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Tech Needs a Hug

Why we must remember to embrace humanity in a digital-mad world.

Tech Needs a Hug
[Illustration: Kirsten Ulve]

Let’s stop using the word technology to describe companies. Remember when we had retailers, news organizations, and taxi companies? When the way a company described itself provided some insight into what it actually did? Now everything is a tech company. And it’s not because they make or sell technology, but rather because they want a mindless way to align themselves with the future, innovation, and higher valuations. Saying you work at or run a “technology company” in 2015 is as meaningful as saying you just adopted a “cute puppy.” At least with the latter, you get to think about a cute puppy.

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Our fetishization of tech is more than just semantic trendiness: It suggests a certain ethos, and that’s the problem. When politicians get rhetorical mileage from pandering to “tech” as the solution that will save our cities, states, and nations by turning any geopolitical region into the Silicon Valley version of itself, I wonder if these politicians have actually visited Silicon Valley. Have they experienced the traffic jams? The wealth disparity? The return-to-the-dorm-type living arrangements that people in their twenties embrace to get a piece of that venture-backed American pie? It’s as if the word comes with a built-in Jedi mind trick that leads many of us to forget that there are people on the other end of all those products and services.

Think about social media. Antisocial people are the ones making our social tools, which is highly unfortunate because they can reimagine the world in code, but they lack the soft skills and everyday experiences to relate to the people they’re serving. People’s needs aren’t prioritized in the product road map because creators don’t stop to ask uncomfortable questions like, “Have we considered the implications of monetizing customer information?” Our obsession with tech means that we ignore the implications of the sudden and dramatic transformation it creates in people’s lives.

In response, we need to phase in radical change. Sure, you can introduce real-time pricing for a service consumers have taken for granted for decades as having a fixed price, but only if you spend as much time communicating that change as perfecting the engineering. You can turn labor into a massive, transparent, high-speed market, but only once you’ve adjusted for the downward pressure that shift will put on wages. Without explaining the purpose of such new capabilities–and without managing their implementation–their major contribution to the world is only volatility, uncertainty, and the distribution of risk away from companies and toward individuals. If the phrase “tech company” is going to stand for a future we actually want to live in, then we have to mitigate the alienation that comes with it.

In another part of the business world, we’ve seen the rise of the social enterprise. Companies such as Method, Patagonia, and Warby Parker hold themselves to a so-called triple bottom line: profits, people, and planet. Ideally, tech companies (and all businesses) would be “social enterprises,” accounting for human and ecological cost and benefit every step of the way. We don’t need a new buzzword.

We don’t need to stop using technology. What we need is to keep in mind that, ultimately, it’s human beings who are making, using, and being affected by the work of “tech companies.”