the on tech newsletter
Next year we need more creative ways to bring us together. (Laundry robots would be cool, too.)
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
I want robots that will do my laundry and clear my clutter, but that’s not going to happen soon.
The innovations I’m most eager to have for myself and the world in 2022 are those that give us more moments of precious connection with others. Heading into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, which has separated us physically and further divided us, we need and deserve more microdoses of human empathy and community. Technology can help.
One of my favorite internet creations during the pandemic was Window Swap, a website developed last year by a couple in Singapore that gives people video camera views out of strangers’ windows.
You can watch the drizzle on a deck in suburban Pennsylvania, and then scope out what’s happening outside an apartment tower in Seoul. Yesterday, I spent several minutes virtually looking out a pretty window in Reykjavik onto a gloomy sky. In a week full of doom, and my doomscrolling, it was a precious escape and moment of connection to others far away.
Window Swap hasn’t changed the world. I mostly neglected the website a few weeks after I first encountered it. But it is captivating and calming.
You don’t see people on Window Swap, but you feel them and glimpse the world through their eyes. That connection, even fleeting, is a precious resource. It’s worth rooting for technologies and ideas that can bring us more of that feeling of togetherness.
The audio chat room Clubhouse, which also drew a crowd during Covid — and lately, perhaps less so, brings people together to talk about a topic of shared interest or to role play as a McDonald’s drive-through. A decade ago there was a similar internet fad called Chatroulette, which let people drop in on a stranger by webcam to gab for a few minutes.
You can probably imagine how Chatroulette could, and did, go wrong. It became an opportunity for some people to be profane or disturbing. People on Clubhouse and the similar Twitter Spaces can likewise bully participants or traffic in extremist ideas. Journalists have reported about the companies paying far too little attention to the potential for harm.
But I admire the principle behind inventions that bring people together in new ways, and I hunger for creative ideas to help us make connections and find community.
I wrote earlier this year about the challenges to finding information, entertainment and activities that we might like in the sea of internet abundance. Computer models that are trained to understand our tastes can help us find new stuff, but they can pull us further into the familiar or even lead us down dangerous paths. And it’s even harder to find meaningful new people and community than it is to discover new songs.
From the beginning of internet life, many apps and websites have promised connection. Sometimes they deliver, and other times human ties over cyberspace are a poor substitute for the real thing.
But I still believe in that hokey promise of bringing the world together online to try to better understand one another and our world. That hope is now complicated, yes, because there are so many horror shows. The same inventions for community building that brought us our favorite Facebook group or Discord book club have also brought people together to wallow in conspiracies and encourage ethnic violence.
There is also a nagging part of my brain that doubts we really have what it takes to come together and heal rifts. What if we see the world through other people’s eyes and it makes us angrier and more divided?
But I need to believe in the best of what people and human community can do. And I want more big and small technology ideas to help us.
Now it’s your turn. What technology do you want most in 2022 and why? Silly or serious, go for it! Reply in the comments and we may feature some of your ideas in a future newsletter. Please include your full name and location.
The land rush for love or money: Some tech companies are anxious about the number of their employees leaving for jobs in cryptocurrency and related fields, my colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac write. The people flooding into crypto jobs say they want to join an industry on the cusp of a transformational moment, or they see a chance to make a lot of money. (Or both.)
Buying influence: My colleagues write about the tactics used by local government officials in China to pay contractors for credible-looking but fake social media accounts to spread propaganda outside China.
“Welcome to the holiday shopping season on TikTok.” This is the evolution of every popular app: First come the people, next come the companies that want to sell stuff. My colleague Sapna Maheshwari writes about brands trying to reinvent commercials tailored to TikTok’s types of expression like silly skits and viral challenges.
I hope you take a few minutes to read this loving, irreverent obituary for a woman named Renay Mandel Corren, written by her son. He wrote that his mom was great at “dyeing her red roots, weekly manicures, dirty jokes, pier fishing, rolling joints and buying dirty magazines.”
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.
The Year in Photos: Look through the pictures that helped us tell the story of 2021.
2021 Firsts: A round-up of events and trends, surprising and serious, noted for the first time ever this year.
Making Black History: Here are the achievements that shaped the first year following the country’s racial reckoning.
Moments in Sport: In 2021, players and leagues tried to return to normal in the shadow of the coronavirus.
Quiz: Do you recognize the notable people whose stories defined the year?