Digital America interviewed Andrew Jones in November 2022 about his work “Just A Spoonful of Musings Helps Reality Go Down…” Andrew was a longtime student and contributor to Digital America in its early days.
Digital America: How did being a part of Digital America shape your experience at the University of Richmond? Do any highlights/memories from that time stand out?
Andrew Jones: I was a very indecisive undergraduate student during my first two years at Richmond. I had a variety of interests and struggled to lock in a specific major/minor that would satisfy me. American Studies, and the “Digital America” internship that led to me being a part of the DigA team, was a game-changer. I was able to blend my love for journalism, history, pop culture, film, and everything in-between into one cohesive area of study; at least, I did my best to make it sound cohesive.
With DigA, I was proud to be a part of something from its inception. Seeing the birth of our logo unfold, seeing our vision become clear for what types of content we wanted to highlight, sitting in a small, neglected office in the International Center bouncing ideas off each other…it really felt like we were building something that the University of Richmond had never seen before. Heck, there were times when we’d have a variety of fascinating but disparate submissions from all sorts of mediums—digital art, poetry, comics, long-for writing—and we’d find a way to make it work. DigA truly began to take on a life of its own after a few issues, and while it was still often a challenge to find interesting new content to publish, each issue proved to be truly iterative.
The biggest challenges were often a lack of understanding from the overall student body as well as the school’s administration, which often affected not only our resources but also our ability to solicit content from students at the school itself. But we’d always find a way to get our issue out, using a site called Trello to organize tasks and deadlines (do people still use Trello?). It also gave me a bit of a chip on my shoulder, spending time with people who shared similar quirks and interests, producing something that many didn’t understand and that most wouldn’t see or read. But those who did understand, and who did take the time to read, were rewarded with some very cool content that gave off vibes of a chaotic collaborative zine rather than a student passion project.
DigA: Did you take anything with you from your time on the journal that has since shaped your work?
AJ: I worked on “group projects” just like most other undergraduate students, but when it came to both DigA and Forum Magazine—a different student publication I co-founded—there was a sink-or-swim mentality that has resonated with me to this day as I currently lead about ten different sink-or-swim evaluation teams at my current job.
DigA was going to live or die by our hand: no one else’s. A missed issue here, a missed deadline there, several anticipated submissions and contributions falling short, a prototype website that often felt like it was actively fighting me for control over its own backend…there were so many ways that the journal could have fallen apart early on. But through Meghan Rosatelli’s leadership and the determination of each of its teams of students over the years, DigA has fought back against its own vulnerabilities just as hard as the original Web 1.0 website fought against me as I just…
When I was an active DigA staffer, I helped with soliciting content by any means necessary; bringing submitted content into the website; identifying and pulling block quotes; properly formatting photos and videos; bouncing copy edits back and forth between parties; late-night website tweaks when things inevitably broke; and on and on. I had a feeling I’d inevitably pursue a career in research, but I didn’t realize just how many of the experiences I had while at DigA would resonate with me once I became a research intern, then research assistant, then research coordinator, and now a project manager. At my job, for reasons too boring to explain, I run and manage our department’s website and my only prior experience with this type of work was troubleshooting DigA’s original ratchet website.
DigA:You wrote and contributed to many other pieces for Digital America during your time as a student such as sharing your musings, reviews, etc. to issues #1-9, do any continue to resonate with you?
AJ: After graduation, I served in a makeshift columnist role for several years as I wanted to stay involved and watch the journal continue to evolve. The subject matter I covered in these columns was very “of the time,” often reactions to events, people, and tech breakthroughs that were on my mind. There were several topics I was particularly interested in and still engage with to this day, specifically around data privacy and ownership. The mid-2010s experienced several moments where decisions were being made at the congressional-level that would have impacted the very way we engage with the internet as an open space for the free flow of information, especially on the topic of net neutrality. I found myself bringing up the ongoing debates among family and friends who seemed oblivious to what was being discussed, and I grew increasingly frustrated with the apathy that seemed to pervade both my networks and society as a whole.
I wrote a review for a digital comic called The Private Eye that was published about a decade ago, and while the review was nothing special I have thought about the comic itself quite often. While I have a deep love for history, when it comes to tech I’ve always been drawn towards near-future disaster scenarios that can and will happen if current societal behaviors continue as they are. During my time in undergrad, students and faculty alike became increasingly dependent on cloud-based storage and sharing options on their devices and the comic hypothesized a scenario in which the consequences of an over-reliance on cloud storage was manifest in a global data breach impacting nearly every connected individual.
From my review:
“The story is set in Los Angeles in 2076, roughly sixty years after the digital cloud had suddenly “burst.” The private information of millions upon millions of individuals was suddenly made public for forty days and forty nights. No one knew who to blame, but the event itself was a huge wake-up call for countless affected individuals.
