Technology: Humanity’s Savior or Humanity’s Seducer?

July 11, 2015

Don’t blame the mirror if the face it reflects is crooked.

–Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector-General

While in the middle of contemplating what I should write aboout for this particular post about issues with technology and the tech industry, I visited the New York Times and discovered that they had already done a lot of the work for me. Included in their list of feature stories on July 11 was an article about the resignation of Ellen Pao from Reddit, which contained the quote, “[Pao] was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem” (one could probably replace “Reddit” with “Silicon Valley” without batting an eye), a “eulogy” for the long, intimate email, and a self-help guide for overcoming smartphone addiction.

The persistence of gender-based workplace discrimination, shifts in cultural norms caused by the proliferation of technology, and the crippling need to constantly check one’s phone are three very important tech-related issues. But these aren’t the only ones.

Tech Issues: A List

Lists seem to be pretty popular content-delivery systems on the web (all the more so when the list items are spread over multiple pages in order to increase ad revenue). Rather than fully analyzing any one the issues mentioned above in this post, I’d like to instead provide a list-based overview of my thoughts on problems facing the tech industry as well as the cultural disruptions caused by technology and “big data,” while reserving the right to delve deeper into these issues in a later piece.

The Industry

1) Messianism – Of all the things that Mike Judge subjects to his satirical eye in the HBO series Silicon Valley, I think the thing he deconstructs most incisively is the idea of tech messianism that pervades the Bay Area. Whether the company is big (such as Gavin Belson’s Hooli) or small), it is vital that its technology will “make the world a better place.” The bigger the company, the more grandiose the proclamation must be. In actual fact, the overwhelming majority of products generally do one or two things: make some minute aspect of human existence incrementally more efficient and/or create new methods for gathering information about its users, which can then be sold along to other companies for marketing purposes or potentially used for more sinister means in countries with authoritarian systems.

For example, while the Arab Spring was unfolding in 2011, journalists, academics, and tech activists were falling over themselves to be the first to proclaim how Twitter had revolutionized how revolutions happen. Ours would be the age of openness, the age of political accountability all thanks to the increased ease of connecting with others through electronic means and organizing resistance. But mass protests and revolutions had occurred before 2011. And while Facebook and Twitter might have made it slightly easier for like-minded people to come together to protest, the presence of a permanent electronic record of discontent that’s traceable to one’s device through telecomm records and the like has the potential to be highly problematic for the more vociferous protesters down the road.

2) Diversity – It’s an open secret that the tech industry and the surrounding ecosystem of venture capitalist firms are predominantly male and overrepresented by non-Hispanic whites and Asians. The root cause should perhaps be traced back to the varying achievement levels in the STEM disciplines that is seen across the many levels of the American educational system, whose own root cause is attributable to how math and science are taught in the US and certain ingrained stereotypes. The preponderance of males in the tech industry has quite organically led to the evolution of a certain institutional culture in which not everyone feels equally welcome.

Culture and Technology

3) Tech Addiction – I was at ground zero for the smartphone revolution, which, believe or not, started only eight years ago in June 2007. I remember observing over the following months and years how my Bay Area friends, especially the iPhone earlier adopters, became less and less able to hold a conversation, watch a television show, or make a factual claim without pulling their phone out of their pocket every couple minutes or so. By 2015, this phone-dependence affects seemingly every American younger than 40, myself included, of course. I could be mistaken, but I think the only time people try to consciously refrain from constantly looking at their phones is when they’re on a first, second, or maybe third date with someone. After all, we want to at least project that we’re giving our undivided attention (although in the back of our minds, we very well might be thinking about our phones and all the content we’re missing out on).

Lest I come across as a tech-skeptic, let me make clear that I very much enjoy having the full power of the Internet and my entire music library at my fingertips at all times. But as with almost any phenomenon that brings benefits, there are also hidden costs. For one, smartphones are a contributing factor to the constant bombardment of stimuli that 21st-century humans are subject to, which can’t help but alter how our brains function. A recent quasi-scientific study suggests that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, which affects our ability to focus and think deeply on one thing exclusively. This also has the potential to negatively impact interpersonal communication, as I will touch on in the following list item.

