This article first appeared as a Perspectives piece on KQED National Public Radio of Northern California. You can listen to it here.
Last November, my computer broke. Sitting in my Burlingame office, just a few miles away from Filipino-dense Daly City, I dialed the manufacturer's help line and reached a Filipino technician based in the Philippines.
The typical call center frustration ensued. An ill-equipped technician struggled to help me with a defective product. I'll admit that I rudely yelled at some point. Towards the end of the call, I tried to redeem myself by connecting personally.
"Are you based in Manila," I asked?
"No," she said, "I'm in Cebu."
My heart sank. Super-typhoon Haiyan had pummeled her region just that week, killing thousands of her neighbors.
"Are you OK," I asked?
"Yes," she replied. "Just trying to work."
What began as a typically horrible customer service experience reminded me of just how close we all are, no matter how far apart we physically sit. As Bay Area residents, we routinely interact with people from every part of the world. Many come here to build technology for changing the way the world connects. So, we eat Indian food in Fremont, then talk to someone in Delhi when calling our local bank. We read blogs on Shanghai students ranking top in math scores. We can then chat about these events with the Chinese grandparents in Foster City parks.
Often, though, the increased connectivity we're creating is making us invisible to each other. Our companies have created apps to employ a house cleaner or an accountant without you ever meeting them. These online marketplaces celebrate the price pressure they create while anonymizing human workers.
Digital connectivity can foster positive commerce across distant geographies. What's key, though, is to use technology for enhancing human experiences, not for isolating ourselves from them. Our daily interaction with so many cultures, woven through the digital connectivity we create, should impassion us to make us more, not less, visible to one another. Our region's prosperity may depend, after all, as much on faraway customer service reps as on code.
With a Perspective, I'm Eric Taussig.