Tech in a time of travesties

“Violence is like XML,” a hacker friend once said to me sardonically, re the USA’s endless flailing military presence in Afghanistan, “if it doesn’t work, you’re obviously just not using enough of it.”

This is true of the tech and Valley attitude towards life in general. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you have is increased transistor density and Metcalfe’s Law, everything looks like a software problem; when all you have are VCs and incubators, everything just needs a little startup disruption.

This same attitude makes engineers discount the importance of sales; makes Hacker News commenters contemptuously dismiss the notion that their self-proclaimed hyper-rational arguments might actually be skewed rationalizations of their own emotional bias; and makes the tech world assume that better technology automatically makes the world better, and if it isn’t measurably better yet, well, that means we just need even better tech yet.

The problem is that none of this is necessarily so. To quote the great Maciej Ceglowski: technology concentrates power. This is not particularly controversial. It’s obvious that as software eats the world, and everything is networked together, s/he who wrote the software and has root on the networks controls everything. This is why any list of most valuable public companies in the world is now dominated by tech companies. This is why Uber shot to a $50 billion valuation in ten years.

But it’s painfully obvious that the concentration power is frequently a terrible thing. Democracy has long been prone to lies and manipulation, but technology’s theoretical ability to concentrate power over elections in the hands of a few is a new and horrifying prospect.

Anti-immigrant hysteria is as old as mass immigration. The idiotic hatred aimed at Central Americans and Maghrebians today is almost word-for-word identical to that which targeted Irish and German immigrants in 19th century New York City. But the prospect of enforcing that hatred wholesale, rather than retail, with, say, a police-state dystopia “wall” of drones and automatic facial-recognition checkpoints enveloping the southern borders of Europe and America — that is something entirely new and terrible.

So it’s reassuring to see Google’s employees rise up and veto the idea of selling AI tech for drone targeting. It’s reassuring to see Amazon employees push back against the idea of selling facial-recognition technology to governments. It’s reassuring to see Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter employees begin to uneasily realize that what they do is often a catastrophic source of anxiety and bullying, and that their apparent destruction of traditional media-gatekeeper power centers may have created space for a new kind of centralized power, one which subtly, maliciously manipulates users’ beliefs, and/or even the whole concept of a consensus reality.

But maybe that’s not enough. Maybe the centralization of power by technology has become profound enough that the whole Valley / startup mentality — the idea that you take a new idea, launch a startup, get some funding, and build a rocket-ship company which is worth billions and wields enormous power within a decade — has become dangerous and wrong. Maybe the mere existence of powerful, centralized tech companies has become problematic, never mind adding to their number.

I’m not entirely convinced of this, at least not yet. But at the same time I am less convinced than ever by the fundamental Valley mindset: that success for startup founders and employees will ultimately lead to bettering the rest of the world. This is still true for (most) foundational, frontier-science, deep-tech startups. But for software? (Including/especially that which takes advantage of new hardware breakthroughs?) Not so much.

Blockchains were supposed to turn Ceglowski’s truism on its head, to technology dissipates power, and maybe they yet will — but right now blockchains are mostly overhyped money, and while their permissionlessness is a genuine dissipation of power, their “meet the new oligarchs, same as the old oligarchs” concentration of crypto wealth is anything but. “Fat protocols” won’t change much, except the faces on magazine covers and the names on Forbes lists, if most of their tokens are owned by a tiny minority.

But at least it’s a new mindset, a new approach, a new way of thinking, one still ripe with possibility and the promise of emergent properties. Too much of the tech industry keeps grimly trying to work the buttons and levers of that increasingly rusted engine, the clanking gears of the startup-disruption machinery, convinced that if it doesn’t seem to measurably be making things better any more, then that just means they’re not doing enough of it. Maybe what we really need is a different machine.