First Contact Transcript

Episode 16: Coronavirus: The Rise of Isolation Tech

First Contact with Laurie Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.

Zander Shapiro: The last chance to pull people back from this digital bubble, is now. If people don’t do it now, it’s gone, right? There’s gonna be a moment where you’re gonna go into a hundred percent digital state for a period of time because of a version of a Corona or some kind of a disaster and you’re gonna see, and if you like it, there is no reason for you to come back. The stigma is gonna slowly disappear.

Laurie Segall: From the guy who’s currently living in digital bubble land, right?

Zander Shapiro: Right, I mean, I am isolated. I’m isolated with other people. I’m in a bubble. Even the guards who I used to chat with and who I adore had masks on, are giving me distance. So there’s warmth and interaction, but it’s all digital.

Laurie Segall: This is a special edition of First Contact. I am super excited, we are broadcasting from Deer Valley in Utah. I’m at a conference, it’s a bit of a who’s who of media and someone pulled me aside and said, “I’ve got to tell you about a trend.” A lot of people here are talking about coronavirus, a lot of people obviously, everywhere are talking about coronavirus. I think there’s a lot of fear of the unknown right now. And a well known venture capitalist who I’ve known for many, many years pulled me aside and he said, “I’ve got to talk to you about a trend we’re seeing, that, you know, that this idea of isolation tech” which I thought was fascinating. Um, you know, this, this idea that people are spending more time alone and craving connection and turning online in these really unique ways. And I believe the term “cloud clubbing” was used. And I just thought, “Oh my goodness.” So that brings me to our next guess, Zander Shapiro, he’s an entrepreneur living in Beijing. And Zander Shapiro, you are currently in Beijing. Right now, it’s, it’s 6:00 pm my time but it’s it’s 9:00 am your time right now?

Zander Shapiro: Yep. Yep. Good morning. I’m enjoying my, my morning coffee.

Laurie Segall: Great. Good morning. How are you doing?

Zander Shapiro: Good, I’m getting used to uh, working at home not just on an occasional basis but for every day for the last uh, over four weeks.

Laurie Segall: Yeah l mean, I guess let’s start with that. How’s it been?

Zander Shapiro: It’s been really good. I was surprised. It’s, the isolation has, I guess, it’s pluses and minuses. Um, the isolation is kind of weird because you’re being isolated from other people. So, you can go outside and take a walk you can take a bicycle ride, which is always a good idea in Beijing but you shouldn’t congregate with people. And even when you’re eating meals, the government says no more than three people at one table.

Laurie Segall: Wow. I want to get into that. Give us a little bit of background on, on you. You’re originally from New York. I know you worked at Spotify for, for a bit. Give us a little bit of you know why you’re actually there in Beijing.

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, I was working originally in technology and in investment banking. And I eventually switched over into branding, uh especially because I found that some of the developments in telecommunications weren’t as interesting and as human oriented as I’d like them to be. So I went over into branding and marketing and I got a call, when I was uh working out of Germany, if I’d like to work for a media and marketing company called DMG in China. And I knew nothing about China. They made a really attractive offer and I came to Beijing nine years ago, which, for me was a, “Well, I’ll check it out and if I like it, I’ll stay.” And I did. So I’ve been doing all kinds of work with technology brands and with consumer brands, with marketing, both digital and classical, uh, for the last nine years and really enjoying my life here in Beijing.

Laurie Segall: So, tell me a little bit about what the last couple months have been like for you, as someone who’s been living there. How, you know, what, what’s been the feel and, and I want to get into kind of this new phrase that that I’m hearing kind of on the inside baseball tech circles of isolation tech. But what’s been the biggest change over the last, the last couple months? And how are you feeling?

Zander Shapiro: Well, I mean there’s obviously fear, which is something that, especially being a foreigner you get used to. Uh, the fear of the unknown, uh will I be allowed to stay in China, will something happen between China and the US? There’s been a lot of rhetoric especially under Trump but this time around it was fear of me getting sick. Getting so sick I could die, with a virus that people didn’t really know that much about, even though at the end of the day, viruses aren’t unknown. And even coronaviruses have been around for a while however it was constant reminder of a growing number of infected people and a growing number of people that were dying. And on a practical level, I was simply told I was not allowed to go to work. I could not go to my office. I could not go to any large gatherings, no movie theaters, I wasn’t allowed to go to bars, I wasn’t allowed to go to clubs, I wasn’t allowed to go to football stadium, which is down the block for my favorite team, Quan. So it was very, very strange, and very isolating. And there’s a lot of news, of course on social media and China through Wei shin, there’s a lot of chatter on Facebook and Instagram. It was very, very confusing and in the beginning I felt very, very unsure.

Laurie Segall: Yeah, I mean, is there any picture you could paint? 

