Essays on Technology and Culture

Who Is Our Technology For?

In a recent issue of his “Things That Have Caught My Attention” newsletter, Dan Hon mused at length about technology and agency. He asked a question that got me thinking.

[W]hen we think about what technology wants, it makes sense to think of the agency involved. Who is the technology for?

Back in the 1990, Steve Jobs described the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind.” At the risk of hagiography, Jobs’s vision is an inherently humanist one, where technology exists for the primary benefit of its user. We could argue about whether Apple’s meeting that high standard, but they’re the closest of the big technology companies. Google attempts to justify its collection of data with services like Google Now that process it and return it to you in smartly timed, digestible chunks. The goal of Google Now is to make you more comfortable with giving Google more and more information about you. My own experience with Google Now left me thinking that I wasn’t getting my data’s worth.

Is the technology we use designed for us, or for someone else? I think back to Jessica Ferris’s piece on quitting Facebook because of a stalker, and how her experience conflicts so strongly with Facebook’s basic value proposition. That is, Facebook is the place where you connect with your friends—people you know and care about. By having a huge network of people, and being able to connect you to the people you know, you benefit. By having a huge network of people interacting, they benefit by gaining data.

But, we might not want to connect with someone we know. In personal relationships, transparency isn’t always the goal. We have aspects of ourselves from people, but Facebook isn’t about hiding. It’s about collecting our data. In that sense, Facebook isn’t for us—it’s for the advertisers who want to know who we know, what we like, and where we go, so as to better target ads to us. And that is based on the assumption that the ads they’re targeting even work. Facebook presents the facade of being for us, but it’s not hard to find places where that facade is falling off to reveal the truth. They reveal it at their developer conferences each year.

Elsewhere, the trend among smaller companies and startups seems to be anything but a humanist take on technology. Apps like ReservationHop and MonkeyParking which take public consumables and sell them to the highest bidder, and damn the poor and non-tech savvy. Uber, a bigger player, but still a startup, is potentially keeping an entire class of people from taxi service, both riding and driving. Josh Constantine calls this sort of thing JerkTech, and I can’t think of a better name. (PrickTech might be more apt, but JerkTech is catchier.)

I won’t pretend that anyone gets into technology with the only goal of benefiting the human species, and ushering in the Star Trek future, money be damned. The naïveté involved in such a thought is beyond me. It’s possible to make money and create groundbreaking new technology products and services—even disrupting industries—without selling out your customers, or destroying livelihoods. Technology doesn’t have agency, but the people creating it do, and they imbue what they create with their own morals and ethics—or the lack thereof. Pinning the negative effects of technology as just part of technology’s own nature is to remove blame from the human hands and minds that created it.

Who is our technology for? That depends on the technology, and its creators. As it stands, a growing amount of it is for someone other than the person who’s going to be using it the most. It’s for advertisers, VC investors, and the technological elite with money to burn and little incentive to think of anything other than how to maximize their take. If users have lost agency over technology, if it’s no longer for us, part of why is our fault for surrendering our agency willingly. It’s as much our fault as those who have seized the opportunity to exploit it, be those exploiters Google, Facebook, or the NSA.