It's Not Better If It's Also Worse

For a long time I’ve told people that I love technology and all it enables, yet dislike the technology industry and working in tech. People often find my statement hard to rectify, probably because they see the two as inextricably linked. Technology is an ever-changing process, one that pushes humanity forward through the application of science, and the industry has become (and arguably always has been) about capitalizing those mechanisms of change.

The tech world today is capitalizing those innovations at an unprecedented rate. That’s why the tech sector is the most dominant and rapidly advancing industry in history. That’s also what makes it so difficult to express the discord between the progress people see and the disproportionate impact it has. People see the progress of technology in real time, and they only see the moral and ethical issues with the rapid advancement of technology after that technology has established a role in people’s lives. No one had any problems with Facebook in 2012, but they sure do now.

Why Is This Happening?

Many solutions invented today are about replacing existing solutions with more efficient ones. That feels like it should be an undeniable good. What happens when you create a technology that gives you everything you had before, cheaper, faster, and with even more improvements and features — but only addresses 99% of the problems? That’s what you’re seeing play out in the tech sector today.

Companies are built on efficiency gains, but they don’t have to pay the cost of the inefficiencies they create. They’re not punished for the externalities they cause. As long as you’re not feeling the burden, if you’re not in the 1% for whom the new technology is a worse experience, you see nothing but progress and get to reap its benefits.

But those who bear the cost are shut out from the new experience or improvement in their lives. Often times they’re not only shut out, but as the world modernizes and standardizes around these solutions, those people are falling behind through the inequities of being a have-not in a system where almost everyone else is a have.

Technology For Good, Not Always So

Machine learning is an amazing technology, it shows us what we always could have known if we were smart enough to spot patterns in enormous data sets. It’s helping fight cancer, it’s helping people who can’t speak have a voice, it’s helping power the recommendation engines that give us the answers we need to get through the day. But what happens when machine learning makes a mistake? What happens when the system you’ve built increases racial bias? The most common use of machine learning seems to be reshaping our interactions around algorithms that want to optimize us as consumers. There’s no manager to talk to, there’s no one who can look into this black box, there are few companies who will turn off their models that work for 99% of people. At the scale of millions, incorporated into our lives, these technologies that make the world a better place are making some people’s lives worse.

Cryptocurrency is having a moment, especially as billionaires bored during a pandemic have started shoveling money into NFTs. Is there a need for a global censorship-resistant currency? I’m not smart enough to say, but I can see the allure and benefits that drive crypto enthusiasts to push for it.1 What I am smart enough to say is that the environmental impact of cryptocurrencies is a nightmare. Supporters will say “just wait, Proof of Stake will solve these problems”, and they’re probably right. But PoS was introduced in 2012 and it’s still not here in 2021. We’re living in a Proof of Work world, why is it people bearing the costs who have to wait? How about when you’ve fixed your problems you can come back and try again. How much unnecessary damage to the planet has been done in the last 9 years in the name of advancing a technology?

I’m not here to pick on machine learning and cryptocurrencies, these problems of unaccountability are systemic. Uber is an amazing innovation in global transport built on already existing infrastructure, except to the drivers. Amazon provides unprecedented logistics, letting you have anything you could ever want in two days, built on the backs of real human beings. Twitter is a real-time archive of human history, except it globalizes and nationalizes local issues, and disproportionately exposes marginalized communities to abuse and harassment.

What technologists optimize for is an explicit choice that’s made, even if the tools we use to do so render opaque results. So much of engineering is focused on the concept of minimizing friction, but minimizing friction is almost always focused on short-term benefits because that’s what feels most rewarding. This is echoed by people who decry the death of investing in infrastructure, and as a society we seem to be trading our long term costs for short term happiness. We’re letting technology go down the same path, even using it to accelerate that trend. Like any technologist knows technical debt eventually gets paid off, either by choice or by circumstance.

What’s To Come

The list goes on, and will continue to go on until there’s a cost associated with making mistakes. Existing incentive structures in our society and economy don’t factor in a price for the externalities of building something that causes damage, even if that damage is only borne by a small percentage of people. At the scale technology operates at, edge cases are millions of people.

The sheer awesomeness of technology can lure you into a sense of moving forward. It may feel that the ends justify the means, that you’re doing the right thing at a small cost. You too are creating or experiencing the advancement of humanity through technology, like billions have felt before us.

But as they say, history is written by the victors, the people who are worse off through our advancements as always are being forgotten and erased. The drive to continue growing leaves little time for fixing mistakes when there’s another frontier to capitalize. That only makes it harder for people who are left behind to be brought forward. We need to do better to understand not only the benefits, but to explore the costs of a new technology. The costs are real, and are felt by real people.

I wish that by the end of my post we’d found a solution, but unfortunately systemic issues aren’t fixed by meandering thoughts. The most I can ask you to do is to think about the externalities of your actions, to not accept new technology into your life without considering the tradeoffs, and to hold those building them accountable — the same way you would if it was your life being impacted negatively.

  1. Not that anyone asked for my opinions on censorship-resistance currency, but I do think the goal in a vacuum is laudable. Despite that I think people underestimate the value of tried and true banking systems that have been operating for over 600 years. I suspect much of the antipathy towards banks is actually people’s understandable disgust at our current financial system. I don’t see how cryptocurrencies fix that, and in many ways by not having the promises of banks only make it worse. ↩︎


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