Zander Shapiro: Yeah no I think it’s very weird because the people who work in my building suddenly were all wearing masks.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Zander Shapiro: They asked to take my temperature if, for some reason, I had taken my mask off to look for my keys or for something, or the mask was very hot and uncomfortable. One of the guys who knows me for years and is always super friendly wouldn’t leave his house, which he sits in while he, he guards the front door and sort of takes this look at me like, “How dare you not wear a mask.” Every time I wanted to go into a store, again, mask on, temperature checked. Um, it’s just, it’s a very weird feeling of, of distance. People are told not to stand close to other people. And what’s crazy is that Beijing is such a warm and people driven city. It’s, the streets are always full. It reminded me of New York when I first came here, it was one of the reasons why I felt so comfortable was that the city never really sleeps. You can always get something to eat, you can always go out. You can always talk with people. People are very straightforward and direct. Their dialect, uh, is very charming. There’s a very, kind of a rough and bustling feeling to the city. It’s always very much alive and suddenly, the streets are empty.

Laurie Segall: Hm.

Zander Shapiro: The skies are incredibly blue because there’s no more pollution. People are suddenly not looking at you and questioning you in their typical, friendly way. They’re suddenly looking at you and wondering from afar. So, all that intimacy, all that hustle and bustle, all that grit, all that movement suddenly disappeared. And Beijing became this incredibly calm, quiet, beautiful, clean air and skies. Just very, very tranquil place in comparison to the way that it was and it’s very, very eerie. Again I think the other issue, too, is online it was presented by the government as we, the Chinese, we are fighting a war. We are bonding together against this virus. And so, it’s a very scary feeling to have this notion that China is mobilizing. And especially for you as a foreigner, I stand out if I don’t wear my mask people will come and scold me and tell me to put my mask on. So, you start to have this feeling of – of isolation not only because the virus, which doesn’t allow you to get in contact with the friends you’ve developed and the closeness you have to the city but suddenly as a foreigner you’re seen as, “Hey. You have to follow our rules now. You have to work with us.” Yeah, this is kind of difficult and also, of course, the news media, whether it’s being pushed on, uh, propaganda channels owned by the government or from my friends and colleagues, a lot, a lot of fear. We must do this. We have to hold together. It just sort of felt very much like propaganda, it felt very one dimensional. And this is one of the things, obviously, that I’m scared about in China in general as well as just the virus. And think those psychological issues and that kind of isolation was really, really hard in the beginning especially.

Laurie Segall: And, and so you have this, as you’re kind of describing this like, you have this almost beautiful, eerie, ominous on the outside, like picture you’ve painted. And then you have more and more people spending time alone in their homes and wary of each other, and, and worried about this virus and getting sick. And something else is happening, which is people are turning online in a way and China’s always been ahead when it comes to these online communities. But something really interesting is happening, um, so I’m hearing at least from my tech contacts, um, which is people are connecting online and these trends that we were already kind of seeing a little bit but have just been magnified by what’s been happening. Um, so tell me what what you’re seeing? And how are people kind of connecting?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, no it’s kind of strange because China is already hyper, uh, digital. I leave my house, I don’t carry a wallet. So, whenever I go home to New York, it’s always weird because I have to suddenly carry a wallet again. So there’s this ubiquitous platforms like, WeChat or the Chinese version, of uh, pretty much all of our messaging platforms that’s used by everybody and so, suddenly instead of having this feeling of “hm, I guess I shouldn’t be spending so much time on my phone. I really have to try to get out more, do more things, you know, try to control my use of technology,” now I’m fully in it. So, everything is going over my social media channels. Everything is going over my messaging platforms. I used to go to the gym on a regular basis. I loved my gym.

Laurie Segall: Mm-hmm.

Zander Shapiro: I like the people that were in it, it was in a really beautiful location and now I’m working out at home. I’m ordering food in and cooking more. So, Chinese love to cook so there’s some issues about the ability of fast food chains to survive because people here in China, when they’re at home, actually cook. So, ordering tremendous amounts of fruits, vegetables and meats to their homes and there’s great services here in China, you can get directly in contact with smaller farmers. So, all my friends now are starting to contact me. So the coldness outside is being replaced by social media warmth. People are asking me am I okay. What am I doing? Can I help them with things that they’re writing? Can we do sports or exercise together digitally? Um and of course, listening to music, I have a friend who is a DJ whose been helping me with a project whose, and her fame is growing and growing. And she tells me about uh, a new concert that she’s giving online. So, she goes to huge clubs across uh, Asia and growing success in the US and now she’s gonna do a DJ set as part of a digital club offered by QQ Music, which is the leading music provider in China and owned by Tencent. And so I’m able to join that, basically, digital disco. And listen to her music and her set, catch the set of other DJs, catch the comments from people, catch videos, upload pictures and then suddenly I’m able to do sports at home, eat at home, hang out with friends at home, be able to enjoy music and play at home. So, it’s starting to change everything dramatically and I don’t feel guilty, now, for spending so much time on my phone or on my laptop because that’s just what you can do. That’s the way things are.

Laurie Segall: Can we just totally dig into all of this because all of the things you’re saying are so fascinating, right? Like this idea that people are like, going, I, I think the, the term that someone said was cloud clubbing…?

