Illustration by Juliana Lagerstedt
If you want a picture of digital innovation in 2023, imagine a venture capitalist in $400 tactical cargo shorts tweeting angry demands while he sits in the lobby of a WeWork waiting to meet with the founder of a dog massage app.
When it was no longer possible to pretend that Silicon Valley Bank—which was once said to hold $209 billion in assets, mostly connected to U.S. tech startups—had any actual money, the world’s savviest entrepreneurs lost their collective shit. Professional online guys like David Sacks and Jason Calacanis started firing off ALL CAPS TWEET warnings about the imminent risk of contagion that would crash the entire world’s financial system.
Even the most principled libertarian needs a cheat day now and then, and their pleas for a government bailout were answered before most people knew there’d been a bank run in the first place. The great tech industry meltdown of 2023 barely lasted a weekend.
The optics were bad, though, so the pretense of accountability was needed. Or at least self-reflection, the high net-worth individual’s version of accountability. The diapers of the likes of Sacks and Calacanis have been filled for the good of their entrepreneurial brethren, now had to be changed by more even-keeled and responsible oligarchs.
Sure enough, the unparalleled “in defense of innovation” PR machine whirred to life and started cranking out op-eds. Soon the pages of every sizable publication were filled with the musings of venture capitalists and their allies in America’s most powerful institutions. Their collective conclusion, if condensed into the kind of executive summary so beloved by busy leaders with hectic schedules, would go something like:
Certain people (who don’t need to be our focus here) behaved irresponsibly in certain ways (which also don’t need to be our focus here). Analyzing why such massive, obvious fraud was possible is beside the point—what matters is solutions. And while the government should almost never be in the business of providing solutions, this was one of those rare exceptions when the wrong people lost money, so this time it should intervene. While it’s certainly regrettable that some uneducated people are now circulating a narrative that “the rich got bailed out again,” it was a small price to pay for preserving the tech-powered innovation economy.
Writing in USA Today, venture capitalists Matt Ocko and Zachary Bogue made explicit the tech industry’s threat to shoot the baby if they didn’t get their money back. “The stability of the innovation economy is a national priority,” they said, citing all the God-fearing blue-collar workers—”pipe fitters, welders, truck drivers”—whose lives would be ruined if the digital innovators were allowed to experience the consequences of their actions.
Respectable opinion holds that as the digital innovators go, so goes the nation. There’s a bipartisan consensus that if anyone can solve the problems plaguing modern civilization, it’s the tech-powered doers and changemakers. The problem is that’s obvious horseshit and it’s no longer possible to pretend otherwise.
Ordinary people simply do not need any more digital anythings. We don’t need any more convenient ways to chat with our friends and family. We don’t need any more tools for collaborating with remote colleagues. We don’t need any more apps to manage our finances, time, diets, or sanity. We don’t fucking need more of this stuff.
And more importantly, we don’t want it either.
People don’t want to meet new online friends in the multiverse. We want to meet our actual friends at the bar down the street. We don’t want AI therapist bots or digital real estate or virtual reality vacations—we want the real goddamn thing. And it’s become abundantly clear that the titans of the innovation economy have no interest or ability to deliver this.
Consider the Roomba. The autonomous vacuum cleaner was invented in 2002, which might be the last time a tech company released a household product that made even skeptics say, “OK, that’s definitely new and useful.” Since then, dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators have released their own vacuum cleaner robots and apps to control them.
But no company has built a product that revolutionizes, say, folding laundry in the same way. For all the endless heroizing of entrepreneurs searching for ever-cleverer ways to make our lives more convenient, they seem unable to translate their insights to building tangible stuff.
What we get instead is lists of fastest-growing climate tech startups full of companies that specialize in things like “a blockchain for energy commodity tracking and trading” or “a marketplace where companies can purchase carbon credits.” We get plenty of “resources” that turn out to be downloadable PDFs or video clips of self-satisfied thought leaders talking about the urgency of doing more than talking.
We get a euphoric illusion of frenetic progress that can’t quite cover up the reality of stagnation. “Digital innovation” is now code for “we don’t have any real ideas, but we can connect you to someone who does.”
Even when such digital innovations aren’t actively harmful—if they’re just kind of derivative and pointless, as most of them are—there’s an opportunity cost that comes from wasting so much time, energy and money on pursuits that don’t address humanity’s more embodied needs. After at least three decades worth of broken promises about the infinite joys that more access to digital goodies will bring us, it’s fair to wonder if there might be better foundations on which to build a society.
As the shine wears off in the 21st century, it’s time to demystify the word “digital” and desacralize the idea of “innovation.” An email service is like a mousetrap—some do indeed work better than others, but at a certain point, we probably don’t need to invest $10 billion in creating another one. What we’ve got works just fine; we’ll survive without a shiny new user interface and monthly subscription tiers.
Digital innovation has taken humanity as far as it can. Now it’s time to get real.