Essays on Technology and Culture

It’s No Fun Growing Up

When I was twelve or thirteen, I was convinced I would go to school, learn to code, and make it big in the Valley. This was in the mid–90s, at the start of the dot-com boom, though like any good teenager, my interest was in making video games. I had a small group of friends in middle school who were also interested in programming, video games, and technology. Though in the intervening years, we all drifted away from it in one way or another. One studied Chinese, and now makes a living as a translator. One is a mechanical engineer. One dabbles in iOS programming, but only as a hobby. I’m the only one who makes a living, in some form or another, in technology, although in an area I didn’t plan on.

In my circles online, I see a lot of exasperation about the technology world. Some of it rubs off on me, and some of the exasperation is my own, thank you very much. Even just sitting on the edge of the swimming pool as a technology observer is getting a bit much. If you’re not getting paid to write one of the thousands of 300-word fluff pieces about the recent Apple announcement, it’s hard to muster up a whole lot of enthusiasm from our vantage point. Jamie Ryan, in his final post on his site, puts it this way:

…I’ve just gotten tired of the whole thing… Too many imaginary rules, too many opinions and too many people constantly judging you by some arbitrary measure of success. None of it matters.

Somewhere along the line, technology has become less fun. On a personal level, part of that lack of fun comes from the rough experience of working for a real, live, technology startup. That’s my own hang up. But, there’s no sense of fun in the larger tech space. The best minds of our generation, if they’re not dreaming up new ways for finance guys in suits to bilk more money out of the system, they’re out in the Valley, dreaming up new ways to repackage old ways to bilk more money out of finance guys in suits. The rare, exciting new thing in the technology space is either vaporware, or going to be snapped up by Google, Apple, or Facebook in a year. New, powerful, democratized mass communication tools are turned against women and minorities who upset the status quo. Why get excited, when we’re just going to get burned again?

We’re growing up. I’m 30 years old, part of the generation that remembers life not only before the Internet, but life before Omnipresent Internet in our Pockets. Technology, as an industry, is growing up too. I’m part of the generation that remembers the big promises about technology—how the Internet was going to create a new Enlightenment, reform social discourse, and usher in a new leisure age. These aren’t new promises that my generation was the first to get, either. They said the same thing about electric lights. Twitter didn’t start the Arab Spring, but it’s a darn good line to work into “investor storytime”. Twitter’s too old for high-minded idealism. They need to make money now.

I’ve said before about how we’re still figuring out what all these new technologies, all these changes, actually mean for our lives. What if they don’t mean much of anything, in the end? They probably don’t. So, what is it that keeps me interested in technology, even from the periphery of the tech world? I still see the potential and promise for technology to actually make our lives better, somehow. Not just ours, as the savvy, first-world, enlightened types, but everyone. It’s a bigger picture view of technology. Google wants to float Internet-connected balloons over Africa to get more ad impressions. Bill Gates wants to wipe out Malaria. Both use technology, but only one can be said to really improve people’s lives.

Improving lives and making money are not mutually exclusive, but I don’t think the system we live and work in is set up to make it work. This is a result of what Ethan Zuckerman calls “The Internet’s Original Sin” of the advertising-supported model, at least in part. There’s also the conspicuous consumerism of shoving yet another gadget down our throats, from tablets, to wearables, to the annual upgrade cycle. Yes, I want an iPhone 6, but I don’t need one. It’s not going to measurably improve my life in any way by having a bigger, faster phone—or a smart watch. (Your mileage may vary. Some settling of product may occur. Offer void in Utah.)

If I have a goal for myself, and my writing, it’s to communicate ways in which we can use technology better. Not to use it more. Not to use more of it. Just… better. To know to apply technology, where it works best, in our lives and the lives of others, but also know when to pull back. Too much of the rhetoric around technology is about solving problems with technology, with little thought given to consequences. Not every problem can be solved with an app, or a new piece of consumer electronics. Not every problem technology tries to solve is actually a problem. You don’t need to sling code to work towards these answers, either. We can all push towards finding, if not the answer, at least a sense of where it all fits for ourselves.