Zander Shapiro: So I think a lot of these services, whether it’s cloud clubbing or exercising at home via numerous digital platforms has been out there for a while and it’s been slowly growing. As you know, electric, electronic gaming is huge in groups. But once you’re unable to go out and meet with friends and there’s a very clear restriction, then these opportunities go from fun and nice to have to essential. So, for me, it was really nice. I could say, “Wow, I’m gonna have this really awesome experience. I’m not gonna be isolated.” I’m gonna hear these really cool DJs. I’m able to pop in comments, read the comments from other people, upload videos or pictures, be part of this community. I can click people that have comments that I like. The comments are coming in in all different languages from all over China and all over Europe. And so it’s a pretty cool experience, again, in relationship to me watching a video that I’m streaming. Or me just listening to music.

Laurie Segall: How does it actually work? Like uh, take me, uh, I, I don’t mean to, to, to kind of dig into it but like, what, are you dancing at home, like like what is it?

Zander Shapiro: Right, so I think for me because uh, it’s electronic music.

Laurie Segall: Yeah, of course.

Zander Shapiro: So, there’s a lot, from my perspective I’m in a nice, comfortable chair. I’m moving my body and bobbing my head as I’m listening to the music. So, this is the other funny thing. So, uh, I can dance or I can jump around and take a little video but I want to comment to people. I want to share pictures. So, this is again the situation. You can sort of just rock out if you want but you can also interact with people. If you’re gonna interact, you need to type. So, if you need to type, you need to sit down. Or you need to be sort of standing as we all are used to with, with our smart phones. So it’s a bit of a combination. Um, I think also for me, dancing by myself is fun for a couple of minutes but as some point I get a lot more of my sports, as I mentioned earlier, watching a video, of a Pilates instructor from New York or a yoga instructor from Hawaii or, a HIIT trainer from Shanghai. So, that tends to be more my thing. I like looking out my window, having my headphones on. I can eat the snacks that I want to have. I can hang out. I can also invite friends to come and do this with me. Then it’s more of a dance. When I’m here with my, uh, girlfriend Brigittta, then we can dance together, then it’s more fun. But sort of dancing by myself, I, I prefer to sort of sit and sway and enjoy the beats and type to people and share things digitally while I’m enjoying the music.

Laurie Segall: And have you noticed more of your friends doing a lot of this since, since the coronavirus, since a lot of this stuff started happening?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, of course. And I think what you’re always doing is you’re looking for ways to share fun stuff with your friends. So, when I heard about this concert, of course I shared it with my friends, I shared it with our mutual friend in New York. So, he really got into the idea and so you’re always looking for fun things to share. It’s like, things to have a conversation about online. So, when I meet with people in real life, we chat about what we’re up to, what we’re doing. So I’ve got to find those similar things. So, being able to join these kinds of events and the events provide a lot of cool images that you can download becomes a nice conversation topic. I can then share tunes from one of the DJs I heard about um, and listen to them afterwards. So, it’s a nice way of integrating your life. But the crazy thing is that this cloud clubbing experience I had is occurring about 15, 20 feet from where I sit and do my work. So, I haven’t stopped working. And actually, I’ve been working pretty efficiently. So, the place where I’m doing conference calls and writing documents and editing and brainstorming, et cetera, is also the space where I’m doing my sports, where I’m grooving out to my favorite DJs, or where I’m chatting with people. So, things start to flow together. And I like the view out my window because it reminds me of exactly where I am but these kinds of separations between work and play and sports and sleep start to melt together. And I’ve enjoyed that but I’m not sure that’s always necessarily helpful for all people. And I’ve heard that from friends, some of them are able to work even more efficiently at home and other people are having more issues getting motivated.

Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, more with my guest after the break.

Laurie Segall: So you kind of describe like, how play has changed for you. I mean, it just sounds like it’s just not around other people to a degree. A, do, do you miss human connection? Like, do you miss being at a dance club and dancing with other people? Do you miss that?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, no I totally do and that’s the eerie thing is that it-, it doesn’t feel the same. It feels different. It feels good, I mean, it’s really nice to be connected. It’s great to have a super productive conference call with your client because everybody is totally focused on the call because there will be no physical meeting. Not between you and the client and not between the client and the other members of the team. So real decisions have to be made. So you can listen to people much more carefully. People are taking your documents more seriously. You’ve got to make a decision on this call. We, you know, we’re on Zoom, we’re sharing documents, this has to come to something. So, that’s a good feeling but it’s not the same feeling of seeing that reaction on somebody’s face.

