The New York Times Magazine launched the first in a new event series Sunday evening in San Francisco.
Held at the Contemporary Jewish Museum just shy of four months after the 119-year-old magazine’s February redesign, NYT Mag Live brought Times journalists and technology influencers together for a series of on-stage conversations loosely related to stories and themes covered in the magazine’s Tech & Design issue, in the newspaper Sunday.
How Silicon Valley’s technology fares outside the United States was a theme central to the stories in the magazine’s current issue and one that continued off the page during the live event’s talks. As technology’s spread breeds a kind of digital imperialism, New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein echoed the optimism of Times’ editor Bill Wasik’s essay in the magazine, saying, “When we log onto Facebook or Lyft or Airbnb, we’re doing a lot more than catching up with our friends or arranging for a ride or booking a place to stay. The tools are gently persuading us to adopt their values, to share more, to connect more, to take part in a more fluid and less protected form of economic activity and exchange.”
Notably, said Silverstein, none of the evening’s guest speakers was born in the United States. Onstage with Times’ columnist Farhad Manjoo, Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger noted the cultural differences visible in the popularity of hashtags and image-editing styles around the world. While Americans are apt to feature faces in selfies, Japanese users are more likely to blur and obscure theirs. In China, Krieger was struck by the popularity of apps for editing facial features before sharing. Along with different approaches to selfies and editing of images, hashtags have become both signifiers of cultural variances and rallying touch points that rapidly bring users to the platform during major world events. Instagram’s use in Brazil, which is Krieger’s native country, rose sharply during the most recent World Cup. But while some hashtags have far-reaching appeal and connect global audiences, others, like the U.S. roadtrip-themed hashtag #vanlife, are unflinchingly American. Krieger also touched on Instagram commerce around the world. “In some of these countries, it’s starting to invert some of the gender politics. A lot of the women are selling and running these accounts,” Krieger said.
Shifts in global commerce were also key elements in a conversation between Times business reporter Nathaniel Popper and Wences Casares, founder of Bitcoin company Xapo, and Stefan Thomas, chief technology officer of digital currency network Ripple. Casares likened skepticism around the future of Bitcoin to the telecom industry’s initial dismissal of TCP/IP, the basic communication protocol of the Internet. Though he admitted, “Bitcoin is an experiment, it could fail,” Casares said he believes the technology is likely to become the universal native currency of the Internet and was quick to point out that it has broken new ground. “It’s the first time we have something digital that is scarce and high-value,” he said.
During a talk with Ayesha Barenblat, founder of tech non-profit Remake, and venture capitalist Jalak Jobanputra, Times technology writer Jenna Wortham asked what Silicon Valley misunderstands about emerging markets and populations outside the United States. Pointing to the sophistication and widespread use of mobile commerce and messaging in China and mobile money transfers in Africa, Jobanputra said that these markets often show advanced use of technologies that surpass what’s happening in the United States. Barenblat called for American consumers to pay more attention to the workers on the other end of the supply chain. Making that possible through digital content and international trips to document the lives of workers manufacturing goods for major apparel brands is a key aim of her non-profit, which launched Friday with seed funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation. “If we bottom-up create demand for sustainable brands and create rewards for brands that are listening, then we are going to get away from this fast fashion, which has a really heavy human cost,” Barenblat told WWD.
Following the speakers, a reception offered demos of Google’s Cardboard virtual reality platform. Additional NYT Mag Live events are expected to be revealed later this year.