The Downward Spiral of Technology
Tech downgrades, it's just business, becoming a billionaire, and building useful things for useless people
After writing last week’s post, “A Frictionless World Is Boring As F*ck”, I came across a few more interesting pieces that add another element to this issue. The crux of all of them can be boiled down to the following theory:
“At first I didn’t believe it. But the evidence is overwhelming. For the first time in history, technology is getting worse, not better.”
The quote above comes from the always eye-openingand his recent article What Happened To My Search Engine?:
“I recently bought an expensive new computer. And after a few weeks, I went back to my old computer—it ran better than the new model.
I didn’t expect that. I’ve been buying new computers for decades, and always assumed that newer is better.
And until recently it was.
But here’s the new reality: Upgrades are now actually downgrades. At first it was just software—those dreaded updates!—but increasingly it’s hardware too.
For a while, I resisted returning to my old desktop model. I assumed the problem had to be with me, not the hardware. Surely computers had gotten better over the last several years?
Tech always get better, doesn’t it?
No, it doesn’t. Not anymore. And especially not on the web.”
Ted continues to explain the reasons why he thinks technology – particularly search engines – is getting worse and summarizes them in the following visual:, whose writing I can full-heartedly recommend when it comes to the tech sector as well as business, has a similar observation as Ted Gioia:
“[…] It’s been a minute since we’ve seen anything new from tech that has truly improved most people’s existence. People have been able to justify the opulence and societal hero complex of the Valley because of the vague promise that life would improve as a result of giving them that space. Except the last decade of tech has been filled with broken promises: the average person was not enriched by cryptocurrency, virtual reality remains and broken, and autonomous cars have mostly resulted in a dangerous open-air beta test on the world’s roads.
What do people have to be excited about? The metaverse, a half-baked concept that is yet to be even quarter-delivered? Generative AI has some promise, but also has the potential to cause genuine harm. The average person’s life is changed when the things they do each day are both faster and better - and it’s hard to point to products that have meaningfully done that in quite some time.
I’ve also recently made the point that the tech regular people use has gotten significantly worse over the past few years. Google searches are obfuscated by sponsored results and SEO-gamed content, making it harder to find information. Facebook and Instagram prioritize ads over the things you actually want to see. Musk’s attempts to make Twitter profitable have made the site slower and harder to use (while also failing to make it profitable). Mobile gaming is almost entirely dominated by microtransactions. Amazon is a labyrinth of dodgy brands and confusingly-placed buttons. Netflix has become so obsessed with analytics that they’re better known for canceling shows and raising prices for a service that was once the default streaming platform.
In another article called The Internet Is Full Of AI Dogshit, Gita Jackson gives another comparable account:
“The Internet used to be so simple to use that people collectively coined the term ‘let me Google that for you’ to make fun of people who had the audacity of asking other people questions online. […]
[But now,] the internet has been broken in a fundamental way. It is no longer a repository of people communicating with people; increasingly, it is just a series of machines communicating with machines.
The once ubiquitous phrase ‘let me Google that for you’ is now meaningless. You are as likely to return incorrect information as you are complete fabrications, and the people who put this content on the Internet do not care.”
(And by the way, let me emphasize again that these people I just quoted aren’t tech luddites but rather tech enthusiasts. It’s not the ‘I hated tech to begin with and now the tech industry is reaffirming my previously held belief’, but rather the ‘I want tech to be life-changing, useful and awe-inspiring again’ people.)
Increasingly, surveys indicate a similar story, with people becoming less and less fond of their digital tools and lives, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
“In a survey conducted in the U.S. this summer, research firm Gartner found more than half of respondents believed the quality of social media has declined in the past five years. They cited misinformation, toxicity and the proliferation of bots as reasons it has gotten worse. […] Ads and suggested posts have also sucked the joy out of apps, some users say. […]
Gartner estimates that 50% of users will either abandon or significantly limit their interactions with social media in the next two years.”
And even companies are now backpedaling on, at least some, tech- or automation-related investments as things haven’t really turned out as expected:
“For shoppers, self-checkout was supposed to provide convenience and speed. Retailers hoped it would usher in a new age of cost savings. […][But] it mostly isn't living up to expectations.
Customers are still queueing. They need store employees to help clear kiosk errors or check their identifications for age-restricted items. Stores still need to have workers on-hand to help them, and to service the machines.
The technology is, in some cases, more trouble than it's worth. […] ‘Customers hate it’.”
'It hasn't delivered': The spectacular failure of self-checkout technology by Sam Becker (and another article on this, in case you wanna dig deeper: Self-Checkout Is a Failed Experiment by Amanda Mull)
It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business
Don’t get me wrong here. There is definitely something about AI that is exciting and useful! But then again, there was also something about Web2, Crypto, or NFTs that was exciting and useful. 😅
The point is: These technologies aren’t all bad! However, we now create and apply them in a way that doesn’t serve humanity (or, to even think broader, all of nature) but rather a system that prioritizes profits above all else.
