Monday, June 3, 2013

But Cell Phones Are Cool!: Unconscionable Naiveté In The Tech World And Beyond

Computing technology: useful, but not the solution to every single problem

I am so sick of hearing people talk about how information technology is going to save the world.  Nothing against the internet.  I love the internet.  But come on.  In case you haven't noticed, the world's problems are more complicated than "hey, what was that movie in the 80s where Brooke Shields and some guy were stranded on a desert island?" [Answer:  The Blue Lagoon.]

I guess it's no secret that this attitude pervades the tech industry, but I was still shocked at the comments reported by George Packer in this great New Yorker article about Silicon Valley's entree into politics.

Packer is warned early on by an industry insider that "Many [tech industry employees] see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses ... They actually think Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world's problems."

Packer tries to ask the people he meets why a rise in computer use and technology has coincided with an increase in a lot of problems and in particular with economic difficulties, why "during the decades of the personal computer and the Internet, the American economy has grown so slowly, average wages have stagnated, the middle class has been hollowed out, and inequality has surged." 

The responses:

"One young techie wondered if it was really true."

"Another said the problem was a shortage of trained software engineers."

"A third said that the focus of the tech industry was shifting from engineering to design, and suggested this would open up new job opportunities."

I'm sorry, but these are ridiculous.  Whatever you think about Packer's question, these responses reflect a level of myopia that would be surprising even in school-children. 

One major player at Facebook tells Packer that traditional measures of wealth might not be appropriate any more, since people might be choosing social gains over financial ones -- like extra time with friends.  The "real GDP" might be much higher than the one we're measuring.

Right.  Because if there's one thing we're hearing from average Americans, it's that they'd be happy with less money -- that playing charades with friends with the AC off is character-building, that taking 3 hour public transportation trips to work is like chicken soup for the soul, that as long as they have a friend to mush up their food, they don't really care about dental treatment. 

My students have noticed they can get things like news almost for free.  Their inference is not: "oh, guess I can get by with an easy low-paying job!"  Their inference is, "oh, guess I should cross 'journalist' off the list of jobs I might aim for." 

To prove his point that things are improving, this guy cites all the annoying things people had to deal with in the 90s and how those things are over.  Like all the things in Seinfeld.  He says that nearly all the annoyances that gave the show its jokes -- the time wasted trying to track down a friend, the inefficiencies that lead to ridiculous misunderstandings -- have been "kind of erased."  Yay for information technology!  Cell phones are cool!

Sorry -- but did this guy not notice that Seinfeld was a comedy?  A show people would watch to forget about their actual problems? 

I guess this guy watched Seinfeld and thought "Wow, poor Jerry, Elaine, and George -- they're stuck in a New Jersey parking garage for hours because they can't find one another.  They're lives are ruined.  If only they had cell phones, this tragedy could have been averted."  He was too distracted by the show to notice actual tragedies, like people dying in wars and from hunger and easily preventable diseases?

I'm not saying companies have to save the world.  I'm not talking about the responsibility of these people as employees.  I'm talking about their responsibilities as citizens, to know and care about what's going on with people who live differently from them.

What's more super double extra outrageous is that higher education administration is buying into the same myths -- and they're supposed to know better. 

I mean, gee, where might people learn to think critically and thoughtfully about the world around them?  Where they might learn the causes of inequality or why it matters and what's going on in the world and how people feel about the things in their lives?

Oh, right -- humanities and social science classrooms.  But hey, we can't be supporting those.  Too expensive, too subjective.  Also those people are so annoying, always criticizing everyone, crushing our buzz, talking about poverty and war and death.  Won't the university be nicer without them?

Then we can all relax and focus on the next big public-private partnership with the next big tech startup.  I heard Richard Branson wants to start private travel into space.  Those people are going to need a convenient way to order take-out, aren't they? Come on everyone, let's get on it! 


thefringthing said...

I liked the bit about Silicon Valley solving the problems of being 20-something with a bunch of money.

Patricia Marino said...

Ha! I know, that made me laugh as well. It's like, hmmmmmm, how can we order pizza without having to make a phone call?