Welcome to the Summer of 2013. Welcome to the summer when you’re not quite sure which of your Internet activities are being tracked. When you want to start Snapchatting everyone because at least then data “disappears.” Except when it doesn’t?
This is the summer when, despite the machinations being clearly reported last year and even over a decade ago, revelations of the NSA doing some sort of link and factor analysis, or at the very least metadata collection, on our Facebook and Google+ profiles has caused us to reach peak tech fear.
There have been foreshocks all Spring. The violent re-emergence of Valleywag; the unfortunate and erroneous abstraction of Sean Parker’s wedding, which, for all intents and purposes, should be a private event, into a symbol of Silicon Valley “excess”; the breathless coverage in alternative publications of our bacon-wrapped ways; and even The New Yorker weighing in, again and again.
Paul Krugman and others are predicting the techpocalypse, or Singularity, or both. If you run a tech blog, staff up. We all are, despite the biggest stories in our field now being broken by mainstream media.
Many argue that our corporate shuttles, inflated housing prices, social bubble, iPhones for day and for night, and enthusiasm in replacing labor with capital, are worthy targets of mass resentment. The creation of a “resentocracy.” In 2010, The Social Network topped the box office. In 2013, The Internship barely cracks the top four because of general Silicon Valley weariness and fatigue.
And then there’s that whole “aiding-the-government-in-aggregating-the-world’s-private-data-without-our-knowledge” thing. “Trust us.” Remember Enron? That’s now us.
The fallacy of the tech industry is that we think our “change the world/connect the world” intentions are enough, or at least that they should shield us from reproach, much like our gated communities of Ubers, Airbnbs, and TaskRabbits. We revel in our massive concentration of wealth, private-public transportation, private tech-heavy schools, and the underlying ideology that the government is stupid. We are exempt.
Well, except when the NSA asks for cooperation in programs that the companies we’ve founded should probably comply with — or else God knows what will happen the next time we get sued for antitrust violations.
Silicon Valley is suffering from an acute fallacy of composition: Just because it does some good doesn’t mean the whole is good. Tech isn’t above harming society. Just because change (i.e. Disruption) is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s always welcome.
Machine guns were innovation. They Disrupted muskets. They also Disrupted a lot of human bodies in World War II. Pharmaceuticals save lives. But they also let people numb emotional pain rather than face it, quiet their children rather than teach them. Social games can be seen as entertainment and relaxation. They can also be seen as dehumanizing thieves of our time and attention.
The tech sector is particularly ill-suited to address its own footprint, staving off its rich guilt with the misguided belief that it lives in a meritocracy. Hell, even the people who blog about it are rich.
Like the problem of technology replacing jobs, there is no solution to technology’s feigned innocence. As nerds and underdogs, we will always believe we have the best intentions. That doesn’t negate the problem: Even though we’re not Washington D.C., we are still an industry with absurd amounts of power, attention and money. And plenty of intentional and unintentional opportunities to abuse it.
You know, Spider-Man.