In this thought-provoking episode of This Might Get Uncomfortable, Whitney delves into the realm of a digital society with her guest, Afarin Bellisario. Growing up in Tehran, a city marked by constant change, Afarin shares her unique perspective on the impact of growing up in a country undergoing transformative shifts. She passionately discusses the need for different ways of life to come together in order to thrive, emphasizing the importance of creating a marriage instead of silos. Throughout the conversation, Afarin challenges preconceived notions about the pressures of monetization and commercialization in today’s fast-paced world. She shares her skepticism about the readiness of artificial intelligence for prime time, drawing parallels between early technology dangers and the long-lasting effects of substances like Teflon. As an evangelist for responsible technology usage, Afarin provides invaluable advice for young entrepreneurs seeking to avoid the pitfalls of dangerous technology. She encourages them to step back, cultivate thoughtfulness, and resist the addictive allure of dopamine-driven experiences. Join us as we navigate the digital landscape with Afarin Bellisario, unraveling the complexities of a digital society and uncovering the potential for unity amidst diversity.
Quotes from Guest:
It pains me when we imprison ourselves into silos.
We are social people who need to resolve conflicts.
Technology is a tool that makes it easier for us to remain in our own silo.
The important thing is to be curious about other people.
We need to be proactive to break the silo and to break the boundaries.
Breaking bridges is good but breaking walls is even better.
Talking to another person who is not like you is healthy.
America is an example, and we need to not fall apart.
The way we go about innovation has not been the greatest for our psyche.
We have more of a digital society than a physical society.
We haven’t developed a lot of social manners or laws online.
We get caught up in the cycle and can’t see the big picture: why are we doing what we’re doing?
At the end of the day, it’s not the information or data, its’s the wisdom it takes effort to disengage.
We need to reduce our glorification of money.
There’s a point after which money becomes not very useful to enjoy.
We have lost our sense of humanity and community.
Sometimes what’s best for society is not best for me.
We have to innovate around business models instead of the next shinny technology.
I want everything I do to matter to me and someone else.
Listen to the podcast here
Shattering Silos: Bridging Different Ways Of Life In A Digital Society With Afarin Bellisario
I’m looking forward to this conversation with Afarin because we’re going to speak about technology. One thing that I’ve learned that the two of us have in common is a lot of curiosity about technology. I’ve had that my entire life, and perhaps it was because of the influence of my father and grandfathers. They were into computers, taking things apart, and putting them back together, inventing things, and using their hands when it came to all different types of tools. Being exposed to that as a little girl struck a chord in me. I remember my dad was passionate about the development of computer technology. He took me to a computer museum.
Afarin, given that you also live in Massachusetts, you may remember this. It might have been in Cambridge. It was a computer museum. He took me in there. It was somewhere near the water. Maybe it was in Boston, but regardless, there were all these cool displays to help teach adults and children about the evolution of computer technology. I remember there was a giant computer mouse that you could climb on top of and there were all these exhibits you could go in. My dad was invested in me learning about this.
It worked because I got very interested in all sorts of computer-related things. I wanted to use every app on the computers that I had access to when I was in school. I became someone who developed these tech skills. Who knew how much they were going to come into play for me as an adult and shape my entire career? The other thing that I’m aligned with is you are interested in how technology can improve people’s lives and also understand the ways in which it might impact us in great ways, whether that’s addictive social media or the development of AI tools. Both of those factors and developments do have this fine line between improving our lives, helping us, and maybe influencing us in some negative ways or bringing up fear.
AI is a great example of something that a lot of people seem very fearful of, given that you are passionate about helping change perspectives, you’re thinking about your legacy, what you want to leave behind, and reflecting at this point in your life about what is going to be good for yourself, other people and the Earth. All of this is going to come together in our conversation, and I’m thrilled. I’d love to begin with more of your personal history, especially because it’s something that I would like to learn more about how you grew up in Tehran. Your website says that you like to act as a bridge between East and West. That’s a great starting point. What does that mean for you and what does your personal history bring to your work in the United States?
I was born and raised in Tehran. My father’s family was more on the conservative side. Not conservative in the sense of not wanting change. For example, my grandfather would never allow my aunts to be in chador and was very intellectual in that regard, but they lived in Southern Tehran. They had a much more traditional way of life, whereas my mother’s family is even more modern. I grew up in a country that was going through many changes because if you look at it that the end of the end of 20th century, Iran was basically 99.9% 14th century in some sense. Modern modernity came to Iran, both in terms of technology and also in terms of the way people thought about democracy, freedom, and the kinds of ideas that we associate with Western.
