Why Global Products Don’t Lead to Global Unity
Thursday February 13, 2020
“Anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved.”
– Picy Iyer
The piece below is a personal reflection that bridges my professional experience as a design researcher, as well as my personal perspective on life bound by my own frame of reference. My reflection is focused on the observations and encounters with local people I had luck to get to know in the past 12 months in San Francisco to Bali. This piece is not meant to answer any questions and give solutions. I’m just a one-human-unit that strives to create impact and challenge ideas, status quo, and processes.
One of the best things about traveling and exploring places is encountering foreign cultures in their raw state. The influx of different information, colours, scents, behaviours, and even interactions is what I think of as filling the blank space of our understanding of ‘otherness.’ This influx allows us to see places inside ourselves and illuminate memory that falls into the lethargic sleep caught between our routines and double-filtered digital lives. It is only then, in those remote and quiet areas removed from the noise of daily newsletters, updates on the next big acquisition in the tech space, or another #delete campaign, that suddenly the scale of our heritage and progress echoes the loudest.
We’ve never been as connected as we are now, or as isolated. Things designed in tech shops in Silicon Valley affect people all over the world. Yet, the reality of life for a person in Bali, Indonesia compared to someone in the Bay area is markedly different—and I’m not talking about the factors determined by the geography or economic situation. I mean that the executive decisions made in these shops, large or small, influence people’s lives in a variety of ways, depending on the level of tech-savviness or individual ignorance that the users have.
This truth hits when thinking about all these recent cultural encounters: It’s a new world but the same humans. Through the widespread usage of digital products, we have created a new vessel of living that has been distributed globally in the form of the gig economy, disposable culture, and data-driven advertising—just to name a few.
But that doesn’t mean everyone is plugged into the same issues. Certain issues that become a central piece of all conversations in one city are completely absent in other cultures. In our drive toward a global culture, there is no agreement on what really matters. Why is it that my colleague on the West Coast is losing sleep over a global scandal, while my other friend in central Europe saw it on the news and didn’t even bother reading about it?
Over the past few months, the encounters I have had with people on my travels have got me thinking about the state of our ordinary homo sapiens’ connectivity and unity. As time passes, I think more and more about how we’re all part of this ‘sleeping giant’ culture that cares only about what is familiar and near. We suffer from the illusion of understanding others when we only scratch the surface. As a researcher, it is important to sometimes leave your corporate hats at home and truly venture out into the world, only then will you start seeing the cracks and gain clarity around what coexistence in our universe means, rather than what our current solutions claim coexistence means.
Remember the huge Cambridge Analytica scandal? In the hills of California on a warm spring evening I stepped into an Uber and within 5 mins the driver started sharing his opinions on how abused he feels as a user. The day after, as I was crossing the street, two well-dressed men were ranting about how the scandal was global news and cannot be taken lightly.
Hearing them I was in complete agreement, the story had sent shockwaves through the world. I was left wondering, when did we become comfortable with risking other people’s intimate and revealing data? The Cambridge Analytica scandal and how much it affected people, showed me that ordinary people everywhere—those not living and breathing tech all day, every day—do care. Or at least that’s what I thought…
It didn’t take me long to realize that what matters is subjective. On a long-haul flight to the remote areas of Bali, the idealistic in me envisioned a trip where I could speak to locals and learn about their realities, challenges, and passions. (Can you tell I’m a researcher even when I’m not?) I assumed I’d encounter a “purer” life than our own, with less technology.
It was in one of my many conversations with locals that my illusion around a tech-free part of the world was shattered. An individual I spoke with a few times during my stay on the island spoke with fervour and passion about how powerful Facebook is for him. He can now stay connected with people from across the whole world, connect with people he’s never met (and likely never will), as well as how varied and vast the knowledge he gets from his newsfeed is. But the moment I mentioned Cambridge Analytica, which he thought was some high-profile university in Europe, I really saw the space between us; a clash of what matters and of information.
It left me wondering what forces are shaping our world today? Or more importantly, what is shaping the smaller pocket worlds within the larger world? Every time I think about the people I met in Bali and San Francisco, I’m struck by the chasm that exists between people in different places and how vulnerable this makes those who aren’t ingrained in tech news and culture. The brutal truth is that a person living far away and removed from the reality of digital transformations or IPOs becomes the most vulnerable to this well-oiled machinery coming from the West.
A feeling of enlightenment can hit you anywhere, sometimes in a forest, sometimes while listening to white noise, sometimes in the morning while sipping your morning coffee. For me, it was on my flight home curled up in my window seat trying to fall asleep. It was there that the magnitude of people’s different priorities and understanding hit me. The contrast of what I experienced in two different environments was like night and day.
The experience left me with an overwhelming question: Should educating the global nation on the data space become a status quo or is status quo defined by the cultural norms and periphery of what people on the other side of the planet lose sleep over? I realized in this moment just how easy it is to let your own echochamber dictate how you think others should see the world.
So rather than imposing our interests on others, maybe we should surrender ourselves to the natural and organic flow of occurrences that can only be seen through the eyes of the natives. Impeding another culture with preconceived ideas and higher agenda dictated by product owners or senior leadership can do more damage than good. Rather than asking how to make our remote pocket worlds meet and become truly one, we should challenge whether this is actually the right thing to do. What if the products and platforms we build became ubiquitous with the ethical norms recognized globally yet respected the code and culture of the local community?
Bringing understanding to my work
It is on trips where I am truly free and liberated from my “official” research cape, where I can be driven purely by intrinsic motivations of curiosity and empathy, that remind me of my conviction of doing what I do. It is only in a construct-free habitat that I see the universe for what it is: a summation of elements of raw aesthetic and untouched norms. It is these moments that fill me up and make me a better researcher when I return.
In the world I occupy, in which I spend my time on diving deep and probing various industries or problem spaces, I have seen myself and others blossom when we are given a chance to experience life without constraints, giving us the ability to reach a deeper understanding of humanity. The question of the relationship between corporate or KPI-driven agendas and ordinary people around the world is one of perspective and respect. If researchers, product designers, and other practitioners can try to reach a higher level of cross-cultural illumination, rooted deeply in perspective and respect, the afterglow will create products that prevent the manipulation, data abuse, and mass misinformation.
As people working in tech, we are the storytellers of this world who need to be grounded in reality. We are the painters that decide on the right mediums to use in different contexts.
One striking paradox that flows to the top of my thoughts is that we all live at a moment of beginnings and endings; yet, one’s ending is someone else’s beginning. And it might as well all be a mere abstraction for someone else. In such considerations, we should embody the word perspective and respect every time we make decisions that will impact the lives of people we may never meet, whether they know it or not.