Yesterday, I made the trek down to Palo Alto for Alex’s birthday and had a great time in the afternoon barbecuing, laughing, and enjoying the South Bay summer. I was realizing it was the first time in the Bay where I’ve attended a large gathering that wasn’t predominantly people in the tech industry. Alex is a graduate student in physics at Stanford, so the party was full of PhD candidates and high school friends who’ve covered a spread across the different fields. It was nice to be able to gush about passions with people who were coming from different perspectives of what kind of impact they wanted to make in life. When we meet other tech folks, it’s easy for the conversation to slide into one that feels similar to those screening conversations you wait 30 minutes in line for at stuffy career fairs. Before you know it, you’re deep in a dialogue about the tech industry and what you do in your day-to-day—the industry likes to consume, to subsume all topics around it, much like it does with society. It notably felt good to escape that cage for a little, even if just for an afternoon.
Some of my friends think I’m the most anti-tech tech person they know. The impression comes from my intense worry around being stuck in a tech bubble, of living inside a silo culture. In San Francisco, it’s easy to live adjacent to people of different backgrounds and lifestyles yet never actually mix with them, and my primary intention coming out here was to migrate between the layers and see the world and community for what it is, rather than what it wants to be seen as. My relationship to technology, like my relationship to San Francisco, and like the internet itself, is complex and contradictory. I’m anti-tech in the sense that I critically evaluate and reproach figures and systems in the tech industry that propagate inequality. Yet, I’m also pro-tech in the raw idealism and pragmatic optimism I bring to my craft and my drive to create a healthier relationship between software and society. Tech is inherently paradoxical. It has advanced society’s capabilities to match science fiction of the past while creating never-before-seen problems at never-before-matched scale.
A lot of the present discourse around technology feels one-sided. It either focuses on the bad (the increased spread of misinformation, the discrimination against minority classes by technological systems, and the lack of moral spine of infamous leaders in the industry) or the good (the unlimited potential of AI-enabled systems, the vast creation of wealth by newly propagated industries, the convenience and efficiency and connectedness of a tech-enabled culture). Increasingly though, I think we’re seeing more nuanced movements that promote an optimistic and realistic lens for considering radical restructuring for moving the tech industry forward in a way that creates a healthier relationship with humans and software. And at the same time, there’s an increase in the sorts of communities that focus on making soft tech, a focus on creating software that molds to the human collective, rather than molding users to it.
Our relationship to our software and technology is like a relationship we have with people in our lives. With our partners and friends and family, we can run into philosophical differences that grind against our very identities, support each other in the darkest of times, or just share a funny moment in that airy space post-joke. On the internet, we find these when our very identities feel threatened by people harassing or disparaging the very idea of our existences or beliefs in anonymous messages, when we find a shining beacon of hope and safety to shelter us from the raging storm of indifference or hate in quirky YouTube channels, or when we bear witness to a shared lightness in the roast session on a group chat. The internet challenges us to grow in ways that we couldn’t have imagined, and it also hurts us in places that we didn’t realize could be touched. It lifts and violates. It bridges and divides. It cultivates and scorches, provides and steals, loves and hates, all at the same time.
Just because I’m critical of tech doesn’t mean I’m anti-tech, and just because I’m in tech doesn’t mean I’m unequivocally pro-tech. Technology and software have irreversibly changed what our society looks like and even means, and now it’s time for us to set our intentions for what that relationship should look like moving forward. We’ve been bound together by a binding arrangement, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work for it to feel like a healthy, equal relationship. Relationships represent a paradox of our natural evolutionary instincts—the shift from caring about our own well-being to caring about others’ well-being, and maybe that’s the sort of approach we need to take towards reorienting the technology paradox.
This was part of the 31st installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.