attention to the rest of the world for a while, to give up that corrosive feeling of FOMO for not being at the right conference with the right people, of missing a chance that may never have been an opportunity.
Today, the popular narrative plays up the general greed and ethical evilness of technology startups. A lot of criticism is justified, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that technologies — whether mechanical or digital — keep progressing. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. Wait a few months, and you will start to see some edge-case tinkering, and new ideas begin to emerge.
What might some of our new projects be? Well, for starters, the working from home experience needs to be better. The shortcomings and opportunities in grocery delivery services are increasingly apparent. There remains plenty of room for improvement in health care. The pandemic has also exposed us to how much we impact the environment — and it won’t be much of a surprise to see the next generation of entrepreneurs attracted to climate-tech as their reason to tinker. Though, as real as these trends are, the breakthrough ideas of the future are unlikely to come from being reactive to the crisis. The pandemic has given us space and opportunity to indulge in fresh thinking, mostly because we aren’t busy trying to keep up with Joneses.
We have only just started to decouple the idea of an event from a place — and who knows what will emerge, the death of distance has been talked up since the banker Walter Wriston published the Twilight of Sovereignty in 1992. I don’t think the “work from home” revolution will be the ultimate gift from this pandemic experience (unless you’ve been suffering a marathon commute, in which case you’ll be getting the gift of time).
Rather, this is an opportunity to begin rethinking how we value real estate and places. The handshake may be going the way of the necktie, and attendance may not be taken in the future, but to limit the idea of how collective gatherings might look going forward to Facebook, Fortnite, and Minecraft would be a disappointing stifling of human potential. These recent experiences of conducting music concerts in virtual worlds are stepping stones towards a new Internet. We can’t think of them as replicas of the real world, but instead platforms for the post-social Internet. Rather than trying to improve upon the modes in the real world, what if the energy was spent on these new massive virtual gatherings and virtual worlds become a new way of socializing.
The crisis has given us a chance to take a step back, and think about what’s possible in the future. The simple fact that one third of American workers were able to continue working remotely is a testament to the original vision of the Internet as a military network capable of withstanding a targeted strike. Without the connectivity of the Internet and near ubiquity of broadband home connections, the option to social distance wouldn’t have been imaginable. Smart entrepreneurs look at a crisis — be it a virus or a recession or an act of terrorism — seeking what was revealed, what was missing, and what will persist in the future. The post COVID world won’t be all about on-demand shopping. Instead it could be about resilient on-demand manufacturing that is automated and optimized. It won’t be telemedicine. It will be new bio-sensors and technologies that are in sync with our reality a decade from now.
If anything, I hope this pause in the whirligig technology economy would inspire us to think about a better web, one that finally escapes the tyranny of the browser. Don’t get me wrong — I like the browsers, and I won’t be lazy and call the future web “3.0”. But we need to be thinking about what else is out there. Maybe this is a chance for developers to build for Alexa or Google Assistant? Or perhaps there will be opportunities to build new experiences that capitalize on augmented reality.
The future comes with its responsibilities — the pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities as a society. The dichotomy between the haves and have nots is clear for all to see now. Our privacy is a pinata — from ad-platforms to our national governments, everyone is using our data to work against us. The social platforms are crucibles of hatred, divisiveness, and xenophobia. We should not be blind to how technology goes wrong — and instead strive for a better resolution.
My bet is always-on broadband. Virtual worlds, digital entertainment, gaming…none of it would be possible without broadband. Today, we have about 100-250 Mbps in most modern homes. In some places, you can get a gigabit per second. Now imagine what we could do if, in ten years, we all have 10 gigabits per second in our homes, and we have in-home networks that are fast and fat. What could apps do then? What would it mean for our AI-enhanced devices? In 2001, we imagined a 100 Mbps future — and we got Google, a nearly trillion-dollar company. We got Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook. Fast forward 20 years from now, what do you think is possible? What do you want to be possible?
The pandemic has given us a chance to step away from the past. The question is: Will we?
Disruptions, downturns, and recessions make the weak weaker and the strong stronger. It was true centuries ago, and it is true today.
The 2001 downturn turned telecom and cable giants into the Internet’s gatekeepers. Microsoft emerged victorious with its Internet Explorer. During the 2008 financial crisis, when cash was king, the big banks — JP Morgan Chase, for example — became more prominent and more pervasive. In a similar fashion, the present pandemic is making big tech bigger. And it is not just that their coffers are overflowing. They suddenly have a much larger and more receptive audience.
Even with worsening economic conditions over the next year or so, these companies are likely to come out big winners. Though, the upshot is not just that a handful of companies will become a more significant presence in our lives. This will be true of technology in general.
Over the past few months, we have experienced the mainstreaming of technology-enabled behavior previously thought of as being on the fringe. Shopping for groceries online and having them delivered, for example, was something of coastal luxury. Now, it has been experienced and used by millions across the country.
Wired editor Nicholas Thompson marveled at the growth in telemedicine and online education, two technologies (for lack of a better term) that have been around for so long that we often overlook them. Silicon Valley investors who viewed remote work and the distributed company as a net negative, and penalized companies that didn’t have a physical presence in their backyard, are now “work from home” gurus.
As the pandemic ravages our social fabric, we are seeing a wholesale digital transformation in a compressed time frame. Each economic setback creates a craving for convenience, and in the long-term, this opens the door for the widespread adoption of technology.
Whether we like it or not, we are addicted to it now. We like being able to watch movies and television shows when we want, where we want, and on the screen we want. We love ordering food and groceries and want them delivered. Ironically, the consumer-focused services have been much more prepared for the future than the enterprises, which have been slower in embracing the significant shift to cloud, data, and automation.
But not anymore! Kicking and screaming, they have been brought into the future.
COVID-19 has exposed one harsh truth: Digital channels are more flexible and faster to adapt to change than physical channels. And now, the world is almost entirely running on the network. This affirms my long-held beliefs. It is a testament to the inevitability of the Internet
I wanted to go out and make photographs. Instead, I turned off my alarm and just lay on my back, looking at the ceiling, as if constant staring could turn it into a big blue vista. I kept thinking about a dubious milestone: 90 days into…whatever you want to label it…self-isolation, lockdown, quarantine.
The irony of our “new now” isn’t lost on me. While our attention is getting fractionalized (even atomized), the past 90 days have been a big, gelatinous blob. I desperately want not to think about how it was winter when I started to isolate, and now the summer is gently knocking on the window of my tiny apartment. It used to be 55 degrees during the day. Today, it is already in the mid-60s before 7 am.
Will the pandemic finally break us free from the traditional idea of time and all its trappings? Whether it is our workday or how we perceive seasons, everything has a commercial and industrial cadence. If “work from home” is part of the new professional reality, then it impacts how we structure our hours and our lives. Since we don’t know how to do that yet, many of us feel either tired, depressed, sad, lost, angry, or all of the above.
