Tech is more important than ever, deeply affecting culture, politics and society. Given all the time we spend with our gadgets and apps, it’s essential to understand the principles that determine how tech affects our lives.
Understanding technology today
Technology isn’t an industry, it’s a method of transforming the culture and economics of existing systems and institutions. That can be a little bit hard to understand if we only judge tech as a set of consumer products that we purchase. But tech goes a lot deeper than the phones in our hands, and we must understand some fundamental shifts in society if we’re going to make good decisions about the way tech companies shape our lives—and especially if we want to influence the people who actually make technology.
Even those of us who have been deeply immersed in the tech world for a long time can miss the driving forces that shape its impact. So here, we’ll identify some key principles that can help us understand technology’s place in culture.
What you need to know:
1. Tech is not neutral.
One of the most important things everybody should know about the apps and services they use is that the values of technology creators are deeply ingrained in every button, every link, and every glowing icon that we see. Choices that software developers make about design, technical architecture or business model can have profound impacts on our privacy, security and even civil rights as users. When software encourages us to take photos that are square instead of rectangular, or to put an always-on microphone in our living rooms, or to be reachable by our bosses at any moment, it changes our behaviors, and it changes our lives.
All of the changes in our lives that happen when we use new technologies do so according to the priorities and preferences of those who create those technologies.
2. Tech is not inevitable.
Popular culture presents consumer technology as a never-ending upward progression that continuously makes things better for everybody. In reality, new tech products usually involve a set of tradeoffs where improvements in areas like usability or design come along with weaknesses in areas like privacy & security. Sometimes new tech is better for one community while making things worse for others. Most importantly, just because a particular technology is “better” in some way doesn’t guarantee it will be widely adopted, or that it will cause other, more popular technologies to improve.
In reality, technological advances are a lot like evolution in the biological world: there are all kinds of dead-ends or regressions or uneven tradeoffs along the way, even if we see broad progress over time.
3. Most people in tech sincerely want to do good.
We can be thoughtfully skeptical and critical of modern tech products and companies without having to believe that most people who create tech are “bad”. Tech creators are very earnest about wanting to have a positive impact. At the same time, it’s important for those who make tech to understand that good intentions don’t absolve them from being responsible for the negative consequences of their work, no matter how well-intentioned.
It’s useful to acknowledge the good intentions of most people in tech because it lets us follow through on those intentions and reduce the influence of those who don’t have good intentions, and to make sure the stereotype of the thoughtless tech bro doesn’t overshadow the impact that the majority of thoughtful, conscientious people can have. It’s also essential to believe that there is good intention underlying most tech efforts if we’re going to effectively hold everyone accountable for the tech they create.
4. Tech history is poorly documented and poorly understood.
People who learn to create tech can usually find out every intimate detail of how their favorite programming language or device was created, but it’s often near impossible to know why certain technologies flourished, or what happened to the ones that didn’t. While we’re still early enough in the computing revolution that many of its pioneers are still alive and working to create technology today, it’s common to find that tech history as recent as a few years ago has already been erased. Why did your favorite app succeed when others didn’t? What failed attempts were made to create such apps before? What problems did those apps encounter — or what problems did they cause? Which creators or innovators got erased from the stories when we created the myths around today’s biggest tech titans?
All of those questions get glossed over, silenced, or sometimes deliberately answered incorrectly, in favor of building a story of sleek, seamless, inevitable progress in the tech world. Now, that’s hardly unique to technology — nearly every industry can point to similar issues. But that ahistorical view of the tech world can have serious consequences when today’s tech creators are unable to learn from those who came before them, even if they want to.
5. Most tech education doesn’t include ethical training.
In mature disciplines like law or medicine, we often see centuries of learning incorporated into the professional curriculum, with explicit requirements for ethical education. Now, that hardly stops ethical transgressions from happening—we can see deeply unethical people in positions of power today who went to top business schools that proudly tout their vaunted ethics programs. But that basic level of familiarity with ethical concerns gives those fields a broad fluency in the concepts of ethics so they can have informed conversations. And more importantly, it ensures that those who want to do the right thing and do their jobs in an ethical way have a firm foundation to build on.
But until the very recent backlash against some of the worst excesses of the tech world, there had been little progress in increasing the expectation of ethical education being incorporated into technical training. There are still very few programs aimed at upgrading the ethical knowledge of those who are already in the workforce; continuing education is largely focused on acquiring new technical skills rather than social ones. There’s no silver-bullet solution to this issue; it’s overly simplistic to think that simply bringing computer scientists into closer collaboration with liberal arts majors will significantly address these ethics concerns. But it is clear that technologists will have to rapidly become fluent in ethical concerns if they want to continue to have the widespread public support that they currently enjoy.