4) The Changing Shape of Communication – I would never claim that interacting with another human being through a computer or smartphone is any less “real” than communication through any other medium. However, it can nevertheless be surprising to take a step back and see just how reliant we are on technological means to perform functions that are perhaps better done through other means. In an article about the dating app Tinder from earlier this year, Alan Feuer writes about his experience going out to a pickup bar with a female friend:

She, like her friends, will often spend hours blithely swiping through [Tinder's] gallery of digitized faces – at work, at home, even in busy pickup bars. But that’s New York’s technologized dating scene. Except for ordering their drinks, none of the people I was with that night spoke to any other actual human beings. Their erotic energy was focused on the touchscreens of their smartphones.

Maybe if I were five years younger I would react differently, but I can’t help reading that passage (though it’s probably a bit exaggerated for effect) and feel that a profound sense of alienation is at the source of such behavior. It would make sense—big cities do that to people.

But this is certainly also symptomatic of the changing norms of communication brought about by the Internet age. Again, I want to make clear that I’m not one of those critics who bemoans Twitter’s 140-character limit—different media presuppose different types of writing, and way back in the 19th century there were genres such as the bon mot that, similar to Twitter, required wit and brevity. On the other hand, it does seem as if the length of the average communiqué has preciptiously fallen over the last decade (perhaps to accommodate our shorter attention spans). And, as you can probably surmise by the length of this blog post (tl;dr), I belong to the small minority of people who mourn the death of the long email.

Big Data

5) But Is It Good Data? – While “Big Data” generally refers to a collection of data that’s so big it requires special techniques to process, I’m using small-letters “big data” here to allude to the situation we face vis-à-vis the Internet. There is just so much information out there that it’s impossible for any one human to begin to process it or fully understand its origin. While teaching undergrads at college, I would see this issue crop up again and again—students had a strong tendency to treat everything on Wikipedia as gospel, instead of carefully scrutinizing its veracity. Immediately accepting what we read as fact elides over alternative narratives and theories, and obscures the sources of power that originally fashioned the dominant narratives. (In a way, it’s like a long reduce method that has excluded some crucial data.) As with other forms of media that initially burst onto the scene with subversive potential (such as the daily newspaper and rock ‘n’ roll), the Internet has now largely been harnessed by the power structures in place (authoritarian governments in countries like China and Russia, the market in the US and the West).

6) Privacy and Data Security – “Government data breach affects 21.5 million employees.” “Credit card data of 40 million customers compromised.” “NSA’s Prism program harvests personal data from servers of all major email companies.” The dual challenges of privacy and data security will continue to make headlines for years and decades to come. The security of private personal data is under threat from foreign entities, malicious hackers, overzealous data collection programs, and tech giants who have an insatiable thirst for every bit of personal data they can scrape up through search history, cellphone-based location history, and metadata culled from files stored on the cloud for ad-selling purposes. For example, if you use Google Maps for search or navigation and carry a cell phone with you, you might be surprised to find out that Google knows everywhere you’ve been over the last several months and how you got there (check out this link accessible from Google account settings under “account history”). The question of where we exactly draw the line between privacy and security as well as privacy and convenience is one that will continue to draw vigorous debate.

Tech Issues are Human Issues

Taking a quick look back through the above list of “tech issues” reveals that all of them are very human problems. In fact, these tech problems accurately reflect some of most prevalent and pressing issues facing American society today. A messianic self-image, gender inequality, institutional racism, addiction, self-absorption, alienation, the continued lag behind other developed countries in educational achievement, and unresolved debates about the proper balance of privacy and security are all major issues visibly present in America in 2015 or bubbling under the surface. So, don’t blame the tech industry if the image that appears in the mirror it holds up to society appears to be crooked!