Arbiters of our culture are starting to see that, in the post-Internet, hyperconnected now, the old sense of time is going the way of the pocket watch. Fashion designers are coming to realize that living inside as much as we will likely be doing makes for a season-less reality. And none other than the high-priest of the now and pop-culture kitsch, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele has said as much.
Given that Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok define and accelerate fashion trends, the real world is less interesting. The short-duration drops of small collections with limited availability that have been part of the sneakerhead culture and key to the success of Supreme (on one end) and Outlier.nyc (on the other) are likely to become a norm.
Nick Kokonas, a co-owner of Alinea (a Top 50 restaurant based in Chicago) and the CEO of the reservation service Tock, is a former derivatives trader. He knows that there is time-value to things. Just as a bond’s maturity helps determine the interest you get on it, and thus determine its value in the open market, why can’t a restaurant seat, or a delivery service be priced accordingly? A restaurant seat is more in demand between 6.30 pm to 9 pm, but unless you are in Spain, not so much at 11 pm.
I know! I know! You are all screaming, “Don’t you remember Uber surge pricing?!” Yes, I was one of the complainers. But I also remember when mainstream media screamed at the idea of native advertising. I also remember the time when The New York Times complained loudly about the ad-targeting capabilities of big tech platforms.
Times change, and so do strategies — especially when it comes to self-interests and new realities. Nevertheless, the fact that convenience costs money is something that we will have to confront.
Time has been part of my framework of life. As I lay there thinking about the past three months and looking into the future, I found myself returning to a lesson from the aftermath of my heart attack: learn from the past, anticipate tomorrow, but embrace the now. It took a pandemic to reinforce those lessons from a dozen years ago. Increasingly, we will all focus not on what was or what will be. All of the emphasis will be on whatever is the new now. If anything, that is a lesson of this solitude.
The growing discord in our society, the tone-deaf nature of our leaders, and the sheer magnitude of death that is sweeping the planet is getting the better of me. Social networks and the media hype cycle have distorted our sense of reality and amplified our fear and anxiety. You feel that the whole world has gone mad, and the feeling of helplessness becomes overwhelming. The divisions in society, the lack of control, and the inability to overcome the injustices of modern society have exploded on our screens. Minneapolis is no different than Hong Kong.
Another sleepless night. The events of recent days and the agony of being forced indoors by the pandemic are having a cumulative effect on my emotions. I am treading water through waves of sadness, anger, frustration, and most importantly, shame.
Shame on me for being so involved in my own petty little problems to not pay attention to a bigger problem in society. Shame on me for shirking the moral responsibility to be more focused on inequality and injustice. Shame on us that we are so easily mocked by the Chinese propaganda machine.
I feel shame for my country — not the country of my birth, but the country of my love and my life. America is an opt-in for all of us who hope for a better future. It is the idea that a nobody can become a somebody.
I became a citizen in a swearing-in ceremony at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. If I had been a better person, I would have looked outside that same theater and I would have seen that dream I was living wasn’t really an option for many of my fellow citizens.
What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts — whatever you want to call them — is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin — no matter how old the black cat is or how young — who has no future.James Baldwin, Esquire magazine, 1968.
Nothing really has changed.
We have not been listening for all these years. We don’t listen when a person who is not of privilege says something that makes us uncomfortable. We don’t listen when a person of color suddenly starts to talk about how they feel. We don’t listen when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. We mock him, destroy his career, and move on after the news cycle is over. We don’t listen, and we don’t ask, “Why?”
Why is he willing to risk it all? Why do we not listen? Why do we have to wait for video evidence of yet another person being choked to death by law enforcement? Why do we have to wait for Americans to die before we say something clear and true? Black Lives Matter.
Today, conversations are finally beginning about investing in Black founders. It is no different than the conversations about investing in female founders and female representation in venture firms and boards of companies. Why is it that we don’t do these things when no one is looking? Why is that we need collective shame as a nation to do something?
It is because we don’t listen. If we did, we would have to acknowledge our shame.
The current societal crisis in America, highlighted by the large scale protests in most major cities (and some small towns) has pushed the COVID-19 pandemic off the front page of our mind. But let’s not forget — it still is out there. And it continues to ravage society unevenly, and unjustly. I suppose we can all think and focus on one thing at a time — maybe because we have only so much emotional capacity to deal with the harsh realities of life.
Who knows where we will be in a few weeks when basketball resumes, or baseball is on television, and life returns to our malls and shopping areas? Will we have the emotional wherewithal to deal with the virus, its impact?
With enough distractions, will society continue to care about racial injustices and inequalities in our cities? Will we have the energy to keep fighting for change? Or will we do what we do best — move on to the next news cycle, reducing everything to a forgotten headline, a meme that goes away, a hashtag blurred. And no change to the status quo.
In case there was any doubt about humans causing pollution, new data shows how much impact we have made by doing nothing. A Nature Climate Change study by scientists from the University of East Anglia and Stanford University concluded that daily global CO₂ emissions in early April 2020 were down 17% versus the mean level of emissions in 2019. International Energy Agency (IEA) also had similar conclusions. CO₂ emissions in the first three months of 2020 were 5% lower from Q1 2019.
On the 100th day of my isolation, I decided to go and meet Chris Michel and family for a socially distant walk on the beach. Well, less beach, more sand at Fort Funston, one of the most beautiful areas of our city. Chris, obviously brought his adorably cute Berniedoodle puppy, Sadie, who was literally jumping for joy when she got to the sands. She was off and running. Galloping really! She was on the dunes. She was sitting on the sand.
As the sun dipped and the wind picked up, we took shelter in the coastal cedars and toasted each other and Sadie with a nice glass of Napa Valley Cabernet. What a delightful day it was — and a gift from dear friends Sophie and Chris. And most importantly — Sadie. Her ebullient energy was restorative for the soul.
It has been 102 days since I started self-isolating myself and dealing with the pandemic. This forced break from the normalcy has led to my conversations with self, that continue to reshape my own expectations of myself. I am continuing to self-isolate, but slowly starting to take socially distant visits with friends who have been equally diligent about isolating.
It is good to be cautious — especially considering that 511 epidemiologists (aka people who know a lot about viruses and not random investors) think that it is prudent to expect a semblance of cautious normalcy sometime between three to 12 months. I definitely don’t want to work in an office for a while.
By the way, every day, when I go for a walk I see one in ten people walking, running or biking on Embarcadero in San Francisco wearing masks. It is usually the middle aged or seniors. This is supposedly a city with more “scientific” bent.
America, it seems, doesn’t listen to science these days. It seems that 100 days is long enough for America to forget that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Whether it is businesses that are reopening or the protests, it seems everyone is throwing caution to the winds.
I wonder if all those politicians and talking heads who talk about upholding American values, value the one thing that every human should value — life. Nothing brought home the fact that we are seeing the daily deaths due to the COVID-19 continue, thereby pushing the cumulative totals across the country to a scary level. As of today, 111,750 people have died in the US, out of a total of 408,964 globally, more than any other country. And yet no one seems to really care or mourn their loss.