6. Tech is often built with surprising ignorance about its users.
Over the last few decades, society has greatly increased in its respect for the tech industry, but this has often resulted in treating the people who create tech as infallible. Tech creators now regularly get treated as authorities in a wide range of fields like media, labor, transportation, infrastructure and political policy — even if they have no background in those areas. But knowing how to make an iPhone app doesn’t mean you understand an industry you’ve never worked in!
The best, most thoughtful tech creators engage deeply and sincerely with the communities that they want to help, to ensure they address actual needs rather than indiscriminately “disrupting” the way established systems work. But sometimes, new technologies run roughshod over these communities, and the people making those technologies have enough financial and social resources that the shortcomings of their approaches don’t keep them from disrupting the balance of an ecosystem. Often times, tech creators have enough money funding them that they don’t even notice the negative effects of the flaws in their designs, especially if they’re isolated from the people affected by those flaws. Making all of this worse are the problems with inclusion in the tech industry, which mean that many of the most vulnerable communities will have little or no representation amongst the teams that create new tech, preventing those teams from being aware of concerns that might be of particular importance to those on the margins.
7. There is never just one single genius creator of technology.
One of the most popular representations of technology innovation in popular culture is the genius in a dorm room or garage, coming up with a breakthrough innovation as a “Eureka!” moment. It feeds the common myth-making around people like Steve Jobs, where one individual gets credit for “inventing the iPhone” when it was the work of thousands of people. In reality, tech is always informed by the insights and values of the community where its creators are based, and nearly every breakthrough moment is preceded by years or decades of others trying to create similar products.
The “lone creator” myth is particularly destructive because it exacerbates the exclusion problems which plague the tech industry overall; those lone geniuses that are portrayed in media are seldom from backgrounds as diverse as people in real communities. While media outlets may benefit from being able to give awards or recognition to individuals, or educational institutions may be motivated to build up the mythology of individuals in order to bask in their reflected glory, the real creation stories are complicated and involve many people. We should be powerfully skeptical of any narratives that indicate otherwise.
8. Most tech isn’t from startups or by startups.
Only about 15% of programmers work at startups, and in many big tech companies, most of the staff aren’t even programmers anyway. So the focus on defining tech by the habits or culture of programmers that work at big-name startups deeply distorts the way that tech is seen in society. Instead, we should consider that the majority of people who create technology work in organizations or institutions that we don’t think of as “tech” at all.
What’s more, there are lots of independent tech companies — little indie shops or mom-and-pop businesses that make websites, apps, or custom software, and a lot of the most talented programmers prefer the culture or challenges of those organizations over the more famous tech titans. We shouldn’t erase the fact that startups are only a tiny part of tech, and we shouldn’t let the extreme culture of many startups distort the way we think about technology overall.
9. Most big tech companies make money in just one of three ways.
It’s important to understand how tech companies make money if you want to understand why tech works the way that it does.
- Advertising: Google and Facebook make nearly all of their money from selling information about you to advertisers. Almost every product they create is designed to extract as much information from you as possible, so that it can be used to create a more detailed profile of your behaviors and preferences, and the search results and social feeds made by advertising companies are strongly incentivized to push you toward sites or apps that show you more ads from these platforms. It’s a business model built around surveillance, which is particularly striking since it’s the one that most consumer internet businesses rely upon.
- Big Business: Some of the larger (generally more boring) tech companies like Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce exist to get money from other big companies that need business software but will pay a premium if it’s easy to manage and easy to lock down the ways that employees use it. Very little of this technology is a delight to use, especially because the customers for it are obsessed with controlling and monitoring their workers, but these are some of the most profitable companies in tech.
- Individuals: Companies like Apple and Amazon want you to pay them directly for their products, or for the products that others sell in their store. (Although Amazon’s Web Services exist to serve that Big Business market, above.) This is one of the most straightforward business models—you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy an iPhone or a Kindle, or when you subscribe to Spotify, and because it doesn’t rely on advertising or cede purchasing control to your employer, companies with this model tend to be the ones where individual people have the most power.
That’s it. Pretty much every company in tech is trying to do one of those three things, and you can understand why they make their choices by seeing how it connects to these three business models
10. The economic model of big companies skews all of tech.
Today’s biggest tech companies follow a simple formula:
- Make an interesting or useful product that transforms a big market
- Get lots of money from venture capital investors
- Try to quickly grow a huge audience of users even if that means losing a lot of money for a while
- Figure out how to turn that huge audience into a business worth enough to give investors an enormous return
- Start ferociously fighting (or buying off) other competitive companies in the market
This model looks very different than how we think of traditional growth companies, which start off as small businesses and primarily grow through attracting customers who directly pay for goods or services. Companies that follow this new model can grow much larger, much more quickly, than older companies that had to rely on revenue growth from paying customers. But these new companies also have much lower accountability to the markets they’re entering because they’re serving their investors’ short-term interests ahead of their users’ or community’s long-term interests.