Western science and technology came to Iran and gradually changed people’s life. I saw the transition not only horizontally but also vertically. You go from Southern Tehran where my grandparents lived. It was very traditional people still. Some women wore scarves and not too many chadors. You go uptown, and then it’s miniskirts and parties.
We had an ice castle that was skating. It was no different than being in London or Paris. Many of the people in Northern Tehran had traveled to Europe and had a lot of Western outlooks themselves. I’m not saying either of them was good or bad, but each of them had their own place. When a traditional country once is growing, if you don’t try to make them melt together or somehow become one, then you grow apart. That’s what happened in Iran.
Nowadays in Iran, we had a bunch of people who wanted to go more toward the West and more American. At one point, before the revolution in Iran, the highest number of foreign students in America were Iranians. You had that, and then at the same time, you had very traditional people who still believed in wearing a hijab and doing this and that and the other. I’m not saying either of them is good or bad, but there are different ways of life. We never came together. Over the years, we fall apart even further. I always say my great-grandfather had 25 wives. He had a hand or whatever.
I’m a PhD from MIT. We’ve come a very long way in one sense. In another, no and not so much. I grew up in Iran. I went and started engineering school there. I then came to America and then the revolution happened and never went back. I was lucky to be here. I haven’t spent any of my life in Iran, not my professional life. In that sense, I was lucky that I could build up from entry-level and come up. I was lucky to go to find a school like MIT, which I’m very proud of. I’m very honored. That’s how came about. My life has been half in the East and half in the West. I still like to go to the East. I like to travel, observe, and see these transitions. The best will be if we can somehow create a marriage between the two rather than create silos.It’s best to create a marriage between two different ways of life rather than create silos. Click To Tweet
I love the word silo. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about until then. I’m curious. What is your definition of silo in this context?
It’s living in your own little world and not wanting to bridge out and go out. It pains me because I love America. I love this country, its culture, and its people. It pains me when we somehow imprison ourselves in silos. You live in Boston, and this is your silo. You live in Cambridge, believe it or not, and it’s a different silo. You don’t talk to each other. We have a very preconceived notion of who the other person is, even by age. You think that a 20-year-old has nothing to do or say to a 60-year-old, which is not true. If you could look at the history of human beings in a traditional society, people talk to each other. A young man or woman and an old man and woman talk. They have something in common. They respect each other’s opinions and whatever. We live too much in silos. That’s painful to me because I don’t think that’s very healthy.
It’s a great language for me now because I like the way that you’re phrasing this about the silos. It’s fascinating to think about that and brings more context to why you’re passionate about building that bridge. It seems like we have a great opportunity with technology. You and I in real-time connected because of technology.
You and I may not have ever met if it weren’t for technology. We’re able to speak to each other and reach other people through technology. There are many benefits. My aim is to create those bridges and to get away from those silos as I will now say through technology. As I was implying at the beginning, there are all these opportunities to bring us together, but technology also has an interesting way, especially in our culture, perhaps due to social media, which is creating silos.
It seems sometimes hard to form a bridge out of those silos. I wonder. Are we bridging from silo to silo or are we taking away the silos so that they don’t even exist? I’m curious about your thoughts on where we’re at now, perhaps any thoughts on how we got here, and what your hopes are for shifting that in the future so that we can create more of a marriage instead of a silo and not be imprisoned.
It’s nobody’s fault. We are human beings and we are lazy. I’m the laziest of all people. Confrontation is always expensive in terms of mental cycles. If you and I don’t have everything in common, it seems that it makes it harder. The thing is that we’re social people. We need to resolve these conflicts. We need to accept some things. Maybe you voted for X and I voted for Y but I also like Red Sox and you like Red Sox. What we are doing is that we are limiting ourselves, and the technology makes it easier. Technology is a tool.
It’s a wonderful tool, especially during the COVID to talk to your friends, family, this, that, and the other, or watch a movie or see wonderful stuff. I took some courses during the COVID. It’s all great things but it also makes it easier for us to remain in our own silo. Back in the day, you had to get out and take a bus, go for coffee, and maybe talk to some people that you don’t want to. Maybe the other person who is sitting behind me is not exactly what I would date or whatever, but that seemed not important.
The important thing is to be curious about other people, “What does this person have to say? If I’m sitting in a Red Sox game, what would the person who’s sitting behind me think? Why is she or he there?” We need to be proactive more than we have ever been and break the silos. We need to break the boundaries. Being a bridge is good, but breaking down the walls is even better.
