Get to know Tom: Who am I? Why am I doing this?
Writing, technology, psychology, and hopefulness. If I was doing one of those shitty ice-breakers that forced me to fill out three interests, that’s probably what I’d write. I’d add a fourth cause sometimes I’m a rebel like that, and I have a tendency to try and shake things up once I’m comfortable with something.
The writing I truly enjoy is relaxing, end of the day type writing. Something to savor in the midst of the craziness everyone deals with day in and day out. At the same time, writing has almost always been part of my ‘professional’ career, whether it was in school growing up, a writing-heavy grad school program, or in my current job as a user researcher.
I can already feel this tug of wanting to go back and edit these words. Maybe make it lighter? Make it sound more intelligent? Should I use one or two spaces after a sentence?? I’ll probably switch back and forth, so if that kind of thing bugs you… well, sorry? I actually hope to approach my writing here like I do with Nanowrimo, the annual write-til-you-drop extravaganza that encourages novice writers to jot down 50,000 words in a month without much of a filter, and make it into a novel. Hopefully I can write naturally here, while still making sense along the way.
Tech and Psych comin’ at ya
I’ve had a fairly constant interest in new technology since my family moved to the Pacific Northwest when I was about to turn 6. My Dad moved my family across the country for a job at a tech company; soon after, I started telling teachers and classmates that my dream job was in Quality Assurance. I can actually prove that if needed, because of course my Mom kept the class assignments. The good news is that I’m not too far off that goal as a user researcher! For some reason though, the intersection of technology and psychology fired my brain up in college and made me even more eager to learn and explore. To this day, my job depends on technology, it’s essentially omnipresent in my life barring intentional and temporary removal, and my most important relationships benefit greatly from tech that brings people together.
A Long-winded Example: My thoughts on Tech
On my way out the door to work a couple of months ago, Starbucks sent my phone a notification about the new mobile ordering option that was going into beta. Let me first preach the fact that there is significantly better coffee than Starbucks out there, but dammit, sometimes the drive-thru with the friendly face on the other side of the webcam – yeah my Starbucks has a webcam drive-thru and the mobile-ordering beta program – is just what feels right on the way in to work. The point is, I’ve come to assume that Starbucks has an ingenious back-end marketing system that knows when you’ve last been to Starbucks, which location you visited, and what you had. Of course for Starbucks to know these things, you must opt-in.
The whole Starbucks thing ties in, I promise. Taking one step back though, I did my grad school at the University of Chicago. I went thinking I’d do my year of transition and then move on to my PhD in the ivory tower and someday run my own lab, exploring the human psyche, positing on intricacies of human nature, and just generally being a badass.
I did most of those things, it’s true, but in the process I reaffirmed my passion for discovering how technology, particularly social media, communication, and human-computer interaction is shaping our lives and society as it rapidly evolves. Back to the data-driven tech-laden Starbucks experience, and how this all relates in my brain.
- When I get a notification from Starbucks in my email or on my phone that they have some new ‘star-quest’ – the weekly jolts of dynamic marketing that entice you to visit a new store, order a new drink, commit yourself to getting two drinks in a week, etc., my thought process is: “Wow, I HAVE to wonder what type of data set they’re working with.”
- When I was first jarred by a face staring back at me from the drive-thru ordering screen at the new-fangled Starbucks, I did the same things most people probably do: look frantically for the camera and wonder if they caught me doing something ridiculous(ly normal) in my car. But I also wondered how it impacts:
- their job satisfaction
- my customer service satisfaction
- both of our stress levels
- our feelings of human connectedness
- the enjoyment of the coffee
- the satisfaction with my value trade of money for human contact and caffeine
- indeed if that human contact really counts or if it was artificial only because of my rather shocking laziness and sometimes introverted tendencies that draw me to sit in my car for a few extra minutes rather than parking, getting out, and ordering from a human who, you know, isn’t behind a camera.
I bet Starbucks wonders those things too, and they’re probably paying someone like me a lot of money to figure out the answers. *Updates Resume*
- And when I legitimately experience one of those moments that delights people about new technologies, I feel wonder. It could be something so awesome as a new VR or AR gaming system at PAX or the Vive demo I had the opportunity of experiencing recently (there WILL be a blog post about this).
Or it could be something so seemingly mundane as walking directly to the pickup area at Starbucks – yes, I actually went inside the store for the novelty of trying mobile ordering. When I walked to the pickup spot, the barista immediately asked if I was ‘Thomas’ and told me that my drink was ready, right on time.
