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Are we building the dystopian future we’re afraid of?: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk about Amazon, Facebook and other big-tech companies that have changed our basic human interactions. We delve into the commoditization of our feelings, valuing efficiency over communication, and the despair that comes from seeing a death announcement on social media (especially when it’s bumped up against a recipe for a chocolate soufflé).


00:00 Intro music

00:15 Rich Ziade Welcome to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio based in New York City. I’m Rich Ziade, one of the cofounders and there’s another one.

Paul Ford Paul Ford is me.

RZ Good to see you, Paul.

PF Here we are!

RZ We build stuff! We design and build slick apps, web apps, mobile apps, and the engine that powers them.

PF We work across industries.

RZ We do work across industries.

PF We work — we do insurance work for a company called Insight Catastrophe Group [laughing] — that’s a great name.

RZ Non-profits like the Obama Foundation.

PF And then giant media platforms for places like Vice.

RZ Yessss.

PF And we do it all — we do lots more besides ugh there’s kinda — there’s a lot of work to come out soon, actually. We’re gonna be launching some stuff. But that’s not why you’re here to hear us talk about our company again. You’re here to hear us talk about other things. What are we gonna talk about today?

RZ You know, we’re obviously, we’re in the technology world. We’re –

PF Boy, are we.

RZ We’re, we’re tireless advocats of technology.

PF That’s right and it’s gonna make transformative social change.

RZ Make the world a better place.

PF Yeah.

RZ We wanna step back a second here, Paul, and talk about how technology is affecting us.

1:31 PF Well let’s just — here’s the thing: technology is — it can be all sorts of things. I don’t wanna say it’s neutral, not neutral, whatever. It’s been a tremendous positive force in many parts of our lives as we’ve grown up around the growth of the internet but sometimes I think tech gets ahead of itself.

RZ Yes. Yes. And that’s not just saying it got ahead of itself and it broke.

PF No. Things can grow so quickly and so massively that the people inside of those things, Facebook, Amazon, Google, whatever. If something’s going that well it’s hard to see that it might not all be good for everybody.

RZ Yes.

PF You can be really kinda trapped in that perspective of like, “Pff, two billion people love it so who am I to say?”

RZ Yeah, exactly.

PF You know, but there’s of things that –

RZ Winner!

PF Yeah, exactly, like –

RZ Anyway –

PF Anyway –

RZ Let’s dig into this, Paul. Let’s do some soul searching.

PF What’s it all about? Let’s talk. I think about ways that I could get my own data back, right? Like, like I’ve got really good security turned on Gmail but Gmail has all my data.

RZ Yeah.

PF So what if I didn’t want that? Well –

RZ You wanted it out you mean?

PF It’s a nightmare.

RZ Oh no.

PF I’d have to get a little computer at home, I’m not sure my home network is secure, you need to encrypt everything. Like, it would be weeks and I’m sure it would still be vulnerable.

2:58 RZ Yeah.

PF Right? So at some level you just kinda go, “Well, let Google have it.”

RZ It’s just so convenient and Gmail is great. Gmail is a really good product and you’re just like, “Ugh, what am I gonna do? Take it.”

PF And you’re like one of a billion people using it.

RZ Wait. Is it encrypted on both ends? Does it have that? I don’t think it’s a level of –

PF I don’t think it’s encrypted on their servers but it’s, you know, it’s a secure connection. I’ve got good authentication turned on, not just like SMS, but like I did the real stuff.

RZ So if you murder someone it could subpoenaed, is what you’re saying.

PF Yeah, I think that’s right.

RZ Is that true?

PF Everybody kinda keeps that on the downlow but –

RZ Right. That’s one of Apple’s selling points: you can’t crack our phone.

PF That’s right.

RZ It’s the customer’s data, not yours.

PF So these giant companies –

RZ It’s a mess. We have no ideas, dude.

PF [Laughing] And then there’s also like Amazon — it’s gonna have drones — there’s Apple –

RZ It’s all a mess, right? It’s like there’s no more.

PF The funny thing is that Apple –

RZ A drone. Like my wife will give birth in the hospital and a drone will bring it to me at the house.

3:52 PF It’s the new stork!

