I recently switched from a cable internet connection to a 5G connection. There was nothing wrong with my cabled connection; rather, my issues were with the provider–their customer service and billing departments were atrocious. My new provider excels in both of these categories, but can’t manage to provide a reliable connection. This is no exaggeration: My internet access has dropped as many as 20 times in a single day.
At first I welcomed these interruptions. They reminded me of the dial-up days, when we were happy (well, happy-ish) with whatever internet access the telephony gods granted us. Besides, each interruption served as a reminder to get up and do something else–eat, read, pet the cat, knock out some chores, fire up the turntable, pee. Down time also served as a lesson in patience: Must I have everything immediately? I was reminded that binge watching and on-demand are luxuries enjoyed by those with reliable connections.
Predictably, I failed my patience test and eventually called my new provider with much manufactured outrage regarding their unreliable service. They attacked the problem both practically, by replacing my hardware, and with a scripted explanation. This is new technology, it’s bound to improve as it matures. Please bear with us.
“Please bear with us” seems to be the new Silicon Valley mantra. Those of you following the Twitter meltdown might be familiar with this tweet from CEO Elon Musk:
In other words, please bear with us while we break what was working fine.
This, of course, is the true mantra of information technology: Disruption. Break what’s working and replace it with a pay-walled or ad-driven facsimile featuring lots of gingerbread but little nutrition. It’s a bit like those as-seen-on TV products that solve a non-existent problem: Toast is delicious, but why is it so hard to make? There has to be a better way! And so reliable, century-old toaster technology is replaced by RemoteToast, the smart toaster that you can control from your phone for only $5.99 per month and access to your cellphone camera, microphone, and contact list.
While $72 per year for a toaster subscription is a screaming deal, we soon discover that our RemoteToast won’t work if the wi-fi is down, our Bluetooth is turned off, we’ve lost our 587 character password, or Elon Musk has decided to “fix” the subscription toast industry by burning it beyond all butter knife recognition. We’re also inundated with a whole new batch of spam calls, emails, and texts because RemoteToast has sold our personal information to 147 different companies. Frustrated, we try to cancel our RemoteToast service only to find that it’s easier to close all of our credit cards and bank accounts, change our names, and move to Haiti. This might stop the monthly charges, but won’t slow the spam even slightly.
Musk’s Twitter debacle (“Twitter: Disrupting the telegraph industry since 2006”) has some very smart people concerned that the stakes are much higher than burnt toast. “Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history,” declared a recent MIT Technology Review headline. “Twitter’s Broken Its Copyright Strike System, Users Are Uploading Full Movies,” screams Forbes. “Misinformation threatens Twitter’s function as a public safety tool,” says NPR.
Young democracies will falter, old democracies will topple. We’ll experience a global news blackout. That all sounds awfully grim, but in truth I think the world will manage just fine without Twitter, just as we did with the fall of the mighty Mr. Microphone.
Headlines in recent weeks have featured more disruption stories than just Twitter. Elizabeth Holmes, who promised to disrupt healthcare via her company, Theranos, earned an 11-year stay in the pokey for her techno-shenanigans, and the cryptocurrency FTX melted down, taking with it billions of dollars in unregulated paper wealth. Meanwhile, the New York Federal Reserve Bank kicked off a “digital dollar” pilot with several corporate partners, using the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies. Because paper dollars are so darned hard to use (“There has to be a better way!”).
Maybe it’s just me, but healthcare and the global economy don’t seem like good candidates for “will do lots of dumb things in coming months. We will keep what works & change what doesn’t.” And they aren’t the only poor candidates. It’s well-past time we stopped stomping toward the future like Godzilla, leaving paths of destruction in our wake.
We won’t, though. “Best intentions meet unintended consequences” has been the elevator pitch for humanity at least since our first agricultural revolution. Literally any global problem you can name has at its root one human innovation or another: overpopulation, pollution, energy dependence, oligarchy, Taylor Swift. Tracing our current woes to their disruptive roots makes for an enlightening if depressing variation on Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
(Incidentally, a million years ago I worked at record stores. We sold concert tickets on a first come, first serve basis. People who bought concert tickets paid the price written on the ticket. This was not an industry that needed to be “fixed.” We also sold records and tapes, which people paid for, took home, and enjoyed whenever they wanted to. No need for monthly streaming subscriptions and internet service providers.)
Ours is not the first era to witness change so rapid that both society and emerging technologies can’t keep up; in fact, it’s just the nature of our particular beast. Smashing the proverbial looms might provide a symbolic-yet-satisfying connection to our Luddite ancestors, but it will do nothing to slow the disruptors. There’s too much money to be made, too much ego to be fed, and likely in a few cases too much genuine (if misguided) interest in helping humanity. Cynicism aside, the Musks of the world just might believe that colonizing Mars is necessary and noble, no matter the mess their innovations cause on the planet we’ve already colonized.
Don’t misunderstand: I enjoy the destructive fruits of the disruptors every bit as much as you do. I wrote this in word processing software, after all–disruptor of the tried and true typewriter–and I entrusted it to a company that holds more essential records of humanity than Twitter ever will. I burn gasoline, crank my heat and air conditioning, and shop for my food rather than forage.
But a little Luddite resistance–Luddite Light–can’t hurt. I continue reading actual books rather than e-books, and I can’t imagine signing up for a streaming music service. My unreliable internet has pushed me back into the world of DVDs and–gasp–VHS, and you know what? It’s really not bad. Slightly less convenient, but not bad. If Ticketmaster wants to surge price the concert I’m interested in; well, Ticketmaster can kiss my ass. I’m sure I can find something else to do that night. As for digital currency–I’ll resist that until the bitter end.
After the 2000 U.S. presidential election, with its manual recounts and its hanging chads, I told my boss that there has to be a better way. I went on to boast, as only a junior programmer can, that I could develop a voting platform more reliable than the current system. My manager had maybe thirty years on me, not just in chronological age but in software development. “These things always look simple, but when you start pulling at threads they unravel faster than you could ever imagine,” he smiled. We need more thinking like that in the IT world, less “ready, fire, aim,” as the stakes have never been higher.
Though I suppose every generation has thought that, haven’t they? Maybe we should just accept that our coming artificially intelligent robot overlords will maim and kill a few million of us while they work the kinks out of this exciting new technology. We just need to bear with them.
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