Should I change my name on my Starbucks account so next time the computer can tell the human to call me Tom? What a time to be alive.
My thoughts race. Am I making the world more efficient or myself lazier? Of course, one answer isn’t better than the other – if I’m being lazy with coffee ordering, I have more time to think about other, arguably more important, things in life! Am I opting-in to speed or opting-out of even more chances for human contact? Did her calling me ‘Thomas’ make me feel more important, or like I was in trouble from my Dad? Should I change my name on my Starbucks account so next time the computer can tell the human to call me Tom? What a time to be alive.
Believe it or not, there’s a point here. It has to do with Hopefulness.
Despite the array of ridiculousness going through my head at any one time about how technology influences my life, I believe deep down that it’s important to approach new technologies, ways of connecting with other humans, computers, and ourselves, with Hopefulness. Hope need not connote blind-faith. Rather than blind-faith, Hope can represent a conscious decision to take stock of a situation and work towards the best possible outcome. If you’ve read the other articles from Hopeful Homies already, you know that’s what we’re all about! Hope, with some scientific inquiry and healthy skepticism built in.
I could, for instance, choose to be freaked out that Starbucks is occasionally telling me, albeit indirectly, that I should really try a different store or two this week, rather than just sticking to my same old routine – this is just to make a point, in reality I only visit Starbucks bi-weekly at best. I could choose to feel like ‘the world is going to shit and we’re all zombies who stare at our phones all day long.’
I could choose to think that the webcam-drive-thru’s ulterior motive is to promote spending because it’s harder to turn down an upsell directly to someone’s face – and thinking back on it, that’s probably worked on me a time or two. I could be indignant about the use of ‘my’ data for someone else’s gain. But instead, I also consider that I opt-in to providing this information by the very actions that produce the data; instead, I realize that the use of the data benefits me in ways that are difficult if not impossible to measure. Instead, I also consider the possibility that even if there are nefarious corporate reasons behind a decision, that does not preclude each individual from reacting and getting their own personal benefit as well.
So…What about games?
I focused on the pretty boring example of buying coffee here (my bad). This was mostly to make myself feel better about all the randomness I think about all day. “I used it in a blog post, so it wasn’t a waste of time!” Really though, the optimistic, open, hopeful viewpoint can easily be translated to tech and games of all type. Many games are inherently social, while others you might play alone but then discuss the games with friends. Even if it’s just you and the game, there are valuable things to learn about yourself and the game’s systems if you just approach it with that hopeful mentality.
If there’s something to dislike in your experiences, ask yourself why you dislike it and what you can do to make that knowledge useful to you. This is the angle e-vaughn and I will try to take – I’m sure we’ll be successful sometimes, and other times not so much.
The great thing about tech and games is that they’re constantly evolving! Since I started working on this article, the Starbucks I wrote about has stopped using the Skype-Thru (it probably wasn’t actually Skype, but I like the sound of it). Maybe they got data that people found it too weird? Fear not, there’s a new foray into tech that I can obsess over related to Starbucks. The Microsoft Band has a Starbucks App. Yep. I can pay for my drink with a revolutionary flick of the wrist. No more a) getting out cash, b) getting out a card, c) getting out a Starbucks card, d) tapping my phone to pay through the terminal, or e) using my phone as a Starbucks card cause it has a barcode. Granted, I haven’t had the guts to try this yet. My social norms spidey senses are tingling and I must admit that I fear the judgment of others as I wrist-swipe and barcode-scan my way to caffeine. That said, I will try it eventually, and dammit, I’ll do it with beaming hopefulness that it’ll be awesome and efficient.
Every once in a while, just opt-in. Opt-in to the whimsy, and let that ‘wow’ moment happen.
One outcome I’d like to realize for Hopeful Homies and for myself, is the challenge to approach technology (including games) with an open mind in this way. Instead of being fed what others think a technology is built to provide, instead of listening to others’ opinions before forming your own, every once in a while, just opt-in. Opt-in to the whimsy, and let that ‘wow’ moment happen. Feel the wonder. Most importantly, stay Hopeful!
*Photos are from the awesome www.gratisography.com; other images my own, please ask for permissions.
**I am obliged to note that I am a Microsoft contingent staff member currently, though I won’t post or write about anything I’ve worked on in depth, and of course will not cover anything confidential.