Technology Is Not Enough
Or, technology isn't intrinsically good or bad. It's governed by the culture in which it exists.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tech lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the buzzy wave of next-gen internet technologies that are often collectively referred to as web3. These are things like cryptocurrencies, the metaverse, NFTs, and the blockchain. If these are foreign concepts to you or you don’t really understand them, that’s OK, the technical underpinnings are mostly besides the point of this essay—or at least, not crucial to understanding the points I attempt to make here.
I’m simultaneously fascinated, hopeful, skeptical, horrified, and excited about the future of technology. It’s this brew of conflicting emotions and moods that I’ve been brooding over. There are something like six billion people on earth, so it seems like a vast simplification to say that discussions around tech tend to be binary—a thing is definitely good or definitely bad—but they do tend to be binary anyway. Technology isn’t intrinsically good or bad, though. Technology is agnostic and will take the shape of whatever societal culture in which it exists. The question with tech is not, “Is this thing good or bad?” The question is, “Who will this technology end up serving, and how will they use it?”
I find the metaverse to be instructive in this regard. I’ve written about the metaverse a few times in fairly critical terms, which is one reason I wanted write this essay. The metaverse is essentially a virtual world that you can enter and leave as you’d like, but the virtual world is always there. So unlike a video game, in which the world is recreated each time you turn on your machine, this world is constant. It’s also populated by other real-life humans. So in theory, you could put on a virtual reality headset and talk to your friends, go to an Ariana Grande concert, or even go to work.
I can imagine a metaverse that is, in fact, very awesome, where the primary use is to get together with your family and friends in ways the real, physical tactile world doesn’t allow. Imagine if the family Zoom calls we grew accustomed to during the pandemic actually took place in a three-dimensional virtual world. Yes, it’s easy to mock the current tech and lame graphics and conclude the metaverse is a joke. But all the technical aspects can and will improve, I’m sure.
What concerns me is the way in which the metaverse will be hoisted on the public in ways most people do not want. For example, employers could require employees who work remotely to be logged into a virtual office in the metaverse. This would allow companies to cut back on real estate costs while keeping an even tighter leash on their workers, even though the workers are in their own homes. We are already seeing foundations laid for this with draconian Zoom policies. Already some companies require employees to have a camera on during meetings. I can imagine hospitals or doctors’ offices cutting back on space and deciding that it’s more efficient to meet with patients virtually. I can also imagine people developing ideas that are so profoundly depressing that I fail to imagine them myself.
How technology affects people’s lives is dependent on a number of factors including laws, public sentiment, and funding. Culture. Brilliant writers much smarter than I have been expressing their misgivings about runaway scientific and cultural advances probably since the dawn of humanity itself. We have classics like Frankenstein and Dr. Strangelove. We had whole real-life cultural movements whose names have become cliche, such as the Luddites, skilled 19th-century artisans and craftsmen who pushed back against increasing mechanization. All of these writers probably thought that massive changes to what being a human even meant were imminent or at least visible on the horizon. But with the advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, it feels more than ever that we approach a new kind of humanity. And that comes with myriad choices and decisions we’ll collectively have to make as a species.
Humans didn’t evolve to be solitary creatures. We need to work with other people to survive. Even the most introverted, self-sufficient among us would struggle mightily to survive if left alone in the middle of nowhere. In the course of working together, there has to be a distribution of responsibilities and a way of divvying up resources. In early societies, it was very common to excommunicate anyone who either didn’t contribute as expected or who took too many resources. How resources were distributed varied, but generally speaking, it would be exceedingly rare for someone to starve while someone else in a tribe lived in abundance.
Modern nation-states all have varying levels of financial inequality. Much of modern technology aims to alleviate inequality. Bitcoin, for example, is often touted as a way to open the financial system up to more people. But Bitcoin and the blockchain on which the digital currency is built are simply technologies and can only act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, which can be thought of as an imperfect representation of cultural values. As we say with mayors across the United States who want to turn their cities into Bitcoin hubs to spur economic growth, there’s only so much they can do without changing rules and regulations. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who announced he’d take his salary in cryptocurrency, was not actually able to because it’s illegal. So he took his salary in USD and then converted it to crypto.
