21 February 2023

tl;dr Tech has brought us many wonderful things, but if we take a step back from the hustle and bustle of recent releases, media excitement, and vendor advertising, we begin to realize that the tech-fueled vessel sailing to utopia that we were ready to embark on just a decade and a half ago... has kinda sunk.

Recently, a LinkedIn post captured an accurate (if depressing) realization about the technology industry as a whole; I've excerpted parts of it in order to weigh in:

As far as I can tell, the only improvement in my quality of life resulting from the massive improvements in tech is that I can unlock my door and turn on my lights from anywhere in the world using my phone. Which is cool!

Let's stop and consider the past decade: 2012 - 2022. There's been no real sea-change in hardware, other than "smartphones got faster CPUs, more storage, and more cameras." Laptops are basically laptops, servers are basically servers, and while both got faster and more (RAM, storage, bandwidth, whatever), they're entirely unrecognized from what they were ten years ago.

Consider the app stores: What is in here that dramatically changed anything? Most of the wildly successful apps are directly tied to commercial consumption: Everybody has a rideshare app (Uber, Lyft, etc), everybody has a food-ordering app (Doordash, Uber Eats, etc), and pretty much every restaurant or grocery store has some kind of app, either in-house or a service, that coordinates ordering and "take away" service.

But what about medical apps? Nutrition apps? Apps that will help you navigate financial problems? A few companies are promoting their apps as doing such, but they inevitably get sucked into the commercial vacuum and end up being a mouthpiece for a retail entity--Truebill, for example, got sucked into the vortex that is the Rocket Mortgage family of companies, and was rebranded as Rocket Money (or something).

Consider the FAANG: Google, for example, has released a number of new things in the last decade, which, by the way, have almost universally been unsuccessful, meaning Google's only real success stories are Google search, GMail, and Android, all of which were either before 2012 or right close to it. Nothing Google has done in the last decade has left a mark.

Microsoft has Azure, but each successive wave of Windows? Meh. Office? Meh. Even their principal developer stack, .NET, hasn't made any significant definitive mark except with the people already using it.

Netflix? Canceling their custom-created content as fast as they release it--but the basic service is still the same. Facebook? "The Metaverse!" and 'nuff said about that one.

Apple? MacBooks are now running ARM CPUs which is pretty much just "more" like we said earlier. Phones are still handheld touch computers; Pads are still larger handheld touch computers. Heck the largest iPad is essentially a touch-screen laptop just without the keyboard. They've even discontinued the iPod entirely. Arguably, their most revolutionary product in the last ten years has been... earbuds. Wireless earbuds.

Social media? I think by now we've come to realize that social media has as many nuclear-bomb-yield minefields as it does benefits.

The proposition that tech improvement = humanity improvement was always dubious and extremely risky. In fact it’s quite likely that the opposite is true, tech improvement = humanity regression.

In particular, tech utopia was always fake news. Crypto was never going to bank the unbanked. FAANG was never going to solve the energy crisis or make our economy more inclusive. Weird little app X from San Francisco transformed nobody’s life outside of the equity holders for more than a few minutes.

It is true social indicators are at lifetime highs but they’ve barely moved in these last 15 years of tech’s golden era, and many indicators have steadily trended down since November 2016. Tech utopians claiming credit for any of that progress sounds like theft, and shirking any responsibility for its decline abdication.

Consider this: Most of us--particularly the Millennials and the GenZers--are actually less happy because of our phones. We spend more time looking for "likes" online than we are in talking to friends at a restaurant about what we like. We've substituted social media for actual socializing. Tinder taught a whole generation how to "swipe right", Netflix brought us "Netflix and chill", but neither actually helped a generation find actual love or happiness.

And it wasn't for lack of investment....

Amazon’s operating expenses for the last 3 years totals USD 1.3 TRILLION. What do we have to show for that spend? Weird crappy speakers cluttering our houses and deliveries of shit we could’ve just as easily bought at a store. ... For comparison, Amazon spent almost as much in the last 3 years as America spent on national defense during the lowest 3 defense spending years of the Obama administration (average 500b).

And that's only Amazon's investment. That doesn't begin to consider what Google has thrown into its products--how much has Google thrown at self-driving cars, trying to one-up Tesla? Microsoft has at least avoided THAT mess, but has its own AR/VR/XR (extended reality) mess that it's starting to draw down from. Which is nothing compared to Facebook's mess. Or the ongoing dumpster fire that is Twitter--but we already talked about social media above. (44 BILLION USD, all so that Elon Musk could make sure to show up in everybody's timeline--so long as you didn't block him, which a lot of us did a loooooong time ago.)

Tech will improve humanity if we build tech for the purpose of improving humanity AND validate its delivery when it’s done. Tech will not improve humanity if we build tech for any other reason, or build it for the right reasons without associated social indicator metrics to measure against.

Here's a question for us all going into 2023 as the layoffs put a LOT of tech talent onto the street with nothing to do for the next few months: What could tech do? What kind of things could a technologist, armed with some free time and some money, build to make the world a better place? Or even just make a small sliver of the world a better place? How could we leverage what we know about building software platforms, and turn that into societal good instead of just more dollars/Euro/yen?

If I’m wrong about tech utopians, I’d expect the mass layoffs to lead to a cascade of new products built for social good. If I’m right about them, expect more tech that is very useless but very attractive for VCs to one up each other.

I hate to be a betting man betting on either of these outcomes, but here's my hope: That the technologists who found some degree of power and flexibility in the pandemic, and refused to let it go when their companies ordered them back to the office, will now find the means to explore some ideas that aren't just "X, but for Y" kinds of tired VC pitches. Don't build "Uber, but for pets". Build a platform that allows those who are in need of social services to find the nearest one that offers the aid they need. Don't build "Doordash, but for rock-climbing equipment". Build a platform that makes it easier for teachers to wade through YouTube to find actual educational supplemental content (and deliver it without the YouTube algorithm leading kids to white supremacy videos).

Let's build some tech for social good.

Not just greed.

Tags: management  

Last modified 21 February 2023