of new tech, big promises, and mixed results

January 31, 2011 — Leave a comment

When we last mentioned the self-aggrandizing ways of tech marketing, especially when it comes to all the perpetual startups and their financiers in Silicon Valley, a place where you’re called a visionary and a genius for pursuing the latest fad with wild abandon, I brought up the industry’s habit of constantly promising outright world-changing revolutions known as The Next Big Things. Whatever the next revolution will be, time will have to be counted as before it shipped to users and after it shipped to users rather than our typical religious time partitioning conventions, even if the revolution in question is a new button that lets you filter a search query, or post the same status message on two or three new social media sites, or start World War 3 with one click of your mouse. Well, this trend in selling a hefty dose of hype along with your technology isn’t new. In fact, here’s one ye olde ye infomercial for one of the first commercial computers and how it would change the world…

Note how the actual commands to the computer are transcribed from handwritten assembly code and dialed into the computer. Back in those days, young whippersnappers like me couldn’t just fire up an IDE and write a simple Hello World program in a few lines of code. Oh no, back in those days even punch cards were a new and cutting edge marvel of computer programming. In fact, back then, they didn’t even have the ones, just the zeros which had to be carried on the programmers’ backs uphill in the snow, both ways. Ok, ok, I’ll stop. Here is the point. Promising world-changing inventions is in the tech world’s genes at this point and the incessant promises of a revolution in how humans do everything are a time honored tradition. Again, this is why there’s such a warm reception to Singularitarian sales pitches in Silicon Valley. They’re living the idea that they are profoundly changing the world one line of code at a time because they’re constantly told that this is what they do by fawning tech reporters, CEOs, and even politicians and diplomats who tout all their latest efforts as the newest achievements in ongoing tech revolution transformative and innovative, even if these efforts are really just incremental updates. So when someone comes along and tells them that a mysterious new technology looming just below the horizon will change the world as we know it, they don’t just buy it, they relate to it.

Now, this is not to say that computers haven’t changed the world because they certainly have. Before the web and the rise of personal computing on every desk, in every lap, and on every phone with enough processing power, globalization as we see it today would’ve been unworkable and millions of people like me would have never had an entire industry granting them new opportunities from the day they got their college degrees. But at the same time, most promises of what computing would do for the world have fallen short, partly because they were marketing hype, and partly because the company executives who made them didn’t know what the technology’s real limits were, and unwittingly promised far more than they could deliver. And the world did not always change for the better thanks to computing either. New crimes like identity theft and hacking, and entire terabytes of spam were unheard of until modern computers arrived. Now, you’ve got zombie programs which infest millions of machines, thousands of Nigerian princes in exile asking you to help them retrieve a fortune in their banks, and keyloggers trying to track your bank account and social security numbers if you don’t run a good anti-virus program in the background to stop them. And if you’re really befuddled about how to use your new machine, there are hundreds of scammers waiting to "speed up your PC," which should be read as "sell you their overpriced app that does nothing and them claim they’ve protected your computer from viruses."

That’s the trade off you make to get the benefits of world-changing technology. You have to take the good with the bad and be aware that when you change how things are done, you’re also changing the rules, rules which can be exploited to make your life difficult, or at least more expensive, if you’re not alert. So next time you see a breathless headline about how some new technology is going to change everything around you, consider this and feel free to be skeptical. We still live in a pretty big world and changing it takes a very long time, and when it finally does change, it’s almost never altered in quite the same way the technology’s creators want because technology is only a tool and people will often use it as they want to, not necessarily as you tell them it should be used. It’s the people who will ultimately change the world with your technology and what it will let them do, not a manual that comes along with your latest product or a press release with the developers’ dreams.

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