Riccardo Mori often has something interesting to say. He recently took a bit of a hiatus, and in his return post he wrote:
A tweet from back in March — So much tech today feels more focused on the creation of ‘digital toys’ more than on innovation that can actually, unequivocally positively help and advance humankind. And [I feel] that a lot of resources are being wasted on things whose real usefulness is debatable, e.g. self-driving cars.
A lot of unease I’ve been feeling in recent times boils down to what I perceive to be a widening disconnect between the tech sphere and the world at large, the real world that is going to shit and down the drain day after day.
The tech sphere looks more and more like a sandbox for escapism. Don’t get me wrong, some escapism is always good and healthy as a coping mechanism, because otherwise we would be in a constant state of depression. But — and I may be wrong here — the kind of escapism I feel coming from the tech world is the sort of ‘bury your head in the sand’, ‘stay entertained and don’t worry about anything else’ escapism that want people to remained hooked to gadgets and digital toys in ways that at times feel almost sedative.
I think this all comes down to software. Marc Andressen’s well-known article, Why Software is Eating the World, from 2011 is often cited, but I think that Ben Thompson is the much better read on this topic. In 2019, Ben asked, What is a tech company? and identified five key features:
Note the centrality of software in all of these characteristics:
- Software creates ecosystems.
- Software has zero marginal costs.
- Software improves over time.
- Software offers infinite leverage.
- Software enables zero transaction costs.
The question of whether companies are tech companies, then, depends on how much of their business is governed by software’s unique characteristics, and how much is limited by real world factors.
There’s a pretty broad set of industries that were full of distribution and production costs that software can eliminate. That’s been the primary engine of economic growth and “innovation” for the last 30 years. On the back of manufacturing breakthroughs in battery and semiconductors, computers kept getting more powerful, less expensive, smaller, and connected. With each step change in general purpose capability and availability, a new set of industries and practices became vulnerable to being eaten by software.
The last decade we have begun to see the end of this parade. Companies often claiming to be software companies these days often do so to pad a longshot investment thesis (the motivation for Ben’s article), but we’re well into the long tail of the “real world” that is not so easily disrupted by bits.
We saw when Apple and Microsoft and Amazon were exciting and watched them topple past giants in money, power, and cultural influence. But they’re big and mostly boring now. It may be some time before more exciting stuff starts to happen, and maybe they’ll never be as financially valuable as the first set of companies to ever dominate a zero marginal cost, zero transaction cost market, but they will exist.
It’s true that we build a lot of digital toys. I don’t bemoan the toys. They’re not interesting, but capitalism builds lots of toys hoping for a market. It’s been the easy path to money. 1 But I also think that it’s easy not to see some incredible things happening.
I remember in the mid 90s when my grandfathers both needed angioplasty and stents put into their hearts. These were routine, but quite serious surgeries. They were life saving technologies not available to even their parents. But they were in the hospital for days and it was quite nerve wrecking. These days those procedures happen in a catheter lab as soon as problems are noticed. We check your heart and just fix things up while we’re in there and send you home just a couple of hours later. Advancements in laparoscopic surgeries are incredible. mRNA vaccines are real, big time, and absolute remarkable. Solar power has gone from something people laughed at Jimmy Carter about to the most cost effective source of utility scale power that you can also install on your home roof.
There have been advancements in science and technology.2
The problems we face as a society and a culture are not software or hardware problems. Our challenges are fundamentally rooted in hierarchy, power, and inequality.
We’re not really lacking in some fundamental technology we need to address climate change. We lack will. We lack the ability to convince others. We lack the ability to combat misinformation and fight a system that fails to incentivize the longer term and the bigger picture.
We’re not lacking in some fundamental technology to address inequality.
We’re not lacking in some fundamental technology to address racism, homophobia, and an anti-trans movement.
The “technology” we lack is empathy.
I’m disappointed in our society and technology is no longer an effective place to distract myself with optimism and a sense of progress. Riccardo laments, “the kind of escapism I feel coming from the tech world is the sort of ‘bury your head in the sand’” – but hasn’t that always been true? Maybe Riccardo had a different experience with technology than I did. Or maybe he bought into some of the industry hype that rang hollow for me. But I just feel like if what you’re worried about is that “the real world that is going to shit”, and I am worried about that, I’m not sure why you’d look to the computer technology sector for solutions.
Tech world has no solutions for our bigger problems. Tech world is all about making it easier, faster, and cheaper to impose our will in the world. But our social-political-cultural problems are matter of what we will, collectively.
A lot of folks excused Elon Musk’s obvious character deficiencies because he started working on problems that felt way more exciting– venturing into space and new, sexy, electric cars felt a lot more innovative and real than mere software. That felt more like the science fiction future kids of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s were told we’d be inheriting. I was never a big fan, and I don’t think he deserves a pass by any stretch. But I think if we are to understand the cult of personality around this dipshit, it’s important to remember this context. ↩︎
Software has had some wins as well. I think it’s pretty easy to miss how remarkable Google and Apple Maps in our pockets are, for example. No, your paper maps and written directions were not better, neither was asking someone on the street. ↩︎