Laurie Segall: Yeah. I mean, I kinda read the message that got tweeted: Cloud clubbing, clubbing from your living room during virus restrictions. An extension of Peloton to DJs and going out. With nightclubs closed and music events canceled for the foreseeable future, a number of DJs and clubs in China are turning to cloud clubbing. Cloud clubbing is where people can go watch live DJ sets and send in messages to give them the feeling that they’re in the club. The cloud clubbing events usually take place in apps, you know, like China’s TikTok. I mean, it’s fascinating to me. Um, you know, just the- the culture change that is likely happening, because of that. And- and the- and the almost it feels like the- what you’re discussing, what you’re talking about, uh, so casually, just feels like an alternative universe. Um, does that make sense?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, no, it does. I mean, it- it’s you’re isolated, so just imagine if you couldn’t meet with your friends, you couldn’t go out to public places, you had to do everything on your own. So one of the great things for people that are traditionally isolated, people that have physical issues, people that have issues with their weight, people that are scared of crowds. There’s a large number of people that are already extremely isolated in our society. So things like social media, things like digital worlds, allow them an alternative to the classic social lives that we lead. In places like Japan, these kinds of trends have already gone to extremes. There are people who already very seldom leave their rooms or their homes. And I think there are a lot of negative sides to all of this. However, it’s an interesting experiment. And I think that Beijing and Shanghai and obviously cities like Wuhan and Guangzhou that are much more affected by the virus are excellent, excellent laboratories for people to see what’s happening. And I hope that researchers, reporters spend time when this is all over, ’cause it will most likely end, and to check out what happened. What happens when people aren’t able to congregate in traditional patterns. What are the positive and negative issues? I don’t know what happens in a place like New York when there’s a blackout and people shouldn’t go outside. But very often, in those kinds of situations, the technology also doesn’t work. The interesting situation here is that all of the digital network’s working perfectly. All the systems are working perfectly. The only issue is this unseen virus, which is out there, encouraging you to stay inside. So again, I think if- especially if you have somebody to stay with or a small group of people that you can see on a- on a periodic basis, it’s kind of an interesting world.

Laurie Segall: It wo- I love how you describe it as like an experiment. Like when all this is over, like what experiment did we just do? Like what do you think this moment represents for technology? ‘Cause this has always been out there, like this idea of kind of, you know, we’ve had Second Life in the past, we’ve had all, you know, this idea, and- and people in tech are talking about augmented reality, virtual reality, living in these virtual worlds. Like, Peloton, right, like this idea of even working out with people and, you know, and having people in the background and you’re kind of virtually working out with other folks, like this is not- you know, this idea of personal tech, like this isn’t new. But something about this and something about this world that you’re painting for us and this picture that you’re describing of your life right now as you sit there kind of isolated from- from other people, it certainly seems like an interesting experiment as to where we could be going and where some of these trends are, and like, I don’t know where we go. You know?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, I know, I think if- if you take off the parental guidance of your teenager, your child, who just loves to chat all day with their friends and spend time on their laptop, what if you just let them go for a week and they never left their room and you brought them food? It would change everything. And I think this is also we spend time trying to control ourselves. No, don’t go out with your friends and look at your phone the entire time. We- we try to control the encroachment of- of digital technologies on our life, but when this quarantine happened, suddenly you stop doing that.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Zander Shapiro: So you’re just like, okay, I’m in the digital world now. I no longer say to myself, “Shapiro, put down your phone and go outside. Like, hey, go meet with your friend.” So it’s all of a sudden, that’s all gone. So there’s no longer an excuse or push or rationalization to take yourself out of the tech. So you just fall into it, say, well, this is my life right now. So I don’t have to go down the hall and talk with Lily or with Leon or the other members of my team. I can just chat with them. So all of a sudden, all those physical means that we normally use to interact with people, to have experiences, to go out and explore, are gone. So we use the digital alternatives, we take them much more seriously, we carefully look at it. So, suddenly I started to explore apps that I said, “Do I really need another app? Do I really need more digital in my life?” Now it’s like hell yeah, give me more digital, I’ve gotta find more fun things to do. I’ve gotta find new ways to communicate with my friends and my clients. So something which I’d try to keep to like three or four hours a day, boom, it’s eight hours a day. I think it’s an interesting experiment, and I think, again, instead of just fearing it, people need to sort of imagine an experiment with what would happen if they didn’t go out for a week, if they didn’t interact with their friends. What are the- the positives and the negatives and how they can manage that? ‘Cause there’s obviously a dark side to it. There are people that can completely disconnect or have largely disconnected from society, and without that push or that feeling that this isn’t really a good thing that there are side effects it becomes a difficulty.

Laurie Segall: I had to take this to you, right? Like, we’re speaking so broadly about this. Like what about you? You’re spending more and more time online, as you talk about in this isolation state, you’re- you are the experiment right now. You’re living the experiment. What’s the negative impact for you?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, I think the- the negative impact for me is that I stop really planning ahead. I stop questioning. I really like a flow lifestyle. I tend to work towards that anyway, dealing with issues as they come. I’m extremely critical, it’s part of my job, doing strategy to constantly question things. But I start doing it at a much, much higher rate. And I’ve also stopped filtering as much. So when I see information that I really like digitally, I comment right away now, “this is really great, wow, this is awesome, thanks for sharing”. And when I see things that are superficial or that I feel to be ill-informed, when I catch friends in the States, making fun of the coronavirus or silly jokes, I start de-friending them. So all of a sudden, I start taking a lot of the things on social media and digitally a lot more seriously. I start pulling them apart more. Um, because it becomes so much more important. And I’m- in the past, I would say, well, that was just silly, let it slide. Somebody’s just posting something dumb on social media. People don’t think on a regular basis. Ooh, that person’s not very critical, they’re just cutting and pasting ’cause they feel the need to make a post. Now, all of a sudden, I’m like, no. It’s not okay to post useless, superficial, or hurtful things. And I’m- I don’t wanna flame this person, I don’t even want them on my stream anymore. So it’s- it’s interesting, I’ve started to disconnect myself from people that I feel don’t post quality things, don’t know how to write a proper message, aren’t really dealing with things. And then I’m seeing other people who have responded, whether it’s in the US or here in China, who have been very, very thoughtful, who have reached out in very constructive, intelligent ways. And I’m starting now, because I’m so dependent on this stream, to edit out anything that isn’t of a certain quality level. And I think that’s obviously gonna affect my- my diversity. It’s made me much more critical and focused and I think, to some extent, more extreme digitally, when it becomes such an important aspect of my life.

