The Solitude Challenge

This week I had an assignment for one of my classes to contemplate the role of technology in my personal life, and how the tools of technology both legitimize and dismantle our ideas of solitude and isolation. To start the assignment, I sat alone in a room in my house without any technology, other people, or reading material.

I need solitude, which is to say, recovery, return to my self, the breath of a free, light, playful air — Friedrich Nietzsche

Being away from technology doesn’t intimidate me. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a home without a lot of technology. We didn’t have a television or gaming system, and when we wanted entertainment, we had only ourselves as resources. Of course, with acres of land and four siblings, I wasn’t exactly challenged for ways to spend my time, but I did have to rely on my own imagination for entertainment and had to learn to be comfortable with empty spaces and long silences. I feel that I’ve brought a great deal of that into my adult life. In my home, I try to encourage my family and friends to set their phones aside, for example.

So, in many ways, I thought this assignment would be fairly uneventful.

But then I realized how accustomed I’ve become to “doing” something. About ten minutes in, my brain was leap-frogging from topic to topic, making mental lists of things to do at work tomorrow, reminding myself to price out snow tires on the Internet, wondering which of our friends had replied to an email thread inviting them to a birthday celebration.

This blogger calls them “thought goblins.” Maybe I wasn’t meditating, or longing for nirvana, but I still felt that nagging question of “Am I doing this right?” and “I can’t seem to relax.” I realized that, for me, relaxation often comes when I’m reading a book, listening to a beautiful piece of music, watching a movie, or talking with my partner. In this moment of solitude, when asked to empty my life of all the “things” that I do, you might imagine that I would find relaxation and peace, but instead I felt tense.

Maybe that comes from my parents, who never stopped working or looking for a project. In spare moments, my mother would throw up the piano lid and play a song or two. My father would find something to fix and, if there was nothing to fix, he might start “fixing” things which weren’t really broken.

A man and his thoughts...
from Giampaolo Macorig “A Man and His Thoughts”

But as the minutes ticked by, and tick they did, I found myself settling into a more comfortable place. Yes, my mind was still working, but now in larger and larger concentric circles. I thought about a piece of music I’d heard on the way home, the way, at that crucial moment in the song, the melancholy guitar solo was joined by joyous human voices. I thought about how I might want to redecorate the room I was sitting in. And then, for awhile, nothing at all that I can remember.

That reminded me of this awesome TED talk about the science of mind wandering, which found (yes, there’s an app for that) a strong connection between moments of human happiness and day-dreaming or mind-wandering.

I like the idea that there is something restorative in letting ourselves be “not busy” and “not surrounded.” That our brains, freed from restraint, might meander in ways that actually make us healthier or happier.

Customer Experience – The good, the bad and the ugly

In today’s fast-paced world there are an overwhelming amount of options for consumers. In the past, if you needed a specific item you would get in your car, drive to a specific store that specialized in the sale of that item, perhaps ask a sales representative about the different choices (if there were any) and either buy or not buy the item. If you were unhappy with the service, you would have the option to ask for a manager to voice your compliment/concern/complaint. If you wanted to take that compliment/concern/complaint further, you would have to look up a corporate phone number by referencing a billing statement or perhaps looking in the yellow-pages.

This is how many Yellow Page books I had to keep just to keep track of the surrounding towns.

Fast forward to 2014. You can pick up your smartphone, browse for items being sold from all over the world, read product reviews, check prices, live-chat with customer service, find corporate emails/phone numbers to directly to send compliments/complaints/concerns, and immediately share your experience with the entire world via numerous social-media outlets.  In this fast paced ever-changing landscape of e-commerce versus brick-and-mortar, what defines a good customer experience?

In my experience, in order for a company to attract and retain customers they need to master the following brand attributes: authenticity, content consistency across all platforms, subject matter expertise, and accessibility.

Amazon continues to set the bar as the leader for a positive customer experience. Most recently Amazon topped USA Today’s 2014 Customer Service Hall of Fame list. As a consumer, I consistently find myself valuing and trusting Amazon’s customer reviews. Amazon encourages their customers to provide product reviews and makes it easy for them to do so.

Customer Service4

I recently polled a group of my friends and asked which companies they had had the worst customer service experience. The top offender was Comcast, which is not surprising as they seem to be on every list outlining poor customer service, from Temkin’s to Ranker’s ratings.

saupload_07192008_customerservice5

Social media is changing the customer experience landscape by allowing customers to immediately and publicly hold companies accountable when they are not being authentic, offering consistency, properly sharing expertise on the product/service, and/or being easily accessible. Successful companies know how to effectively manage and leverage compliments/complaints/concerns to turn them into a moment to debut their authenticity and to remain true to their brand.