Sometimes you have to break things, and that’s what we need to do. Another thing that bothers me a little bit about these days is that our children used to be that they would go out and play where they would go and play baseball or basketball game. Nowadays, they’re not. When you play baseball, let’s say in a team, some kids are better than others. It’s the nature of human beings. I’m not a great athlete, but it’s that being out there and talking to another person who is not like you is healthy. As people, that’s what we have evolved. We are evolved to be collaborative in some sense. That’s what made us human beings. We are getting away from that. To me, that’s not good. We are not using our tools to good effect.
I spend a lot of time pondering and researching this. One reason that I suspect has led to the state of things is that a lot of technology is designed to profit off of or monetize. A lot of companies have tapped into some of the psychological, basic core of the human experience and capitalized on it through things like creating fear and outrage. Fear and outrage seem to be a major issues that we have. Humans are very drawn to that.
There’s something about it that activates us and gets us very interested to the detriment of us becoming more in our silos and braiding more walls. We’re protecting ourselves through that fear. That protection is at the cost of our connection. I’m curious about what you discover through this. Even with all sorts of judgment prejudice is this one country’s better than the other hierarchal models. Since you didn’t grow up in the United States, do you see that magnified more here? I don’t have any outside awareness because I’ve always lived in the United States.We think we're protecting ourselves by building walls, but that protection is at the cost of our connection. Click To Tweet
America is ahead of everybody else. Unfortunately, everybody else in the world is looking up to America. That puts a little bit more pressure on us because if everybody else is following us, we have even more of a responsibility to be the leaders and be the people who others look up to. I grew up in Iran, and we always looked up to America as a great example. I was in Vietnam. We took a trip to Thailand and Vietnam. Everybody there is also looking to America. America is an example. If we are the example, then we need to not fall apart. Fear is a very strong emotion. There’s no question about that. We are always fearing, and technology that can make you and I talk with each other like this can also bring in some bad actors into the foray.
I want to go back to what you said about the commercial aspect of it. This is something that I do day in and out. I work with startups and big companies who want to get into the technologies and things of that sort. We are always looking to commercialize everything. Sometimes the technology isn’t ready for it or we are not ready for it for that technology. The way we go about doing all this innovation has not been the greatest for us as human beings for our psyche. I was reading an article that people are trying to come up with tools to automate so that we have our productivity.
They made an example of this CEO who uses AI to write a memo to wish everybody a happy Memorial Day. I said, “Rather than writing that memo, why don’t you send everybody a gift card for $50? No memo.” I’m not going to read a memo before I go for the Memorial Day holiday. If my boss, my boss’s boss, or the CEO of the company is sending me something a little bit meaningful to me, a $50 gift box can buy hamburgers for my family maybe.
What I’m saying is that pressure to commercialize and monetize everything if that something doesn’t have a monetary value. I am as capitalist as everybody else by the way. I’m not saying that monetizing and capitalizing and making money is bad. No, it’s very good. It shouldn’t be our first goal. It shouldn’t be our objective. Life is much richer. It’s much more important than X, Y, or Z. That’s part of what I want to convey to people or live my life in a good way but also communicate that to others.
I’m grateful that you’re working on that because that’s important. One thing that I’m curious to hear more about is this. Do you feel like the average person is ready for all of this AI development? I consider myself an early adopter. I enjoy trying new technology. It’s exciting when it’s novel, but I’ve noticed there’s a lot of potential with AI tools. The average person doesn’t understand it.
They don’t know how to use it. I see some excitement but also that fear that I mentioned before, given what you said about how it might be a bit dangerous for our psyche. The people, as in the example you gave, are trying to use it as a shortcut while missing the whole point of what people want. With all that said, do you feel like AI needs more time before the masses start utilizing it? Are we in like a dangerous time with it?
First of all, I don’t think AI is ready for the showtime. It’s very nice that they did an experiment. I’m sure that you have heard of it. People who talk about computers say, “Garbage in. Garbage out.” You put bad data in, you get bad data out. In terms of a large language model, what we have done is that the developers allowed the AI to look at everything on the web. As you and I know, on the web, there are great works of art and literature, but there’s also a lot of garbage, misinformation, and others. We have this experimental thing, and we are putting it in front of people. I’ve done a lot of product development in my life, and one of the things is that when you give people something, they break it. They want to play with it and see what it can do and what it can’t do.
It’s the nature of human beings. We are doing the same thing with AI, but the thing about it is that can make us upset and give us misinformation. It can lie to us. It can make you feel bad. There was an article about younger people who don’t have the life experience of an older person, but even older people. Everybody is getting hooked on these things.
