Whenever I am anxious, I have trouble sleeping. I find myself tossing, turning, and waking up in the middle of the night just to sit and stare into the dark. Over the holidays, I had one of those phases again. I felt nervous and worried — specifically, about my parents, who live in Delhi.
My father, who is almost 80 years old, was in the hospital. He suffered heart failure and had pneumonia. My brother had flown to Delhi and was with him, taking care of all the stuff. But I was stuck in San Francisco, anxious, restless, and overcome with the negativity that any immigrant feels when they are far away from aging parents.
My entire family was using WhatsApp to coordinate everything. My mother loves WhatsApp phone calls, so she had been burning up the fiber cables with my sister. My brother knows me well, so he would call me early in the morning. We both have iPhones, so it was a FaceTime call — and even over a shitty 4G network, the audio was crisp and clear. He would give me an update and then switch on the video, turn the phone around and just like that my father and I were face to face. Even thousands of miles apart, I could see what he looked like. I could sense his surroundings and his state of mind. Though we only talked for a few minutes before the connection waned, I felt better. My mind was less of a whirligig. I could think — and maybe sleep — again.
In my moment of emotional distress, I was not thinking about the fact that WhatsApp is part of Facebook, the worst corporate citizen this side of tobacco companies. I wasn’t thinking about Apple and the exploitative labor practices of its contract manufacturing partners. I was not thinking about the evils of technology — only about the wonder of the much-needed human connection it enabled. How could I not be grateful for the technology and networks that powers and enables a marvel like FaceTime? How could I feel anything but relief to have access to Apple and its devices?
TECH & PEOPLE: IT IS COMPLICATED
My personal episode is a reminder of our increasingly complicated relationship with technologies we use and the companies that own them. We all know that Amazon and its Prime services are metastasizing consumerism, making buying a game. And we know all that buying is creating mountains of trash and killing the environment. (Jeff Bezos, perhaps beginning to realize that you can’t sell anything to a dead planet, just announced a plan to plow $10 billion of his endless billions into a climate-change-focused investment vehicle.) But we keep those packages coming.
Uber might be evil, exploiting the drivers and its cars might be clogging the streets, but try living without it. We know screens aren’t good for us, and yet it is not uncommon to see parents giving kids an iPad or iPhone to keep them busy. For that matter, try keeping track of all your friends’ addresses and birthdays without Alexa’s help. It is just easier. And what does it cost us? Just a tiny bit of data. We are all addicted to the convenience enabled by technology. We live in an instant-gratification society.
I have often talked about this growing dichotomy in our modern, post-internet lives. But I am increasingly disturbed that most coverage and public conversations surrounding these technologies and the companies that create them don’t seem to acknowledge both sides of the divide between the myriad problems of modern technology companies and the wonders they enable. The technology establishment (I don’t know what else to call it) has a very rose-tinted view of the world. They foresee perfection enabled by technology and a spreadsheet-powered endless growth cycle. And then there are those who see every technological advancement as the devil’s work.
SOMETIMES HISTORY MATTERS
This isn’t the first time we would be having to think about this divide.
“The constant aim and effect of scientific improvement in manufactures are philanthropic, as they tend to relieve the workmen either from niceties of adjustment which exhaust his mind and fatigue his eyes, or from painful repetition of efforts which distort or wear out his frame,” wrote Andrew Ure in his book, The Philosophy of the Manufacturers. It was published in 1835.
Ure, a professor at the University of Glasgow, championed the new efficient manufacturing system, and not surprisingly reflected the views of the factory owners. He argued that labor was the most inefficient and expensive part of the manufacturing process, and the factory system was a better option. “The principle of the factory system then is, to substitute mechanical science for hand skill,” he wrote. ”On the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines.”
This is not so different from 2016, when Uber’s then-CEO and co-founder Travis Kalnick told an interviewer, “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away.”
But there were also plenty of anti-mechanization feelings swirling back at the start of that other long revolution — much like the output of popular writers of today (Anne Weiner’s book is quite remarkable and highly recommended). It could be found in the books of everyone from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Gaskell. The general sentiment could be summed up in these lines from the 1804 poem “Jerusalem” by William Blake, who seemed to think of the Industrial Revolution as a form of human evil.
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
These days, we don’t seem to have time for the past or care to learn from it. The technology establishment especially abhors thinking about the past, which is a weird dogma considering that Silicon Valley is a place of “no bad ideas.” At the same time, many of those who do write about these changes have lost a sense of measure and perspective. The need of the hour is a deep breath, but instead we are trapped in a web of dopamine hits, searching for attention.