Each death is not just a number. It is not just data. Every person leaves behind a hole in our universe. And yet, the collective ambivalence of our leaders – political, business, and religious – is jarring. Next time, someone talks about American values, let us remind them by pointing out that we should start by valuing life.
A few days ago the dry cleaners who moved into my building over a decade ago shut down. The pandemic’s pause took a heavy toll on their business, and it became virtually impossible for them to continue. I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye. We didn’t know each other socially, but we were sociable — we knew about each other’s lives, health, and travels.
I had an easy familiarity with them that made doing business pleasurable. I became their customer just a few days after another long time cleaner — Phil — retired to take care of his ailing wife. Phil and I had become friends by talking baseball. We even caught a Giants game together.
Today, someone from Mulberry’s is going to come and pick up my shirts. They will pick it up from the front desk. I won’t know their name. I won’t know what they look like. All my interactions with them will be through their website — pick up, drop-off, complaints, and payments. Everything will be a transaction.
Back when taxicabs were normal, I was familiar with many of the dispatchers and taxicab drivers who would carry me around San Francisco. Some of them told me their stories. Some would come back to pick me up after my visit to the hospital — even though they didn’t have to. They knew my name and I knew theirs. When Uber came around and cabs went into a decline, the human interactions I had during my rides died with them. Uber was a data-enabled, network-based convenience. There was very little room for getting to know a person. Everything became a transaction.
There is very little room for humanness in transactions facilitated by the network. I wonder if the real cost of convenience is the loss of humanness. Instead of the banter with the neighborhood corner shop, we get stuff delivered from Amazon. Most of our goods come via e-commerce platforms. We won’t have a favorite salesperson at our favorite department store — soon there won’t be any department stores left, anyway.
With the retail and restaurant sectors struggling and shrinking, we will start seeing the disappearance of the places that make us part of a society, a neighborhood, a humanity. A dry cleaner here, a coffee shop there. What will remain of society? It is easy to think of the local shop as a business, but in the end, their nearness, their familiar closeness, their physical proximity gives us landmarks that create context and give us bearing for our lives. They turn a building into a home, a neighborhood into a place that builds memories. All of these little services give us texture as humans. They are also a chance for us to come together, not separated by income, but as two parties that need each other.
Local lives in many parts of the world have been in transition for the past two decades. Amazon started by gobbling the independent bookstores. Big box retailers snacked on mom-and-pop stores. Panera, Starbucks or Chipotle replaced the family-owned restaurants. The shoe repair shop is an Aesop. The corner store is now a Wells Fargo ATM.
The network-enabled everything reality has been pulled forward. And with that, we have increased the pace of becoming post-human.
As the sign at the grocery store checkout now says — “We Recommend You Use A Payment Method like Google or Apple Pay to avoid contact with the PIN Pad” Now that we’re all a health threat to one another, avoiding contact through our apps could mean losing true contact as well. Soon, the only person left to know is the UPS driver. That is until drones and robots start doing the deliveries.
Today, on Cameo, we pay a few dollars to “talk” to the celebrities. There are other apps that let you video chat your celebrities. We are already being trained in these behaviors. We are engaging with each other on Zoom and Video Chat. Our behaviors are being programmed for that future! As I wrote earlier, the current pandemic may have forced us to work from home, but it really is a beta test for the future where climate change has made living inside the only option.
The stock market is not, even in its best moments, a snapshot of the economy. It’s a snapshot of a piece of the economy. The S&P 500 is half now, basically tech. It doesn’t represent the small shops, the services, the retail outlets, the restaurants, the office workers, the gig workers. They’re not part of the S&P 500. It’s not just that the tech side is booming. It is cannibalizing a lot of the rest of the economy also in the sense that Amazon’s success is not only that it’s an efficient, quite remarkably e-commerce entity. It’s actually gobbling up the brick and mortar sector at an accelerated rate because of the pandemic.Jeffrey Sachs, author, economist & globalization guru at Columbia University
It is all part of the continuum of change that is all taking us to a future which is going to be very different than we can even imagine. Many of the things that Silicon Valley has unleashed have unintended consequences.
It is all so complicated.
Going nowhere…isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.Leonard Cohen
There are days I wake up hoping to find an easy way to avoid being assaulted by fake news, half-truths, and life-endangering. Unfortunately, it consistently proves to be wishful thinking — and getting through the information torrent on a daily basis is a high-intensity intellectual workout. The good news is that most kids who are growing up with this kind of information overload will have a natural ability to distinguish between real and unreal things.
That said, it is hard to stay positive and in the moment. I often get pulled into negative territory. My parents are in Delhi, and their whole neighborhood is under a complete shutdown. Contact with outsiders is forbidden as COVID-19 cases explode in the city. I have heard many horror stories from friends, and The New York Times might not be exaggerating (for once) in its reporting on the emerging economies. Even if I can’t control anything, I am worried about my parents.
We have become too chatty on social media. We don’t think much before sharing our opinions. Maybe it is because we are isolated and are continually trying to fill hours in a day with a hot take? Or some random Instagram post? Or another TikTok. Or we are liking or arguing about something on Facebook. Why does everyone think they have to have an opinion about everything on social media?
We need to learn to be silent. I am trying really hard – but it’s not easy!
I have made a career out of extolling the virtues of networks — how they make the very notion of time, location, and geography less relevant. The power of optics has flexed its muscles during the time of the pandemic. The wireless networks have kept us engaged, amused, and even productive during a scary time. You can see the world finally wising up to the irrelevance of distance. It should give great satisfaction that this future, which I have long written about, is finally here.
Instead, all I feel is the distance.
The distance between two humans. I feel the distance between us as a society. And more selfishly, I feel that distance when it comes to those I love — my family. The tyranny of distance was brought home to me over the past two days as I have grappled with a family situation, not uncommon in this age of COVID-19.
Yesterday, both my parents tested positive for COVID-19. My mom, who has been the guiding light of my life, is feeling worse. And yet, there isn’t anyone to help them. They live in one of the worst affected neighborhoods in Delhi — it is quarantined and cordoned off from the rest of the city. It is difficult to either get in or out.
None of my childhood friends, college buddies, or family members can do much. There is a feeling of helplessness. The act of trying to get a hospital bed in a private hospital is like a game of Go.
I can’t fly there, even though I want to. There are no flights. And there are travel restrictions. There is a quarantine. The world might feel normal on the Zoom screen, but outside, the pandemic reality has a hell of a bite. It is strange — this feeling of utter helplessness, when you know the best you can do is hope for the best.
Summer officially starts for me in the last week of June — together with my colleagues, we head to the beach just across the bridge for our annual retreat of self-reflection, assessment, and planning for a better tomorrow. And then comes the July 4th weekend. We follow that up with work from home — wherever you make a home. These days, at home, all we do is work. And not so strangely, it doesn’t feel like there is a summer. Another win for what is clearly a crazy 2020.
