I like reading enormous history books for many of the same reasons other people enjoy watching reality TV or taking long bike rides. It’s soothing for the brain, and it doesn’t cost too much. A side benefit is the sense of perspective it can give on current events.
Sometimes when I’m reading about Mughal trade policies or urban planning in the Incan empire, I’ll encounter an anecdote about people in power behaving in such patently absurd ways that it makes the madness of modern tech oligarchs more understandable.
A prime example can be found in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Written by archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber, the nearly 700-page book covers tens of thousands of years of human existence around the world. At its core, the book is a study of power—with a particular focus on how societies have found ways to curtail abuses of it.
As Wengrow and Graeber show, the entirety of human history has been a dance between those who wish to control other people’s lives and those they’re trying to control. One of its best passages is the following:
[In] the Fijan kingdom of Cakaudrove there was a daily rule of absolute silence at sunrise. Then the king’s herald would proclaim that he was about to chew his kava root, whereupon all his subjects shouted, ‘Chew it!’ This was followed by a thunderous roar when the ritual was completed.
The story of the Fijan king and his kava root was the first thing that came to mind when I learned Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg were planning to fight each other in a mixed martial arts cage match. It came to mind again when reports emerged that Elon’s mom canceled it. My impression, which I imagine was similar to that of the missionary who documented the mandatory root-chewing celebration, was that a society run by elites so desperate to show off their status doesn’t seem like a stable one.
The last ten years have seen almost all the shine wear off the tech industry’s once-golden reputation. From the catastrophic failure of Zuckerberg’s multi-billion dollar metaverse to the catastrophic failure of Musk’s rocket ships, self-driving cars, and reputation in general, it’s clear that the tech emperors are not only naked but paunchy and sclerotic. Their creativity-wells have run dry; all they’ve got now is more apps nobody needs and AI nobody wants.
Tech leaders have made it abundantly clear that they’re incapable of saving the world, or even repairing the damage they’ve already done. They just have no good ideas left to offer. And with their energies exhausted, all they can do is hurl frivolous lawsuits at each other while whimpering, “Hold me back bro!!!” from their respective mansions.
To be clear, it’s not as if “technology” itself has been revealed to be a scam. Just because a particular telehealth app is useless doesn’t mean medtech is a bullshit industry. With different people in charge, and different incentives in place, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which tech cleanses itself of its current stink.
So how do we get from Bad Current Point A to Good Future Point B? We’re traveling through largely uncharted territory, so expecting anyone to provide a turn-by-turn roadmap is unrealistic. Instead, finding the best path to a better tech industry depends on orienting ourselves in the right direction and sticking to those guiding principles, while remaining flexible enough to adapt to a wide range of scenarios and needs.
The tech industry’s current raison d’être is perpetual exponential growth for its own sake. Or, more accurately, for the trove of trickle-down treasures that are presumed to follow in growth’s wake. The problem, as many tech companies have discovered in the last year, is that growth alone doesn’t automatically lead to riches (see: the whole rideshare business; streaming services; direct-to-consumer retail).
Right now the tech industry is widely regarded as the most important driver of progress on the planet, and much of it is devoted to producing unnecessary and/or undesired junk at a loss. As a species, we could probably do better.
The guiding principles of a tech industry that actually benefited humanity might look something like this:
- Put power in the hands of workers, not petulant godkings (or even shareholders)—This is the key to everything. As long as the whims of Musks and Zuckerbergs determine how billions of dollars and countless human hours of effort are spent, there are simply not enough leftover resources for projects that are useful. Trusting shareholders or “the market” to keep things on track is silly, because almost all shareholders will clap like trained seals at the possibility of increased returns, and “the market” is little more than the collective greed of those same people.
A worker-run tech industry, on the other hand, would be more likely to produce products and services with real value, because people don’t like wasting their own time and energy. If given the option between doing work that makes a tangible positive impact on the world vs. work that generates additional surplus value for some anonymous rich person to enjoy, most people would find the choice easy.
- Make more simple, physical stuff—One of the coolest inventions of the century is the LifeStraw. It’s a technological marvel, a small plastic tube that can purify up to 4,000 liters of drinking water thanks to its built-in, nonchemical filtration system. It won TIME Magazine’s “Best Invention of 2005” and has since saved thousands of lives across disaster areas and the developing world.
Would the LifeStraw be more effective if it was connected to an app that told you how much water you’d drunk with it, and how many toxins had been filtered out? Could it help more people if AI was integrated somehow? No! A sane tech industry would put its focus on developing a full range of technologies with practical functions, not just monetizing computer stuff.
- Prioritize people’s happiness and well-being—If a Martian landed in your backyard and asked you to show them advertisements for 100 tech offerings (maybe the Martian was feeling bored that day), they would doubtless be impressed by all the ways to customize the products or services. They might also wonder why so many of the ads feature remedies to problems created by things in other ads.
Today, the best the tech industry can offer the average person is a handful of pills. Some will certainly make you sick, yes, but some could maybe make you feel better! What always goes unsaid is, what’s making you so burnt out or alienated in the first place? We might be amazed by how many fewer problems we’d have to solve if tech companies stopped creating new ones for profit.
The tech industry will never have a come-to-Jesus moment of its own accord, because there’s simply too much money to be made by avoiding it. But one day—perhaps sooner than we imagine—people will tire of cheering the Musks and Zuckerbergs as they chew their kava roots. Maybe then tech will finally be cool again.