For the last few months I've been grappling with a few interesting questions and problems and trying to find good solutions to them. But first, a thought experiment for you: Ask yourself what the last positive experience you had with a stranger. You don't have to tell me it, just think about it. If you want to tell me about it though, email me, by all means!
Tonight I spent about twenty minutes talking to a couple visiting from out of town who were trying to find some good places to eat while they were staying here. I recommended the place that I had just got back from, Shan Dong (which is a lovely chinese restaurant if you're ever in Oakland), and they told me they had eaten breakfast there and really enjoyed it.
In a related experiment, I spent much of the last few months doing something really simple: asking people online for hugs the next time I saw them. I didn't get many hugs. I didn't have many people reach out and ask if I wanted to get coffee and catch up with them. This is simply because I didn't have those sorts of relationships out here. I recently reconnected with one of my friends who is in much the same position, and it's affecting her in much worse fashion than it is for myself.
Randall Munroe is, to no one's surprise, a huge point of inspiration in my daily life, what with being a geek and all. One of his most inspirational set of comics has been Choices because it strikes a real chord with me and shows a huge disconnect in how things should be compared to how things actually are. We don't fly enough kites, strangers. We're too busy interacting (in the loosest sense of the word) with our friends and family on social networks and chat to notice that the people we walk past on the street are interesting and could be good friends themselves.
Coffee shops are the rare difference in how these interactions occur any more; it's still socially acceptable to strike up a conversation with someone at a coffee shop about what they are working on and what their interests are. It's not socially acceptable to do that waiting in line at BART or walking your dog at the part, or getting food at the grocery store. Why? Our culture breeds this sort of xenophobia where anyone who is not One Of Us is someone to fear, a criminal, a pervert, crazy.
We live in a world where we are increasingly connected with the people we are emotionally closest to, while becoming increasingly isolated from the people we are most proximally close to, I want to see and build solutions that solve that and draw these two groups closer to a single group. It's only going to get worse as we move towards a more ephemeral and international society. It was taken to extremes in Cory Doctorow's book Eastern Standard Tribe, where a man's actions and desires are completely disconnected from the world he physically lives in, driven only by the xenophobia of the social group he best identifies with. I think that's kind of sad.
We have supercomputers in our pockets. We could be using those to help solve Real Problems, not just Big Problems, but Human Problems as well. But we're not. We're sharing pictures of our food with other people who are also eating dinner tonight. I'm guilty of this, and I bet you are, too.
We should be using our supercomputers to solve Real Problems.
Fixing these problems with technology isn't enough though: They aren't really problems that can be solved by technology alone, it requires social problems to be solved along with the technical problems. Trolls assholes and creepers exist just as much online as they do when you're AFK, is it possible to downvote them or hellban them while AFK though?
These thoughts are all related to a bigger problem that's been on my mind though: Depression is growing among the people in my generation. Antidepressant use increased by 400% in the US between two studies from '94-'98 and '05-'08. That's huge. And it's only getting worse, afaict, a non-insignificant number of my own friends have been prescribed antidepressants in the last five years. I've thought about getting prescribed some myself, lately.
Small human interactions and love goes a long way towards making people feel less empty and alone, but increasingly that is getting harder for depressed people to find, it seems. Especially in big cities like Oakland and SF, we live in fear of strangers, whether they are random people waiting for transit, or our own neighbors. But for many people, especially in fresh and new environments, we don't have a support structure and our only interactions are with random people waiting for transit, or our own neighbors.
Paul Graham recently wrote that the next big place for startups to disrupt is in startup investing. Seriously. Not the scientific research community whose publications have shown to be archaic and at times corrupt. Not climate change, which many in the valley deny even existing. Not social services, which are limited by government funding and the lack of care of the general fuck-you-i've-got-mine public. Startups that serve no purpose other than to make other startups money. You can say that that has an affect on making the world a better place, but to me it serves little purpose other than growing the funding disparity between the social iFart apps that Valley investors are obsessed with (small investment turns artifically huge returns) and the sorts of things that will actually make the world a better place (multi-year projects that require time and money investment but at the end make everyones life more whole).
Think about these things when you apply to YCombinator or want to build the next shitty social network for cats or cars. And please don't build the next shitty social network for cats or cars unless you think it'll really grow offline human interactions and make the world a better place. Thanks.