The pervasiveness of this kind of business plan can make competition almost impossible for companies without venture capital investment. Regular companies that grow based on earning money from customers can’t afford to lose that much money for that long a time. It’s not a level playing field, which often means that companies are stuck being either little indie efforts or giant monstrous behemoths, with very little in between. The end result looks a lot like the movie industry, where there are tiny indie arthouse films and big superhero blockbusters, and not very much else.
And the biggest cost for these big new tech companies? Hiring coders. They pump the vast majority of their investment money into hiring and retaining the programmers who’ll build their new tech platforms. Precious little of these enormous piles of money are put into things that will serve a community or build equity for anyone other than the founders or investors in the company. There is no aspiration that making a hugely valuable company should also imply creating lots of jobs for lots of different kinds of people.
11. Tech is as much about fashion as function.
To outsiders, creating apps or devices is presented as a hyper-rational process where engineers choose technologies based on which are the most advanced and appropriate to the task. In reality, the choice of things like programming languages or toolkits can be subject to the whims of particular coders or managers, or to whatever’s simply in fashion. Just as often, the process or methodology by which tech is created can follow fads or trends that are in fashion, affecting everything from how meetings are run to how products are developed.
Sometimes the people creating technology seek novelty, sometimes they want to go back to the staples of their technological wardrobe, but these choices are swayed by social factors in addition to an objective assessment of technical merit. And a more complex technology doesn’t always equal a more valuable end product, so while many companies like to tout how ambitious or cutting-edge their new technologies are, that’s no guarantee that they provide more value for regular users, especially when new technologies inevitably come with new bugs and unexpected side-effects.
12. No institution has the power to rein in tech’s abuses.
In most industries, if companies start doing something wrong or exploiting consumers, they’ll be reined in by journalists who will investigate and criticize their actions. Then, if the abuses continue and become serious enough, the companies can be sanctioned by lawmakers at the local, state, governmental or international level.
Today, though, much of the tech trade press focuses on covering the launch of new products or new versions of existing products, and the tech reporters who do cover the important social impacts of tech are often relegated to being published alongside reviews of new phones, instead of being prominently featured in business or culture coverage. Though this has started to change as tech companies have become absurdly wealthy and powerful, coverage is also still constrained by the culture within media companies. Traditional business reporters often have seniority in major media outlets, but are commonly illiterate in basic tech concepts in a way that would be unthinkable for journalists who cover finance or law. Meanwhile, dedicated tech reporters who may have a better understanding of tech’s impact on culture are often assigned to (or inclined to) cover product announcements instead of broader civic or social concerns.
The problem is far more serious when we consider regulators and elected officials, who often brag about their illiteracy about tech. Having political leaders who can’t even install an app on their smartphones makes it impossible to understand technology well enough to regulate it appropriately, or to assign legal accountability when tech‘s creators violate the law. Even as technology opens up new challenges for society, lawmakers lag tremendously behind the state of the art when creating appropriate laws.
Without the corrective force of journalistic and legislative accountability, tech companies often run as if they’re completely unregulated, and the consequences of that reality usually fall on those outside of tech. Worse, traditional activists who rely on conventional methods such as boycotts or protests often find themselves ineffective due to the indirect business model of giant tech companies, which can rely on advertising or surveillance (“gathering user data”) or venture capital investment to continue operations even if activists are effective in identifying problems.
This lack of systems of accountability is one of the biggest challenges facing tech today.
If we understand these things, we can change tech for the better.
If everything is so complicated, and so many important points about tech aren’t obvious, should we just give up hope? No.
Once we know the forces that shape technology, we can start to drive change. If we know that the biggest cost for the tech giants is attracting and hiring programmers, we can encourage programmers to collectively advocate for ethical and social advances from their employers. If we know that the investors who power big companies respond to potential risks in the market, we can emphasize that their investment risk increases if they bet on companies that act in ways that are bad for society.
If we understand that most in tech mean well, but lack the historic or cultural context to ensure that their impact is as good as their intentions, we can ensure that they get the knowledge they need to prevent harm before it happens.
So many of us who create technology, or who love the ways it empowers us and improves our lives, are struggling with the many negative effects that some of these same technologies are having on society. But perhaps if we start from a set of common principles that help us understand how tech truly works, we can start to tackle technology’s biggest problems.