Updated at 1:22 p.m. ET
It’s hard to watch an old friend go through a midlife crisis, isn’t it? The new girlfriends, younger and wilder. The workout regimens and hair treatments. Running off to Esalen and talking about mindfulness, doing intense meditation. That particularly tragic combination of bravado and self-loathing, hanging on to past glory, and seeking new space. The unquenchable desire to be understood.
It’s shocking how many of the tropes of middle age have been acted out by the most visible tech titans. And now the companies they built are also showing signs of entering an existential crisis: Despite the ideals that drove their younger selves to excellence, they’ve gone corporate, sold out, and moved to the top of the power hierarchy instead of tearing it down.
A new report from the Pew Research Center on digital technology’s influence on democracy shows just how muddled and dark experts’ views have become. The report is based on written comments from almost 1,000 people in or close to the technology industry (including scholars, entrepreneurs, developers, and researchers) in response to this prompt: “Between now and 2030 how will use of technology by citizens, civil society groups and governments affect core aspects of democracy and democratic representation?”
The top line: About half of them expect tech to “weaken democracy between now and 2030.”
“Digital media overwhelm people with a sense of the complexity of the world and undermine trust in institutions, governments and leaders. Many people seize simplistic unworkable solutions offered by actual and wannabe tyrants,” wrote Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft. “Add to this the ease of spreading false information and the difficulty of formulating effective regulations for a global system and it is difficult even to envision a positive outcome, much less take steps to realize it.”
Gina Neff, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, put it a little more bluntly. “There is simply no reason to believe that technology can strengthen democracy,” she wrote in her response. “Western democracies are grappling with the power from the increased concentration of financial capital and its response in the form of the rise of populism.”
Like Neff, many respondents noted the way that democracy, technology, and capitalism have become braided together, as algorithms built on data structure more and more of modern life. Pew summarized their concerns in a handful of common themes, and they will not be surprising: Technology empowers the already powerful; technology “diminishes” the governed; information technology is easily weaponized; digital illiteracy and the collapse of journalism create an ill-informed public.
Add it up and not only do many tech experts see that their industry has created massive problems, but—unlike fossil fuels, say—they don’t have a set of technologies they could work on to remedy the social problems that the ubiquitous deployment of network technologies created. The tech world has no solar power to look forward to.
Most technologists are builders. They want to make stuff. But the stuff they made in the era of phones and social media, all the way down to its bones, has had negative effects that many of them can see with their own eyes. It’s become harder to say ‘We’ll just build this other thing and that’ll fix it.’ That way of thinking was termed solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, and it’s arguably the very thing that got tech companies into this mess.
That’s taken some of the purpose out of the technology industry. For some, it clearly doesn’t matter. The intrinsic pleasures of coding or wealth are enough. But for hundreds of respondents to the Pew survey, the shift is downright depressing.
The people who work in Silicon Valley once thought they were doing something more meaningful than building profit-making machines. That’s where the midlife crisis lies: What is tech, as an industry, all about anymore? In the past, I’ve described how tech’s powerful mythology fell apart, and its excuses were exposed, but I hadn’t considered how confusing that would be for the people inside the industry.
It’s not that everything went wrong, or that everyone agrees with the dour assessments. But the pessimists have specific critiques and piles of evidence. The optimists have … optimism.
Some are clinging to the idea that eventually society will simply get over the problems that the internet introduced into civilization’s core functions. Paul Saffo, a longtime futurist and now the chair for future studies and forecasting at Singularity University, leaned heavily into the idea that societies have been destabilized by technology before and have recovered. “There is a long history of new media forms creating initial chaos upon introduction and then being assimilated into society as a positive force,” Saffo wrote in his Pew response. “This is precisely what happened with print in the early 1500s and with newspapers over a century ago. New technologies are like wild animals—it takes time for cultures to tame them.”
But even that outlook, which denizens of Silicon Valley have leaned on for decades, came tempered with the admission that “the next five to seven years will not be fun,” even if “the current chaos” eventually yields to “a sunnier digital upland.”
The most realistic happy scenarios arise from the fifth of Pew respondents who thought that maybe internet companies will not create a “significant change” in democracy over the next 10 years. Douglas Rushkoff, who has chronicled technology and the cultures surrounding it, suggested in the survey that “the damage has already been done, or at least that the degree to which the public is misinformed remains fairly constant.” Surveying the many ways people have misled each other through the ages, he concluded, “When I say things will stay about the same between now and 2030, I take into account that they’re already in pretty horrific shape.”
If things don’t go completely south, the experts quoted in the survey thought that the government would not be democracy’s savior. In many of the comments, governments were framed as both unable to respond quickly enough to digital disruptions and the only real source of protection from the problems that so many of the analysts could identify. “Today we have the ability to amass massive amounts of data, create new types of data, weaponize it and create and move markets without governance structures sufficient to protect consumers, patients, residents, investors, customers and others—not to mention governments—from harm,” wrote Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group.
Inside tech, new kinds of calls for reform have begun to gain some momentum. The New York Times recently described a “revolt” by some Google employees, in which they fought projects that the company has taken on for agencies such as the Department of Defense and Customs and Border Patrol. Others have decided to change the labor model for the industry; Kickstarter employees, for example, recently formed a union. Kickstarter is the first current-era tech company to do so (though there have long been a small number of old-school IT unions).
Judith Donath, the founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, put forth two scenarios, one especially hopeful. “Post-capitalist democracy prevails,” she imagined. “Fairness and equal opportunity are recognized to benefit all. The wealth from automation is shared among the whole population. Investments in education foster critical thinking, and artistic, scientific and technological creativity. New economic models favor sustainability over growth.” But for anyone who has been watching the evolution of the internet, all of these outcomes feel deeply implausible. There’s no bridge from here to there, no technological process that must simply be miniaturized or scaled up or optimized to reach a solution.
The technology industry, as it was known over the past several decades, has not survived middle age with its ideals or confidence intact. The wealth the industry generated will continue to fuel massive philanthropy, gaudy displays of riches, and moonshots, but no one can say whether any of that will be enough to stop the damage tech companies have done.
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