Essays on Technology and Culture

What The Heck Even Is the Technology Industry These Days?

What even qualifies as the technology industry these days? Tech is eating everything—media, logistics, the service industry, entertainment, even food. Back in 2013, Twitter founder Ev Williams described the Internet as “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It was pretty spot on then, and now, all you have to do to be labelled a technology company is to use software, typically built using off-the-shelf components, to make it easier and faster for a person to get the thing they want. Or, they make it easier and faster to get ads in front of people.

There’s value to that, I suppose, though whether that value is worth upending the lives and livelihoods of the people who used to get those things to us is yet to be determined. Is this really what we think of when we think of technology? I’ve always thought of technology, and the industry around it, as being in the business of making tools. Some of the tools were hardware, and some of the tools are software, but the emphasis was on enabling people to make things with them, from spreadsheets to spaceships. Looking at the tech marketing spin, we’re a long way from Steve Jobs’s “bicycle for your mind.”

I don’t want to imply that there isn’t anyone working in the pure technology space, but their numbers appear to be thin on the ground. Most are long-lived, established technology companies from before the great shift to on-demand goodies, like Apple, Microsoft, and IBM. The rest are often a passion project of someone who’s already made bank in the technology-as-a-service space, like Elon Musk’s endeavors.

And you have to be an Elon Musk level of wealthy to do something like that. VCs don’t want to fund hardware startups. There’s too much risk for too little return. A safer bet is to fund a software-as-a-serve startup that can get bought out by one of the big players in the tech space. The current model doesn’t allow for much experimentation in pure technology fields. Ask anyone involved in Biotechnology, which has been a historically tough sell to investors as well, and is still in a funding slump.

The darlings of the tech investor world, the various unicorn startups do have a technology component to their products. I don’t doubt the acumen of the engineers on staff at many of them—well, maybe Jawbone. It takes a lot of skill, and a lot of work to scale something to the level of an Uber, or a Spotify. That technology, however, is—as mentioned before—often running on commodity platforms like AWS [1], and what isn’t, is not a platform anyone else can build on. Sure, some of these companies have APIs, but they’re also subject to being closed and revoked at any time.

I continue to be excited about what we can do with technology. Not necessarily by becoming engineers, but by the possibilities created by hardware and software tools for ordinary people. That’s way more exciting than yet another social network, yet another connected home device, yet another way to stream media I don’t own, or yet another service that underpays people to do unpleasant jobs for me. I can do my own laundry, tech industry. I want to be impressed again.

  1. Amazon is an interesting case here, straddling the line between a true tech company and a services one. I’ll have to dig in on that another time.  ↩