The world is fucked and it’s all your fault.
The powers vested in us by the technical revolution has had a negative impact on every possible aspect of life. We live in a reality where the digital ‘have-nots’ group in shanty towns on the doorsteps of the tech industry elite. Elections are won and lost on Facebook advertising spends. The platform economy rips away secure jobs and affordable homes from those who need them the most.
The tech industry has broken politics, economics and philosophy. It’s left no stone unturned.
And who is responsible for this? The blame lies almost entirely at the feet of the leaders and manager within the tech industry. Me and, if this site has been marketed correctly, You.
A few years ago I was incredibly lucky to make a trip to San Fransisco. As a nerd in the tech industry I was excited to visit this holly land of the modern hi-tech world. The place where the technical revolution began. The home of Apple, Facebook and Google.
I was absolutely appalled.
On one side of the street stood a huge billboard with the awkwardly smiling face of pseudo-human Mark Zuckerberg, announcing the opening of the new hotel named in his honour. A shining beacon of his generosity, after his donation of $75 million for equipment at the hospital.
The other side of the street was lined with ramshackle tents, forming a shanty town accommodating a handful of the thousand of homeless in the city. The digital ‘has-nots’ who had been cast aside by the new economy of silicon valley. Many of them severely mentally ill, but unable to seek help at afore mentioned hospital.
They couldn’t afford it.
This picture plays out around the city, people cast aside by the meteoric rise of the local economy. An economy driven almost primarily by the high technology companies in the area. As the prices of homes surge the affordability of living in this city spirals astronomically. The low income limit for an individual in San Fransisco is currently over $80,000 a year.
The impact that the tech industry is having on local economies is not isolated to just the freak example that exists in San Fransisco. A battle for a decent standard of living is being fought on two front. The ‘platform economy’ is a threat to peoples homes, and the ‘gig economy’ is having major impacts on how people earn money.
Even technologies like bitcoin and other digital currencies promised a new future where we could live in world unencumbered by the burden of traditional financial institutions has failed. With the digital currencies instead turning into a shiny trading token used by the finical elite to make quick gains, playing with the markets using memes and their avid twitter followings.
Technology has even broken the democratic political systems put in place to protect the underrepresented and give a voice to all. Votes are now bought and sold on online advertising platforms that evolved to the point that advertising is no longer a light manipulation on the minds of the public. But instead a powerful corrupting influence in the hands of the highest bidder.
At the beginning of the current information revolution we were promised a bright new future. The break neck speed that technology was moving at was sold as the building blocks of a genuine revolution against the current status quo of large corporate companies that had a strangle hold on the world economy.
Google opened up the wealth of information available on the internet with their ‘Don’t be Evil’ motto proudly hanging round their necks. While their new hire donned their quirky helicopter caps. They promised a future where free information would empowered everyone.
Facebook revolutionised how we communicate, giving the world a free platform that allowed everyone to keep in touch with their loved one, never forget the birthday of a distant friend, and document every possible minutia of their existence. In the future everyone would be digitally connected.
Twitter gave an immediate, open, and uncensored platform for everyones voices. It would soon disrupt the entire news broadcast industry. Even allowing revolutionary uprising to share and communicate their vision, and providing immediate support during national and global emergencies.
YouTube promised to tear down the television industry, putting the tools of mass broadcast into the hands of the world. The revolution would be televised.
These companies banded together behind a large digital LCD battle banner with ‘DISRUPTION’ flashing on it in latest interpretation of Helvetica cooked up by the latest hip font foundry.
The future was a promised land where the power was in the hands of the creator, the public had the tools to forge their own reality and challenge the system. We would rage against the corporate fat cats and the power will be redistributed to the masses.
However, two things happened.
Firstly, as these companies hit hyper growth and attempted to scale their platforms they started to understand the economics of running their business from their bedrooms and garages didn’t scale. They needed capital, they needed it fast, and they needed a lot of it. What quickly manifested is that the big corporate fat cats these companies intended to rage against where all of a sudden share holders.