I need the distractions — for the last 72 hours, I have dealt with the agony of being overseas as both my parents tested positive for COVID-19. I don’t know about you, but I need to take a deep breath and relax. I think a lot of people need to do that. Maybe it is because we have too much time on our hands, or just that it is the sign of times, but the conversations in the technology industry are becoming increasingly uncivil. Debates are taking on a demonic tenor. We need to exhale and just read.
After two weeks in the hospital, both my parents have returned home after being cleared by the doctors. They are free of the virus, though we have to watch out for the after-effects. This has been an arduous few days — the distance only exacerbated the anxiety and unease.
The limitations of travel and international quarantines only added to the complexity of the situation. My siblings, a handful of friends, and some family members rallied together to get us to today.
21 weeks later, I look back and see how everything that was strange in March, feels almost normal in July. Whether it is going to restaurants, getting in an Uber, or meeting with acquaintances—- somehow it has become a distant memory. I don’t miss any of it.
These weeks have been a great A/B test in relationships and friendships. Social distancing might have given us space to reevaluate what and who is important. For me, there is a little pod of friends that I see on a weekly basis. There are about a dozen of us. Most of them are hardcore isolators like me — they all at some point have been tested and retested. We meet outside for a coffee and a chat. Even the most mundane aspect of our week seems interesting as if reinforcing the value of real-life interactions.
The new reality means new rituals and routines. If anything, I have taken to intermittent fasting and, as a result, feel more focused and energetic. Somehow it has helped manage the anxiety and the ambient stress and pushed me into living in the flow.
A bigger change has been fasting from social media.
The pandemic is ripping off the mask of a pretense of power from the face of America. We have over 140,000 dead, and there is no consequence.
I find that frustrating that, in a time when we need to be together for each other, politics and tribalism have ruptured the society. There is such pervasive cynicism and lack of trust, not only in our institutions, but spreading amongst each other. This lack of trust is coming at a time when we need collective societal trust to get on the other side of a multitude of crises coming at us – the health crisis, the economic crisis, the social crisis, the geopolitical crisis, and the morality crisis.
We can blame technology platforms. We can point fingers at politicians capitalizing on our fears. But in the end, the only hope for a better tomorrow is us — how we react to the crisis. I hope we can find a way forward from this — and pull back from the brink of unbridled selfishness and narcissism in society.
It has been 164 days since the self-imposed isolation started. Maybe it is time for me to stop counting. In 180 days, I thought that we, as a society, would come up with a framework to deal with reality after the virus but before the vaccine. We are nowhere close.
The year is half-over, and it already feels like a year lost. There is a feeling of resignation that life will be like this for the conceivable future. For the lucky few — I am one of them — there is an option to work from home. For others, a more significant crisis is around the corner. There won’t be homes for many.
If you are, like me, are always on the go, then the stillness can prove stifling. The days seem longer, though it is hard to tell a Tuesday from Friday.
Work — emails, pitches, phone calls, Zoom catch-ups — is getting done with alarming efficiency. There are fewer distractions. The calendar is remarkably sanitary — there is no need to say no. The society itself is in a default no-mode.
After work, one is left with a lot of time, especially if one doesn’t have kids. A small apartment doesn’t need that much upkeep. It all feels very mundane. Sometimes, I think that mundane is an airlock between reality and imagination.
In life before the virus, I would typically find ways to escape the ordinary. Sometimes, in fact, quite often, I would go make photographs somewhere. There would be time spent with friends and travels to different places. The escape from ordinary meant a chance to collide with interesting people, learning about them, learning from them.
As travels afar are no longer possible, one looks to the world that is closer to us. I have been trying to find images in places around me. I find time to write, read, and contemplate. There have been some Zoom calls with folks with interesting ideas about the future. I have talked to some about art.
And yet all that isn’t enough. The space in the day without the continuously changing context of location, people, and seasons only makes you hyper-aware of the ordinary — the mundaneness of our lives.
A few days after the pandemic shutdown, I noticed seagulls were spending more time in the communal pool in our building complex. Devoid of people, it wasn’t surprising to see gulls take up residence in the pool.
It became clear that it was just two gulls, and they were now residents of our complex. Fast forward to today, it seems they have had a baby. And the baby is growing up fast. The baby has left the nest. Instead, it is now hanging around in the fountain that is in front of the building.
Momma gull is keeping the baby company. I have not seen the dad anywhere around. They are quite messy — but it is not that bad. It is a good distraction from the daily craziness that surrounds us. It is also a good reminder of the time that has elapsed since we started sheltering in place.
The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they – at some distant point in the future – will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely… because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.Alvin & Heidi Toffler
The Tofflers left us a simple to-do item, and yet we ignore it. Whether it is in business, politics, or technology, everyone continues to ignore a simple fact: It is always about the future and the people.
I have come down with a case of megrims. It has a lot to do with the wildfires in Northern California and the damage they are causing to humans and other ecosystems. I have been in San Francisco for nearly 18 years, and over the past five years, these kinds of smoky conditions have become more prevalent. As humans, we can see and feel the impact of the wildfires, but what goes unnoticed is causing more long-term damage.
Fires are getting closer and into urban areas, they start contaminating the drinking water supplies. Burning homes and other structures, vegetation, and plastic materials all eventually enter our water supply. And there are non-human ecosystems that have been unable to cope and recover.
A long time ago, I wondered about the concept of home in a connected age. “Home, in the connected age, is such a fluid concept, given how much we are always moving from one place to another, like proverbial free agents,” I observed at the time. I suppose, in a way, I was possibly talking about today. “Home is because of our formative experiences. Those experiences define how we view the world. Our physical interaction with a place defines how we feel about that place. New York’s streets and corners have a story attached to them and I guess that gives a sense of belonging, and in the process act as a markers on the timeline called life.”
I didn’t think of San Francisco as home at that point, but fast forward to today, unbeknown to me, it is home. This past week, three of my favorite neighbors have moved out. Another close friend has packed up and moved out of San Francisco. Slowly, I am starting to lose people and places that gave life some context. Life is the context that friends and places provide us.
Many of my favorite places are shutting down. Reality has a porous quality to it now. And like the ash falling from the sky, it is sprinkling a sense of loss. I wonder how many others feel this social disruption that is happening around us.
We have a framework of vanishing relationships. These relationships give context to who we are, what we do, and where we live. The coffeeshop we sat down for meetings and conversations are now being replaced by two-dimensional take-it-to-go experiences that lack the dimensionalities of human experience. How can you lend emotional payload to picking a cup of coffee from a barista behind a glass wall and a mask?
We all think of home in terms of physicality, but in reality, it is about close connections. What happens when all these close connections are scattered? Who will we be? Nomads, who think they work from home, but they don’t even know what home is.
I have been following the emergence of new behaviors during the pandemic very closely, especially online commerce. The pandemic has been an accelerant for e-commerce. USPS saw a 60% to 80% increase in the number of boxes it had been ferrying during May 2020. Amazon saw its revenues go up 40% year over year to $88.9 billion. Walmart saw its U.S. eCommerce sales grow 37%, while Sam’s Club eCommerce sales grew 35%.
