After some quick and intense travels, it is nice to be back in my apartment, where the noise levels are minimal, the bandwidth is blazing fast, and I have time and space to organize my thoughts.
For the past ten days (the entirety of my trip), I have been thinking about our increasingly complex and complicated relationship with technology — what it brings and what it subtracts from our society and ourselves. These are the effects of both choices we make and the choices imposed upon us by others who work at technology companies. These humans are driven by the same forces as the rest of us: the desire to take care of their families, become financially secure, and like everyone else, get ahead. Many have big bills to pay, which undoubtedly factor into the shitty decisions they knowingly make. You know those people. They work for companies like Juul and Facebook.
Rose Eveleth, a columnist for Vox, writes very succinctly, “Our world is shaped by humans who make decisions, and technology companies are no different…. So the assertion that technology companies can’t possibly be shaped or restrained with the public’s interest in mind is to argue that they are fundamentally different from any other industry.”
Throughout my recent travels, I experienced the possibilities of technology and its ability to enhance our daily lives. Almost every day, tech (to use an overly generic descriptor) brings a level of convenience to people formerly reserved for only the very wealthy. It manages to hide many of the complexities of our daily lives. In the past, when preparing to go to the airport from my parents house, someone (usually my dad) would walk about a mile and a half to a local taxi stand to try and book a cab — typically an aging old Ambassador with only the theoretical capability to make the 20-mile journey to the airport — to arrive at a prearranged time, which involved haggling with the driver and then hoping he showed up. Fast forward 20 years, and I was checking in at the airport within 50 minutes of making a single, simple tap on Uber.
While I marveled at the convenience, I also remembered that there are rumored to be about 450,000 new cars on the road in the Delhi capital region as a consequence of Uber. Add another 150,000 from Ola, and you can see why there is smog permanently hovering over Delhi as the traffic crawls like Los Angeles on steroids.
This dichotomy explains why it has become quite fashionable to be annoyed and even despondent about technology — and rightfully so. “Platforms that promised connection began inducing mass alienation. The freedom promised by the internet started to seem like something whose greatest potential lay in the realm of misuse,” writes Jia Tolentino in her book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. She also points out that “the internet is also in large part inextricable from life’s pleasures: our friends, our families, our communities, our pursuits of happiness.”
Big tech companies — and more specifically, the advertising-driven ones — have turned us into their piñatas. They have made a mockery of our privacy, our data, and what it means to be a customer. At every turn, one feels let down by their actions, their inability to understand human beings, their lack of empathy, and their refusal to acknowledge that, at the end of all their data points, are people — just like you, me, and everybody else.
I was recently pitched to review and write about an upcoming book about the evils of the big tech companies. I asked the publicist to tell me what is new in this book and what are the solutions that the author is looking to offer. I am quite interested in knowing how — or if — we can evolve from the big tech conundrum we find ourselves in. So far, I am really surprised that none of us have developed any real answers beyond vague proposals to break up the big tech companies and abstract ideas of how we might attempt to control them. What are the concrete steps? What should we be doing to tame these monsters, which are on the loose? But more importantly: What if these are monsters we can’t live without? This is the question that kept coming up in my mind as I traveled to Japan and India.
Throughout the entire trip, I ended up using services and technologies that were — lo and behoeld — from the evil big tech companies. When I was in Tokyo, I used Apple Pay to get hold of a Suica card to pay far as the subway, taxis, and a lot of other things that I needed from, say, a 7-11 store. I downloaded a Suica App and connected it to my Apple Pay account. The app used the NFC chip inside my iPhone to essentially replace the physical card I would have needed in the past. In the past, I would have had to navigate a complex system on a machine that may or may not have given proper instructions in English. Does this qualify as good tech or bad tech? I mean, somewhere in the backend, there is even more granular data being collected and saved.
And my brushes with big tech certainly didn’t end there. I used Google Maps (yup, Apple Maps is still second-rate, despite Apple’s claims) to find my way around the complicated maze of Tokyo and the chaos of Delhi. I was also using Uber every time I needed to go from one place to another. I was admittedly surprised by how much I could rely on Uber service to get me places on time, allowing me to maximize my visits to each city.
Google Maps has a new AR overlay, which allowed me to point in the direction of a building or a landmark and quickly get correct directions to the location I wanted to visit without any errors. I could also aim my camera at something written in Japanese or Hindi, and the machine would quickly translate everything — which made life a lot easier. Google Translate is just a necessary tool in your digital arsenal when traveling.
Of course, none of this would be possible if not for the evil and highly targeted advertising that paid for Google’s investment in the technology. In exchange for my personal usage data, Google got me where I needed to go. And now, I am a little more enslaved to them, because Maps remembers it all. Oh, and by the way, I was using GoogleFi to get data on my phone and my iPad.
In Delhi, I was using WhatsApp for pretty much everything, from contacting friends and family, to ordering stuff from the local grocery store, and occasionally for making video calls. My mom gets about 1,000 messages a day on WhatsApp. (I know. It’s nuts.) My uncle runs a group for religious quotes that has thousands of members. More than Facebook, it seems WhatsApp rules India. It is a vital part of the Indian social fabric. I came to realize that, if I had to live in India, this would be indispensable — and I absolutely despise Facebook and its value system.
Anyway, I have digressed from my main point. As much as we dislike big tech, it is becoming evident that these daily conveniences would not be possible without them. At least, they are the only ones coming up with these applications right now. And the sad part is that their size and ability to amass data gives them an uncanny advantage in creating (or buying) these tools of mass convenience.
About three years ago, writing for The New Yorker, I noted, “A platform is essentially a business model that thrives because of the participation and value-added from third parties with only incremental effort from the owner of the platform.” We are a third party. And as technology changes from the all familiar interfaces — browsers, apps, keyboards, and mice — to new, invisible experiences (as seen in the movie Her), the dominance of the big tech companies, and the conveniences they offer, is only going to make things — in the words of Mark Zuckerberg — complicated.
Like everyone else, I am looking for answers to the questions raised by this complicated relationship. I would love to hear from you about technology and its complex role in our future.
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