Betting on the Physical World

Reflections on an absurd couple of years.

Jun 2022

In the past two years, significant hype in the technology industry has centered around two main developments: crypto and virtual reality. With skyrocketing inflation, political unrest, racism, violence, climate change, a pandemic, wars, and so much more, people around the world are understandably disillusioned with our societal machinery and are looking for anything to come along and disrupt the status quo. Both crypto and virtual reality represent visions of leaving behind the world as we know it and creating some future that is less dependent on or completely independent from existing political, cultural, and physical systems.

I won’t make any predictions about what will emerge out of this turbulent period of history, whether anarchical systems take hold or humans find a way to fix and recover the trust in our institutions and leaders is outside my control. When humans look back at this era of human civilization, how will they talk about social media, cryptocurrencies, or our global and domestic politics?

Reading through The Atlantic’s essay on the uniquely stupid decade in American life, I find the diagnostic of everything wrong with our society to be paralyzing. Moving back to the states after nearly three years abroad, it’s hard to describe how different things feel now, even though much of my immediate hometown feels, on the surface, identical to how I left it. My parents and the largely Asian-immigrant population in San Jose seem more on edge after violent acts toward Asians, even going so far to amplify anti-Black or anti-Mexican attitudes of the far right.

Additionally, gun violence continues to be unsolvable as children and adults are senselessly murdered in a country that somehow believes owning assault weapons is a fundamental human right, invoking debates on the second amendment, thoughts and prayers, and further inaction. As a technologist, these issues not only reveal to me what is broken about our society, but also that our problems cannot be solved through technology alone.

In the past few years, I’ve examined issues such as climate change, elections, and more from the perspective of a data journalist, crunching numbers and making graphics to better understand news events. Looking at so many disasters beyond our control has revealed to me why we feel so burnt-out, unmotivated, and defeated. Maybe the way that we’ve oriented our ambitions and careers haven’t done much to address our physical world with human-centered solutions. No matter how much we improve and advance our technology, digital tools, and internet societies, our physical world will continue to be the most important investment in our future. There’s no shortcut around investing in sustainable energy, education, public health, and civic society the way we have done for decades.

Don’t get me wrong, I get excited about large, ambitious visions promising big change in short time-frames as much as anyone else, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also begun to recognize how small, often low-tech changes are the most reliable way of tangibly affecting change. Traditional institutions such as newspapers and governments, as flawed as they are, still have a lot more influence and stability than the startups and experiments of those living on the cutting edge.

That’s why I’ve decided to pursue cartography and geographic information systems in order to help better address issues including managing our land, resources, and waste. Some of the most oldest problems facing humanity include the way that we manage our land and natural resources, making the potential applications for better geospatial tools endlessly important. Geospatial visualizations provide journalists with better ways of telling news stories, especially when used in stories that explore vast amounts of data such as politics, climate change, or other socio-economic issues.

But beyond that, I’ll be looking for more ways to give back to my communities whether it be the people in my neighborhood, industry, or complete strangers, doing what I can to help others be successful.