Feb 15, 2012

get off my lawn

It's entirely possible that I'm just becoming a crotchety old guy who doesn't understand this newfangled technology but I've been having an unusual number of negative discussions with friends about technology lately. Even my wife who isn't that interested in technology discussed it last night. It's been hard to encapsulate the mood of these discussions in a concise way but the best I've come up with is this.
"Young technology companies today have an adversarial relationship with their users."

This could simply be the realization of the maxim, "If a product is free, you are the product."  The discussions have be unstructured but have touched on a number of items in the technology news lately:
Together all of these things boil down to a few themes.
  1. Technology products now seem built to not be useful in nature but rather purely addicting.  They are adept at engaging users to spend a significant amount of time doing largely useless and unproductive things (e.g., Reddit, Farmville, Dragonvale, Pinterest, etc.).  Or at least the 99% of people who just consume aren't doing anything productive.
  2. Technology companies don't have any obvious interest in protecting anyone's privacy and want access to anything they can use.
  3. The 'free' business model where the user is the product seems to be the most popular business model for technology start-ups.
  4. I'm guessing most 'free' business models end in failure. What then happens to your 'stuff'.
  5. It is hard to identify trusted sources of technology news coverage
  6. "Depth", "expertise", "long-form content", "well-researched content", "real productive creativity", "time-consuming hard work", and "value" are not a part of this new landscape. 
These themes aren't terribly cohesive.  And therein lies the problem of discussing this in a constructive way.  But the angst and frustration is present in almost everyone I talk to when the discussion turns to technology.  Something feels rotten in Silicon Valley.

I suppose most of this should not be a surprise.  I'm under no delusions that companies are out to serve my best interest directly.  They want to make money.  And in general I believe this is a good thing.  Historically making money has been done by trying to provide value to the consumer even if there are some egregious counter examples (e.g., monopolies, etc.).  But the new wave of technology seems more focused on tapping into those mental blind spots human brains have (greed, fame, fear, the need for task-based accomplishment, the need for approval by others, the need for status climbing).  Humans are generally not rational creatures by default.  We've built up a set of rational-based heuristics that our brains work with to make decision making more simple.  But with the generalized approach heuristics take, comes blind spots.

What is it about Pinterest or Farmville that causes people to spend hours doing something that isn't inherently productive, challenging, or conducive to creating lasting happiness?  For me it's scary on three levels.

First, I don't think for a second I'm immune to being sucked into this level of time-wasting.  In fact I suspect I'm more susceptible to it than most yet I'm also perhaps a little more aware of what is going on.  Additionally I love trying new things so I generally sign up for the app or web service du jour right away to try it out.  I no longer view this activity the same way.  It's no longer a 'free trial'.  I've become exceedingly cautious and cognizant of what the costs of me using a service are.  I no longer just download free apps for my phone without first checking if they have in-app purchases.  This just tells me they've adopted a pure addiction model.  And now I've gone and disabled my Facebook account.  Yet why I've done that (beyond the fact that I don't use it anymore) is still a little nebulous in my mind.  I just don't trust these companies and I don't trust that there aren't tons of people out there much smarter than I am scheming to fuck with my mental heuristics.

Second, even if I control my activities, the Path debacle shows this is only half of the equation.  I'm in the contact lists of hundreds of people.  I'm linked to calendar events of many people.  All those people who sign up for these apps and services provide a second gateway to me. There's no protection to this issue. This just happens now. It's out of my hands.

Third, and most worrisome, I'm trying to play out in my mind how my kids adapt to this environment.  It's terribly worrisome to think of your kids getting sucked into these addictive useless pursuits, being marketed in ways that taps into their mental blind spots, or having zero control over information about themselves.  Especially when they aren't armed to some extent with a cynicism and caution that protects against some of this.

My wife's first instinct in our discussion was to adopt the old 'keep the kids off the internet for as long as possible' ruse.  An approach I can sympathise with.  But I'm not convinced that's correct.  I'd rather them understand the brave new world they exist in and learn how to deal with it.  My son, who has an addictive personality, and one in which certain behaviors of his are hard to control, is going to need to learn control.  It makes the education of your kids that much harder. When I was growing up your foibles and problems and who you were was confined to your neighborhood.  Now kids are faced with the problem of instant and unwanted notoriety. And who do I trust now to guide me or my kids through this maze?  What tech influencers and 'advisors' are now really just paid for PR?  When are my digital assets going to just up and [poof] disappear?  This blog will one day cease to exist.  All of this builds a sense of trepidation in me.  That maybe I should pull back and re-evaluate which of these services I should be using and in what fashion.  A phone suddenly seems very appealing. Paid apps seem more trustworthy now.  I host my videos on Vimeo whom I pay for the privilege of hosting HD content.  They don't have to sell me out.  And hopefully they'll be around longer than the free services.

For me this technology wave feels fundamentally different from Web 1.0 (and early Web 2.0) when clearly useful companies were created.  Companies that let you find anything you wanted on the web (Google), companies that let you hold garage sales to a much larger audience of buyers (eBay, Craigslist), companies that let you buy things without having to traipse down to the store (Amazon), companies that let you buy or consume previously physical things in a digital format (Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, YouTube) companies that let you transact more easily (PayPal), and companies that let you communicate more easily (Skype).  Now nothing strikes me as useful.  Everything seems to have ulterior motives.  In short.  I don't like being a product.

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