Not long ago, I was disappointed by a piece in Buzzfeed in which the tech writer could find nothing positive to say about the decade that just ended. The headline — “Alienated, Angry and Alone: What the Digital Revolution Really Did to Us” — tells you everything you need to know about the level of appreciation for technology on display. The author sneers at a piece of unbridled optimism from a previous era:
“The Long Boom,” an infamous piece published in Wired just three months later, predicted the spread of digital networks “to every corner of the planet” leading to “the great cross-fertilization of ideas, the ongoing, never-ending planetary conversation” that would culminate, by 2020, in “a civilization of civilizations” that would set foot on Mars in species-wide harmony. (Instead, we got Baby Yoda.)
NETWORK IS THE POWER
The thing is, if you know Moore’s Law and understand the ongoing changes and developments in optical and other networking technologies, the idea of networks in every corner of the world wasn’t farfetched. And it has come to pass — and in many ways, is just as amazing — as predicted. I have made a video call from the top of a Faroese peak. I have been in the deep Himalayas and have read the latest tweets. I have worked on WiFi in many remote locations. The networks are everywhere.
In fact, it may be the international nature of my experience that informs my perspective on technology — and my bafflement at the way it is covered in the West. The more I have contemplated the Buzzfeed article (and I don’t mean to pick on it, but it really does highlight exactly what is missing in the current discourse around these matters), the more I realized that most of the current narrative is trapped in the idea that the Internet and technology are an American or a Western birthright. It’s as if problems don’t matter until they happen to a certain population — and once they do, then nothing else matters. Media coverage of weather in New York City often adheres to a similar principle.
If anything, the last decade created a network of many networks — just as the internet was envisioned. It is as much an African, Asian, and Latin American internet as it is an American internet now. There are around 400 undersea cables, or about 1.3 million kilometers worth of fiber optics, that crisscross the planet.
Alan Maudlin at Telegeography, a research group following the telecom industry has been keeping a close watch on the growth of networks globally. He points out that between 2010 and 2019, 151 new cabled were built at a cost of $17.5 billion dollars. And from 2010-2019 international capacity deployed by all types of users (such as carriers, content providers, enterprises, etc) increased from 46 Tbps to 1,346 Tbps.
If you include the private networks, then during the last decade, international bandwidth grew 48 percent in Africa, 52 percent in Asia, 38 percent in Latin America, 45 percent in Europe, 45 percent in the Middle East, and 46 percent in US & Canada. During the decade the global growth of the international bandwidth was 45 percent. Those numbers show that the network is now bigger than just a handful of nations. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has been following the growth of optical networks, admittedly not a fashionable activity among technology media.
The technological world order has been remade, but we don’t yet know how to talk about it. Our media’s collective arrogance was on perfect display when Facebook started to get blamed for the election of a president. Where was the outrage (let alone the fire, fury, and subsequent investigations) when Burma and Sri Lanka were experiencing a social upheaval catalyzed by misinformation on social networks and then — we might as well call the “Facebook Effect” — accelerated by Zuckerberg’s platform?
If the unrelenting drumbeat of criticism from American media covering technology wants to be taken seriously, it must drop its singular American lens. It must make room for the farmers in Africa, who — for the first time in their lives — are getting updated information on the value of their crops, not to mention valuable things like weather information and access to cheaper, better seeds. They must recognize the difference technology makes to a village elder in Ladakh who can get connected to their child earning a living in Delhi.
TECHNOLOGY HAS DELIVERED
If we are being intellectually honest, technology has largely done what it was expected to do. At the end of 2009, there were 4.9 billion mobile connections. Ten years later, we have about 9.5 billion connections. In 2009, we were using up about 90 terabytes of data every month. Now we send about 30 exabytes of data, which works out to about a million terabytes of data per day, a growth of about 333,333 percent.
There are networks everywhere — in our homes, our cafes, and our beach cabanas. There are networks in the planes, in our cars, and even on cruise liners. Sure, we have not yet colonized Mars, but not for lack of trying. There is a lot of cross-pollination of ideas at a planetary scale. (The stupidest one, by the way, is latte art). But there are other ideas, like tiny homes and superfoods, which have spread because of the network. The same networks have given a teenager a voice to try and change the conversation around climate change. We could go on and fill this page up with only positive examples, but that would be just as wrong. More on that in a bit.
While reading yet another damnation of Silicon Valley — this one from Derek Thompson in The Atlantic — I audibly chuckled at the irony of this paragraph:
Decades from now, historians will likely look back on the beginning of the 21st century as a period when the smartest minds in the world’s richest country sank their talent, time, and capital into a narrow band of human endeavor—digital technology. Their efforts have given us frictionless access to media, information, consumer goods, and chauffeurs. But software has hardly remade the physical world. We were promised an industrial revolution. What we got was a revolution in consumer convenience.