Because the technology has gotten much more complex, it’s not a product. It’s going back to the forever chemicals. We put those chemicals out without knowing what it can do in the long run. Every household in this country and then the rest of the ward used Teflon material. Teflon is now banned. We now know that it’s banned, but it took us some time.
For example, people in Google stepped back some of them, then the people like that say, “We don’t want to have anything to do with it.” This is an experiment at this point in time. We know that it can do good and it can bring good data in or whatever, but use it in a very controlled environment, very much as what people did at the beginning of the computer era. One of my first jobs was to develop this elaborate complicated model
Back then, our computing power was pretty limited. It was much less than this, like 1/10th, 100th, and 1 million of this. We were trying to do this complicated. When you are trying to understand the programs put together and it’s debugging in the system, you put some known input in and you look at the output because, at some point, the programs become unwieldy to speak. There’re errors in it, which you don’t know until much later.
I knew physics. When I started getting garbage responses, I knew something was wrong. I went to it and it’s a long was a long process. I found out we are hitting the limitation in the computational power of the computer. Basically, it’s doing what ChatGPT, AI, or language do. You don’t know it. You throw out whatever garbage is in your storage system. What I’m saying is that these are not ready for public consumption. We can use it in a limited capacity in businesses wherever we can sort of have an idea of whether it’s doing the right thing or not.AI is not ready for public consumption. We can use it in a limited capacity in business, where we can have an idea whether it’s doing the right thing or not. Click To Tweet
The other side of the thing is that people are not ready for it either because when you see somebody in the street, I don’t know about it now, but back in the day, you would smile. If they’re your neighbor, you say hello. That’s part of social manners. That’s a good manner. You were a good well brought up person if you knew this manners. We don’t know what the rule of the road is and what the social manner in society is nowadays because we now have more of a digital society than a physical society.
We have our friends on Facebook and this and that. We still need friends’ presence if we can physically, via telephone, and things like that. Everybody was complaining about the fact that people can be very rude online because it’s not your neighbor that you would say hello to or even though they may be your digital neighbor. We haven’t developed a lot of social manners or laws. We don’t know what is the product liability for an AI-based system. What if the AI tells you, “You need to take ten aspirins and get a stomach ache?” What’s the liability there? We are not ready for it. Technology isn’t ready for us. That’s why I’m saying the emphasis on monetization, we need to bring that down.
It’s making a lot of sense in some new ways to me as you’re speaking on this because it seems to be in a stage with our online economy, which is young, relatively. It’s like not even my whole life that we’ve had all these tools. I remember watching web developing as a child. It’s relatively new. I remember all the mistakes of the dot-com era when everybody was thinking there was much money to be made online and a lot of people failed. We might be in a similar stage with social media and AI tools where there seems like a gold rush and so much opportunity but a lot of danger because it’s new territory. To your point, we haven’t developed a lot of the laws, rules, and regulations around this.
People are proceeding quickly. Maybe we haven’t been taught enough discretion and personal responsibility or awareness to even identify these dangers. Certainly, for me, I’m becoming aware of those things, given my long history in social media, which I was watching evolve in real time as well. It felt exciting and had many opportunities. Part of the danger is that the negative consequences of these things are not highlighted nearly as much as the positive sides and the promise.
To your point, that may be very connected to the monetization opportunity because you’re not going to make as much money if you’re pointing out the danger all the time. You’re more likely to monetize something if you’re talking about the upsides, what’s possible, and the power of something. As human beings, we’re very susceptible to the promise. Another word you’ve used is laziness. The truth is, as human beings, we’re always looking for shortcuts. We want to give the least amount of energy into something possible as part of our way of surviving. We’re drawn to things that feel easy, promising, and exciting, but not always hyper-aware or aware enough of the potential downsides to it.
Going back to monetization, I was at a startup conference. The thing about the entrepreneurs is that every one of them, and I work with a whole bunch of them, younger people, maybe some younger, some more, everybody wants to do good, but there’s pressure. Venture capitalists are all for zero or nothing. It was one of the entrepreneurs. This is a young man and very accomplished, but he has a small company. I wish that it wasn’t feeling like I have to make $1 zillion or $1 billion for venture capital. Maybe it is to be happy with a proper return on investment and be patient.
That’s another thing. It pains me when I think about people like Elizabeth Holmes who could have been so much better, who could have done well going rather than creating this Ponzi scheme, or the gentleman who did the FTX. These people are bright. They can do good and they don’t because there’s a pressure to get to their money faster. It’s as a society.
