I blinked at aesthetic poverty most recent submission for the VR game Meta’s Horizon Worlds, featuring a dead-eyed cartoon avatar of Mark Zuckerberg against a visual backdrop that one Twitter mercifully likened to “the painted walls of an abandoned kindergarten.” I let out a quiet sigh news about Ring of the nation, an Amazon-produced TV show with “lighthearted viral content” filmed by the Ring surveillance empire. i clenched my jaw on the screenshot belonging Stable diffusion model for text-to-image conversion offering AI artwork in the styles of dozens of free human artists whose collective work was put into the model’s training data, shredded and spit back out.
I recognized this feeling and knew its name. It was resignation – that feeling when you are stuck where you don’t want to be, but you can’t leave. I was struck by the irony that I spent my whole life studying technology to avoid these feelings. Technology has been my happy place.
Naturally, I poured out my emotions on twitter:
I hit a nerve. As my notifications began to roll in, and thousands of replies and retweets poured in, the initial dopamine reward for virality gave way to a deeper sadness. BUT a lot of people sat with the same heavy feeling in the stomach.
However, there was a catharsis in the reading, so many others voiced it.
Something is missing in our lives and in our technologies. Its absence is fueling a growing concern voiced by many who work in or study technology. This is what drives the next generation of PhDs and doctoral students. I work with at the University of Edinburgh that bring together knowledge from the technical arts, sciences and humanities to try to figure out what went wrong with our tech ecosystem and how to fix it. To do this, we must understand how and why the priorities in this ecosystem have changed.
In the past, the goal of consumer technology development was quite simple: to design and build something of value for people to have a reason to buy it. New fridge glistens, cuts my electricity bills, makes cool ice cubes. So I buy it. Made. Roomba promises to clean cat hair from under my couch while I sleep. Sales! But this vision of technology is increasingly outdated. The refrigerator is not enough to keep food cold; today’s version offers cameras and sensors which can keep track of how and what I eat, and Roomba can now send map my home on Amazon.
The problem here goes far beyond the obvious privacy risks. These are dramatic changes in the whole innovation model and the incentives that drive it. Why settle for a single profit-taking transaction when you can instead develop a product that will extract a profitable stream of data from each customer, returning revenue to the company over many years? Once you intercept this data stream, you will protect it, even to the detriment of your client. After all, if you buy enough goods on the market, you can afford to endure the anger and frustration of your customers. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
This shift hasn’t just happened in consumer technology and social media platforms. Major ag tech brand John Deere, once beloved by customers, is struggling with “right to repair” movement run by farmers angry at being banned from fixing their own machines so they don’t stop proprietary software from sending valuable data about farmland and crops back to the grower. As several commentators have pointed out in my Twitter thread, today in tech we are the product and not the main beneficiary. Mechanical devices that used to be products are increasingly becoming mere intermediaries.
There has also been a change in who needs technical innovation today.. Several respondents objected to my topic, drawing attention to today’s vibrant market for new technologies for “geeks” and “nerds” – Raspberry Pi, open source software tools, programmable robots. While many of them are good for those with the time, skills, and interest, they are intended for a narrow audience. The excitement for genuine innovations in biomedical technology, such as mRNA vaccines, is also blunted when we see the benefits concentrated in the wealthiest countries—those where the technology is already best served.