Laurie Segall: Hmm. It’s almost like, uh, you know, we’re having this conversation about technology and how we really need to moderate our use and take a step back from it and it’s almost like you just like swallowed the red pill. Right? Like you just like-

Zander Shapiro: Yep.

Laurie Segall: Went all the way in, and this is kinda your-

Zander Shapiro: Yeah.

Laurie Segall: Your mechanism to- to survive this moment.

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, I used to go out and do sports all the time. Now I don’t go out and do sports. I do everything in my living room. There’s so much stuff online for sports. It’s amazing.

Laurie Segall: What do- what do you do? Like can you just like- Paint a picture? Like can you give us like a visual image of what your day looks like in your home?

Zander Shapiro: Right. So the- the most important thing is when you’re in this sort of cocoon phase is to jump-start your morning. Right? So get out of bed, gotta sing a little song to myself, jump up and down, make noises. Gotta say, okay, now the day is starting. Throw up all the- the curtains. I’ve been doing a lot of Pilates and yoga first thing in the morning which I never did before.

Laurie Segall: Hmm.

Zander Shapiro: So I hate the morning, I don’t wanna get out of bed. I’m not gonna go to the gym first thing in the morning. But Brigitte and I wake up, we drink our coffee, we try to do yoga or Pilates right away, because yoga and Pilates are made for an apartment. So the videos and the sports that we can do have to be carefully made for, uh, a space which fits in with our living room we have. We open up the shades, we look outside, we can open up the windows. But we get into that, we can do an hour, we can do, uh, 90 minutes. We can do two or three different videos. We like to find people that have funny accents, so we found this woman who’s a Pilates instructor in Australia, and she always says “noice”. Yeah, and we have a guy in New York who’s motivating us to get going. Uh, there’s people from Japan, there’s people from China who are talking and helping you through. There’s an old, uh, yoga instructor named Rodney Yu who does a- a yoga class on top of a- a hill in Hawaii. It’s a very, very, very different experience. Then, of course, you’ve gotta take your shower and then slide, check in your phone after you’ve turned it off, ’cause you’re working out. All of a sudden, there’s messages. Clients wanna speak with you. You have to organize phone calls. You have to organize meetings. You have to look at work. And then it goes into that flow. Um, then somehow we figure out when is time for lunch when our flow of digital information calms down and we both find a good spot. We can then turn our phones off and try to enjoy a lunch. But of course, then, suddenly the phone buzzes. So this issue of your free time, talking with your partner, enjoying your meals, enjoying your spare time, all flows together. So I’m answering messages from friends, from colleagues, from clients, from strangers who are contacting me through other friends who wanna know how I’m doing or asking me questions, all very, very elegantly flows together. And I think that’s the scary part is that the day goes by really fast.

Laurie Segall: Hmm.

Zander Shapiro: Right? So there’s almost no period of time when I’m like super bored. There’s not a period of time when there’s something missing. So it just all flows together. And then suddenly it’s- it goes from being 9:00 in the morning when I start working, or 9:30 or 10:00, to 1:00 o’clock, and then having some lunch, which slows things down. And then boom, it’s suddenly 6:00 or 7:00. And then we stop for dinner, we can go out for a walk, play some Frisbee outside. But, again, it’s just the two of us. When we come back, we can spend time looking at entertainment together, listening to music together, but it all flows together. The day goes by really, really quickly. So digital time for me, especially if you’re doing something interesting, it’s much, much faster.

Laurie Segall: What-

Zander Shapiro: So suddenly the days have flown by.

Laurie Segall: What do you think about this term isolation technology?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, it is. I mean, I am isolated. I’m isolated with other people. I’m in a bubble. But I’m not going out and talking to people, so I’m isolated here in my apartment, I don’t receive visitors. If somebody brings me a package, the package has to be left at the door. I’m not allowed to interact with people. I don’t really thank the delivery guy like I used to, I don’t chat with him like I used to. So it’s me and my bubble requesting things, looking at things, interacting with things, but there’s no people. Like I said, even the guards who I used to chat with and who I adore had masks on, are giving me distance. So there’s warmth and interaction, but it’s all digital. So it changes everything. And so as you know, digital technologies are always a watered down or disrupted version of our real lives. So real conversation is much more impacted than a digital conversation. So there’s all these multiple flows of much softer, much less impactful conversation. So it creates this- this very dreamlike flow, in your life and there’s not as much ups and downs as you would have in the real life, where expressions or tastes or interactions are much more powerful. So here, suddenly, things are much softer, things are much more gliding together. If something doesn’t work, I can quickly slide into something else. I can ask things. I’m not really looking at time the same way, I’m looking at more in terms of blocks, not really in terms of the larger concept. Everything is relatively easy to do, I can quickly establish a call, I can quickly order food. But the level of impact and effectiveness, or the amount of emotions I feel with each experience, is much less. But it’s just a lot more.