Some young people have wisdom. It’s not their fault. Being young, you want to break the barriers and do good. We need to step back and say, “If I am 25 and I’m not happy because this is overwhelming, then if you are 45 or 65, you got to know that as well.” It’s that we get caught up in the cycle and can’t see the forest for the tree. We can’t see the big picture. “Why are we doing what we are doing?” I don’t want to be an old hippie and say, “We all have to live in a commune.” We don’t have to do that. We can take advantage of all the fruits of modern life, but we don’t have to be enamored with the latest toy and rush to make that commercialize. Let the technology and the use models mature. How can we use this as is for the good of people individually and as a society? We need our society.We can take advantage of all the fruits of the modern life, but we don't have to be so enamored with the latest toy. Click To Tweet
Given all of your experience working with a lot of young startup founders, what are some of the steps for people to not get caught up in this cycle? You touched upon something key here. It’s not startup founders, but I see this a lot in any online business. There’s a lot of pressure and excitement. It’s incredibly easy to either end get caught up in it and/or be going down some path of promise that somebody else is trying to take you down because they want to make money off you. There’s a temptation to make money and then there’s the side of people using you to make money for themselves. Both avenues can lead us to get caught up. What do you recommend for people to be more discerning?
It goes back to Nancy Reagan, “Just say no.” It’s like a drug. Believe me. I’ve been there. I have heard and seen people. It’s dopamine. It’s, “You made this. You made that.” We got to say step back. It’s not only young people. It’s as a society. Some people are at least starting to see the effects. People are frazzled. We are trying to do five things at the same time. Once I was in Los Angeles, I’ll never forget because I learned something from that. We went to a museum. Los Angeles is not a city known for museums, but there are some good ones. This was a special occasion. There was a lady who was telling people how to be mindful when they go to a museum. Normally, I don’t know about you, but for me, I walk around and look at this, “This looks pretty and this is nice.”
She was very nice. She said, “Pay attention to different things. You don’t have to be an art critic to enjoy.” What she said was meaningful, “If you are mindful, you don’t need to go to five different floors. Look at 5 or 6 paintings and get some meaning and communication going with that.” That’s very important. People may not like X or Y, but find something that you can spend a little time with. Get enjoyment from it. Create some interaction between yourself and the artist.
I learned something from her. That’s what we have to do with our life. Sometimes when we feel frazzled, especially when you have children, young children and you have a family and you have a profession and everything else, it becomes overwhelming because you’re doing too many things at the same time and then you want to catch up with this and that. Say no. I know that dopamine is very powerful, but we don’t have to do all of that.
When they say, “You have data. You have information,” at the end of the day, what you want is not the information. It’s the wisdom. The wisdom may not take as much data as you think. We like to have big data like more data and join the whole internet. Sometimes you don’t need that much. Sometimes you need to focus on something. That’s my philosophy at this point in my life. I know it’s difficult.Sometimes wisdom doesn’t need that much data. You just need to focus on something. Click To Tweet
The dopamine side of it is a huge part of it. A lot of people are becoming more aware that there are being a little bit psychologically manipulated through technology and it’s tapping into our desire for dopamine, those feelings. We’re struggling with mental health so much as it is. Many people, including myself, find it’s nice to tune out of stress and the world by going into technology, then there are people like myself who see the opportunity online and are very drawn to that because of the appeal of creating your own schedule, working for home, and being your own boss. All of that is wonderful in theory.
There’s the obstacle course of maneuvering through all of the factors. There isn’t a roadmap yet as we’ve been saying because it’s still new. As I’m sitting here reflecting on social media and online businesses, I’m coming back where it’s still very early. We jumped into a lot of this as a society very quickly.
There are the bad actors that you mentioned too. There are people that we’ve learned, unfortunately. To your point, the forever chemicals example is great here. The appeal of non-stick pans sounds great because nobody wants to burn their food. They want to make cooking easier. It sounds wonderful. People buy into something like that, thinking that they’re doing something good for themselves without recognizing the costs.
We’re in a similar place with that tech. What I struggle with is sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who’s being cautious. I don’t say that from a place of ego. I mean it feels a bit lonely. I stepped back from social media because I wanted to notice how it was impacting me mentally. I noticed that I felt addicted to it and yet I don’t know many people who have stepped away.
Here I am trying to connect with people, but when everybody I’m trying to connect with seems to be hooked on technology and doesn’t mind or care about the dangers of it, I end up feeling very alone. I’m curious. Have you ever experienced that? Do you have any wisdom for navigating a time where the masses seem to be utilizing technology and maybe it’s the minority of people who are a little bit more cautious?