Michael Sivak, of Sivak Applied Research, took data from various sources and estimated that during the second quarter of 2020, inflation-adjusted e-commerce sales in the US were up 43.3% compared to the same three months in 2019.
From Target to mom-and-pop shops, operators are seeing steady growth in their digital revenues, and it is pretty clear that the pandemic has finally turbocharged the online commerce, and it will come at the expense of the traditional retail.
What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise, there are only two dimensions. Otherwise, you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Marin Headlands are my favorite getaway. Hawk Hill is a location with a grand vista. Point Bonita Lighthouse is another stop that makes me appreciate the splendor of San Francisco and the majesty of the Pacific. On a typical day, at sunset, it is a place of serenity — a city far in the distance, bathed in pink hues, and mist. On foggy days, the new towers rise about the fog flowing like smoke from Hemmingway’s cigar. I don’t even make photos. I just want to savor the moment.
Friday evening wasn’t as peaceful. You could see the smoke, like rotting yellowish-brown meat in the middle of a sandwich of blues. Out in the distance, on the Pacific horizon, you could see the smoke and the marine layers in a lock reminiscent of two wrestlers locked in a Boston crab move. The setting sun only added to the surrealism of the moment.
Death Valley recorded the hottest day in history: 130 degrees. It is safe to say that we are way past the point where we can reverse climate change.
It is time for mitigation — and perhaps, coming up with solutions to live with the change. Oscar Wilde once said, “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.” It is time to look for the donuts.
We live in strange times. Never before have science and technology needed to cope with this beyond-human scale reality, and never has society started to turn its back on science as it is doing now. The other day, I read about this news that could help tackle the CO2 problem a tiny bit. A team of Brown University researchers found a way to “fine-tune a copper catalyst to produce complex hydrocarbons — known as C2-plus products — from CO2 with higher efficiency.”
As a chemistry student — albeit not a very good one — I used to talk to my classmates about how to solve pollution problems. Of course, my professional path took me in a different direction. Nevertheless, I still keep a close eye on the developments in the world of chemistry. The breakthrough by the Brown team is an exciting development. It is not the answer, but it is a piece of the jigsaw that science can solve.
The pandemic and the resulting lockdown might as well be a beta-test for an uncertain future. One where it would be virtually impossible for society to function without accounting for extreme weather conditions. Whether it is delivery robots, self-driving delivery vehicles, vertical farms, or new materials for everything from clothing to home building materials, we have no choice but to prepare for the future.
My way of dealing with anxiety and negative feelings is to decrease my exposure to online stimuli. Less news is good news. I spent fewer minutes on online social services, and I have also reduced my Zoom usage.
After more than six months of being quarantined indoors, I should by now be quite used to staying indoors. And I am.
We humans can adapt to changes very fast. As someone who was in perpetual motion and going to different places and meeting other people all the time, I quickly embraced my inner hermit. And I found a way forward.
I have formed a simple routine to get through the pandemic. I go for a morning walk when roads are empty. An afternoon stroll to the park, where I sit down, read a book and sip on some fizzy water, and then post-dinner stroll to the water, sometimes with my camera. I strive to walk 10,000 steps every day. Going out gives me a reason to wear different outfits and adds a real-world texture to life.
Transitions between seasons bring a new sense of urgency to an ecosystem. This is true on land and in the sea. In both cases, I find the seasonal transitions visually and emotionally appealing.
I recently found myself on a beach off the California hamlet of Bolinas in the middle of a seasonal transition. For a couple of hours, I watched multiple whales frolicking in the waters as they dove for food. I am not enough of a nature expert to say for certain if these were the blue whales that have been making appearances in Northern California. I could see these with my naked eye. It was easy to find them, as well, because the ocean was relatively calm. A gigantic, ever-changing swarm of sea birds was also taking part in this alfresco dining.
The sight in front of me was a reminder of the gentle rotation of the planet, which will keep going long after I am gone. Similarly, these whales will migrate elsewhere.
Locked in my cave, as I have been for the last many months, I feel the passage of time. I don’t mean that in a rigid, mathematical sense. I feel its ebbs and flows. Time has fluidity and adaptability. It is fungible, only represented in the rhythms of the world around us. As I grow older, I realize that impermanence and time are part of the same journey. The biggest lesson of standing in place — especially during this pandemic — is the importance of listening to the heart’s rhythm and letting that define what time and life are.
As I become more open to the world, I notice that the words others use to describe it have become more calculated. Every word online, it seems, is uttered for the benefit of the platforms. Through the feed, which is how we experience the “now,” words are designed to provoke outrage. Images are almost perfect, each one laser-printed to perfect saturation, built to get likes and followers. Like a polluted stream, it flows past us.
Faster and faster it goes, when slower is what I want everything to be — especially my photography. I have lost all interest in perfection. The representation of reality is meaningless. From politics to stock markets to fashion, we find ourselves trapped in a reality that is nothing more than synthetically generated memes in obeisance to hyper-capitalism
Someone was complaining on Twitter about Apple’s iPhone being unable to comprehend the color of the sky. Neither does my Leica. It is all too surreal. The colors that one normally associates with movies such as Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Mad Max, and Dune are all around us in San Francisco. It is strange to experience what I am experiencing right now. All the dystopian fiction is becoming all too real.
To paraphrase, a popular verse:
Red sky at night, nature’s delight.
Red sky at morning, nature’s warning.
I have made some attempts to take photos of the MARS skies and the smoke-filled city. The past six days, however, due to incredibly lousy air quality, have been locked indoors.
The dark, smoke-filled skies are definitely messing up my body clock. Over the past few days, my sleep schedule has become completely messed up, and I am waking up at 3 a.m. and then falling asleep in the afternoon. As a result, now I have a throbbing, low-intensity migraine, which usually happens when I can’t sleep properly.
I feel shitty complaining — after all, people are losing their homes and lives — and yet I am. Maybe it is because of this feeling of the proverbial walls closing in. Or perhaps, it is a realization that humans staying indoors will be part of our collective future reality because of pandemics or climate change.
I have meager expectations from reality. Any more adaptation is just too much, too soon. I want to return to what, just a week ago, seemed like a sad imitation of society. I want to sit in the park, drink some water, and watch the dogs walk their humans.
Today, I can see the sunshine behind the gray wall of fog, smoke, and ash. But the air is still terrible — the air quality index puts San Francisco on par with Delhi.
It is only Monday.
The ash and smoke from the wildfires overwhelming California and the Northwestern United States are only compounding the problems. Portland and San Francisco have the worst air quality anywhere in the world.
And yet, I can’t resist going out in the fog and seeing if I can capture any moments. I went up to Russian Hill, hoping to make a photo of the Bay Bridge from the top of California Street. As the images show, it was hard to see anything. Down the hill, it was impossible to see the top of the Transamerica Pyramid when standing right beneath the iconic building.
