Home for the Holidays

It’s that time of year when many Americans prepare for the annual pilgrimage home to the town where they grew up. Sure, many use the winter holidays to travel, seeking sun or foreign capitals instead of returning to their childhood bedrooms. For the rest of us, though, December is a familiar story line with recurrent dinners, gift exchanges, and reunions, a return to old homes and old friends.

Before I leave for the airport this year, I have a couple extra items on my checklist:

  • Download Kindle books
  • Download Audible book
  • Download Netflix offline content
  • Download all PDF files attached to various emails from the past few days
  • Screenshot all relevant confirmation numbers
  • Figure out how to pay for baggage on Frontier because they expletive charge you for carry-ons. Carry-ons, people!

Why do I bother, you might wonder. My flight is 2 hours and 50 minutes. I’ll be without WiFi for approximately six hours, taking into account airport and cab time. But, here’s the catch: the WiFi at my parents’ house is the actual worst. No one can stream continuously, and a simple PDF download can drag out to 45 minutes. It suits their purposes fine—my parents are content so long as they receive texts and emails—but as a young woman working in the technology industry in New York City, I’m used to 4G and 300-500 Mbps speeds. 

And nothing spikes my anxiety like a download that takes more than 2.5 seconds, let alone an entire minute.

It’s this time of year that I feel most acutely the divide between urban centers and even suburban living. (Brandon, who treks to rural Utah or the Philippines, attests to the dramatic moment of eclipse when you cross from having Seamless, Google Maps, Tidal, all running on continuous coverage, to feeling lucky if Waze will load at all.) It used to be that a benefit of urban life was convenience; for example, the fact that I walk past a CVS and multiple coffee carts every morning means I don’t have to go out of my way to run errands or buy coffee. But today, urban convenience looks more like 4G and a delivery app

There are 15 apps that I use every day, and many more downloaded to my phone. But the thing is, most of them don’t even work at my parents’ house. 

iMessage and Facebook, they’re all my parents say they need, but they’re also pretty much my parents’ only options. Other apps are spotty, can’t load reliably, or take too long to download content. Facebook, one of the few unicorn companies worth billions of dollars, has wiggled its way into my parent’s house, but most technology companies don’t even bother.

Entire applications live and die in cyclical venture capital lives, half-lives, and reincarnations without ever reaching my childhood home. So many apps don’t bother expanding outside of major U.S. cities, or if they do, hold out for sizable capitals abroad. And it’s a fiscally viable model: expanding any sort of network beyond, say, New York City or the Bay Area is costly and can put established markets at risk if funds are diverted to launch in new geographic areas. Companies can turn a large profit operating in just a single market; the problem, however, is the inequality that this type of geographic cherry-picking begets.

App delivery services in smaller cities or towns where going to the single convenience store takes an hour round trip could solve real problems. Elderly people could order pantry and toiletry items instead of waiting for the assisted living facility to bus to Target. New parents could order in a nice dinner when their babysitter cancels at the last minute. To make such services viable, however, enough of an area’s population must have smartphones and reliable internet and businesses would have to coordinate, possibly sharing delivery drivers; the first, an infrastructure problem, and the second, a sharing problem.

(Not to mention the vast educational divide between areas with reliable internet and/or computer-equipped classrooms and those with neither.)

Living in New York or San Francisco, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking the U.S. lives on the edge of technological progress. Geographic pockets—and they are relatively small areas in terms of square mileage—live very differently than the rest of country. Behemoth tech companies like Google or Facebook who need to access these far flung rural communities as the only way of continuing to grow daily users are sadly the only industry players interested in many of these populations, populations like my parents’. Startups could solve some big problems faced in non-urban America today, but sadly, VCs still favor selecting investments from inside the bubble.

It’s this time of year when I am confronted with the things that bring us together: holiday rituals, religion, home, and shared history, which gives each family member a unique understanding of one another. But, in the silent transfer of 1’s and 0’s, there is the swift current of technological progress, and as it distances me from my loved ones elsewhere, I have to wonder if we aren’t making the mistake of equating “new” with “innovative” and “different” with “progress.”  

Sure my Kindle books and video streaming of ‘groundbreaking’ shows like Bubblegum and Atlanta have eased my access to knowledge and diverse culture, but as a young person attending a top-tier university then living and working in New York City, it isn’t exactly like I had a debt of access to these things in the first place. Yet my parents, my friends from home, all those people whose world is smaller by virtue of not living in one of the few international metropoli, they are ultimately left out. 

Meaningful progress, the kind of connection that companies like Facebook work hard to create, it’s not just a matter of creating something new and different but of recognizing that the where and how of it matters. Access to progress matters just as much as the creation of new tools themselves. I would gladly give up one of my several food and grocery delivery options in New York for just one that helps a single widower living down the street get his medications on time and have a warm meal. The fact that innumerable sums of money are poured into competing ventures in places like New York City and not one dollar is spent in my hometown, to me that is a lost opportunity to solve a really important problem.

I look forward to the mostly unplugged week ahead of me, celebrating the year with family and dear friends, but I do feel that the gap between our lives only grows as I become more “connected” and my loved ones at home less so. In the airport, on the bus, driving down the turnpike, take stock of not just the distance you travel but of the layers of connection you lose or gain as you make the pilgrimage home and realize they matter; they create a distance all their own.