Another thing that we are all afraid of is FOMO or the Fear Of Missing Out. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you are in. There’s always FOMO that, “I should have been there.” It takes effort. It’s to disengage. It’s not easy. You can do evangelizing, which is great to do. You can convert people, even if 1, 2, 5, and then there will be 10 people. There’s a point of inflection as they say in the word of startups and venture capital. There’s an inflection point somewhere, where people will start seeing. It is lonely. It is going against the grain of everybody else and going against the people. Imagine you are walking in the street where everybody’s going North and you want to go South. It’s not easy.
You got to find your way through it. If the South is the place to go, then the more you tell people, the better it is. That’s one of the reasons that I want to write and spend time speaking with others and whatever I can do to tell them that, “You’re not alone. I’m here. There are other people who are there.” There’s a kernel of truth to what we all are saying because we are not saying to throw away the technology. Nobody says no. We’re not anti-vaxxers, anti-social media, or anti-anything. Social media can be very good if my cousin puts a picture of a new daughter, I know that she had a daughter. It’s good. It’s not bad. It has a lot of usage.
The thing is that the minute you’re trying to optimize the monetization, then you have to make a choice that is not very good. When you are putting that algorithm there that what I want is the maximum number of eyeballs in this particular case or whatever, it’s not me looking at the picture of my cousin. It’s not going to bring a lot of eyeballs. It’s not going to sell ads for X, Y, and Z. That’s not how Facebook would operate or any of the social media. They all have very similar algorithms. Some are better. Some are worse. They are looking for what you are and you want to see it because it’s like the old-fashioned thing. You bought magazines and you didn’t buy magazines to look at the ads, but the ads were part of the magazine. Except that within a magazine, we have a little bit more choice.
We can put our eyes here or whatever we want. With the internet, it has become very sophisticated because we know how human being behaves at some point. We put the ad where people will see it. It’s a pop. You can’t even get rid of it. We need to reduce our glorification of this money. What can Mr. X or Ms. Y do with $10 billion? I don’t know. Is it important? I don’t know. I can understand having a beautiful house and wearing beautiful clothes. It’s part of life.
There’s a point after which that money becomes not very useful to enjoy. These are the things that are against the grain. That’s why it needs thoughtfulness. It needs stepping back and saying no. We have a crisis in young people and old people committing suicide, a mental disease. We have an opioid crisis. It’s like there’s an underlying reason for that because we have lost our sense of humanity and community. That’s my opinion, and I’m not a psychologist, but that’s what I see and feel somewhat responsible for.
I’m not apologizing for that because communication technology or technology, in general, has brought good things to life. It is forcing us to think in many ways, especially in making us more human, internally focused, and not afraid of contradicting. I’m not contradicting but debating. Back in the days when my kids were going to school, they had debate teams. I remember that my son was in Model UN. The teacher was very good. I liked him.
He made people randomly assign them to different groups, “You are Palestinian now. You are Israeli,” or whatever the conflicts of the day. That made kids go back, “I don’t believe in X or Y or Z, but I need to prepare for this debate.” To prepare for that debate, they had to look into the other side’s argument. It is good for us to look at other people’s arguments. I am an immigrant. It’s good to have a policy that allows people to come here into this country and to take advantage of its good things. At the same time, I also see the argument for a lesser and not affluent community where an immigrant may end up, which is that the presence of that children force that community to go and hire some English as a second language.
The way to deal with it isn’t to say, “If you don’t want an immigrant, then you must be a reactionary person.” It’s not the case. If you talk to them and go further down, it’s not easy to say, “Why do you not like immigrants?” It’s not easy. Social media and a lot of media, in general, are taking advantage of that and creating a chasm, silos, and conflict. That’s another thing. Bill Clinton always said, “I feel your faith.” There’s no right or wrong. Everybody has a point. The bottom line is that we have to come together and do what’s best for society as a whole. Sometimes what’s best for this society is not best for me, but as long as I can live with it, that’s okay.
Technology makes it easier to disconnect, “I only want to talk to people who say I am 100% correct.” That makes it much harder to talk with anybody but another chatbot of some kind who agrees with everything you say. That’s another fear that I have. We lose our ability to see other people’s points of view, especially when don’t agree with them. I can’t agree with 100% of anything that somebody else thinks about it. I can be sympathetic, empathetic, understand their point of view, and I can try to work with it within the proper framework.
It’s beautiful because you’re such an advocate for all of this, helping others see different perspectives and encouraging it. Throughout this conversation, I think back to a lot of the research that I’ve done around how a lot of things are monetized through polarization. We are fighting an uphill battle essentially against this pressure to fight and oppose each other because that is what tends to make money, like terms like clickbait and ideas like fake news.