Even relatively mundane, ordinary problems that the blockchain can help run into hurdles. For example, Cook County, Illinois, wants to use blockchain to help keep better property records. However, when explaining the problem, the county’s deputy recorder for information technology and communications, John Mirkovic, cites a regulatory prerequisite, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Mirkovic said that the prerequisite to adopting blockchain at his office is to iron out the flaws in the state’s current laws that allow data to remain unrecorded at the time of transactions, which would undermine the point of blockchain: to contain all available data about the transaction in one place.”
This example gets to the core of my concern: Too much focus on tech as a silver bullet for society's ills detracts from the reality that tech can only do what the legal system allows and what the humans controlling it decide. If the humans decide that NFTs are actually a way for rich people to show off how rich they are then we are not going to solve any problems. We’ll just exacerbate them while creating new ones.
For example, read what Jason Yanowitz—co-founder of Blockworks, a media company that delivers news on digital assets—says here:
When I saw this tweet, I died a little bit inside. The stated objective of Rhapsody is to learn more about the human condition in an effort to live a happier, more fulfilling life. One of the unquestionable truths I’ve learned in my life is that people who tend to focus on extrinsic values such as wealth and status tend to be unhappier. I’ve yet to to make this point as clearly and precisely as Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe:
“The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives, and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered ‘intrinsic’ to human happiness and far outweigh ‘extrinsic values’ such as beauty, money, and status….Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.”
So under this rubric, the NFT future Yanowitz describes will help exacerbate chronic mental health issues. But our economic system rewards thinking that turns a profit, and with good marketing, selling status is profitable. Our system hopes that turning a profit will also lead to an equitable, just distribution of goods and an ever-improving society with more and more opportunities and fewer and fewer hardships. And while this may sound logical in theory, the reality on the ground is there are all kinds of ways to make a profit while making things worse for most people.
Airlines have steadily reduced offerings without a corresponding drop in price for the duration of my life. Yet, the share prices increase—thanks largely to a legal change that allows corporations to buy their own shares, thus propping up their stock. Private equity firms have been gobbling up newspapers all over the country, gutting them, and turning a profit making it increasingly difficult to produce quality journalism. They are also now buying hospitals and gutting those, which contribute to many of the chronic issues we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. In each of these cases, the way to become more profitable is not through competing with industry peers to provide better or more affordable service, it’s through cutting costs. And technology helps immensely in this regard.
To be clear, cost-cutting is not intrinsically bad. However, when cutting costs means staff reductions or longer hours for the same pay, when it means worse or nonexistent benefits, when it means unsafe workplaces—is that really worth the benefits to the consumer? Is this the incentive structure that we want?
Yanowitz’s tweet may seem silly or irrelevant, but it gets to what I view as a real problem: The incentives to make things for people who can afford them far outweigh the incentives to make things for people who need them. It just seems obviously insane to me that we have private citizens taking private trips to outer space while1 in 9 Americans face food insecurity and 1 in 7 children face food insecurity, according to the non-profit organization Feeding America. That’s over 32 million people—over 11 million of which are children. Technology alone isn’t going to change the economic and legal systems that make this possible; it requires policy, which requires public pressure. In other words, it requires a cultural shift.
Historically, when the owners of capital—technology—were left to their own devices, people worked more. This is why hours worked in the mid-19th century skyrocketed. Charles Dickens wasn’t writing about Oliver Twist and Tiny Tim because everything was fair and good. It took policy to improve conditions for regular people. Going back further, the cotton gin did not allow enslaved people to work fewer hours. The modern gig economy based on apps like Uber may allow people to work when they want to work, but now they are attempting to unionize for better wages and work conditions. There’s a reason why Uber and Lyft were so eager for California to rule that gig workers are independent contractors: It’s much cheaper, and you give them much less.
