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The End of Tech Optimism

2016 killed the notion of technology being an intrinsically positive force for good

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When most people think about their senior year of high school, they define it by the music or the films of that moment. But in many ways, I feel like mine was defined by technology. 2007 was the year that brought us the iPhone, a device that immediately rendered my flip phone an anachronistic paperweight. It was the year I signed up for Facebook, where I posted my college acceptances on my Wall (remember the Wall?) in the first of many acts of digital vanity. As a deeply invested yearbook nerd who had just gotten into Daft Punk, I themed our school’s book around technology — clubs were scored on Amazon’s five-star scale, student quotes were tagged “user-generated content,” and articles about student life were laid out like webpages. “Web 2.0 has become a popular buzzword to define the internet’s shift from dependency on a professional elite to empowerment of the masses through venues such as YouTube and Wikipedia,” I wrote in the book’s introductory essay.

That shift has certainly endured, and it’s expanded to touch many more professionals than the makers of Encyclopedia Britannica. The “elite” in a variety of fields — be they journalists, cab drivers, hotel owners, or politicians — have seen their authority upended in large part thanks to technology, and often in ways that 17-year-old me could not have foreseen (and Time magazine probably couldnt have either). The mid-2000s hand-wringing over the accuracy of crowdsourced Wikipedia articles seems quaint in a time when the president-elect blasts blatant lies to the masses via Twitter. Using a handheld device to summon a laborer to drive me around or clean my house at any moment would have seemed unconscionably bougie back then — today there’s a raft of millennial-marketed apps encouraging me to embrace my privilege. And while I spent my college years bitching about Facebook’s many redesigns, the company was quietly training me to treat a virtual thumbs-up as a worthwhile reward for feeding its massive advertising machine. All new technologies seem bizarre until you stop thinking about them too much.

These fundamental changes to our society, which have already wrought lost jobs, frayed social discourse, and weakened government oversight, were made in the name of disruption or progress. But in 2016, finally, it feels like that narrative has hit a wall. The ones being disrupted are no longer far-off companies that simply failed at adapt. It’s all of us.

Online, the notion that a persistent weak connection to thousands of other human beings is healthy or productive began to crumble. Facebook was caught flat-footed as Macedonian teenagers ginned up demonstrably false news stories and used the News Feed algorithm’s own rules to spread them far and wide. Echo chambers meant Facebook users on the left and the right were having arguments about two different Americas, with their worlds suddenly splicing together on November 8 with the force of a sonic boom. Meanwhile, Twitter continued to feed our base desires to find self-validation by being cutting, mean, and dismissive in a way that other public spaces deem inappropriate. Donald Trump proved better at this than anyone else on the planet.

In the real world, tech’s promise to bring unprecedented efficiency to dormant markets was foiled by human fallibility. The sharing economy companies don’t actually share quite as generously if you’re black, as Airbnb finally acknowledged. Theranos, the company that was supposed to revolutionize blood tests and prove Silicon Valley ingenuity was good for something besides serving more ads, was exposed as a sham that had been bolstered by a complacent press. And Uber brought its unproven self-driving car technology to San Francisco streets against government wishes, endangering cyclists.

All of these companies rode to power on a wave of optimism that argued again and again that convenience, efficiency, and unfettered freedom for the consumer are more important than workers’ rights, public safety, or responsible public discourse. The nitty-gritty details of building a functioning society around tech innovations would work themselves out, just so long as everyone could download the latest app and use it without restrictions.

And now, the stage is set. We have our main players. It’s time to figure out those details. The tech ecosystem thrives because venture capitalists, investors, and journalists are always on the lookout for the next Facebook or the next Steve Jobs. There won’t be a next. Future startups will face a more skeptical press and a public that craves fixes to growing structural societal problems, not cosmetic digital conveniences. These small companies won’t have the money and expertise to compete in artificial intelligence research, which will be a key component in major tech innovations in the next decade. And with net neutrality potentially being eradicated under Trump, market forces will increasingly favor incumbents over new disruptors. The alignment of the press, the government, and the public embracing the ideals of Silicon Valley lasted just long enough for a handful of megacorporations to take control of the digital world. It’s time to stop predicting that Facebook is one false move from “going the way of Myspace” and start thinking about how this company will control the way information is consumed and interpreted on a global scale.

The picture I am painting here isn’t bleak, exactly — it’s realistic. Because tech companies are youthful and unconventional and like giving us free stuff, the industry doesn’t beget the same level of distrust as, say, the energy sector. But last I checked, Apple, Alphabet, and Microsoft all have a larger market cap than Exxon Mobil. It’s past time we started treating them with the same level of skepticism.