I had blinked at the aesthetic poverty of the most recent pitch for Meta’s Horizon Worlds VR game, featuring Mark Zuckerberg’s dead-eyed cartoon avatar against a visual backdrop that a Twitter charitably stirs compared to the “painted walls of an abandoned daycare centre”. I let out a silent sigh at the news of Nation ring, an Amazon-produced TV show featuring “lightweight viral content” captured by the Ring surveillance empire. I clenched my jaw to a screenshot of the Stable Diffusion Text-to-Image Model offering AI artwork in the styles of dozens of unpaid human artists, whose collective work had been poured into the model’s training data, crushed, and spat out.
I recognized the feeling and I knew its name. It was resignation – that feeling of being stuck in a place you don’t want to be but can’t leave. I was struck by the irony that I had studied technology all my life in order to avoid this kind of feeling. Technology was my happy place.
Naturally, I poured out my emotion in a tweetstorm:
I touched a sensitive chord. As my notifications started to explode and thousands of replies and retweets started pouring in, the initial dopamine reward for virality gave way to deeper sadness. A plot many people sat with the same feeling of heaviness in their stomachs.
Yet there was a catharsis in the reading, so many others express it.
Something is missing from our lives and our technology. Its absence is fueling a growing unease expressed by many who work in technology or study it. This is what drives the new generation of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers I work with at the University of Edinburgh, who bring together knowledge from the technical arts, sciences and humanistic disciplines to try to understand what went wrong with our technology ecosystem and how to fix it. To do this, we need to understand how and why the priorities of this ecosystem have changed.
The goal of consumer technology development used to be quite simple: to design and build something of value for people, giving them a reason to buy it. A new fridge is shiny, lowers my energy bills, makes ice cubes cool. So I buy it. Do. A Roomba promises to vacuum cat hair under my sofa while I take a nap. Sold! But this vision of tech is increasingly outdated. It’s not enough for a refrigerator to keep food cold; Today’s version offers cameras and sensors that can monitor how and what I eat, while the Roomba can now send a map of my house to Amazon.
The problem here goes far beyond the obvious privacy risks. It’s a sea change in the whole innovation model and the incentives that drive it. Why settle for a single profit-making transaction for the business when you can instead design a product that will extract a monetizable stream of data from every buyer, earning revenue for the business for years to come? Once you capture this data stream, you will protect it, even to the detriment of your customer. After all, if you buy enough market share, you can afford to endure your customers’ anger and frustration. Ask Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s not just consumer technologies and social media platforms that have driven this shift. Big agri-tech brand John Deere, for example, once beloved by its customers, is fighting a “right to repair” movement led by farmers angry at a ban on repairing their own machines, lest they disrupt the proprietary software that sends valuable data about farmers’ land and crops back to the manufacturer. As noted by more than one commenter on my Twitter feed, Today in Tech we are the product, not the primary beneficiary. The mechanical devices that were once the product are increasingly just intermediaries.
There is also a change in the destination of today’s technological innovations. Several interviewees objected to my topic by drawing attention to today’s dynamic market of new technologies for “geeks” and “nerds” – Raspberry Pis, open source software tools, programmable robots. Although many of them are intended for those who have the time, skills and interest to use them, they are tools designed for a limited audience. The thrill of seeing real innovation in biomedical technology, like mRNA vaccines, is also dampened when we see the benefits concentrated in the wealthiest countries, those already best served by the technology.