I saw the red sun for a brief minute, not glowing, but glowering down, as if frowning at human incompetence. San Francisco is under a shroud of ash, smoke, and fog. There is an eerie feeling in the air of impending doom, making you wonder what else we have to endure in months to come.
September is almost over. Two hundred and five days have passed since I started isolating during this pandemic. As someone who loves traveling, it has been challenging to stay in place. Six months later, I have begun to feel comfortable with the idea of not going anywhere.
The time saved from not being in motion allowed me to connect with some smart brains rethinking our future and what we need to do to live with all the swamping changes.
Maybe that is why I am a little less interested in the political drama around TikTok — which feels like a reality TV show at times. The wall to wall coverage of such issues is distracting us from the real problems we face as a society. While the media has always been attracting attention, it has now become the hunger games of eyeballs. The manufactured outraged and narrative-driven coverage is nothing more than taking toying with attention for the sake of profits.
For the media establishment, it is all one big reality show. Every bit of news and non-news is atomized to the point that it takes more time to comprehend a story than it takes to churn it out.
The pandemic and pandemic politics have only revealed that we live in an information environment that is often dehumanizing and devoid of values. Anger, fear, and divisiveness have become the common themes in the words and images that flow into the stream of our lives.
We could all use a little more silence in our lives. We need to learn to live with the harsh reality that we aren’t that important. No one pays attention when they have to attend to what’s important to them. We need to learn and embrace the silence, in the words of an ESPN writer, “as an asylum from judgment and expectation.”
The emptiness of the streets, fewer people driving, and general lack of activity gave us the gift of silence. How silent were many parts of our society?
The silence was very noticeable — I would walk out every morning and stand right next to the bay bridge and hear nothing. You can hear traffic rumbling on the bridge from my apartment on busy mornings, about half a mile away. Obviously, I wasn’t alone in this observation. According to the University of Michigan researchers who analyzed data from the Apple Hearing Study, the environmental noise exposure dropped by half.
Humans aren’t the only one who are impacted by noise and resulting stress. “Birds sing louder in noisy environments, and research has shown the resulting stress can speed aging and disrupt their metabolisms,” reports Science Mag. “Noise can also keep them from hearing their own chicks — or the warnings of fellow birds; it may even be driving down bird diversity in many cities.” The pandemic saw bird songs become softer and fewer fights breaking out among males.
Humans are really invasive species. By pushing noisy, high-speed devices as tools of recreation, we are ruining the ecosystems for sensitive wildlife.
After almost seven months of hardcore isolation, I decided to go up the coast to celebrate my birthday week with a few days of photography, relaxation, hiking, and separation from the madness of the connected world. It was therapeutic. I filled my days with pursuits that enriched me and didn’t waste my time on things like the debates, Twitter drama, or the general busyness that eat up our days. The time away reinforced just how empty so much of the stories we allow to eat up our time truly are.
We are living in the golden age of half-truths. A tiny bit of facts and liberal innuendo, combined with the fact that the media has to fill the proverbial airwaves (television networks, newspapers, websites, and social platforms), the facts and truth have become a victim of noise-saturated society. Media has gone from being the pulpit of Walter Cronkite and instead has become a tool for inducing dopamine.
The consistent stream of half-truths over the past few years have undermined the credibility of whatever is coming out of the most important office in our country. So it is hard to trust what one hears about the news. What a shame.
The sad part is that, in 2020, we are all complicit in weaving this web of half-truths. Media outlets need to fill their airwaves, so they turn ambiguous tweets from chief executives like Tesla’s Elon Musk into what resembles a fact-based news story. The headline is juicy enough for folks to tweet or share, or re-share. We are pumping the social media algorithmic engine to get more attention focused on such stories. And then we are onto the next one, whatever it may be.
The horrors of the pandemic are hard to ignore. The long-term damage to society is still unknown. What is undeniable, however, is that we are in a period of extreme, rapid change that will redefine how we interact with the world around us.
It has been said before and bears repeating: The pandemic has forced us into the future, and it has done so in a hurry.
I often wonder and worry about a future where everything is digital. Change is never equitable, and especially the changes brought on by digital technologies and connectedness. Just as extreme poverty has been the outcome of industrial capitalism, we shouldn’t be surprised by technological inequity becoming a significant issue in the intelligence age.
We can already see this issue emerging in the pandemic. How often have you seen images of kids sitting in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants to access WiFi and attend their classes over Zoom? The Federal Communications Commission says that over 21 million people in the U.S. lack high-speed connectivity, though it should not be surprising that this is most likely a significant undercount. BroadbandNow puts the number at 42 million. Microsoft argues that 157 million Americans don’t get broadband speeds, even those with connectivity.
The lack of basic broadband connectivity is a problem that extends into everything, from education to health and money.
The rise of distance education, remote work, and telemedicine has made broadband a necessity. And nothing illustrates the need for connectivity more than a growing trend towards digital money. This shift is significant enough to be reflected in the stock prices of companies like PayPal, Square, Aydin, and others. Contactless payments are booming.
As long as you have money and credit, you can find new ways to pay for things.
But what happens when you don’t have those luxuries? What if you are part of the global unbanked who rely on cash to get by? Given the sheer number of unbanked people around the world, what will be the societal ramifications of the mainstreaming of contactless payments? I know we aren’t there yet. We are going in that direction — and it will completely alter the idea of money as we have known it.
Whenever I think about digital change, I think about the camera. Not too long ago, we were married to the idea of a standalone camera and accustomed to its limitations. In came the smartphone, and it made us rethink what a camera is and what it can do. Subsequently, it has become the tool with which we capture and construct our daily reality. And it also has become a weapon of mass surveillance.
I see a lot of change happening during the pandemic (how we make payments being just one of them) that will upend our behaviors and change us as a society sooner than we may have expected. Some are already reaping the benefits of this transition, while others are already being left behind. The earlier we can identify the inequities created and exacerbated by the coming revolution, the greater the odds that we might actually address them.
David Churbuck, a friend wrote an essay on his blog, exploring American individuality and the current politicization of something as simple as wearing a mask to prevent the virus’s spread for the collective good. He points out that this isn’t the first time. Helmets, seat-belts, and now the masks are part of the “supremacy of the individual in America versus the herd,” he noted. “Americans don’t like to be told what to do by those faceless powers on high who know what’s best for them. They never have and never will.”
That doesn’t make it right.
There are some days when I wake up in a state where my mind is in overdrive. I jump from one thought to another, mostly due to some weird logic, and by the time it is noon, the whole thought process has become incoherent. Today was one of those days — I was contemplating the unified theory of post-social chaos and lost the thread.
I have learned not to fight my own internal incoherence and instead try and do busywork.
The pandemic is as good a time as any to think of greater good — not to think of everyone as them, but as us.
I cannot but feel anxious by the idea that somehow we have normalized the death of a quarter-of-a-million people. I wonder if social media has sapped us of all empathy — dead are just numbers. Dead are not data. Data is not people. I can’t come to terms with simplistic arguments that somehow normalize the dead. I can’t deal with the fact that most people who are gone didn’t have to die if we did some things better.