RZ It’s the new stork! It’s over, dude. It’s just done. Like, we can sit here and complain about it like old men but we’re always impressed [laughs].

My wife will give birth in the hospital and a drone will bring it to me at the house.

PF Well that’s real, right? Like, “Wow, they’ve executed amazingly well.”

RZ I mean I got a toothbrush yesterday with hassle free packaging [PF laughs]. I thought it was brilliant.

PF And that’s the thing I look at Amazon and it’s tricky, right? Because they basically treat humans like animals in their warehouses [RZ laughs]. We’re laughing at it but it’s terrible. Like –

RZ [Laughing] I’ve seen those robots run people over.

PF No, it’s like the worst. It’s like the worst possible retail corporate torture job that you’ve ever had –

RZ Oh yeah yeah yeah.

PF But for the rest of your life. And it’s just 1984 nightmare in there getting you your copy of like of Codependent No More [yeah] and then of course the people who work at HQ are also like emotionally tortured and stuff [haha!] but then you look at what they do and you’re like, “Oh boy, that is some good execution. [Yeah] That Jeff Bezos is smart.”

RZ It’s so convenient. I use Prime Now. Do you use Prime Now.

PF Oh yeah, yeah.

RZ It’s like, “God, I need Pellegrino right now [laughs].” You just hit two buttons on your phone and some guy runs to your house.

PF We could construct it in such a way that using these platforms didn’t make you hate yourself [both laugh]. I mean that’s all I want is just –

RZ [Laughing] Like when you check out, to say, “Wow, great decision, Rich!”

PF Right. The problem is also they all function like sort of Soviet future states of total efficiency [yeah, yeah yeah yeah]. There’s just no good, easy escape.

RZ No, they’re always looking for the gap, right?

We could construct it in such a way that using these platforms didn’t make you hate yourself.

PF There needs to be a Canadian platform company. You know it’s like — I think we’ve got — the US is terrible. Like, we’ll go for that efficiency.

5:35 RZ Oh yeah. You know what I need? You know — let me tell you what I need. I buy something on Postmates and I get a message 20 minutes later [mm hmm] and saying, “The messenger’s gonna call you.” Right? And it’s one of the features on Postmates. And the messenger calls you and say, “Listen, I think my kid came down with the flu. Um so I can either you know leave it here and you can come and get it or if I can get this to you tomorrow, I’d really appreciate it.” What I’ve done here is injected some human interaction and empathy [mm hmm] into a process.

PF That’s bad for the brand [RZ laughs]. That’s so bad for the brand. You can’t have that.

RZ It’s ugh — it’s post — uh what do you wanna call it? Like you gotta give it a name that says, “Oh you’ll also have a human relationship.” [Laughs]

PF I just hate — I hate this sort of like, here’s the problem, it’s like, “Hey, let’s make some product decisions and build something great.” And then ten years passes and then they’re like, “Woops! We created the dystopian nightmare [RZ laughs] that everyone has been terrified of.”

RZ Complete success.

PF Yeah and then you’re like, “But our, you know, market cap is 200 billion dollars.” And our investors –

RZ [Laughs] What do we do now?

The system becomes bigger than the people inside of it and that is very scary.

PF I know, I know. And it just ends up with like humans as batteries powering [oh my god I mean -]. The system becomes bigger than the people inside of it and that is very scary.

RZ Ah. You just summed it up. Right there. And you could say, “Well, how do we come out of it?” I have a friend who boycotts Amazon. She refuses to buy anything, ever from Amazon [mm hmm]. I said, “Well that’s -” I’ve made fun of her a little bit.

PF No, I have one too. It is a very consistent ethical principle that I can’t help but respect.

RZ I respect it. I feel –

PF Same with people not using Facebook.

RZ I end up opening the Amazon box which has like window cleaner and two books for my children in shame. I’m just [mm hmm] — I’m like, “Well, ugh, I guess it was nice.”

7:35 PF Oh yeah. We were getting cat food delivered. I mean it’s just like [yeah yeah yeah there’s nothing left]. The problem is when you have little kids you kinda just have to go with it –

RZ Oh! Submission!

