On the state of Technology
I’m a great believer in science, and technology in particular. I think that in our current state of society, technology and tech people have the power to transform lives, affect cultures, and even define the future of humanity as a whole. Yet, in our yoga-meditation-sharing-economy-green-living-and-what-not - are we really doing a good job? Are we losing sight of the bigger picture, or are doing just fine?
Technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. Multimillion, heck, even multibillion companies come and go and no one seems to notice. We throw money, time and efforts around like never before, and we’re now surrounded by tech things like we’ve never been before. Just think about it — some 20 years ago there was no Google, no Wikipedia. Just a little over 10 years ago, there was no iPhone, no Android, no Spotify and Facebook was in its infancy. A little over 5 years ago, there was no Instagram and no Uber. Things change so fast, we don’t even notice anymore, we just take it and use it for a while until it no longer serves its purpose.
We’re so connected to technology that we spend a good part of our lives “inside it”. According to Facebook, an average user spends 50 minutes a day across their family of apps. That is a pretty big portion of our active time if you think about it (e.g. we spend only 17 minutes exercising). And it’s not just meaningless time either — Facebook or Instagram have long become more than just a way to “connect with friends” — it’s a source of information — news, trends, cool stuff — from insights to cats gifs, we happily binge on a lot of data that comes our way. All this stuff that we see is carefully calculated for us by personalised algorithms to bring up the stuff we most care about or, in other words, we’re most likely to interact with — click on, comment, or just gaze upon. All these things drive some thinking, some conclusions, even some principles we live upon — it gives us a picture of the world around us — outside of the world we can see with our own eyes. “One cannot live in society and be free from society”
I trust the people behind the algorithms have the best intentions at heart, and I can somewhat approve their selection of content for me personally. They do what they think is best for users, and they measure it by how we interact with the content. Most, if not all, of the decisions at Google or Facebook are driven by data, and that data suggests what we’re more likely to “binge on”. Most startup models are based on the same metrics — retention rate, churn, life time value, revenue per user, etc. After all, they need to make money and to ensure they stay profitable to stay alive. There’s also investors and other stakeholders to take care of, especially in the case of ad-based businesses like Facebook or Google.
The metrics most tech companies employ are based around revenue, and of course there’s no surprise to that. Like in any business, you have to take care of your paying customers and ensure money keeps flowing in. In the case of most tech products we’re so accustomed to these days, we don’t usually pay anything — instead it’s the reverse situation with money coming from advertisers and the products merely act as a platform. The algorithms behind the selection of content we get ensure we stay on for longer, the ads stay relevant and we come back again. They employ different strategies to do that, down to understanding of our emotions according to some reports. The primary goal of the strategy is to ensure users keep coming back to generate profits. The tech giants depend on them and it’s only valid for them to do so.
The inherent vice of the model is the dependency on profits coming from another source than users (aka TANSTAAFL — There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). Certainly, we are all very much aware of this, but is there more to that than just someone else paying the bill? Of course the content we see is selected based on what we “like” or genuinely enjoy seeing, but ultimately the prime purpose of the algorithm is to ensure we come back for more. Which, on its own brings unpleasant associations.
A quick look at the major goals of the leading tech giants shows the key trend to drive more understanding of users’ habits and provide more ways to interact with businesses. The latest Facebook F8 show was dominated by the advances that an average user wouldn’t care much about — from bots to 360º videos, to VR — it was all about what content-creators can feed to users, because let’s face it — most of the content we consume on Facebook these days is not actually created by our peers.
This is when the current technology model truly shines. In a lot of recent media, it was demonstrated that if Facebook was a country, it would possibly be the largest country on Earth. Now let’s draw this a little further. We have a “society” of over 1.3 billion people, who spend on average 50 minutes a day binging on content, selected for them based on an algorithm designed to encourage them to see ads that generate profit for the key stakeholders. No country on the planet functions like this, no matter how fucked up. One can say this is an equivalent of having a giant population of citizens whose lifestyles are employed by a smaller number of businesses, governed by a group of shareholders who enjoy and manage all the funds generated by the population.
It may appear as if I’m criticising Facebook solely, but in fact, it’s merely an example of how the current technology world operates, with every one of us being a part of it. For example, Google isn’t different at all, with it’s almost absolute dependancy on advertising revenue and it’s ambitions to attract as much brand advertising from traditional media (like TV). Of course, a better product (meaning one that serves people better) always wins, and this is where Google have been on top with the search engine at the least. Yet, with all the noise in the technology world, businesses fight hard for our time and attention. It is often not the best product that wins, but the one that manages to get the most attention. The main goal, the prime, survival need for most tech platforms like Google or Facebook is to ensure the needs of money-generating stakeholders are catered well to. This is just how business works.
In fact, this is relevant to just about any tech startup. As soon as there are stakeholders looking for “return on investment” — be it investors or clients — you end up in the same trap. Sooner or later the business has to focus on the revenue generating strategy and it ultimately draws focus away from users. The business can no longer put the user’s need as it’s primary goal — otherwise it just won’t survive. As an example, this is seen in Google painfully killing a lot of its Labs products, for the sake of “streamlining the business”, and later diversifying their business as Alphabet.
At the end of the day, is there a way for a technology platform to truly serve in the best interests of its users? Are we going beyond technology here, and talking about ownership, economics, even politics? At the end of the day, the same issues apply to any business, not just technology-based. Can technology be used to solve this problem?
Of course, there’s a Wikipedia-type model that can be more sustainable and beneficial to society. But then, again, it’s no flawless and do we really want to keep nudging users to donate every now and then? Or is there a way for a universal tax that would be distributed?
Perhaps, one of the solutions is to start introducing the very same governance model we’ve had in countries to business, that is, democracy. Following the comparison above, it is only logical to assume the same principle might apply to a business. A platform usage fee can be seen as merely a form of “tax” to be used to improve the platform itself in the best interests of “residents” (users). But then again, “democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others”.
What is it for the technology world that we can do? Is it the time we start using technology not only to solve routine issues, but some higher matters at hand as well? We won’t have an answer at once, but, after all, the “future depends on what we do in the present”.