And things were and can be different! Look how Yahoo got started asexplains in his article:
“There were no commercial search engines back in 1993. But a Stanford student named David Filo compiled a list of his 200 favorite websites.
His buddy Jerry Yang helped turn this into an online list. They called it ‘Jerry’s Guide to the Worldwide Web.’ Filo and Yang added new websites every day to their list—and classified them according to categories.
This turned into Yahoo.
Here’s my favorite part of the story: These two students didn’t even know they were running a business.”
Today, however, watching the ‘this is how I build a 7 figure business in 6 months’ TikToks, listening to the Austin-based (apparently the new Silicon Valley…yeeha! 🤠) tech bro podcasts, or reading about the latest AI startup founders, it very much looks like the script or at least the approach has completely flipped:
Now, it’s about creating a business (i.e. getting rich) first, and then only it’s about how to get there (i.e. getting rich) with the latest tech and culture trends.
When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A Billionaire
Why are we so business- and ego-focused in what used to be a much more creative and community-oriented endeavor? Perhaps it’s because the tech elite has broken the social contract:
“For years the Valley has had an elevated status, forgiven for burning billions of dollars on speculative moonshot ideas because they were, theoretically, striving to improve society. […]
[This has now changed!]
Seemingly every major tech story of the past five or six years has been about the tech industry getting filthy rich while others suffered or losing unthinkable sums of money, with no counterbalance of “but at least we got this” to go with it.
Tech’s heroes aren’t guys in turtlenecks who reveal the future in a cinematic presentation - they’re billionaire whiners crowing about “woke AI,” or buying up hundreds of acres of land in Hawaii, or claiming that remote work is bad after laying off thousands of people before taking a 10-day “digital detox” in French Polynesia.”
So what remains now when we look at the tech sector and its heroes is an image of an entrepreneur that has been completely stripped of things like social purpose, advancing well-being for all, and creating a more joyful future.
The entrepreneurial dream seems to now be about nothing more than becoming rich and influential. So, technology becomes nothing more than a vehicle for wealth and power.
Philosopher Ivan Illich described this phenomenon as overgrowth of tools:
“Illich coined the term to describe the situation where we created and came to rely on various tools to solve problems, but then we became overly dependent on these tools and those who wield control over them.
This dependency reaches the point where the tools, rather than serving us, start dictating and molding our lives until we’ve lost sight of their original purpose.”
Useful Things For Useless People, who writes a lot about Illich’s philosophy, further notes that:
“Illich understood that if we proceed on the assumption that we need better tools to work for us, we will eventually end up ‘degraded to the status of mere consumers.’
A condition aptly summed up by Illich when he feared that we were traveling along a path that would lead to ‘a further increase of useful things for useless people.’”
Those words – “useful things for useless people” – resonated with me when I read Cal Newport’s recent article in the New York Times that looks at the paradox of workplace productivity growth slowing down during the past two decades despite us getting so many new, shiny productivity tools:
“[…] The existing strategy of making applications increasingly powerful has stopped making us better at our jobs.
During the past two decades or so—a period of rapid technology innovation, which produced laptops, smartphones, ubiquitous cloud computing, and Google—American productivity growth has suffered a sustained slowdown. We gained access to an armada of supercharged workplace tools, and yet we’re not getting much more done.
There are many explanations for this paradox, including, notably, the theory that these tools counterbalanced new capabilities with new distractions.”
But Cal goes on to explain that this is not the entire story here as he reminds us that Henry Ford’s famous productivity innovation, for instance, wasn’t really a technical one but a new way of thinking about the production process, inspired by looking outside his industry (in this case the meat-packing industry) or what Cal Newport also calls “smarter ways of arranging what you’re already doing”:
“The assembly line was a productivity miracle, decreasing the worker hours required to produce a Model T by nearly a factor of ten. Its effectiveness, however, had less to do with ingenious new inventions than it did with an ingenious new insight about how to rearrange the manufacturing process: bringing the car to the worker instead of the worker to the car.”
And while Cal Newport focuses specifically on workplace productivity, I think that this concept links very well with the bigger point I made in last week’s piece. Namely, that one of the key problems of our current age is that we’ve focused too much on the ideas of “the engineer” – I mean this in the broadest sense – and their mechanistic perspective rather than looking at non-technological or non-mechanistic solutions and innovations to our problems.
Said differently, maybe we don’t need better, more humane, more useful technology, but rather better non-technological process and system innovations triggered by out-of-the-box perspectives and new ways of looking at the world – “smarter ways of arranging what you’re already doing”. Hey and if, through this approach, we end up arriving at a solution that includes some type of technology, then why not.
The crucial thing however, is the approach! Solving climate change requires system change, solving inequality requires system change, solving racism requires system change, solving the mental health crisis requires system change…
The problem is not that the “machine” of humanity, of earth is broken and therefore needs an upgrade. The problem is that we think of it as a “machine”.
That’s it for this Friday edition! Thank you for making it to the end!
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