My history books might be slightly different than those taught in American schools, but last I checked, the Industrial Revolution was also about convenience. It enhanced human capabilities to move the world faster, made the production of goods more efficient, and in turn, made mass consumption a commonplace occurrence. We conveniently forget the looting of colonies to feed the industrial revolution. We forget the enslavement in the colonies. We forget the slums in Manchester. We forget a lot of things about the Industrial Revolution. And rather than accept as byproducts of progress the horrors that were tolerated during that time, we should remain clear-eyed about our current and coming challenges. Because the author lamenting Silicon Valley is right in many ways: we have still not figured out how to deal with avarice, greed, and malfeasance that comes from success and extreme wealth.
But rather than ignoring the good and griping about what has gone wrong, we must spend our energies peering into the future and to get a sense of both the potential promise and pitfalls. What has failed us human beings is our inability to understand the unintended consequences of our actions. There are some of us who have been worried about data and privacy for over a decade. For years, Facebook’s long dark shadow has been as clear as the one cast by a lone tree in an empty field on a hot summer afternoon. Pay enough attention to real technology, and you can start to see both its potential and its challenges.
It is fashionable (and good for page views) for The New York Times to have a privacy project, but the reality is that, in order to write about the consequences of technologies, we need to understand their impact before they become commonplace, and not after the fact. All discussion around technology has to start with a long view and a calm consideration of unintended impact.
The same set of machine learning and computer vision breakthroughs that power the dystopian business models of Facebook are also the underpinning of models that scan for anomalies in images to better detect breast cancer. The same technologies that lead to illegal surveillance may also lead to radical self-driving capabilities. The duality of technology is a problem (or a blessing, depending on how this goes) that is only just getting started and is only going to be exacerbated in the decade ahead.
SHIFTING CENTERS OF TECH
But before we set about modifying the tone in our technology coverage, we must get over this belief that America (and specifically Silicon Valley) is the one true beacon of innovation and new ideas. The American technology ecosystem ruled because we set the standards, and we did so by being the biggest consumers of our own technology. Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the (Luckin) coffee: Huawei, subsidized by $75 billion of government dollars, is setting the agenda for the 5G revolution. That is the real reason why the U.S. is going all John Wayne on the company. It wants to slow down the eventual shift of power to China’s telecom and internet giants. China, India, and other nations with billions of consumers have their own behaviors and their own agenda. It is why we will see innovation come from around the planet.
So let’s enter the new decade with a clearer, more comprehensive understanding of technology — what it is and isn’t, who is using it and why, and what should be and doesn’t need to be improved about it. In the bucket of “areas that need a lot of work,” the current state of tech media is a good place to start. It would also help if we had clearer frameworks to think about the ever-expanding ecosystem that is now labeled “technology.”
I grew up in simpler times of technology and technology journalism. Almost all of what we thought was technology was chips, storage, and networks, or various combinations of those things, which we called systems. There was software — first embedded, then basic, and then so complex that powered it all. It helped make the world around us more efficient. It was efficient in crunching data, making spreadsheets, writing documents, editing photos, and making phone calls. Over time, things got complicated as systems got more sophisticated. The Internet happened. The Web came about. We got more complex software. And as Marc Andreessen said, the software started eating the world.
Technology and innovation have become fuzzy concepts. We have innovation around pure technology — Apple making silicon for its devices or AI processors that power Google’s engines. We have business process innovation, epitomized by Amazon (and even its Amazon Web Services) and the likes of Uber and Lyft. We have product design innovation. And there is marketing innovation — many direct to consumer companies such as luggage maker Away and mattress seller Casper fall under this category. Indeed, we live in a more complicated world. There is a lot to process for everyone — and every machine.
Honestly, it’s enough to keep anyone from losing sleep. But not me. I am back to resting a little easier for a change. My dad is on the mend. We Facetime all the time and talk as often as possible. Though I am off WhatsApp again. I don’t need any more memes and religious hymns forwarded to me by my mother. And — while I would certainly like to read something positive and true about humanity’s incredible technological achievements every now and then — why would I willingly contribute to Zuck’s empire of data and human manipulation?
Special thanks to Reeve Hamilton, Chetan Sharma and Alan Mauldin for helping with the research and editing of this essay. Top cover and Uber/Lyft photos courtesy of Unsplash.
Referenced in the piece above:
- Big tech and people: A complicated relationship of convenience
- Sometimes a box isn’t a box.
- Can optical networks predict economic shifts?
- Alienated, Angry and Alone: What the Digital Revolution Really Did to Us/Buzzfeed
- The read trouble with Silicon Valley/The Atlantic
- The iPhone turns 10/The New Yorker
- Uber will eventually replace all its drivers/The Verge