It’s all about what we can do to manipulate someone and what we can do to convince somebody of something. In my experience in marketing, I’ve seen all of this evolve. It’s fascinating how we’ve essentially been trained to manipulate one another as opposed to coming together. Now in my life, I’m starting to look for ways that I can generate an income to pay my bills because we all deserve to be able to survive financially.
I want to have a sustainable financial life, but not at the cost of disconnection and manipulation. I don’t want to be involved with that, but it’s harder to find a more ethical way of doing business these days. More and more is being revealed to me how many people are not even aware of these ethical challenges we’re up against. Most of us can sense there’s a disconnection. Loneliness is an epidemic. You are mentioning the mental health crisis that we’re in. A lot of people wonder. Is it because we’re lonely? You’ve pointed that out a lot too. We’re living in a digital society that’s taught us to stay in our bubbles and to also use people for our own financial gain. We have to relearn ways of connecting with ourselves and others.We have to relearn ways of connecting with ourselves and others. Click To Tweet
I love the example you gave of the museum. I’m curious about which museum it was because I live in Los Angeles. Maybe it will inspire me to go. I love the idea of I don’t need to go see the entire museum. Maybe I can take in a little bit and find meaning in it versus trying to do it all and adhere to this idea of FOMO like, “If I don’t do the whole museum, I’m missing out,” but what if I’m missing out on a meaningful experience with a smaller part of it? That’s one of my big takeaways from talking with you. It’s beautiful.
Lastly, I would love to hear from you something that you mentioned before we started the show, which was your desire to leave a legacy. At this point in your life, you said that you are looking at all these ways that we can be more careful and make greater decisions for the Earth. You said that you’re examining what you want to leave behind without being morbid, but thinking through at this stage in your life, what can you do from now on to leave a legacy? What does that look like for you? What actions are you taking to make that happen?
One of them is that I am trying to write to get my voice out and talk with people. I tell them what I think. That’s one of them. That’s the biggest contribution I see myself. What you said about monetization is very true because this is the dilemma for every entrepreneur, “How am I going to make money?” Believe me, I have never seen a kid coming to me and saying, “I want to swindle people. I want to manipulate them to make money.” Every single entrepreneur that I have seen in my life wanted to do good. People want to make an impact, and I want to make an impact by talking about the legacy.
Maybe it’s small or big, I don’t know, but I want to make an impact by making people more aware, by hoping that what I say will make them less lazy, more aware, and more active in terms of being a better society. We are social animals. We need our society. We cannot live as individuals. We need to create whatever roadmap or rules of the road or the laws of the world, helping that to shape society so that we can all live in it and can all thrive, pay our rent, our mortgage, our car, and whatever.
It is not extraordinary. We all should be able to do that. The fact that we don’t have a good way of monetization means that this is not jailed yet. If you look at the end of the last and mid-19th century when the printing press allowed a lot of people to create a lot of newspapers, we had yellow news. We had news that didn’t exist. People were all making these things up, and then the laws came about and say, “If you write that this is yellow or red, you’re liable.”
We don’t have those laws yet because laws are slow. The other thing is that we created this thing called respect. If somebody did something bad, if he or she was found to be a swindler, fake, or whatever, it would’ve had some social stigma associated with it. We haven’t formed those yet for the new and digital society. What I think is good for us is to say, “Let’s wait for five minutes and see if we can digest what we have already discovered and already have now innovated and then create our society around it before creating even more fake news, this, that and the other.” Awareness is coming. You can see some are legacy media like New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. They all started to have some paywalls.
These paywalls are not mature yet. Some of them are too expensive for most people. Newspapers used to be $0.25. You got to make the paywall that it is not like that. We have to innovate around business models. That’s where the innovation should come in rather than trying to go for the next shiny thing that we can think about, quantum computing or AI. Quantum computing is far from being a reality because I can see that I come from a semiconductor background, but people are thinking about it as though it is going to happen tomorrow. I had a conversation. Somebody asked me, “What’s the supply chain look like?” I said, “We don’t even know how we are going to make these things real. We have some that work, scaling it up and engineering.” We are far from that point.
We want to do innovation, but let’s innovate around the parameters that make this shiny thing more usable by more people. Let’s not leave people behind. Let’s help creators to make money from their creations. They don’t want to be making $1 trillion, but they want to make a decent living and they are entitled to it. As a consumer, we also have to say, “What do I want? Do I want some news that I can’t trust and makes me jittery because I don’t know whether or not it’s true or not, or do I want something true, enjoy, listen to, and take advantage of whatever is there?”