Secondly, the power that these small startups found themselves wielding because a corrupting force. Like Tolkien’s Rings the power created from the technological advancements became too much for these bedroom keyboard warriors to handle. When they weren’t able to handle this this they hired those capable of managing power and responsibility of this scale. The leaders from the industries that they originally where intending to disrupt.
And quickly these companies started on their journey to become the next phase of oppressive Orwellian mega corps that they have initial been fighting against.
Once the first wave of the information revolution had its tentacles firmly entrenched in the economics of the twenty first century a secondary wave followed in its momentum.
Dubbed as the ‘platform economy’ sharing companies promised once again to put the power back into the hands of the people, allowing them to share their own assets and skill with others in return for cold hard cash.
Uber promised to wrestle the power of urban mobility from the hands of large taxi companies and privatised ‘public’ transport. Putting the the power back in the hands of the workers, the drivers of the taxi firms that Uber where trying to tear down.
The reality was that Ubers meteoric rise benefited only Uber, and caused more pain for the drivers that it promised to help. Drivers unable to move over to Ubers new world order lost fares and their incomes dropped, causing protests across the globe wherever Uber appeared next.
The drivers that where able to make the switch where not any better off, due to Ubers aggressively low rates their incomes took a dive unless they worked significantly more hours than they did before. The Uber drivers simply swapped and overlord behind a radio for a digital one in their phone.
Uber also ensnared drivers by offering them loans to purchase their vehicles, locking drivers to their platform in way that would be illegal if done by a traditional employer.
As Uber rolled into new markets it enticed drivers with a shiny new car to ply their trade, but as more and more drivers flocked into the market the original drivers incomes plummeted. In extreme cases the stress of balancing the loan payments with their rapidly decreasing income lead to the suicides of some drivers, no longer able to deal with the stress of not being able to provide for their families.
While Uber disrupted transport, AirBnB blazed a similar trail in the the accommodation industry. Allowing people to use their platform to let out their properties to newly enlightened holiday makers and a new class of YouTube travel influencers.
Landlords in popular tourist areas quickly understood that these sharing platforms opened up a significantly larger income than long term rents for locals.
AirBnB became super popular in cities with large amounts of tourism, like Barcelona, the results was a significant drop in rentable properties at the cheaper end of the the rent spectrum. This resulted in a steep rises in rent prices. In parallel as rich landlords snapped up properties with the sole aim of putting them on AirBnB, driving up prices in the purchase market as well.
The increase in prices helped accelerated gentrification of areas where lower income families would normally live, pushing them out of the cities they had grown up in. Like Uber this lead to protests around the world, and even some cities banning AirBnB all together.
The platform economy was supposed to put the earning power directly back into the hands of the service providers and disrupt the all powerful companies, but in reality they have the largest negative impact on the people they are supposed to be helping.
When the product is free you are the product.
Or more specifically, when the product is free your data is the product. In the last decade, as the information revolution rushed towards its climactic peak, more and more tech companies have started to understand the value of the data they hold on their users. Facebook, Google and co quickly latched on to the power of focused advertising driven by the reams and reams of personal data that they have been accumulating on users over time.
The more data that they stored, the most specific they could make their targeting and the more advertisers would pay for the ability to place exactly the right adverts in front of exactly the right people.
This began a land grab for customer data, companies started to store as many data points as they could legally (mostly) get away with. As companies grew in capital and power they hoovered up smaller companies just for their data and digital real estate.
The data these companies hoovered up was processed and churned though intelligent algorithms then spurted out the other side, this data slurry was lapped up by the advertisers.
Conversation rates rocketed as people started to be followed around the internet by products and services that they either wanted, or didn’t even know they wanted yet. The economy just couldn’t get enough data.
However, regulation lagged behind this data gold rush and while the bulk of the consumers of the data slurry where harmless capitalist vendors peddling their wares in return for cash, there was something considerably more murky going on on with peoples data.
Hidden behind the guise of ‘behavioural research’ a company Called Cambridge Analytica started to understand that with smart data mining techniques they could start to create very specific profiles of people potential behaviours. They focused on profiling people into different segments. For example, looking the different purchasing behaviour of introverts vs extroverts.
