It's Time to Bring Back Techno-Optimism

Thursday Mar 20th 2014 by Mike Elgan
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The loss of privacy and the constant flood of new gadgets is creating a backlash against technology. But unplugging isn't the answer.

When did technology become a bad thing?

The world of technology used to be a source of inspiration and excitement. And it still is in some quarters. But lately, I’m hearing far too much grousing about technology -- the complainers, fear-mongers and Debbie Downers have emerged as the dominant sentiment in conversations about new technology.

New advancements are greeted with anxiety, skepticism and ridicule. People talk incessantly about unplugging, opting out and slowing down the pace of change.

Here are five reasons for technology’s bad new reputation (and what should be done about it):

1. Personalization (company harvesting of personal data)

I think the trouble started with personalized streams of information, itself a reaction to information overload. Google personalized search to make it more relevant. But some users felt queasy knowing that their searches yielded different results than other people’s searchers for the exact same search, based on personal information Google had collected on us all. Then ads started showing up in Gmail that seem to know exactly what our messages were saying.

Facebook implemented EdgeRank at some point, choosing what to add and what to cut from our News Feed based on invisible metrics that essentially made decisions for us about who we cared about.

Suddenly, it seemed, companies were eager to harvest every scrap of information about us -- our location, age, interests, contacts, buying habits and so much more -- so they could personalize everything, especially advertising.

Trouble is, it seems like dozens of companies, from carriers to handset makers to web sites to apps are all harvesting personal data to give us relevant ads, yet the ads remain spectacularly irrelevant. Facebook doesn’t seem to know even that I speak English. Most of the contextual advertising I see online is for products I’ve already purchased. Companies excel at harvesting data but generally do a lousy job using it for clear user benefit.

2. Surveillance (government harvesting of personal data)

The Edward Snowden revelations hit. Whoo-boy, did this sour people on technology. It seems that half the cool new gadgets, apps or services I post on Google+ -- a well-known bastion of geek enthusiams -- a few people always chime in to say they believe the NSA is listening in, or that it’s all an NSA plot.

For example, I posted about new “electronic tattoo” technology that will revolutionize health care and save lives. A few commenters said the NSA will love it because they can track everyone’s biometrics. Government mass surveillance has soured the public on technology. We see shady spies lurking behind every app and under every gadget.

3. The irrelevance of Moore’s Law

The original Mac hit 30 years ago. Since then, tech fans have been obsessed about speeds and feeds. We wanted faster processors, bigger hard drives, higher resolution monitors and more. We knew all this was coming in the future -- unimaginable compute power in our own hands, and people were excited about it.

But lately, people are thinking it’s enough already. CPU speed no longer feels like a real problem. We’ve all got gigabytes or terabytes of cheap storage and, in any event, the cloud offers terabytes more for a few dollars a year, even as the cloud reduces the need to store files and applications locally. (Google recently announced new prices for Drive cloud storage -- $1.99 per month for 100 gigabytes and $9.99 per month for a terabyte!) And screen? Users wonder if they’ll even be able to tell the difference between a “Retina” quality screen and a 4k screen and, after that, can it really get better?

Ordinary users aren’t all that excited about the future of compute power anymore. That’s one reason why PC sales have been dropping and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.Even the smartphone world is all but done with progress. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 (announced at Mobile World Congress) and Apple’s iPhone 5S (announced some time ago) are those companies’ best flagship phones. Yes, they’re “better” than previous versions. But besides a minority of hardcore gadget fans, the larger public doesn’t care that much. The older versions are fine and most people aren’t excited about the future of smartphones.

4. In-your-face tech people

The mainstreaming of technology and the rise of social networks, ubiquitous blogs and Twitter have thrust all kinds of annoying tech people into our faces. Oracle’s CEO buys his own Hawaiian island. Google’s founders buy their own private terminal at Silicon Valley’s biggest airport. And Amazon’s CEO buys The Washington Post. Artists and other underpaid San Francisco residents are fed up with Silicon Valley employees driving up the cost of living in the city and adding to gridlock with their leather-upholstered WiFi commute buses, which are closed to the public -- so much so that they’re protesting and barricading them.

And Silicon Valley’s constant parties, awards, socializing and schmoozing -- reaching a crescendo at the over-priced and therefore exclusive SXSW Interactive event this month -- grate on the public nerve. People are getting tired of Tesla-driving elitist Glassholes living it up so publicly.

5. Social networking fatigue

Speaking of success theater, most adults have formed a love-hate relationship with social media. We love it, because we like to post food pictures and selfies and look-at-my-talented-kids photos and vacation snapshots. We hate it because other people like to do the same.

Social media has become a joyless compulsion for some. We’re like those dead-eyed gamblers you see on the nickel slots in Vegas or the Pachinko parlors of Tokyo robotically shoving coins into a machine and repeatedly pressing a button. What started out as a passion has simply become something we need because of a mindless addiction.

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to remember what we all used to believe -- that technology would always make the world better. And in fact, it can.

If we feel violated by the NSA, for example, the answer isn’t to unplug and go off the grid, turn back the clock and stop using products and services exploited by the mass surveillance agencies. No, the answer -- as Edward Snowden himself emphasized at SXSW -- is more and better technology that thwarts surveillance. The answer is to listen to Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and take back the web from the governments and corporations. The answer isn’t the negative resignation that’s spreading like a cancer, but for all of us to get excited about the possibilities of an Internet that can’t be surveilled or censored.

If we don’t like some aspects of personalization, then support technology that doesn’t use it. If we don’t care about speeds and feeds with our computers and smartphones anymore, then let’s leverage Moore’s Law to produce exactly the devices we really do want. Maybe we want giant touch-screen desktops. Maybe we want Google’s modular phone ideas. It’s Moore’s Law that will make all that possible, so let’s re-embrace it.

And social networking fatigue? Yeah, go ahead and cancel your Facebook account. Enough already.

The point is that the future is in our hands, thanks to technology. It’s time to get excited again, and to apply ourselves to building and buying and using new tools that solve the problems we care about. It’s called optimism. And we need it now more than ever.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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