We got to slow down. That’s the whole fun. Let’s slow down. I know it’s very difficult. Believe me. I’ve been there. I’ve been a professional woman with two young kids. I tried. For example, when my kids were growing up, we would go shopping together because that was our time together. We tried to make it a time together.
We didn’t want to be frazzled, but that was all we had. The realities of life are there, but we got to say, “Is this important to me, my family’s, and my society’s well-being or not, or it’s a supervision?” Going back to the example about the memo, that CEO should think, “Is it worthwhile for me to use a person or an AI or whatever to write a seven-paragraph memo to wish everybody a Happy Memorial Day?” No. Send a text. Send everybody a $50 gift card because then they will remember you on their Memorial Day. Maybe it’s not a lot of money, but going back to my legacy, I want everything that I do to matter to me and somebody else. That’s the legacy I want to leave.
It’s a beautiful legacy. You’ve shared so much wisdom. I feel like you are already leaving that legacy, this idea of slowing down. It’s helpful for me. We’re coming up to halfway through 2023. I don’t know how we got here fast, but at the beginning of 2023, my goal was to slow down. Looking back, I haven’t been on track for that, to be honest. It’s like you’re such a great reminder for me to slow down. You’ve also exemplified and shown me and hopefully, some others, that there are people who are advocating for different ways of utilizing technology, growing the awareness, not getting caught up in it, stepping away from all the frazzle and the dazzle and the dopamine, and digest that. I like that term too.
I feel more centered after speaking with you. I feel more inspired to slow down, digest, and step away from all that hustle, which has been contagious, and very easy to get caught up in all of this. If we move fast, we lose track of what we’re doing. It’s harder to leave a legacy. It’s harder to figure out what matters to ourselves. How can we do anything that matters to others? You’ve given so much wisdom and perspective food for thought. I’m grateful for who you are and what you do. It’s amazing that you work with young entrepreneurs to bridge all of these silos, deconstruct the silos, take down the walls, and find a way for us to come together and connect.
I hope we can get there because of the people. I hope we can get away from the disconnection and the lack of community and center ourselves with other people that might not be like us. There is a message that you shared about making sure that we’re incorporating different ways of thinking and not staying in some bubble. That’s a huge aim of mine with this show. Thank you for reminding me and the reader to do some more out-of-the-box thinking, connection to others, more digestion, and do our best to slow down.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share. Anytime, I’m always happy to talk, connect with your audience, and have happy good days.
You’re such a positive person around this. For anyone interested in connecting with you, is the best way to start on your website?
I have publication posts on Medium called The Counterview. What I’m doing there is creating the post as I was talking to you about the same ideas and thinking. That’s the best way to connect with me. Everybody is welcome as well to connect with me through LinkedIn, Medium, and any other way.
Continue on this journey of learning, inspiration, and wisdom that she’s given us. Thanks again for being here with me.
Call on me and I’ll be there. Thank you.
About Afarin Bellisario
Afarin Bellisario, born and raised in Tehran, comes from a family that straddles the realms of tradition and innovation. While her grandmothers struggled with literacy, her father and uncles, who belonged to Iran’s burgeoning technocratic elite, received a university education. With a strong inclination toward exploring the human condition, Afarin’s professional journey has largely revolved around the realm of high-tech, particularly in the realm of commercializing emerging technologies.
Having honed her writing skills during the pre-revolutionary era in Iran, Afarin has developed a deep-seated curiosity about the consequences of swiftly adopting technologies on our well-being and society. Over the past decade, as the proliferation of “ubiquitous” communications and AI, which she played a part in creating, has escalated, her concerns have grown more pronounced. Delving into history, Afarin recognized how the rapid assimilation of numerous innovations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to social upheaval and the subsequent world wars. She also perceives modernization as a primary catalyst for the ruptures that persist in Iranian society today.
In the present day, Afarin actively engages in mentoring startup ventures, particularly those associated with MIT. Simultaneously, she endeavors to generate meaningful discourse on the clash between bygone and contemporary times. Her insightful perspectives have found expression through op-ed pieces featured in eminent publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. Moreover, Afarin maintains a regular presence on Medium (https://medium.com/the-counterview), where she shares thought-provoking insights, and actively contributes to discussions on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/afarin-bellisario-091k115/).
Going beyond her contributions to non-fiction, Afarin has penned a novel titled “The Windcatchers,” centered around the clash between modernity and tradition. Currently, she is engrossed in crafting a non-fiction work that delves into human agency in the era of AI. Through this forthcoming publication, Afarin aims to shed light on the challenges and possibilities engendered by technological advancements.
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