PF Amazon, yeah. No — but what I respect — here’s the power that people have they don’t opt into those systems, you know when they don’t use Uber, or they don’t use Amazon, or they don’t use — they reject a certain kinda commoditization of themselves. And they say, “You’re just not gonna put me in the system that way [yeah],” and that is probably very emotionally healthy. I don’t think it makes a lot of difference cuz those companies are so incredibly successful.

RZ Why make your life harder?

PF It does make your life harder but it forces you and it allows you to think of your — when you work with giant organizations, if you work with them or inside of them. And we’ve both been in giant places [mm hmm], they definitely commoditize you. They’re like, “Oh well, here’s where you fit.” And that’s if you work in a big company and they’re like, “Well you’re a SVP of XYZ,” and the other 44 SVPs of XYZ are also right here with you. “We’re all going on a retreat!” [Yeah] But there’s definitely a sense of like, mm, if you get, you know, thrown into a vat of fire, they’ll be someone to jump in for a little while.

The power that people have is that they don’t opt into those systems, you know when they don’t use Uber, or they don’t use Amazon— they reject a certain kind of commoditization of themselves.

RZ Yeah yeah. Is there any of corner of the world that’s impenetrable?

PF No. I mean there are those like Amazonian tribes where they fly the helicopter over them [RZ laughs] and they –

RZ [Laughing] I don’t mean geographically, Paul [both laugh].

PF Um –

RZ But good point, good point. That was a good image.

PF Here’s the problem — the problem is –

RZ Wait. Restaurants. You can’t –

PF Seamless.

RZ No, no, no, I’m saying, “Let’s go. We’re meeting Diane and Sam.”

PF I know but it’s all based on the worst illusion because there’s people in the back — like there just like literally here in New York City underpaid migrant workers in the back cleaning up after you.

9:28 RZ Paul, you gotta give me something here.

PF That’s what I’m saying: like –

RZ You gotta give me something. I needed that setting. I wanna toast. I wanna toast with wine and I wanna talk about and laugh. And it’s — I think it’s emerging that it’s rude to pick up your phone and chat while you’re at dinner with people.

PF Is it?

RZ Like I keep it face down.

PF Cuz we go out to dinner [both laugh].

RZ I try to do that.

PF Is it?

RZ Let me tell you a scenario actually –

PF “Hold on a minute. Hold on. Hold on. I’m real sorry. I’m real sorry about this. Hold on. Hold on a minute. — “

RZ “Yeah, I gotta take this, really sorry.”

PF “Oh hah! Yeah it’s my mom. Hold on. It’s just — it’s home.”

RZ It’s always my mom.

PF We’re home. It’s always home. Like, “I just gotta check, make sure the kids, just hold on.”

RZ Yeah, kids, that’s an angle. Yeah.

PF “Hold on a minute.”

RZ Here’s something that happened to us recently –

PF But then there’s like the fifteen seconds of just like latent scrolling where you’re just like, “Let’s just make sure the messages are ok before I return to my shawarma.”

RZ [Laughs] I had this happen, ugh, did a reservation on Opentable which is nice. You don’t have to talk a human being.

10:22 PF Ah, so good, yeah.

RZ Ok? Reserved [mm hmm]. Ugh time’s come. Gonna get an Uber. Ugh, trying to see how long it’s gonna take. I check Google Maps. There’s a lot of red on the roads [yeah]. Cancel the Uber. Go into Opentable, cancel the reservation, open Seamless. [Laughs]

PF You know you see this is all good –

RZ That exact sequence has happened to me.

PF But the way it’s going you should just be able to open up your phone and it logs in with your face and you just yell, “HUNGRY!” [RZ laughs] And it does all that for you, right? Like it just figures that all out. Like you shouldn’t — why should you have to? You should be able to lie on the ground, in a diaper, and just scream, “Hungry!” [Oh yeah] And it’ll take care — Look, this is the tradeoff, I love technology, like, obviously but the self commoditization thing is you always are negotiation that cuz everything you just described to me it’s not really a personal interaction, it’s just a bunch of database lines until someone hands you the food in Seamless and you say, “Hey, thank you,” and you know the tip’s already on there.