Suppose we didn’t politicize common sense? That would make whatever future a lot less challenging. It is not as if our miseries and problems are going to go away. “Everyone keeps talking about 2020 as if it was the worst year of all the years,” writes Lyz Lenz. “January 1 doesn’t erase the pain and loss of this year.”
We shouldn’t expect Facebook to stop being driven by growth and engagement at any cost. We can’t expect YouTube to stop recommending addictive nonsense to keep people glued to their platform.
We have to live with this reality of the Internet and social media that has made us unsocial. We are now stuck with a system that only amplifies our differences, pushes us into our little corners — they are called filter bubbles now — and become less patient, less aware, and less human when it comes to the other.
On my list of things to be thankful for this year, I’m putting Zoom right at the top. Forget the company. Forget the stock. Zoom has been the piece of the proverbial driftwood we needed to hold on to in this year’s choppy seas.
Its prominence in our present also tells us a bit about what’s to come.
Zoom is a kick-starter for our mostly visual future, where reality, screens, and software seamlessly blend together. It has helped enable the idea of vanishing borders, an idea floated by my friend Pip Coburn. The borders we created around physical spaces — schools, conference halls, office buildings, doctors’ offices — are all now ephemeral lines in the sand.
The arrival of the pandemic forced us all to seek out the simplest product with the least amount of friction for video conferencing. That turned out to be Zoom. Almost overnight, everyone — from late-night television hosts to the presidential candidates — was Zooming.
Zoom is now part of the cultural zeitgeist. It has trained us to think in terms of work on video, which has fundamentally altered our work habits and expectations.
Whether it is sales calls or conferences or post-Thanksgiving get-togethers, Zoom has changed the meaning of events. We celebrate birthdays on Zoom. I do crosswords on Zoom with friends. And like a rapidly growing number of people, I use it for calls with my doctors.
Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates predicts “that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away.”
The digital age will be intensely global. Maybe we won’t move from our offices or from our homes and we’ll work from home, but I guarantee you we’re going to work globally when we do so. We’re going to be interconnected as we have been throughout human history and even more so now.Jeffrey Sachs, author, economist & globalization guru at Columbia University.
Shifts this significant have permanent ramifications. We should cast aside any belief that we will return to our previous understanding of normalcy. Many people have tasted the future, and despite its challenges, they seem to like what they have seen.
This is why we need to rethink universal connectivity. We need to view the future from the lens of video and visual interactions, and that is why it is important that every American, regardless of their place on the economic ladder, is connected via broadband.
Research by Michigan State University’s Quello Center shows that, if students have slower connections or no connections, they start to fall behind in homework, as well as the development of necessary digital skills. This has a long-term effect on their ability to attend college and earn a living in the future.
And we have gaping holes. It might surprise you, that 9% of students in rural areas, 6% in small towns, 4% in suburbs, and 5% in cities have no Internet access at all. I don’t know about you, but the image of kids sitting in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants logging into their classes because they don’t have an Internet connection at home is not acceptable to me.
Zoom’s impact on how we work is frequently discussed, but there are two other particular areas where Zoom is going to have a sustained and consistent impact: Medicine and education.
Telehealth has been discussed since the turn of the century, and nothing has come of it for the longest time. Thomas DelBanco, the John F. Keane & Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in an interview pointed out that, prior to the pandemic, less than 8% of care was remote. Today that number stands at 95%. “There are times when doctors, nurses, or therapists really need to see you — no question about it,” DelBanco said. “But there are also times when they really don’t.”
“Behavior change is the biggest barrier to progress in any industry, and it has been particularly challenging in healthcare,” said Annie Lamont, co-founder and managing partner of Oak HC/FT, a venture-capital firm spun out Oak Investment Partners said in a conversation with McKinsey. “There is no doubt that the patient-provider experience during the past several months has accelerated virtual models of care by five to ten years.” For instance, she expects home care “to be dramatically impacted.”
In time, better tools will emerge to enable telehealth. We are going to overcome the patchwork solutions that have been put in place, and who knows, we might see a specialized version of a Zoom-like service in the future become as popular as Zoom itself.
In the education arena, Zoom has exposed kids to the idea of screen-based learning. A whole generation of kids has now been forced to go to school on “video.” Attending classes online will be as normal for them as touching the screen and talking to Alexa. At the same time, more people have been acclimated to the idea of on-demand media, both visual and auditory.
Zoom has established this generalized behavior of using video calls for everything.
Will there be a modular, interactive, and customized learning process that merges the idea of Zoom-interface with Netflix-like on-demand capabilities? What about different platforms for allowing us to constantly upgrade our abilities?
Today, to keep up with the rapidly changing world of technology, I turn to lectures on YouTube, online courses offered by colleges and universities. I can’t help but think of the future where, in order to become or remain employed, one needs to keep constantly upgrading skills. As Issac Asimov said, ”Education is not something you can finish.”
Does this mean our education system has to evolve? Do colleges start evolving into a different kind of teaching environment? This need to upgrade skills is an opportunity. Those that help facilitate easy learning platforms, for example, will have a big role to play.
Of course, like all rapid changes, we don’t know the full extent of the problems ahead or how to address them all. For instance, we are working longer hours despite not commuting. We are dealing with mental health challenges that come with working from home and less human interaction. We don’t know exactly where to put the line between the private and the public. But these changes will eventually be tackled.
What is more challenging is the divide between those who can live in the future and those who are already being left behind. The current change works for those who have jobs that can accommodate it and those who have network connectivity. But it is not working for those who are disconnected, and it threatens to leave them permanently stuck in the past. We can’t afford to do that. Connectivity is part of building a better future. It is part of our resilience. I think about this divide all the time.
Having been in San Francisco for nearly two decades, this movie — the one where people move here, make their fortunes, and then leave for other places — is something I’ve seen before. Some depart quietly and never return. Some come back, thanks to the irresistible allure of the smell of money.
Today’s version of this story doesn’t seem to have much variation from its predecessors. The only noticeable difference may be that in 2020, the year of life as performance art, the notion of leaving San Francisco is netting more repetitive attention from the ever-growing mass of tweets, retweets, and sycophants. And the media is here to amplify all of it.
I don’t think I would have succeeded in the same way if not for the people I met here.Brian Chesky, co-founder, Airbnb
I should confess that I loved — and still love — New York. But life happened, and I ended up in San Francisco full-time in the early aughts. I was not too fond of it. I desperately wanted to go back. It has been two decades, and I am still here. Of course, I have not stopped — and never will stop — loving New York. It is like one’s first true love, complete in its incompleteness. Like thin, almost translucent slices of Iberian ham, my New York experiences are selectively confined to the best bits. I don’t see the city often enough to encounter its warts and its ugliness. I maintain my illusion, and I adore it.