Ok we’ve got to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. More with my guest after the break. 

Laurie Segall: Do you worry, uh, that in some of this like cloud clubbing or I think someone used the- the term Peloton discotheque or something?

Zander Shapiro: Mm-hmm.

Laurie Segall: Like, uh, can you describe that really quick for us?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, no, I think for me, uh, having this sort of Peloton discotheque concept of life where you’re just having these experiences with other individuals, from far-flung locations, creates this feeling that the world is like your digital concierge, it should bring you things. The more you pay, the higher level of service you have. The more you pay, the more features you get. And why not have music services brought to you by Peloton? Why not have other social interactions? So this is always the dream and I suppose it’s justifying evaluations is the Peloton screen should do more for me.Now after staying at home, I want the videos and the experiences I pull up form YouTube, I want more. What if I want to pay for somebody to provide a service to me via that video screen as Peloton? I wanna upgrade it. I want it to go into other areas. And I think that’s the scary part. You know? Why go out and listen and experience or take a- a one-on-one class or a lesson with somebody when I can have many more experiences digitally? So all that time spent traveling and all the rest disappeared. I mean, for me, it was a real shock that Peloton was so successful after Soulcycle and all these other locations were showing such a strong growth, as well. Why would somebody who’s successful and wealthy wanna sit in their living room and spin when they could go to a really cool class downtown? But now I found out why.

Laurie Segall: I mean, you understand it now in a new way, you think?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, no, I totally do. So I get to do more, lower quality things. And so I- I can’t imagine being on a Peloton is better than going to a kickass SoulCycle class.

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Zander Shapiro: I mean, I’ve tried both, and I’d rather be in a SoulCycle class.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Zander Shapiro: But what I do appreciate now is the ability to get out of my bed, go into the living room, do an amazing workout, I can then get through. I can then have the kinds of beverages and the food that’s super healthy and slide right into work and it’s all super seamless. Now if I have to get up, I have to go out to the gym, I’m gonna go to the gym, I’m gonna have this intense gym experience, but then I’m probably gonna go out and eat at a restaurant afterwards, I’m probably not gonna eat as healthy food. The entire experience is probably gonna be four hours, five hours. If I had kept it all at home, it’d probably all be about two hours. So I can do much more by- by never leaving my house now if I have the resources and the finances and the knowledge that I have.

Laurie Segall: I mean, so the relationship with time changes, your relationship with people change. What do you think is the biggest thing that’s getting lost, during this whole digital experiment that you seem to be swimming in?

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, I think, I’m- I’m obviously losing time just by myself. So even though I’m isolated, I’m constantly connected. So that walk that I take now by myself or with Brigitte is really important, ’cause I get to disconnect and not constantly react. Which I think is really important,  just the need to just do nothing. So even though I’m isolated, I’m not doing nothing. I’m constantly playing with devices, I’ve gotten into this digital world totally. And it’s really important to turn off. So I’ve lost a lot of that turn off time. Which I thought would’ve happened more, uh, and isn’t. I think it’s important periodically to be a bit bored, to just see what happens. To stumble into things. And I think now, be- our digital worlds are so algorithms that we don’t really just stumble upon things anymore. We hear about things from friends. We search for things and our searches are pushed and pulled in different directions. So that ability to just sort of like, go through a flea market and see what happens, walk down the street and randomly things jump out at you. There’s a kid and there’s a stranger, there’s an old lady singing. That’s all gone. So everything feels very, very much put inside of an algorithm driven channel for me, or things are organized by other people and that kind of spontaneity doesn’t exist online anymore, doesn’t exist digitally anymore. People know my patterns. I can see it now. So just, the more and more you spend, the more and more your devices learn, the more and more you lean into them, you just start flowing into these patterns of behavior, which are really scary. I mean, they’re nice, it’s like fast food, but it’s really, really, you find yourself just taking these easier digital paths instead of exploring new things.

Laurie Segall: I can’t help but think we had uh, we had professor Moran Cerf on First Contact um, in an episode called like, Hacking Your Brain to Order Dreams on Demand, and it was a fascinating episode and you know, I asked him, what do you think is the single most important ethical issue coming down the pipeline, and he said, “Young people as they grow up,” he’s like, “People are gonna stop having…” I think he said something along the lines of like, aren’t going to have sexual relationships anymore. Like, people are gonna stop connecting in like a sexual way. And so I guess, I think about this from what you’re talking about with the rise of isolation tech. You talk about having a girlfriend, and- and it sounds like you’re lucky that you have a girlfriend during this and that you guys can spend a lot of time together in what seems like a very isolating, scary, lonely time uh, in China. But we talk about cloud clubbing, right? This weird concept but it sounds like millions and if you look at some of the stats, and there’s been some writing on this, millions of people are showing up in these virtual clubs to spend time with one another and comment, but no one’s touching. Like no one’s hugging, no one’s making out, right? Like-

Zander Shapiro:Yep.