In 2015 they hits upon a potential gold mine, they realised they could target individual based on their political beliefs. What happened next is literally history, and will likely be covered in history lessons across the worlds in the future.
This laser focused data driven targeting was used in 2016 by the Republican Party in the United States 2016 presidential campaign and the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom’s EU referendum.
Both parties use Cambridge Analytics ability to target middle ground, or ‘swing’ voters. Those who had did not have a strong political allegiance in either of these debates. They spends millions of dollars and pounds sterling on Facebook advertising with questionable propaganda that was delivered right into the eyeballs of those voters.
The outcome was global surprise as Trump became the president of the free world and the UK plummeted out of the EU, an organisation that it had a fundamental hand in founding.
When the dust had settles it became evident that with technology is was now very possible to simply buy the votes of the middle ground and sway the result of an election. More so than ever before cash money had a direct, measurable value against someone vote.
The resulting fallout highlighted that Cambridge Analytica had obtained the data questionably, but what was clear was that Facebook had done little to stop them gathering their data sets. Zukerberg was hauled up in front of both British and American governmental boards. I farcical mock trials it became evident that the politician simply couldn’t comprehend what had happened from a technical point of view.
Due to a lack of understanding, modern laws, and (possibly) strong desire to solve the problem Zukerberg was let off with what amounted to a slapped wrist. The behemoth Facebook data hoover continues to this day, with some small regulatory adjustments.
At the beginning of 2009 a mysterious character Satoshi Nakamoto[^ It’s not even know if Satoshi is one, or multiple people] released Bitcoin on the world. A digital currency that was hailed as the future of banking and world finance.
A decentralised, unregulated digital token that could be securely transferred between digital wallets this was going to bring down the all powerful banking industry. Once again technology was going to put the power firmly back into the hands of the people.
With exchanges soon launching that allowed individuals to convert Bitcoins into cold hard cash; an internal market was born. Bitcoins had value, a then the Uber-capitalist moved in.
What started as a fairly niche, idealistic, concept that saw the replacement of all cash with digital currencies quickly exploded into the mainstream.
A million blockchain[^ The database technology behind bitcoin] start-ups rose up and marched towards the venture capitalists. Hundreds of competing digital currencies were spawned, all promising to resolve some fundamental technical flaw in the original Bitcoin concept.
But in reality, the fundamental flaw in Bitcoins was humans. As the original ideologist tried to use the digital currencies as actually ‘real life money’ the Bitcoin market quickly became to be incredibly unstable.
As people tried to buy pizzas with Bitcoins one day your pizza would cost $5, the next it would cost $15. As the market accelerated this volatility would become even hourly. A $10 pizza bought with Bitcoin in November 2016 would cost around $560 just over a year later on December 2017, at the Bitcoin market peak.
Due to the pump and dump trading tactics of wealthy investors Bitcoin lost any possibility of ever being used as a currently for normal people. It had become just a trading token in the financial playground of the financial traders that it was intending to tear down.
Once again the power provided by technology had been corrupted.
With great power, comes great responsibility
The new information revolution put power in the hands of those least capable of dealing with it, Computer Science students. Not one part of these peoples lives did they have any kind of training or preparation for what was to come.
I firmly believe that these digital revolutionaries had no ill intent when they unfurled their digital DISRUPTION war banners. But due to have very little political and commercial experience their technological break throughs were corrupted by external forces. Corrupted by the forces that they were initially fighting against.
As leaders in the tech industry, this is where you come in.
Our teams are responsible for building these technological advancements, we are the ones responsible for forging the direction these tools and solution take. We are responsible for deciding how we utilise this technology.
And just like the Punk revolution did before us we need to stomp a massive Doctor Marten boot into the status quo, break down what we have now, get a solid grip on our moral compass, and quickly rebuild our industry for the better.
If you’ve read all of the above and feel that this is all nonsense. Then gently close this site, being careful not the crack the spine. Find the receipt and slowly walk yourself back to the bookstore for a refund, this book is not for you.
If, like me, you feel uncomfortable how the future of the tech industry is playing out then read on!
We haven’t even started talking about the fun bit yet, the Punks!