Commentary: The same qualities that made the internet and tech so thrilling for a couple of decades — eliminating gatekeepers, making information instantaneous and connecting people with different points of view — now sometimes seem more threatening than alluring.
I’ve been writing about the technology industry for much of this decade, and now I have an awkward admission: I’ve fallen out of love with technology.
I’ve never been a gadget nerd, but I also remember vividly the first time I tried the original iPod and YouTube and wondered why these magical things hadn’t existed before. And when I moved to the Bay Area about six years ago as a technology journalist, I was struck by the feeling that this was the only remaining American industry not experiencing an existential crisis. Tech folks tend to be optimistic about what they do and the future in general, and that feeling was contagious.
Now, though, I’m not so sure. This has been a year of reckoning with the extreme downsides of technology. The same qualities that made the internet and tech so thrilling for a couple of decades — eliminating gatekeepers, making information instantaneous and connecting people with different points of view — now sometimes seem more threatening than alluring.
My personal habits have changed in response. Lately, I’ve tried to avoid going on social media in the evenings because there’s so much anger and it makes me anxious. And when I’m walking, cycling and driving, my phone stays in my pocket 100 percent of the time. There’s also zero chance I’m going to buy one of those voice-activated speakers from Amazon or other tech companies. Too creepy. My loss of faith hasn’t spread widely, but I fear the rethinking of technology’s great promise is only beginning.
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By now, the complaints about technology are familiar: The internet in 2010 seemed like an amazing place where a teenager with a rare illness, for example, might feel validated and connected to others like her thousands of miles away. That’s still true, but now we are seeing those same qualities unite people with dangerous conspiracy theories and spread violent propaganda.
The downsides aren’t confined to social media, which has been in the eye of the storm recently. People are talking about the pernicious effects of personal information concentrated in the hands of a few companies, about robots taking human jobs and about technology addiction.
Ten years after the release of the first iPhone, we’re over the initial wonder of it all and are beginning to grapple with how smartphones affect our communities, our personal safety and basic human interaction. One example: I was gobsmacked by a recent NPR piece about schools that are teaching smartphone-addicted young people how to have loving relationships IRL (that’s “in real life” to analog readers), and coaching them to ask people out on dates face to face. Then there’s iGen, a generation of young people who have grown up with smartphones and are on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades, according to the Atlantic.
If more people begin to focus on the drawbacks of technology, it could have lasting consequences for the economy and for tech companies’ bottom lines. Emerging trends, including self-driving cars and digitizing health care, could be a boon to our country, but they require the trust of governments and citizens that these innovations will help more than they hurt. That trust might be in short supply in coming years.
It’s true that the tech industry is no stranger to skepticism about the harmful effects of their products or the irresponsibility of the people and companies behind it. Just a few years ago, leaks from Edward Snowden detailed how U.S. intelligence agencies use or abuse personal information from technology companies. I thought that would spark a sustained cri de coeur about tech companies as powerful puppet masters of personal information, but the outrage didn’t last.
This time feels different. When the unlikely trio of early Facebook backer Sean Parker, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and European bureaucrats are all talking about the harmful effects of technology or big tech companies, that is a sign of the times. Think about how much hot water the big tech companies have been in this year — and that’s when they are well liked by most Americans.
If more people fall out of love with technology like me, it’s going to get even uglier.