It was July the 4th. Driving against the traffic of merry crowds gathering towards the fireworks, my heart was racing fast with each boom. My daughter was having a pretty bad diarrhea and vomiting, losing liquid fast but refusing to drink anything. After talking with a nurse frantically on the phone, I was instructed to buy some Pedialyte to rehydrate her immediately. Many stores already closed early, with only one 24hr CVS nearby. I pulled in the dark and derelict parking lot, and a bit of apocalyptic feel started to brew — what if the store is closed already, or they don’t have the medicine in stock?
I rushed in, hardly catching my breath. No other customers were present, and there was this lone old lady standing behind the register. She looked indifferent at first but upon noticing my anxiety, her face lit up like a sleeping computer booting. Before seeing me, she may have felt there’s no meaning to be at the post on this very holiday while everyone else would be celebrating. But now my sudden appearance may have provided a purpose.
I explained the situation, anxiously. She quickly ushered me to the isle and located the bottles I needed. She comforted me, even joking that her kids had the similar sickness when they were young, and there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. “Now you can even message doctors on your phone, and everything is on the internet,” I remember she said. “Kids are resilient. In our time, we couldn’t do much but only wait. Your girl will be fine. Get back to her quickly, she may be already running around.”
I thanked her, and felt much better. On my way out, I couldn’t stop wondering: in a few years when all stores are self-service with A.I. aid, what will the experience be? While fetching medicine could be much more effortless with automation, A.I. could detect anxiety from my facial expressions, elevated heart rate and excessive respiration. Will the A.I. respond with the same level of empathy and care? Will the machine identify the soft spots in my emotions, and make a joke about its never-existed but well-simulated experience of raising kids? Will I look at the screen or hologram, and feel the same warmth from the silicon hearts?
I turned my head around and saw her waving goodbye to me behind the register alone, like a last-standing rebellion guarding the final post from the inevitable machine takeover. I wished her fortune. I wished her well.
The summer of Kyoto was more humid than I thought. It has been almost fifteen years since my last visit to Japan, and this time I brought my family along. I have been fascinated by the ancient city since I was a child — the temples, the lores, the summer festivals and markets running for centuries. Finally, I got a chance to explore everything first-hand. My wife made all the arrangements. Since we really wanted an immersive experience, we booked an Airbnb instead of a touristy hotel. From the website it’s a traditional Japanese condo with Tatami in a historical part of the city, perfect for the family. I was thrilled — I even bought myself a set of Yukata (traditional summer male outfit) and wanted to blend in with the locals a bit. I thought my Japanese fluency probably can get by maybe for a minute or two.
When we got there, things were bit different than we expected. There wasn’t any false marketing — everything about the condo was as advertised. What was different though, was the neighborhood. The condo sat on a narrow back alley with three other similar condos, all operated by other property management companies. The funny part was in order to make the property look less like a rental, fake owner names were hang at the entry way. Hence for that day we were role playing Mr and Ms Nijo, and so do all of our neighbor tourists. I walked around the neighborhood and found at least 1 out of 3 condos were operated by various Airbnb-like companies. The owners have all moved out so that they could profit from the lucrative rents during the busy touristy season. The houses still look traditional, but the local charm are long gone, leaving only empty shells.
As we walked along the narrow streets, we stepped to the side to apply some sunscreen. The door behind us opened, and a grumpy old man asked us whether we wanted a haircut. As we said no and were apologizing we blocked his entry way, he literally yelled “Get the F*** out” in Japanese. I was sympathetic to him — this may happen maybe dozens or even hundreds of time a day. His barber shop may be the last few standing, in a town encroached by impersonating residents.
I noticed my mom has been more melancholy last few years. She has been a bit of a pessimist when she was younger, so at first I thought there may be something going on with my her and my father. I tried to talk to her more, and I heard a lot of petty complaints, as well as mentioning of bad things in the news that don’t really matter to her. One day: nobody care about the seniors. Next day: the medical doctors are all fraud and only care money. A week later: social security will be bankrupt, the elderly will be helpless. She was not like this before. She use to enjoy travel and cooking, but all she can think about now is the ominous future.
So I started investigating. I tried to figure out what her day is like — where she went, who she talked to, etc. I was initially worried that she was involved in some pyramid scheme. But nothing suspicious emerged; she was hanging out with the same group of people, and her day-to-day life wasn’t changed. I was bewildered. Her negative view towards the world just kept spiraling worse.
This mystery remain unsolved until she visited me — when I’ve got the opportunity to observe her from close. Immediately I noticed where the problem was — her smartphone. She spent an awful lot of time on her black mirror, primarily with two things: News App and Social Network. Since both of these Apps were personalized, she was stuck in an echo chamber on steroids: these News App kept recommending her negative news about seniors, especially on topics like healthcare, social security and loneliness. She then shares the personalized, primarily negative news to her social networks and friends, which would then resonate and promote more sharing and engagement of similar material within the same group. And this goes on and on.
This back-and-forth feedback-loop between the seemingly unrelated News App and Social Network App dug such a deep hole for this cluster of seniors that they can’t see anything else other than the dark side of the world, despite they are connected to the web the entire time. They become a group of stranded people trapped deep on an island hopelessness. Everywhere they look, it’s something pessimistic and mentally damaging without a way out.
Then I tried to rescue her — I explained how recommendation engine works and why what she’s reading everyday online or hearing from her friends may not reflect the world she’s in. I was worried that she may be overwhelmed by the technology, but she listened. I asked her to spend less time in those Apps, and if she couldn’t, try to engage more things she’s usually not interested in at all, like — race cars, fishing, even anime, to resist the algo takeover of her mind. I asked her to go back to reading books, and travel with her friends. I even tried to click on random news when I had access to her phone.
Things improved noticeably— I don’t know whether it’s because of the video of grandkids, I talk to her a bit more, or her consciously battle against the feeds that keeps trying to pull her back into the echo chamber. She may be petite and seemingly harmless, but not easily surrendering to the sophisticated machines that try to hold her a hostage. Not yet, Skynet.
The Best and Worst of Times
We are living in an era of unprecedented technological marvel. With a push of a virtual button on palm sized phone, we can reach out to almost anyone (60% internet pen., 40% smart-phone pen.) instantly on this planet, have food(200B) and merchandize(25T) delivered directly to our doors, and enjoy immersive entertainment in details that far beyond retina’s resolution. We have never been so interconnected in this massive network of people, devices, sensors and algorithms — technologies have become air to humans, can’t live without. Those robots and autonomous cars that used to only exist in fictions, are emerging into reality. We are, at…