San Francisco, on the other hand, is my reality. And reality is not pretty. It has a way of throwing problems in your face with relentless regularity. The ugliness is always there. You can’t run away from the urban blights or the sheer selfishness of our society. You can’t hide from the fact that we have a political establishment that is focused not on the good of the city, but on being re-elected.
Still, I’ve grown accustomed to this city. I still love waking up to the muted foghorns. I love being lost in the Presidio, playing hide and seek with the fog. I love imagining the end of the Pacific Ocean while standing on the edge of Ocean Beach. And I love wearing my cardigan every day. These are silly things. These are sublime things. They allow me to take my mind off the things that frustrate me. They make me appreciate San Francisco.
Most people in my industry have faint regard for history. We don’t quite remember that San Francisco is and always will be an unexplainable weirdo — a homeless person in Brooks Brothers chinos, drinking from a cup of a coffee chain famous for its $5 coffees, and yelling passages from the new testament mixed with mentions of Greenwald.
Right now, it seems that not just leaving San Francisco, but kicking it on the way out, has become a bit of a meme. And with all the bizarre propositions on our election ballots, our rabid political ecosystem, our declining quality of life, and the prospects of rising taxes, I can understand the temptation. After all, Texas is not greedy with its taxes. Montana has better mountains. Other places have warmer waters. I could join the exodus. But the contrarian in me says to zig when others zag.
What I take issue with is our leaders—people of means— abandoning our community when it needs us most.Jeff Lawson, CEO, Twilio
With Tony Hseih’s passing, I feel something special has ended. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe a certain innocent aspect of the early possibilities of the Internet. Maybe I feel the contrast of those days to a now that is more mercenary, less friendly, and more polarized. Whatever, without knowing Tony as well as I should, I mourn him deeply.
Did you hear Salesforce is buying Slack for $28 billion?
It is amazing to see what the Slack team has achieved with what was initially just an internal tool.
Today, there are Slack doubters. There are Slack haters. And there are Slack imitators. What is undeniable is that Slack has the tailwind of change behind it. The workplace of today is evolving and will keep evolving. The pandemic has only accelerated that change. The workday of today is changing and will keep changing. The tools that make sense of this change will keep evolving. I was long and will always be “long” on the human need to communicate.
Instead of jazz, blues, and chill out electronica, I find myself hiding in the highly minimal soundscapes. Whether it is Brian Eno, Mary Lattimore, or Nils Frahm, the music I prefer now has a certain monochromatic quality — perhaps reinforcing that as in picture, texture, contrast, and expression do not need an orchestra.
Maybe it is just that I am exhausted by the constant and eternal fumes of unending communication and communique in the form of notifications, tweets, hot takes, news, and bluster. They have saturated the mind with noise, so much so that all that data pollution is starting to spill over into the rest of life, forcing me to subtract from everything. Maybe my growing distaste for color is a reaction to the sameness of our lives in 2020.
The saturation without the ability to escape and being left in my cave, I am confronting myself because I have to. I wonder if aloneness pushed me closer to a more monochromatic reality, bringing me closer to my true self, a fact reflected in how I look at my photographs?
Or just maybe I became someone else during the lockdown? The great Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote, “The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary.”
Is American in decline? In the face of the pandemic, our botched response, our political divisiveness, many believe that our best days might be behind us. While the popular narrative is that America is in a decline, I remain resolutely optimistic. I am biased by an immigrant’s optimism and a deep belief in technology and science.
Our handling of COVID-19 is emblematic of what makes America a very unique place. Though we absolutely botched our response to the pandemic, this country has also produced one of the vaccines to fight it.
People often point to China and its rise as a rival to America. Not only does it take its technology cues (and intellectual property) from America, I can tell you that not many are lining up to immigrate there. It’s a futuristic place, sure, but one with little room for intellectual freedom and debate. For example, Alibaba founder and CEO Jack Ma paid the price when he spoke bluntly about certain things the ruling party didn’t care to have discussed.
Here in the United States, Elon Musk, an immigrant, is free to say anything. Others take a baseball bat to the Securities and Exchange Commission. We currently have politicians making wild and embarrassing claims about our elections. I suppose in places like Shanghai, where voting for the country’s leader isn’t an option, people are spared such unpleasantness — but that hardly seems preferable. The sheer number of Americans who participated in our November election should be a source of national pride and renewed optimism.
Our planet is facing an arduous future due to our changing climate. The answers to the myriad problems this creates will emanate from American minds and in the same freethinking, entrepreneurial tradition that allowed Google to be born here. Though we certainly don’t have a monopoly on innovation, we have a track record of doing it better and more frequently than anywhere else. While it is fashionable to be bemused by America, nobody overseas should forget that this is where the necessary ingredients for global prosperity are most likely to be found.
There is no shame in admitting that we are in need of self-improvement. We must begin by addressing the horror of this year, which has exposed a range of problems. I am confident that long-term and even permanent solutions to many of these problems exist. We can and will be better.
In college, I read about the American industry’s decline and the offshoring of jobs to other countries. In the twilight of the last century, it seemed the end was near. And yet, we saw the birth of companies such as Amazon, Google, and Netflix. About a dozen of these large American companies have since become part of the global society and economy.
America has always managed to invent a better tomorrow, even on its most difficult days. Reality is complex. Where there is struggle, there can also be transcendence. In order to experience the latter, we must first convince ourselves that it is possible.
One year ago, as we naively prepared to celebrate the first day of 2020, we were unaware of the unique and exceptional challenges that lay ahead of us. Perhaps some knew that a strange pneumonia-like illness was spreading in Wuhan. But even they could not anticipate how that virus would envelop the world, colliding dramatically — and often dangerously — with a maelstrom of social, political, economic, environmental, and technological forces.
Now as we prepare to welcome 2021, we are changed in many ways. Perhaps most significantly, the distinctions between our physical and digital worlds have largely disintegrated. We now work and we live online just as much, if not more, than we do offline. We may have always been heading this way, but this year significantly — and irreversibly — accelerated our pace. Transitioning to this new normal comes with tremendous opportunity, but we must remain aware that some will require assistance to make the adjustment.
For me — and I hope for you — the year also offered opportunities to pause and reflect on which aspects of that real, offline world we are willing to fight to preserve. The spark of our humanity will not be found among our fellow dopamine junkies on social media, nor will it be kindled by even the best Zoom meeting. It requires interactions with family members, friends, and even strangers where we can make actual eye contact and allow the conversation to wander away from the agenda and toward the stuff of true connection. It demands the mental space and peace that comes with unplugging, slowing down, and observing the environment. Our humanity is worth the effort required to keep it alive, so I hope we are all prepared to put some work into it.
Look, I am a stubborn guy. At the end of the day, I have always been and continue to be an optimist. Despite everything that has happened in this past year, I can’t help but believe that there is much to be hopeful about in 2021.
On Christmas Eve, I sent an email to about two dozen friends and asked them what were they looking forward to in 2021? Almost universally, they all said: being with family and those they love. I am no different: I just want to hug again.
December 31, 2020, San Francisco