RZ And then, dude, it’s all your human interaction throughout the process is that — those two seconds when he hands you the bag.

PF Yeah. And then the guy, he’s like running back to his moped.

RZ Oh he’s running.

PF Yeah.

RZ He just hands it. Like it’s like a baton [yeah]. He’s just running back. That’s true.

PF But I’ve tried to make that interaction at least like worth the time. Right?

RZ You know I always think about it. I wonder if the person delivering to you knows about the tip. Knows the tip number.

PF It’s on the receipt.

RZ Ok. So it’s recognized.

PF They do. They do. No, it’s important. If –

RZ They’d much prefer it if you put zero and you gave them cash at the door, dude.

11:55 PF Dude, I accidentally. I know they would. I know they would but then I don’t always –

RZ I don’t have cash. I haven’t had cash in six months.

PF I don’t know what cash is anymore, really [RZ laughs]. I use Apple Pay to give my children allowances. The um — no, so you participate in that and I think it is a justifiable thing to say, “You know I don’t really wanna be a number with this one.” You’re a number somewhere. We all have social security numbers, we pay our taxes –

RZ We love it. It’s so damn conven — it’s just so good. I don’t own a car, dude. I just use Uber. I’ve never seen the same person twice.

PF Isn’t that weird? I’ve noticed that [RZ laughs]. I gave an Uber driver a bad rating by accident [yeah]. I felt like garbage.

RZ I mean they’re cutting — to gain efficiency, they’re cutting all opportunity for human interaction. I didn’t call to make the reservation. I didn’t call to get the car. Once I got the car, how often — I don’t talk to the Uber per — sometimes, sometimes, I do. But oftentimes, I feel like they don’t really wanna talk and I just don’t talk to them.

PF They do and they don’t. Here’s the thing, right? Like, Joe comes into the Chinese restaurant once a week and gets, you know, whatever, Egg foo young, and he’s like local lawyer and he doesn’t say anything for the first year but then — he’s like, “Hey, let me put this poster up, if you don’t mind. It’s a candidate that’s running.” And he has a conversation with the person and it’s a little interaction.

RZ Alright. It’s a little something.

PF And then like six months later, they’re like, “That guy’s nice. Everytime he comes in, we say ‘Hi’”. And they’re like, “I have a little immigration issue. He said he was a lawyer. Let me ask him”. [Mm hmm] And he goes, “Let me introduce to Tom, he’ll probably take it for free. He’s that kinda guy [mm hmm].” And the community coheres, problems get solved –

RZ Beautiful!

PF Those sorts of connections. Those are beautiful connections that are one of the reasons I moved to a major global city because I was hopeful those things would happen in my life and they did [mm hmm] and they were enabled by technology. I wrote things, people got in touch, there was an organic quality to it that no one tried to commoditize or control. It didn’t occur to them. Meet people at the laundromat. All going.

RZ They’re going!

14:05 PF They’re going.

RZ My mom leaves the house and hits up eight to twelve storefronts on the way to wherever she’s going [right]. She’s not buying anything.

PF And they’re like, “Sam!”

RZ Yeah. She just can’t — once she said, “I’m gonna go get bagels, don’t eat anything.” She was gone til like 11:30. [PJ laughs] Like it was breakfast time.

PF My uncle on my dad’s side was a salesman and he couldn’t walk down the street [RZ laughs] and after 20 years –

RZ That’s great, man –

PF He was a cop then a salesman. But you and I don’t have friends so it doesn’t really work that way.

RZ We’re — but it’s still nice to just conn — like just — by the way, hassle free immigration services is coming to Amazon. I read that a couple days ago.

PF [Laughing] Sure, they need it cuz they’ve killed everyone who works in the warehouses [RZ laughs]. That — it’s not just serendipity. It is the like opting in to culture in that way is something — I think it’s ok to be like, “I don’t wanna let that part of myself go.” [Mm hmm] I wanna read books on paper because I like feeling books and I like people knowing I’m reading books [mm hmm]. I like people — I don’t, I read everything on my Kindle on my phone like an animal. But like there’s a — identifying yourself it’s a little like narcissistic and a little full of yourself to be like, “I’m not gonna use XYZ when the whole world just doesn’t care.” [Mm hmm] But you do have to form who you are and how you wanna live in a community and then sometimes I think rejecting aspects of technology which, let me be clear: I never do [laughs].