As a result, citizens have taken it upon themselves to fully embrace the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Everyone owns at least one costume to mask their true identity in public, and many own several disguises for particular settings (work, errands, a stroll through the park, etc.). This makes the city scenes in The Private Eye a true feast for the eyes, as no two citizens of Los Angeles look alike. Animal heads, dresses that would look out-of-place in even the wildest runway shows in 2016, ghillie suits covered in barnacles …you name it, someone’s wearing it.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but my girlfriend (now wife) would go on to earn a law degree and spent over two years working at a law firm that focused on cybersecurity and data privacy. During that period, I learned just how bad our collective understanding of personal online security can be. While I don’t write about it like I used to, I try to keep up to date on data privacy best practices throughout my digital life.
DigA: It’s been about 8 years since you wrote “Just a Spoonful of Musings Help Reality Go Down…” which was a piece about your predictions of what life would be like in the future. Were you surprised by how many of your predictions actually happened?
AJ: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” I don’t know if T.S. Elliot could have predicted what the American home would become in 2022 and beyond, but the biggest surprise for me has been just how accepting the public has been to some of the tech breakthroughs over the past decade. Sure, there were expensive proof-of-concept duds that didn’t quite catch on as quickly as some may have hoped (Google Glass), but the more promising future for wearable tech lies in VR and Google Glass had to walk so that Oculus could run.
In my review, I mentioned that home automation is going to become huge, and I think we’re currently living in a period where companies are testing the limits of what consumers find acceptable invasions of their personal and private spaces. There’s a fine line between 1980s “clap on, clap off” hands-free lighting controls and the “Alexa, set all lights at 50%” command that I bark into the void at 8:30 pm every night. The Xbox 360’s innovative Kinect camera was, for many younger consumers, one of the first bits of home automation that they experienced as the camera measured accurate room dimensions, welcomed voice commands, and provided a way for “dumb” TVs to gain a primitive form of “smart” technology. But we’re now at the point where people place unsecured HD cameras throughout their home for monitoring, only to wonder how and why strangers can connect to their home network and see where their pets defecate, where they leave their keys and wallet, where their gun safe is located, and so on.
Amazon has turned into an even bigger behemoth than I’d ever expected when it comes to the sheer number of services it provides, especially when it comes to producing both hardware and software that are appealing enough for consumers to voluntarily relinquish bits and pieces of their independence from the purpose of joining the grid. You may have seen some of the backlash from Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, the company behind the ubiquitous Roomba. For some, this may be a completely common-sense deal that would add a vacuum to consumer’s fleet of voice- and device-controlled front door cameras, home lighting, smart TVs, baby monitors, air purifiers, electric cars, and on and on. But many were quick to point out the potential for misuse that comes with Amazon’s ability to add extremely accurate interior maps of your homes to their preexisting trove of big data. It’s not just about, “I have nothing to hide, it’s not likely that a burglar would hack my stuff and have a convenient roadmap for their future home invasion.” This is about how much we as consumers care about big data and our role in contributing to its ability to describe–in agonizing detail– how we choose to live our lives. In this scenario, I would imagine that an interior map of your home would be valuable for, say, Zillow to purchase as they can then provide more publicly accessible information on your (off-the-market, mind you) home. Or imagine an entity whose business model is to “tattle” on homeowners who have built illegal or unauthorized additions and renovations in their homes. It sounds silly, but that’s because many consumers would see this as a harmless (to them, mind you) fringe case that would have no real impact on their everyday lives. And that’s how and why we’ve already welcomed with open arms unnecessary location tracking in our mobile apps, license plate readers in our neighborhoods, drone surveillance from local police departments, and……
Sorry, began to ramble there. To get back to your original question, I’m not overly surprised by the number of “accurate” predictions I shared in that article because I was, in most cases, identifying trends that were already well on their way to coming true. Just as fashion is cyclical, streaming releases are often coupled with vinyl “deluxe editions” and, in some cases, even cassettes. It’s the same way that musicians make bank from providing a concert experience with an overpriced merch table. With self-driving cars, truly driverless automobiles are on their way but as far as I can tell are mainly being tested in the cross-country trucking industry. With Tesla’s penchant for smashing into kid-sized mannequins repeatedly, it may be a while before we completely let go of the wheel. Incandescent bulbs are largely novelties relegated to Pottery Barn lamps and indie coffee shops, hidden away from the prying gaze of LEED inspectors and Energy Star police. I had a throwaway musing in my piece about misplaced-item detectors and that line must have been written just before the prevalence of Tile and, eventually, Apple’s own device trackers. My predictions about the future of smartphone designs were mostly true, but it’s looking increasingly likely that foldables and VR are going to become common in the next decade once the tech is perfected and the cost of entry is lower.
I’m no soothsayer. I’m just a curious person with a Wired Magazine subscription.
