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Can Tech Break Us Out of Our Bubbles?

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This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

The internet has created an abundance of information and entertainment, and it’s great.

But we don’t yet have perfect ways to find movies, books, music, information and activities that we might like — and especially those that push us out of our comfort zones.

Cracking the best ways to discover new things in our online abundance is a technology challenge — but also a human one. It requires us to want to expose ourselves to ideas and entertainment that don’t necessarily fit with our status quo.

I hope we can. It’s a way to make our lives fuller.

Call me corny, but I still marvel at the wonder that the online world brings to our doorstep. We can drop in on world-class chess players on Twitch, discover products from Black-owned businesses, listen to people debate nuclear power on Clubhouse or play around with a Polaroid-like photo app.

It’s amazing. But we can experience it only if we know it exists and feel compelled to seek it out. Enter the computers.

Online services like YouTube, Netflix and TikTok digest what you have already watched or its computer systems infer your tastes and then suggest more of the same. Websites like Facebook and Twitter expose you to what your friends like or to material that many other people already find engaging.

Those approaches have drawbacks. A big one is that they encourage us to stay inside our bubbles. We keep following and watching what we already know and like, either by our own inclination or by design of the internet sites. (Counterpoint: Some research has suggested that social media exposes people to broader viewpoints.)

More ideas, more stuff to entertain us — and more potential ways to confirm what we already believe or to be steered by people who game the algorithm machines. This was a reality before the internet, but it’s amplified now.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. My colleague Kevin Roose told me last year that it’s important to understand the ways that the internet crowds or computer systems might influence our choices. Rather than rely on computerized suggestions, Kevin said, he turns off the autoplay option in YouTube’s video settings and makes his own music playlists on Spotify.

I also appreciate ideas for combining computer-aided discovery with experts who might push you in a fresh direction. Spotify has song playlists created by experts. Apple editors surface news articles and suggest apps for people to try. I want many more experiments like these.

News organizations including BuzzFeed News and The New York Times have tried projects to expose readers to opposing viewpoints. Facebook batted around a similar idea for recommending online forums that people might not ordinarily encounter, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

Finding stuff that is different from what we usually like also requires us to be open to ideas, culture and diversions that challenge and surprise us. I wonder if most people have the willingness or time to do that.

In the sea of abundance online, I often fall back on the tried-and-true: wordof-mouth recommendations from people I know and from experts. When I’m looking for a new book, I ask bookworm friends or read professional reviewers.

I don’t think I trust the online crowds or algorithms, but I’m missing out. It feels as if the wonder is right at my fingertips, and I can’t quite reach it.

We want to hear from readers on this! How do you discover new books, music, information and activities? Tell us what you like about digital modes of finding new stuff, and what you think is missing. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.


Your lead

Some On Tech readers told us they were angry about Thursday’s newsletter on the long road for proposed regulations that would force internet service providers to treat all online content on the same footing.

I described the fight over rules to enshrine this principle of net neutrality as “pointless,” and I get why people who have advocated net neutrality thought I was being glib.

It was a fair criticism. What I was trying to express was exhaustion. The current rounds of fights over net neutrality regulation go back to at least 2008. The protracted efforts on this have me pessimistic about the possibility of any new rules or restraints that could tame the downsides of our digital world.

My colleague Cecilia Kang and I also discussed net neutrality’s relative importance compared with other tech policies, including effective rules for online expression and the influence of technology superpowers.

A valid pushback from Evan Greer, a deputy director for the digital rights group Fight for the Future, is that if people are worried about Big Tech, then enshrining net neutrality in law is essential to restrain their power.

I’ll say one more thing about internet regulation. I am angry every day that so many Americans — particularly Black and Latino people and households in rural areas — cannot access or afford the internet. (Cecilia has a new article about an emergency federal subsidy for home internet access.)

I am also angry that Americans (and Canadians!) pay more for worse internet and cellphone service than people do in most other rich countries.

These are complex problems with no easy fix. But in my view, they are partly symptoms of America’s failures to set effective telecommunications policies and hold internet and phone providers accountable for their promises over many decades. And those companies deserve a large measure of blame for obfuscating the problems and fighting tooth and nail over any regulation.


  • Being corny again: I make fun of internet companies for just stealing others’ ideas or making trivial things. But my colleagues Kate Conger and Taylor Lorenz wrote about genuinely fresh concepts from Twitter and a photo app start-up called Dispo.

  • Militaries were the original customers for Silicon Valley: Some big American tech companies have recently shied away from working with the U.S. military, partly because of complaints from employees. My colleague Cade Metz reported on smaller companies that are courting business from government agencies and the Pentagon with technology, like a self-piloting drone.

  • The Roombas are acting “drunk”: A software update for some models of the robotic vacuum cleaners made them do weird things, like repeatedly bang into walls.

Dwayne Reed, a teacher, author and rapper in Chicago, made a music video to encourage kids to wear face masks. It is extremely catchy. (Thanks to my colleague Natasha Singer for sharing this.)