Laurie Segall: I mean, you know, physical connection is the thing that seems to be lost in some of this digital overdose. So, do you worry that as we, you know, and hopefully we will get through this scary time, but do you worry that with the rise of this, and this is kind of like this microcosm for this moment of digital and what’s kind of coming down the pipeline and maybe this is just putting this out there in a bigger way but like, do you worry that- that maybe as we see this trend happening, like we’re all gonna be spending time with one another but not being with each other and having intimacy?

Zander Shapiro: No, and I mean, I totally agree and I think it’s already happening. So, if you look at, as I mentioned before, countries like Japan, even here in China, in the U.S., rates of just having sex are going down. People are no longer as intimate as they used to be, with the whole Me Too Movement in the States, I can also assume that these kinds of sexual interactions are becoming much more- it’s just easier not to do it, and now with all the digital alternatives through pornography or other forms of sexual expression digitally, it’s gonna push it even farther. So, this is again, for me, extremely frightening. I mean, I I grew up in the 70s and I’m used to as much physical contact as I can possibly muster with the people that- that I adore and playing sports like basketball in New York, that’s all going away. And it’s gonna continue and in this- the situation with the Coronavirus just exacerbates it. I think, what’s interesting again, is that we used to always joke when I was growing up that there’s always one day of the year when you’re an alcoholic where you’re not an alcoholic anymore, and that’s of course on New Years Eve. Uh, there are a lot of people that just don’t find it comfortable or easy to be with other people, that don’t find it comfortable to be social, and right now for them, it’s like New Years Eve. They have no stigma. They can stay at home the whole day. They can have no physical interaction. I’ve also heard over the years that I’ve been here where people know colleagues that don’t really want to go to rooms or talk with people. They’re- they’re- they’re messaging people that are in a cubicle twenty feet away from them, having intense conversations, which I’ve seen. So I think that isolation trend is already going on. Now for me, it’s horrifying, but the question is, is you know, for another generation if they prefer to live in isolation. Yeah, it’s scary for me and it’s sad but I- I see it really as an inevitability. And what’s crazy here in China, is that people didn’t suddenly revolt. Teenagers weren’t saying, yeah, let’s just create our own underground club. Fuck the world, let’s go out and have fun. They didn’t do that. You know, people were- were much more critical about how the virus was being handled. But people were okay with staying at home. People were okay with not going to work. People were okay with ordering all their food in home or cooking at home. People seem to be able to manage it. There wasn’t a huge amount of unrest. There wasn’t a huge amount of reactions to this as there were, for example, in Hong Kong to other political issues so, it is kinda scary. But I think that is just another example of how this direction will continue. I mean, we’re not gonna get less digital. The other fascinating thing is that, simpler is better. So, the technologies that people are turning to are not more and more complicated, they’re just using those simple, fast, easy flowing technologies more and more, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why Peloton works well ’cause it’s so easy to use. You don’t have to learn a new piece of software, you don’t have complicated formulas to fill out, and most of the technologies that are taking off here, and the delivery services that are working well are those same old classical services. So, a Facebook or an Instagram or a Snap are just gonna grow. So, here JD.com’s, the delivery online retailer for food and for most essentials is the biggest distributor of uh, food related items, had a tremendous quarter. Their stock skyrocketed yesterday, so I- I don’t see that stopping.

Laurie Segall: You know, and also we’re facing so much uncertainty in the world right now. It’s wildfires in one place, it’s, you’ve got Coronavirus, it’s political unrest. and so I can’t help but think there’s this other- this other trend that we’re seeing online and that there’s just, there’s something there and people connecting. I- I don’t know, and people kind of retreating in some capacity. I don’t think it’s random. I think that there’s certainly something about this moment that feels very uncertain.

Zander Shapiro: Yeah, but the, but the cloud disco’s there for you. You know, it says, don’t worry about it, you know? Come to the Peloton discotheque. It’s cool, man. So, it’s all crazy out there but hey, stay at home. You don’t have to go out. You don’t even have to- you know, you can engage in politics, just do it all digitally. Like you can do your sports, you can do everything, why bother going outside? Why even bother starting a physical relationship with one person when you can have hundreds of superficial digital relationships? I mean, this is the thing that shocked me when I first came to Asia was going out to really cool, totally lit up disco, with amazing DJ’s and some of the Discos in Beijing or in Shanghai or in Tokyo have some amazing visual effects or- or in Seoul, and you see a table full of 20-somethings super good-looking, you know, really well dressed. Anywhere from 8-12 of them all around a table with big bottles of alcohol, and they’re all looking at their phones, all the time.

Laurie Segall: Mmm.

Zander Shapiro: There’s a really nice DJ going, nobody’s dancing. So how far away is it from this?

Laurie Segall: Did we just write a Black Mirror episode together or are we living in one?

Zander Shapiro: I- I- I think the crazy thing is that the Black Mirror episode is happening in slow motion, relatively speaking. So, we’re sliding into it. So, this is the question, like it’s- it’s gonna happen, right. We’re going to get into a situation where people are living more and more via social media, as if we already weren’t.

Laurie Segall: Right.

Zander Shapiro: Right? You know, there’s already the joke about oh, what happens if you lose your phone? What happens to your life?