DigA: You mentioned in the piece how you would often think about and have countless conversations about technological advancements. Do you still have the same fascinations about the technological advancements and the speed at which progress of these advancements are being made in our society? Has your views on technological advancements changed over the years?
AJ: I make an active effort to not take anything we humans do for granted–the good and the bad. Over the past few years, I’ve returned to the same child-like fascination with space exploration and technological advancements that I had back in the 1990s. It’s common knowledge that the billion-dollar tech breakthroughs and trial-and-error experiments often associated with aerospace fields often have a trickle-down effect on everyday consumers, and I’m not just talking about space pens. My opinions regarding the man behind SpaceX are in the incinerator at the moment, but the things that company is doing with Starlink and self-landing boosters are incredible. Did you know that we recently smacked a satellite into an asteroid and made great strides towards a better understanding of planetary defense strategies? Did you know that as of September 2022 a small helicopter has gone on 33 flights above the surface of Mars? Did you know that a space telescope in development since 1996 is now orbiting above us, taking some of the most jaw-dropping images of the beginning of creation itself?
Sure, I might have forgotten to take my Lipitor this morning and I’ve been actively dealing with a weird software glitch in my Jeep for almost a year. But when I think about what humans can achieve when they put their minds together and work towards common goals aimed at better understanding our place in the universe, it gives me a morsel of hope as I take life to the face down here on Earth. I recently entered my 30s, married with no kids, waiting for the housing market to melt down so I can finally buy the bungalow of my dreams. I’m not “old” by any means, so I’m not quite doom-and-gloom about not being able to live life as Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century before I inevitably croak. The tech advancements I’m most excited about are twofold: tech that excites and inspires younger generations to collaborate towards making the world a better place, and tech that makes everyday life more bearable for those who suffer from illnesses, malnutrition, starvation, and other societal inequities. Besides, our planet’s been telling us to get our s**t together for years.
DigA: You talked about tech becoming more powerful but at the same time becoming smaller. Do you think the technological advancements that have been made since you wrote “Just a Spoonful of Musings Help Reality Go Down…” have further made tech become “smaller”?
AJ: In hindsight, I think my use of the word “small” was describing both the physical properties of everyday tech as well as the exponential growth that it experiences. Moore’s Law has accurately predicted the speed at which we’ve been able to go from computers the size of office buildings to computers the size of a grain of rice. It has enabled tech-savvy people to comfortably predict the direction in which we’re heading when it comes to wireless speeds, processing power, etc. There will come a time when consumers see annual tech shows and wonder why it feels like the reasons for “upgrading” have become less and less compelling. For many, this moment is already here, both due to a lack of interest in relative computing power as well as a lack of disposable income needed to continue their annual tech upgrades.
This is not an original opinion, but I think that while it’s been taking its sweet time in the consumer space, truly wireless and powerful virtual reality experiences are going to be a massive leap forward in innovation that will inspire countless people to dive in. Right now, the VR experience is often limited by cost, or the necessity of a tethered computer/console, or cumbersome gear, or a constant fight with one’s own eyes and brain to accept what’s happening in front of their eyes. But if we’re ever to reach Minority Report-levels of truly seamless, “futuristic” interactivity with the digital world, current advancements in the VR space are the literal way of the future. Part of that is making the physical devices “small” enough that they’re just “there.” Now, VR experiences are often associated with gaming and Second Life-style experiences. But if done right, VR can all but replace monitors and computers and provide an incredible productivity experience that will have to be seen to be believed.
And for you, right now, you can get a taste of the future at any suburban mall’s hokey VR experience demo area. It’s like a depressing 21st Century World’s Exposition.
Check out Andrew’s contributions to Digital America over the years.
Issue no. 7:
Red Rover, Red Rover…
Issue no. 6:
The Feds Vs. A Fruit
Low Prices And Low Expectations
Issue no. 5:
#Blackout2015: A Tale Of Bad Public Relations, An Unexpected Firing, And A Power Move By Reddit Moderators
Digital Comfort Food
Eyes On The Skies
Issue no. 3:
Get Up, Stand Up
“Just A Spoonful Of Musings Helps Reality Go Down…”
Issue no. 4:
Wazed and Confused
Hide and Seek
“I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…”
Every Breath You Take
Issue no. 2:
Issue no. 1:
Gaming The University Of Richmond
Andrew Jones is a Project Manager in the Research & Evaluation Group at Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia, PA. As a student at the University of Richmond, Andrew majored in American Studies and History. He was a student athlete as well as an admissions office writer, tour guide, and office assistant. He co-founded Forum Magazine, the university’s first student-run magazine, and he was part of the original Digital America team and contributed to Issues #1-9. For several years after graduating from Richmond, he was a postgraduate research assistant working alongside a University of Richmond professor on a biography of the life of Earl R. Browder, a 20th century American historical figure.