As a freelancer who mostly works in tech—and was raised by sci-fi shows like Star Trek: Deep Space 9—I sometimes ask myself this question: what’s the actual point of the tech industry, at large? Why do we make what we make, anyways?
I believe there are really only two answers, and only one of them is going to help us dig our way out of the hole our species finds itself in:
1 – The tech industry is about furthering humans/our planet in big and small ways.
2 – Or, the tech industry is about making money.
Both answers must align. In our current global capitalist society, the difference between having money and not having money means, well, being alive.
To this end, tech is about making money (for humans), hopefully by helping to make human lives easier (better, more fun, easier), via technology.
When we frame it like this, the actual bucket a tech company falls into is far less about a hard line in the sand, and more about a dedication to one school of thought or the other.
Only one of these ‘buckets’ actually matters in the grand scope of human existence, however.
Let me explain:
The tech industry as a vehicle for good
The point of the tech industry, of technological progress, of creating apps, of making technological services and products, is to help humans make their lives easier/better/happier in some way.
Sometimes the goal is smaller; someone wants to make a website, but they don’t have the coding chops to do it. This is where tools like WordPress, Squarespace, and Shopify come in.
Sometimes the goal is bigger, like creating a COVID-19 tracking app that shows stats in real time, so people stay informed.
Whatever the goal may be, no matter how small or large, tech exists to address a human need, as all businesses are actually meant to do.
However, tech also bears a responsibility to the human race—and our entire planet—other industries don’t always have.
For example, we will evolve past the need for the 40 hour work-week (as some countries have already put into place), as we’ve evolved past the need for an 80 hour work-week.
This is made possible by technological achievements; as productivity increases due to tech tools, systems, and processes, this impacts the fabric of our human society, at large. Consider automation and how that impacts the workforce, for example.
As technology aims to essentially ‘fire’ humans from mundane, routine, difficult, or inefficient tasks (or just make human lives more productive/better in general), and is so wide-reaching in the ramifications therein, it cannot exist simply as a vehicle for wealth.
It impacts too much.
The tech industry as a vehicle for wealth
Think about businesses like Facebook. Facebook exists, in earnest at this moment, as a data-mining clusterfuck with a dash of misinformation. Every single day, people sign-away their privacy rights, vomit up mass amounts of info (that then gets sold), take in actual fake news, and get badgered by ads for products that may or may not be in their best interests to pursue.
Facebook is an advertising platform, whether that be for dogma or products, both are the focus.
Think about businesses like Twitter. Twitter exists, in earnest at this moment, as a data-mining clusterfuck with a dash of social media capitalism. By not cracking-down on actual Nazis and legit pedophiles, Twitter has made its stance very clear: what drives social media engagement is good, regardless of who/what it is.
Twitter is an outrage machine that drastically harms mental health, yet Twitter, at large, does not care as long as people are using it.
Think about businesses like Youtube. Youtube exists, in earnest at this moment, as an advertising platform with a dash of whatever it is Twitter is on about. Even though it posits itself as a space for content creators, demonetization can happen at the drop of a hat, and stuffing as many ads as humanly possible into every video is the end-game.
Youtube, like Facebook and Twitter, exists to consume data, sell things and data, and leverage human beings interacting, speaking, and making things, in order to do just that.
All of these tech businesses may or may not have started as ways to churn and burn human currency, but they all ended up that way, anyways.
The sad reality is that, as capitalism is tied into everything we do—and it has to be as of right now—capitalism ends up being the end-goal and sole important metric for many tech companies.
Especially the big ones, who have since (or perhaps always) ignored the social responsibility and ramifications inherent to technology.
However, there are still tech businesses that reaffirm their responsibility to help/better humanity and put it into practice, all while straddling that line between money-making and good-doing.
The way they do this is by passing value checks, and making choices.
The tech industry, at large, has choices it makes that define its ethos
Value checks exist along the way towards big growth for tech businesses. Those value checks, I argue, are what define the small, medium, and big players of tech. Those value checks, I argue, are the only thing that prevents technology from becoming our greatest enemy.
Those value checks, I argue, are very real choices, that very real people make in business, that have very real real-world consequences.
A tech company can choose not to sell the data of their users.
A tech company can choose to crack down on misinformation.
A tech company can choose to make their services/products/platforms more accessible for people of all sorts.
A tech company can choose to hire and lift up diverse employees.
A tech company can choose to be radically transparent, empathetic, and put consumers—humans—first in their product decisions.
These are the make-it-or-break-it moments that decide which school of thought is valued more in tech on a macro and micro level.
Let’s be clear: these choices all exist. They are not erased because money entered the chat.
Tech, of every flavor, is not incapable of choosing which school of thought it embraces
Make no mistake, people make these decisions. People have the choice between doing the thing that makes more cash, and doing the thing that helps more people (when both irrevocably don’t align).
Barring an absolute cash-flow meltdown, where this would drastically impact the humans working in tech spaces, there’s really no excuse for not making the human-first choice.
Furthermore, if it gets to that point, the responsibility of keeping the tech business going relies completely on the humans who make the high-level decisions in said businesses.
Take, for instance, the Nintendo 3DS’ markdown situation (gaming is technology). The president and board of directors, rather than laying off a huge chunk of their workforce, decided to take a pay cut.
This was a decision, made by people, that put people first. The people-first approach is a choice leaders in tech can make.
This may mean leadership takes on more of the workload, or finding creative ways to streamline processes to save money.
This may mean investing, long-term, in employee training, health, and happiness, in order to prevent the $11 billion dollar a year drain created by employee turnover.
This may mean, instead of rapid outwards expansion, that a business takes a more careful, long-term approach to decision making. One that looks to the far future, not just quarterly gains.
Tech is not incapable of making people-first choices.
It’s just that so many tech businesses—especially the really big guys—choose not to.
What is the actual point of tech, exactly?
Tech is a balancing act between two value systems (cash and humanity, at large), using the vehicle of technology. Because fiat currency, which is faith-based economics, still has a strangle-hold on our self actualization as human beings, it has to be.
Yet, where we find ourselves, right here, right now in 2020, is due to the choices made by actual human beings. It’s not great, let me just say.
Furthermore, where we find ourselves tomorrow, the day after, and five years from now, also boils down to choices made by humans.
Human health, betterment, happiness, and livelihood absolutely must be a data field in our spreadsheets—not just ROI. Not just for our consumers either, but for tech employees, and the health of the planet, too.
Like I said, only one of these answers is going to help us dig ourselves out of the hole our species finds itself in.
Only one answer is actually looking to the future, and sees a post-scarcity, pro-science, pro-intellectualism, life-centric, self-actualized society as a possible path.
The other answer?
It sees an end-goal that would have every single person be a cog in a perpetually dying machine of its own making, that it can, if it chooses to, avoid.