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.



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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries with palm scan

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Whole Foods will soon let customers pay for groceries using its parent company’s palm-scanning technology.

Amazon said Wednesday its palm-scanning system — currently used in about a dozen of its brick and mortar stores — will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the first of many planned rollouts at other locations.

The system uses Amazon One technology, which employs high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a “unique palm signature” based on the ridges, lines and veins in each person’s hand.

Its high-tech sensors don’t require users to touch the scanning surface, like Apple’s fingerprint technology does.

Instead, palm-reading tech uses computer vision and depth geometry to process and identify the shape and size of each hand they scan before charging a credit card on file.

Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Amazon One will debut at a Whole Foods in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, with many rollouts at other locations planned for the future.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The company said that the palm-scanning tech will be offered as just one of many payment options at participating Whole Foods Stores and that it won’t impact store employees’ job responsibilities.

“At Whole Foods Market, we’re always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the shopping experience for our customers,” said Arun Rajan, senior vice president of technology and chief technology officer at Whole Foods Market.

Palm images used by Amazon One are encrypted and stored in a “highly secure” cloud, and customers can request to have their palm data deleted.

The company claims palm-scanning tech is more private than other biometric alternatives, such as facial recognition.

Amazon One builds on the “Just Walk Out” technology that Amazon uses in its Go stores, which detects the items shoppers pick up and charges them once they leave — without the need for a checkout line

Amazon is also planning to expand the cashier-less technology to Whole Foods, as reported by The Post.

Meanwhile, the tech could be good for its bottom line. The online behemoth aims to sell its palm-scanning tech to other companies like retailers, stadiums and office buildings.

Amazon One scanner
The scanner uses high-tech imaging and algorithms to create and detect a unique palm signature which is then encrypted and stored in a secured cloud.
Amazon

Last September, it said it was in “active discussions with several potential customers.” But it is unclear if it has progressed on any of those fronts.

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Apple’s new iPad Pros and TV remote don’t have U1 locators to help find them in your couch

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Apple has been quietly sticking special locator beacon chips into some of its new iPhones that’ll let you unlock your car and find lost items through walls — the latter thanks to the $29 AirTags announced today — but sadly, you won’t find that chip in the new M1-based iPad Pros or the long-awaited new Siri remote for the Apple TV.

Apple confirmed to us that the U1 locator chip, which uses pulses of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio to broadcast its precise location, won’t appear in the Siri remote. We’re waiting on final bulletproof confirmation about the iPad Pros, but it also doesn’t appear in their product page, spec sheet, or press release. Last year’s iP ad Pros didn’t include a U1 chip, either.

Is Apple expecting us to stick AirTags to our iPads and TV remotes to escape the jaws of the ever-ravenous couch? Unlikely, but the company has been pretty choosey about which devices get the chip so far. You can find it in the iPhone 11 and newer (but not the iPhone SE) and the Apple Watch Series 6 (but not the Apple Watch SE), but we’re pretty sure it hasn’t made its way to any iPads or MacBooks that have been announced since the chip’s introduction in September 2019.

Theoretically, Apple could build an ecosystem where any Apple device can easily find any other Apple device (not to mention UWB devices from Samsung, which is also deeply invested in the tech and has its own AirTag-like device as well). But for now, you’ll primarily just be using your phone to find AirTags, not other gadgets, except perhaps your future car.

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Your iPhone has a completely hidden app. Here’s how to find and use it

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Apple’s iPhone is full of hidden features and tricks we’re constantly discovering. For instance, did you know the Notes app has a hidden document scanner? Yeah, pretty cool. The latest hidden feature that’s been popping up on Twitter and blogs is another type of scanner, dedicated to QR codes, and it’s better than the one built into the camera app.

Indeed, you would already be able to filter QR codes utilizing the easy route in Control Center, or simply open the camera application and it will check a QR code. Also, you’re correct. Both of those strategies turn out great. However, the committed Code Scanner application accepts the position above and beyond by introducing a greater amount of the data I need to see about an examined code.

For instance, the camera application utilizes a little notice at the highest point of the screen to open a connection or show you data, though the devoted Code Scanner application makes it exceptionally clear what’s inside the QR code you just checked. Yet, here’s the rub: The Code Scanner application isn’t found on your home screen, nor is it found in iOS 14’s new App Library.

As should be obvious, the best way to discover the Code Scanner application is to utilize the iPhone’s Spotlight search include. Go to your iPhone’s home screen and swipe down in the center of the screen. An inquiry bar will show up at the highest point of your screen, alongside application and alternate route ideas underneath. Type either code or scanner. As you type, you’ll see the Code Scanner application symbol appear as an application idea. Tap to open it.

The flashlight icon at the bottom of the screen acts as a flash to illuminate a code if your phone is struggling to read it.

If you don’t have the QR scanner shortcut added to Control Center yet, here’s a post showing you how to customize Control Center to your liking. For more hidden features, check out our list for iOS 14. We also cover more general, but useful features in iOS 14.

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