Laurie Segall: Yeah.

Zander Shapiro: And we joke about it. But should we really be joking about it? So, the last chance to pull people back from this digital bubble, is now. If people don’t do it now, it’s gone, right? There’s gonna be a moment where you’re gonna go into a hundred percent digital state for a period of time because of a version of a Corona or some kind of a disaster and you’re gonna see, and if you like it, there is no reason for you to come back. The stigma is gonna slowly disappear.

Laurie Segall: From the guy who’s currently living in digital bubble land, right?

Zander Shapiro: Right, but I was already here. I mean, that’s the thing, when I go back to New York, there’s a lot more interaction, right?

Laurie Segall: Yeah, sure.

Zander Shapiro: I don’t have the same kind of an issue of asking my friends to put the phone down or watching the videos so it is still a much more of a go out and enjoy things, it- it’s already slated into that direction. I just have a feeling that it’s not gonna stop.

Laurie Segall: Do you feel like you’re in the Matrix?

Zander Shapiro: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think the thing is, is that the Matrix is there for everybody, it’s just that, are you in the matrix 100% or 50%, you know? Are you in the matrix four hours a day or eight hours a day? And everybody has their own matrix. So, I think that’s the thing, too, this sort of belief that there’s sort of, one big matrix out there and we’re all in it. Uh-uh. Everybody’s got their own matrix. I wish a lot of the digital services knew me better and would stop sending me advertising or information that I have absolutely no interest in. So, my matrix is, consists of my clients, it consists of the people that I love, it’s my family. It’s, I build my matrix, and now that I’m in it more and more, I’m grooming it more. I’m kicking people out and information sources out and apps out, and putting other ones in because hey, wait. This is my world now. So I’m taking much better care of it, which is good and bad, too, because what it does is, I’m sort of creating a matrix that has less resistance, that has higher quality, uh, which in turn then, meets my needs more and pushes me further. And so I think, the important part is at some point to just, not turn it down, the volume of my matrix, but literally turn it off. And I think that’s something that I’m beginning to realize and trying to do more and more is literally, leave all the devices at home. Go outside for a walk, have things happen to you in a random fashion because things in the digital world are controlled, and they’re controlled by you, and they’re repetitive and they’re easy and they’re comforting, and that’s a problem. If I want to really challenge myself and see new things, if I want spontaneous things to happen, I gotta go outside. Algorithms are not spontaneous.

Laurie Segall: Hmm. My last question for you, um, Zander, uh, are you afraid?

Zander Shapiro: Oh yeah, I’m afraid all the time. I like fear. I mean, fear for me is really important. That’s one of the things that I hate when I go back to the states is that people aren’t really critical, you know, people don’t want to be scared of things, people hate conflict, these are all really important things so yeah, I’m totally scared. I think the interesting thing about Coronavirus is it reminds me that the most dangerous thing on the planet is other people. Uh, when I look at politics either in China and in the U.S., again it’s people. So I’m getting really scared of people. I get scared of what people are able to do. I get scared of what people are able to believe. I get scared of how quickly people are willing to do without things as you had mentioned, like physical contact or sex. They’re willing to give that up, for me it’s frightening. At the same time, the compassion and the warmth that I’ve experienced from people and when I take good care of my digital networks, how many amazing conversations and experiences I can have. Just sitting down and carefully writing texts between another intelligent person I’ve known for a while, how good that can be, writing letters back and forth basically, to friends, or hearing their voices or talking more now to my mom, which I haven’t done enough and this isolation has allowed me to reach out more and do some of those things calmly and in an appropriate state of mind that I want, is really, really hopeful. But yeah, no, I mean it’s, it is frightening. It is very, very scary to imagine a world where people just don’t touch each other anymore.

Laurie Segall: Hmm. Um, well I think it’s a good way to end it. Maybe also, a good reminder to call our parents or tell someone we love them. Uh, so thank you for that. And we’ll be thinking about you and maybe I’ll see you in a cloud club one day or maybe in real life-

Zander Shapiro: Yes, I hope so.

Laurie Segall: Hopefully in real life. Um, have a wonderful one and take care of yourself, okay?

Zander Shapiro: Okay, thank you.

Okay, guys so if you’re sitting at home and listening to this by yourself, I’m assuming you’re feeling a little bit weird. That obviously gave, uh, it gave me a lot to think about. I don’t know about you but I would love to hear from you. What do you want to hear more of? How does that make you feel? I’m trying out this new community number so you can text me and I swear, this actually goes directly to my phone. The number is 917-540-3410, so text me. And here’s a personal request. If you like the show, leave us a review on the Apple Podcast app or wherever you listen to your podcasts, and subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. You can follow me. I am @LaurieSegall on Twitter and Instagram, and the show is @firstcontactpodcast on Instagram, and on Twitter you can find us, we’re @firstcontactpod. First Contact is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media, executive produced by Laurie Segall Segall and Derek Dodge, and this episode was produced and edited by Sabine Jansen and Jack Regan, original theme music by Zander Sing.

First Contact with Laurie Segall Segall is a production of Dot Dot Dot Media and iHeart Radio.