As I mentioned above, humans need each other, and collaborative efforts to cultivate and distribute scarce but necessary resources is what led to the development of towns, cities, and nations. The United States by at least one measure—GDP—would seem to have the greatest ability to produce the least scarcity. But that’s not the case, as Derek Thompson notes in this piece for The Atlantic:
“Zoom out yet more, and the truly big picture comes into focus. Manufactured scarcity isn’t just the story of COVID tests, or the pandemic, or the economy: It’s the story of America today. The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems that they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.”
Thompson’s proposed solution is to develop what he calls the “Abundance Agenda,” which would aim to appeal to all sides of the political spectrum in various ways:
“It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.”
Now compare that with these words from Marc Andreessen, co-founder and general manager of Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most well-known and successful venture capital firms:
“The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.”
Very few statements ring more hollow than the idea that the reason we don’t have enough stuff we need is desire. This attitude is emblematic of what another Atlantic writer, Charlie Warzel, dubbed “Builder Brain.”
“The Builder mindset often eschews policy completely and focuses on the macro issues, rather than the micro complexities. It is a mindset that seeks to find very elaborate, hypothetical-but-definitely-paradigm-shifting, futuristic technology to fix current problems, instead of focusing on a series of boring-sounding and modest reforms that might help people now.”
So, we have a nation producing scarcity when we need abundance, and we have tech people who think you can just build your way through it. All you have to do is look at productivity figures over the last 40 years to see that isn’t true.
Productivity is increasing constantly. What’s changed is how compensation for that productivity is distributed, which leads to more concentrated wealth. The concentrated wealth—the people with money to invest in private equity or Silicon Valley startups—now have power over what projects get to exist, and they are going to choose the ones (for the most part) that benefit them. This is how you end up with things like The Paypal Mafia—the name given to former employees of PayPayl who have gone on to then start other companies and funds.
The issues will only grow in significance. At least one member of The Paypal Mafia has become a household name: Elon Musk. The founder and CEO of Tesla SpaceX is also the founder and CEO of Neuralink, a company working on tiny devices we’d implant into our brains. These threads that would interact with our neurons. (For a fun bonus, Musk has said that an actual robot could perform under the supervision of a surgeon.) Musk said in 2016 that he wants to ensure that artificial intelligence doesn’t surpass humanity—itself a scary proposition as a result of technology. Musk has stated he thinks clinical trials on humans may start this year.
This stuff isn't just around the corner. But it’s close. We haven’t even figured out how to effectively regulate the internet, but we are working on “super human cognition,” as Musk calls it. We’re effectively discussing a point in human history where the notion of evolution will have to be re-evaluated because of how directly we can modify what humanity is.
Maybe I’ve just consumed too much science fiction and gothic literature, but I find the relationship we have with technology increasingly alarming—not because of the technology itself, but because of the power structures that govern its use. While new innovations can do wonders for humanity, with the wrong societal incentive structure, new technology just becomes a new, exploitative tool.
This essay barely scratches the surfaceabout the ways in which our world could change in the coming years and decades. We didn’t even touch on police using robot dogs, citizen scoring systems, crypto derivatives, or gambling on civil litigation. These are all out there when, to quote an oft-used meme: “We just wanted affordable healthcare.”
Here's a good description of blockchain technology: https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/blockchain-explained
He also, in subsequent tweets, misunderstands why people like expensive watches and cars. He doesn’t acknowledge craftsmanship whatsoever and assumes a Lamborghini is somehow similar to an NFT just because both can be an indication of status
This didn’t fit anywhere in this essay, but this piece by Matthew Rosenfeld—who often goes by Moxie Marlinspike—is the best thing I’ve read to date on web3. Rosenfeld founded the app messaging app Signal, so is infinitely more qualified than I to discuss the technical aspects of anything cryptography. He literally is a cryptographer: https://moxie.org/2022/01/07/web3-first-impressions.html
I’m glad I am old….I have been saying for some time that we are changing what it means to be human. This article is as enlightening as it is frightening. Thank you.
Good luck to the millennials on down, I fear they have a lot of very difficult days in front of them. Andressen preaches to a very small, very attentive, very powerful choir that loves money and status more than anything else. I fear we are heading down a dark, nasty road.