Just earlier this month, while meeting with Congress to discuss digital privacy, censorship, and transparency, Republican Senator Josh Hawley asked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to divest of WhatsApp and Instagram. (You can probably guess Zuckerberg’s response.) Part of Hawley’s criticism of Facebook was the fact that the company regularly moves personal data from WhatsApp and Instagram to the core Facebook platform. This should come as no surprise to users—never forget you’re the product—but it’s just one more reminder that the technology behemoths to whom we’ve gifted our personal data have taken computing far past what we originally wanted it to be.
This is not the techno-utopia I thought we would create. We’ve gone from envisioning giant leaps for humanity to fighting hate speech, Russian misinformation, and politicians who use technology to warp public discourse with lies and vitriol. In the early 1990s, the techno-utopian concept emerged breathlessly, promising a new world that was freed from the cruft of the tired, old structures that were unfair, top-down, and controlled by a powerful and wealthy elite. Technology would reinvent how we communicated, conducted business, learned, and shared news. It would deliver power to the individual, free from human bias. But those creating the new tech and those fascinated with the promise didn’t stop to think about what would come next. So we inadvertently entrusted a small handful of technology companies to build this brave new world: Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others.
They introduced entirely new social and communications structures out of thin air without the sober realization that the current social systems they were displacing took hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to put in place. But technology itself is not the problem. It’s the business model that drives some of the biggest platforms.
The choice to pay for these services with our private data is what created the monster. Social media companies are funded through advertising, and advertisers are their true customers. They have no specific interest in our well-being, other than the risk it poses to their business. They aren’t particularly evil, but as a system they are single-minded in the exploitation of our attention. Too much of our daily experience is now dominated by systems that are mining our information and our time to get us to buy things.
The egalitarian vision of a techno-utopia lost its way. Immense wealth and power has been conferred on a few parties currently in control of our computing future. We handed over our future to a few billionaire kids in Silicon Valley. Even as they earn billions from systems that are productivity suckers and spread lies that are destroying our democracy, we feel helpless to their pervasive presence and influence.
The backlash is forming, with public figures using their platforms to fight. As is a neo-Luddite movement, where the knee-jerk reaction is to deny any place for technology. We obviously need a new vision to help us think about technology’s role in our lives.
Back in the late ’90s, Mark Weiser, the CTO of research center Xerox PARC, coined the term “ubiquitous computing,” outlining a set of principles that included an incredibly simple, profound idea: “The purpose of a computer is to help you do something else.” We should put that idea to work today with a new sense of purpose: a movement centered around what I call “techno-pragmatism,” dedicated to helping the world move beyond the narcissism, misinformation, hyper-commercialization, and distractions of today’s model.
This isn’t a blindly optimistic worldview. It recognizes that today’s dour take on technology is not because it’s inherently bad, but because it has been appropriated by bad actors and trivial purposes. Technology can be a force for truth, awareness, transparency, individuality, and social good, if we hold it to those standards—not utopian, but pragmatic.
The core tenets of techno-pragmatism are rooted in creating value for people rather than shareholders:
- The purpose of technology is to improve life, to borrow from Weiser.
- New technology is not automatically a better answer.
- Social behavior emerging from new technology should integrate with social norms, or otherwise demonstrate measurable social benefits. Similarly, new technologies should be assessed for social value before adopting.
- We are not the product. Technology should serve the individual and not advertisers.
- Technology is a magnifier that will dramatically scale both good and bad human interactions and intent.
If these ideas become top-of-mind for government, press, individuals, and the companies they choose to support, we can save the tech industry from itself and usher in a new era for how it fits into our lives.
The social media confections and advertising giants of the early aughts exploded in scale, yet have devolved into dumpster fires. So what comes next for them? It cannot be simply more users, more ads, better algorithms, and a deeper reach into our lives. They must evolve beyond flowery speeches and evasive testimony. We’re teetering on the edge of a net negative, in which the world would arguably be better without them. What we, our governments, the press, and the companies we engage with can do is judge our adoption of technology through a sharper lens, one without breathless optimism or the cynicism we’re currently leaning into. The opposite of “move fast and break things”: A more pragmatic, measured, thoughtful approach designed to fit into and create a better world.
The reality is that too many of today’s technologies are not focused on advancing the human condition. It’s not too late to change course.
Mark Rolston is the chief creative officer of Argodesign.