Mar 27, 2023 | gga

The Failure of Modern Technology

I’m deeply disappointed with modern technology. The smartest minds of my generation have spent two decades inventing surfaces for somewhere to strap ads. A product is successful if it gives a 5.3% increase in conversions.

This is not the future I was promised.

In the past I have written about how technology is fundamentally liberating, about how technology moves into the background, and stops being recognised as technology. I under-estimated the significance of that.

I’ve written about my disappointment with startups. Fifteen years later, I’m even more depressed about the present and apparent future of technology development.

I hadn’t seen the connection between the two.

Sometime ago, I read Jaron Lanier’s manifesto You Are Not a Gadget. I’d come to it late, but I’m glad I read it. If you haven’t, you should. One of Lanier’s points is that the current trend in technology is towards minimising our unique experiences as people. When we treat an amorphous cloud of anonymous comments as a person equal to ourselves, when we accept the output from an algorithm as meeting our needs we are implicitly reducing ourselves to also be less than a person. Instead of accepting that reduction, how can technology enhance our experience and our connections to other people?

That book was published in 2010. Since then things have become considerably worse. Facebook, TikTok, Uber, Amazon Echo, ubiquitous mass surveillance, iTunes Genius, ChatGPT.

iTunes Genius? Yes, iTunes Genius. Remember that? It does such a great job of stringing together songs that I used it all the time. Think of a song, tap play, then tap Genius. Ta-da: I don’t even need to pick the next song to listen to. But what am I giving up about myself when I can’t even pick the next song to listen to? I genuinely don’t know. But I do know that Genius has a tendency to keep me within one corner of my music library. This makes sense. It uses a combination of latent-factor analysis and probability models derived from what others are listening to. What if more than 50% of the population are using iTunes Genius? Will my taste in music be reduced to links Genius can find from what I already listen to? iTunes Genius never disappeared: instead, it has become the way streaming services work.

You don’t have to be a genius (hah-hah) to see that ChatGPT and the other large language models are continuing this trend, and turning it up to 11.

Despite this, I still think technology is liberating. That’s the only meaningful definition of the word I can imagine. With all the technology we now have to hand we should be heading towards more equality, and in almost total control of our own destinies. But by most measures, inequality has been increasing.

It feels a bit weird to link iTunes Genius to inequality, and global inequality is largely the fault of the now thoroughly discredited Chicago School of Economics and equally discredited 80s right-wing economic policies. But technology is supposed to help make things better. Why isn’t it helping to fight inequality? Because technology faces hegemonisation.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and invisible, it sinks into the background of society and becomes part of the hegemony. At this point all potential liberation has been extracted from that technology. Any further liberation depends on building new technology on top of that background. But as something moves into the background, there will be power structures (enormous corporations, the surveillance state) built-up around it, with vested interests in resisting any further technological liberation. This is not a conspiracy: it’s inevitable self-preservation.

These power structures are fighting two things: uses of the technology beyond existing control and further technology appearing on top of this background.

Weapons technology is a pretty good example of this. The bow and arrow (available to anyone with access to a tree) is a lot less controllable than nuclear weapons (available only to those with access to weapons-grade plutonium.) Weapons are no longer a force for liberation, only further hegemonisation.

The modern capitalist system and the surveillance states are pretty keen to keep computing and networking technology under control. But this is not an inevitable truth. Computers are in everyone’s hands. Everyone has an always-on, high-speed connection to the rest of the world and most of the information we’ve gathered as a civilisation. We should be seeing an explosion of individual expression and control.

Instead, we get Flappy Bird, and TikTok. The modern startup scene steps in here and points at the app explosion, and marketplaces like Uber and Airbnb. I look at this and I see entertainment and more convenient ways to consume. There’s nothing wrong with that! If I don’t have to visit the supermarket I get to spend more time reading, or hanging out with my daughter. Two things that make me happy. But I’m not in control of this technology. I consume it, I don’t add to it.

Actually, as a software engineer I can add. I have my own website, open source projects, and of course a startup. There are the projects I’ve built at previous jobs. But I’m a programmer. What about people who aren’t? Who never will be? Who have better things to do with their time?

Do they get shut out of this particular technological revolution?

What is missing? Why is it that any new use for computing and communication technology still requires a special technological priesthood? Does it?

At the moment, I think that it does. Computer science, the tech industry and startups are focused on making it easier and easier for the existing priesthood to build more and more sophisticated programs. On one hand, this is great: standing on the shoulders of giants might put the cure for cancer within our reach. But, it’s also creating a larger and larger gulf between the tech you use and the tech that you, as a non-programmer, can create.

Why is the iPad still just a consumption device? Why can’t I use my iPad to write a web app that I can share with my friends? Actually, I probably can. But the combination of JavaScript, HTML and CSS are an accidental abomination, almost completely impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t been through years of learning.

Where is the HyperCard of the web generation? Who’s building that thing that means digital natives will have complete control over the world they really live in?

As an engineer, for a long time I thought this was a technology problem: build it and they will come. I now know that the right technology is necessary but not sufficient. Motivation is a bigger problem. If people can see what should be possible, then they will demand more. This is Pandita’s larger mission: teach people, and have people teach people, what could be theirs. Build the technology to allow that happen, but only in order to build the motivation in those we reach.

This piece originally appeared on Giles Edwards-Alexander's personal blog, as This is Not the Future I was Promised


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