Blog post

techNOlogy – the implications when technology turns inward

By Mark P. McDonald | August 11, 2021 | 1 Comment

Personal ObservationFuture of High TechEconomyDigital Society

This is the first of an occasional series of blog posts about the other side of technology and the digital world. techNOlogy posts provoke thought and questions as not everything possible with technology are things we should be doing with technology

Technology has turned inward

Over the past 10 years technology in general and digital technology shifted its focused. Prior to digital, technology focused on solving bigger problems like feeding the world, putting humans on the moon, increasing energy efficiency, creating medical breakthroughs etc. That work continues; however, technology’s focus and emphasis has turned inward – the individual and their smaller problems.

The heroes of the digital revolution, the unicorns and the like have applied technology to the more ephemeral needs of customers. Today, technology valuations and growth rest more with the ability to attract an individual’s attention, give them an experience, entertain them, service their needs. The resulting consumption, experience, and service focus exploits human weaknesses more than it advances human capability. That is what I mean by technology turning inward – to satisfy or immediate need for attention, experience, engagement, content, entertainment, and the like.

Inward is not democratization its consumerization and exploitation

Digital technologies were touted as enhancing an individual’s ability to meet their needs as access to goods and services were supposed to be democratized giving everyone a chance. The term democratization is misapplied here. Yes, digital has made technology tools and capabilities more available to the people, but it has eroded rather than enhanced the standing of individuals and as a society.

The impacts of this inward focus are real, but not widely recognized. If we wanted to, we could learn more about the negative impact of social media on wellness, the cost and divisiveness of deep fakes, the fracturing of social cohesion into warring tribes. Few pursue these issues in the face of looking for recommendations for dinner or figuring out what service we want to come and do something for us.

Fundamentally, the inward application of technology is exploiting each of us. We are walking wallets, giving up our money, time, attention, resources, and energy in exchange for immediate and temporary services. It is a false exchange. It is the textbook definition of exploitation which is defined as “the act of selfishly taking advantage of someone or a group of people in order to profit from them or otherwise benefit oneself.” The kick is that we are active and encouraging contributors to our own exploitation. We give away our information, time etc. for the privilege of paying for services that consume rather than create financial resources. We know less and less about how to do things because we presume that others will do things for us. That is the subject of a whole other discussion

Technology focused on individual small problems cannot address the societal large problems we face

If the world was safe, sustainable, equitable, etc., then an inward focus might be more palatable. This is not the case, the issues we face are large, complex, and big. You know the list from global warming to environmental sustainability to social equity to pandemics, totalitarianstic governments, etc.

We cannot afford technology focused inwardly on issues of experience, engagement, entertainment etc. Afford in the sense that inward focused technologies and the companies that use them are consuming finite capital, technology talent, attention, and innovation. The money you spend on inward facing technology services is money and resources that is not going toward addressing these issues.

When I asked one of the technology glitterati about this issue, the answer was ‘well that is where the market wants its resources to go.” This is a person whose been a leader at multiple FANG companies, founded start-ups etc. They know that inward technology is exploitive and missing these issues.

I guess that what they mean by fiddling while Rome is burning.  Rome is burning, so is California, Greece, Australia, Spain, and other places.  At the same time, other areas like Germany and Belgium are drowning. If we are all to ‘entertained’ or immersed in our experiences to notice, then shame on us.

What do you think?

Starting a discussion is the purpose of this and other techNOlogy posts.  Do you think this issue is real?  Are we already focusing enough on our big problems so it is ok?  Or is the inward focus of technology and valuing that focus corrosive to our lives and future in ways we have not considered.

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1 Comment

  • Joyce Tompsett says:

    Mark,

    Thank you for writing this. I think you’re described it in a way that gives voice to what I have felt for years. I believe there are other forces in our culture that highly motivate this direction as well, and I am unsure that one can be addressed without at least acknowledgement of greater issues around inequality and unspoken assumptions that the culture carries.

    This is absolutely worth a discussion. One of the challenges I see is that research in general, whether it is in tech or at university, is heavily motivated by the simple question “can I monetize this?” Even artists and folks with talent of any sort are asked “how can you monetize this?” Those root issues push things. It is easy to get monetization and profit on individual-focused technologies. It is much more difficult to get value from technology that improves the environment when Wall Street (short hand for the global financial system here….) only values profit. The social and environmental effects are hardly if ever valued and seen as “soft” whereas profit is the hard motivator. Without addressing these issues, folks are going to continue to put their effort where they are rewarded – in being able to do relatively rapid monetization of their effort.

    Many thanks,
    Joyce