American Express engaging a complaining customer definitively and in a timely manner.

Companies who are not able to manage social media crisis will need to immediately reevaluate their brand to ensure that they are not opening the door for their competitors to take advantage of this.

Example of poor customer service leading a frustrated customer engaging with a competitor.

Food Production and Climate Change

This week I have been reading a lot about climate change and how our food production and consumption go hand-in-hand with the causation factors for our planets increasing temperature. This topic can be very overwhelming but at the same time there substantial changes going on not only at the local level with community-based conservation, but also on a much larger scale like the The People’s Climate March in NYC last month.

My perspective on these topics really started to take shape after reading The Big Pivot by where author Andrew Winston specifically outlines the issues we need to tackle and provides thoughtful instructions on how we can go about doing so. Winston explains that our main issues are that we live in a “hotter, scarcer and more open world”, and that we not only need to slow down climate change, but we also have to prepare to live in a world already affected by it.

Food production and climate change is in a strange feedback loop – Our food production contributes to climate change, climate change alters our food production, and these alterations lead to worsening contributions to climate change.

For instance, the introduction of modern beef ranching has increased both beef demand and the distance between source and consumption. The methane produced by cows is a major greenhouse gas (that’s right – you can blame last year’s freezing winter on cow farts), as is the CO2 produced by the beef distribution network.  Ranchers will inevitably need to move their herds to more climate stable pastures, thus increasing transportation related CO2.

I believe my solution to this issue is fairly straightforward – we need to continuously evaluate our diets while favoring locally sourced food production. Though I’m not here to tell anyone to eat less meat or go vegan, I think it would be fair to acknowledge that our society’s meat consumption is considerably more than it used to be. Similarly, we rarely talk about just how far our foods travel to get to our plates. By buying from local farms, we simultaneously support out surrounding communities, reduce the CO2 output from food transportation, eat healthier and fresher. Seems like a win-win to me.

Here are some farm shares in my local area that I’m looking to trying out.

Stillman’s Turkey Farm

Walden Local Meat

Red Fire Farms

GrubHub Alternative?

As new mobile and web applications change the way we interact with food, The Foodery is looking at new ways to make local, organic meals available to Boston consumers through delivery services. Customers make a weekly order of meals that arrive a few days later, ready to refrigerate. With a focus on local, organic, and sustainable agriculture, these meals are a little different than your average GrubHub order and  probably a lot healthier, too. While the meals, at around $18 per person per meal, are probably more expensive than your average takeout order, they may not be more expensive than restaurant meals.

weight-loss

As an avid Foodler user, the convenience of being able to open a smartphone app and quickly and efficiently order local foods is unparalleled. My only complaint is not having enough healthy take out options. As a consumer I would be willing to pay a premium to enjoy locally grown, sustainable and potentially much healthier food. In order to stay competitive within the changing market place, these online food ordering services should begin to explore the possibility of partnering with services like The Foodery.

It’s interesting to see the ways that our access to ever-improving and changing types of technology can start to challenge traditional ideas like the “take-out menu” or “fast food” with healthier options that support local farmers more than national restaurant chains. While The Foodery might not exactly be competition for GrubHub now, it’s great to see ideas like this enter the convenience/delivery arena.

I’m really interested to see the way that technology, and particularly mobile technology, continue to change the way we access food. Already there are some apps that are challenging the traditional ideas about access to restaurants. We’re all familiar with the line to get into a fabulous restaurant on a Saturday night and with the process of trying to make reservations at a small and trendy new spot. Apps and websites like OpenTable.com and NoWait allow us to follow that same strategy in a slightly more convenient way, but allowing us to make reservations or get in line at a restaurant faster and easier ways.

But some new websites and apps are challenging even the ideas of lines and reservations. Apps like KillerRezzy, ReservationHop, and Zurvu work by purchasing reservations at trendy restaurants ahead of time, and then selling those reservations back to consumers. While these increase our access to fine dining, they sometimes do so at the expense of dining democracy, allowing privilege and money to edge in.

Other apps approach food access with a slightly more equalizing perspective, including apps like Locavore, which allows users to quickly and easily find farmers’ markets and farms that sell seasonal, locally grown food.

It’s so interesting to watch how these tools of technology are changing the way we access food, think about food, and build relationships with food.