RZ I know. We’re lecturing the whole world right now.

PF I’m observing it as a behaviour that I respect. I mean I can see why you wouldn’t use Amazon but also like –

RZ I respect it but I just can’t –

PF I can’t survive.

RZ I would’ve cut my finger trying to open that toothbrush. You know the plastic when they glue it together, dude. Amazon solved that for me.

15:57 PF [Sighs] I just need to get pants on my son, you know?

RZ You know the button. Like the Tide Button attached to your washer?

PF Oh I have one in my body right now [RZ laughs]. I swallow one and then I just like run into walls so I can order Tide.

RZ Yeah I have one in my shoulder that like gets me like spicy Cheetos.

PF Oh I like a Dash Button. Yeah, I keep em under my arms. So I just have to flap like a bird in order to get [RZ laughs] Doritos.

RZ [Laughing] Oh my god.

PF Alright alright.

RZ Alright, technology tried to solve this piece too.

PF How?

RZ Social media.

PF That’s right. Bring everybody together.

RZ Bring everybody together. You’re not talking to people anymore. You got packages coming to your house. Open Facebook. Your friends are there, your family’s there.

PF There’s other precedents too. There’s Craigslist, Angieslist, all those things.

RZ There’s ways to connect with humans and really a feel a bond with them now.

PF Mm hmm. Technology isn’t cold and impersonal –

RZ No no no no.

PF It’s incredibly intimate and close, it brings us together.

Technology isn’t cold and impersonal. It’s incredibly intimate and close. It brings us together.

RZ Not only that it brings us together in such an efficient way.

PF That’s the problem [chuckles]. That’s it. It’s the application of efficiency to human interactions [yeah] is where all the value gets lost because we thought that Joe just wanted a nice, you know, wanted Egg foo young, but it actually turns out that there was a connection being made there that’s been meaningful over the last ten years.

17:17 RZ Exactly. And you can’t replicate that.

PF Well, that’s completely inefficient. He slowed down the process of getting Egg foo young by saying, “Can I hang the sign up in the window?”

RZ Exactly. There was a chance to mix it up a bit. Can I tell you one of the mo — like it’s just one of the most depressing things to me? Awfully, awfully sad to me: hearing that someone died on Facebook.

PF Oh yeah, Twitter’s bad too. Yeah.

RZ It’s so, so, I dunno why it just hits me in the bottom of my stomach. It’s just not the place.

PF Well because you’re just about to get a tour of pure existential despair as genuine human connection gets jammed into sad faces, likes, and always love talking to Sam, Mike, Bob.

RZ Can I tell you what I can’t have happen two and a half seconds after that? A recipe for chocolate souffle showing up in a video literally bumped up against this death notice.

PF Right. Right down there and then the um or uh, “Come to my standup comedy night.” [RZ laughs] “Sorry we just said goodbye for the last time to our grandma, Edith Wilson, [yeah] Thamulson, she was an amazing voice, a pioneer, a brave person, [RZ laughs],” and there’s — and then there’s like 78 “So sorry for your loss”s followed by, “Be a dog improv experience [RZ laughs]! Are you coming?!” Followed by “Green Bean Casserole Reinvented with Snickers,” –

RZ Exactly.

PF You know and and –

RZ “Looking for jiggly cake?”

PF Yeah [both laugh].

RZ It’s — I mean look: it’s the commoditization of anything you feel.

PF Well, no, it’s just everyone’s broadcasting to everyone else [oh yeah]. So look I mean the way we see this world right? Is –

RZ Keep complaining. Keep it going, Paul.

19:13 PF But so the way we see this world is — and this is a funny thing to say and, you know, I’ve approached this from different angles in my career. I’ve written very serious things that I like where I tried to be really thoughtful and um about life and all that. We see these as actual product problems.

RZ Most products interact with humans.

PF But I mean let’s be clear: death is a very specific kind of content type.

Death is a very specific kind of content type.

