I love it as essence, as the way of making things that on the surface seem magical. I hate it as an industry, of what “big tech” has come to mean the last decade and how technology companies affect the world.
I considered these two as separate concepts in my mind, yet as time passes they have converged. How can one love technology if the only way they can interact with it is through companies that not only do not care for societal betterment but also actively contribute to its detriment?
Google invades our privacy to sell ads. Amazon exploits warehouse workers for next day deliveries. Facebook sells ads to anyone—however malicious—that buys them. The examples are many.
The majority of my friends in the domain agree. They are sad about their work and our industry. Many are worried that maybe they are actively making the world worse, after all. Most of the time it’s hard to know; things can spiral out of control even if in the beginning everything seems to have the right moral compass.
But I think the problem is not the industry nor technology as essence. It’s the context it exists within. And this context is the same for all industries: our societal and economic system.
Ask anyone; how do they feel about their industry? The responses I got were almost always negative. Technology? Silicon Valley thinks it’s saving the world. Healthcare? Nurses (and/or doctors) being paid meagre wages while doing an extremely hard and valuable job. Art? Millions of artists unappreciated and unable to live off their work and a small elite controlling the industry. Hospitality? Low wages for tiring and intellectually non-stimulating work. Transportation? Delivery? E-commerce? Energy? I think the reader can fill in the answers from their own experience.
All of these problems have one holy mantra as common denominator: we have to maximise our profits.
Everything else trickles down from there. Google and Amazon—and every other company—have to increase their profits quarter to quarter, however ludicrous they already are. They have to find that 0.001% optimisation that will save them millions. This could mean shortening a worker’s 23-minute break to 21 minutes, or tracking users in this new, slightly more creepy way.
These companies did not start evil. They began fresh, as the underdogs on a mission to make the world a better place. Google’s mission was to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. They did pretty well, dare I say.
Amazon’s was to offer customers the lowest possible prices, the best available selection, and the utmost convenience. Pretty good result for customers. Ordering anything and having it tomorrow on my doorstep is pretty fucking utopian if you ask me, the customer. But what about the workers?
This doesn’t mean—of course—that this is an argument against progress. I’m only against that which exploits others to achieve its end. In this case we exploit many to have next-day delivery and we even exploit ourselves1 to have a web search engine and free email. We can progress without exploiting others and we should do that even if it takes more time and effort to do so.
All this, in the end, seems like an instance of instrumental convergence. Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximiser is the thought experiment that comes to mind:
Suppose we have an AI whose only goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. The AI will realize quickly that it would be much better if there were no humans because humans might decide to switch it off. Because if humans do so, there would be fewer paper clips. Also, human bodies contain a lot of atoms that could be made into paper clips. The future that the AI would be trying to gear towards would be one in which there were a lot of paper clips but no humans.
— Nick Bostrom
For our socio-economic system, the paperclip is the GDP or a company’s quarterly revenue. Everything at the altar of maximising profits—whatever it is, it’s less important than profit anyway. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. We can all agree to designate human wellbeing as the paperclip, rather than GDP or quarterly revenue. Hopefully such a policy change seems more easily achievable than next-day delivery of all items humanity produces.
We exploit ourselves by allowing ourselves to be spied by relinquishing control of our own data. ↩