RZ Yeah, there’s a conditional at Facebook on death.

PF You can flag and understand death [mm hmm] and you can have a sense of how people are gonna interact once death enters the equation of their wall stream.

RZ When you hashtag it, Facebook knows.

PF Well that’s the thing like this is a, you know, a loss event. Let people flag it or automatically find it or whatever. But just take a frickin minute away from your commerce –

RZ Yeah, I wonder if they do that, dude. I wonder if they say, “Ok this is clearly -”

PF It doesn’t show in the product.

RZ Is that true?

PF Do you still see the like, you know, “Check out this amazing grapefruit hilarity.”

RZ Is that true?

PF Sure.

RZ I see — they could solve that!

PF No, I see like, “I said goodbye to Grandma,” and then it’s followed by like “really angry about Donald Trump again.”

RZ They could solve that, no?

PF Absolutely. 100% they could solve it.

RZ Solve it!

PF Or if something gets more than like five sad faces.

RZ [Chuckles] Right.

20:34 PF And I’m sure they’re in there shaping that. I’m sure they’re like, “Well -”

RZ You think so?!

PF Here’s what they would say if you asked them: “Well, that’s very complicated.”

RZ [Laughs] Meanwhile they’ve solved deciphering my child’s face.

PF Oh yeah, they’ll do all that stuff. “Oh it’s very complicat — you have to understand that this feed isn’t just one product, it’s many teams who all work together.”

RZ [Laughing] They’ve like sucked in every astrophysicist that’s in the company.

PF Oh yeah. “So you know you think that you’re grandmother dying shouldn’t be followed by a pictures of rutabaga that look like male genitals but [RZ laughs] the reality is that it’s actually using machine bleh blug bleh bleh -”

RZ It just goes on and on.

PF You know and they’re just sitting on a throne made of cash.

RZ Yeah, yeah.

PF Right, and so –

RZ I mean, look, we’re really beating the shit out of them here.

PF I know but I would love — to me that’s the stuff. Get me in there and let’s fix death [yeah] from a product perspective.

RZ Yeah, yeah. “I’m senior vice president of Morbid Posts.”

PF [Laughing] Yeah, that’s right. “I’m EVP of Coffins.” [RZ laughs] And so but that’s the real work. That’s the stuff I love. And so that’s the part of me when I look at that thing and I’m just like, “Could you just get an adult or two? [Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah] Could you just get someone who’s like ‘Wow, this sucks. Grandma shouldn’t just be like dead followed by cool sneakers.’”

RZ Exactly.

PF And that’s all it takes. And then you go like, “Well how do we solve it?” “Well it’s very difficul -” “Ok. You’re fired!”

RZ Yeah. It’s your job.

22:00 PF Fix it!

RZ Can you imagine the review? “I gotta say, you know, you nailed paralysis and death.” [Laughs].

PF That’s exactly right. Oh boy. Yeah that was the –

RZ “Paralysis in is beta” [laughs].

Get me in there and let’s fix death from a product perspective.

PF Anyway, when Facebook is ready to hire you and me to head up the new cancer team [RZ laughs] –

RZ We can’t close with this!

PF Uh let’s not close. Everyone, stay alive out there.

RZ Yeah, take care of yourselves. Just take care of yourselves.

PF You know and if you decide to use Facebook, well, we all do, and if you decide to move away from the self-commoditization onto a better and bolder future [music fades in], you got a big thumbs up like from us –

RZ Exactly.

PF — on that. Um if you need us: If you don’t need us, uh well just keep listening, give us five stars on — do you wanna just say “hi” without the emotional –

RZ Without anything. Just say “hi.”

PF Or if you don’t want the stress and emotional burden of saying “hello,” –

RZ By the way –

PF — five stars.

RZ 101 5th Avenue. 10th floor. C’mon by!

PF No! [Laughing] No no no.

RZ [Laughing] Oh wait, ok, let’s pull back on that one.

22:57 PF Sometimes when we’ve done that and it doesn’t always work.

RZ No, it doesn’t always work.

PF But uh we do like to see you at our events. Check us out on Meetup and uh come take a look at, We love you!

RZ Buh bye.

PF Bye [music ramps up to end].