Who’s responsible for fixing tech?
By Mark Hurst • February 3, 2023

There’s a change in the air in the past month or so – can you feel it? More and more people are finally taking note of the direction, the wrong direction, that tech is headed in. Significant antitrust action is finally getting underway, with the Department of Justice suing Google for monopolization in the ad market. (For more on Google’s ad-market behavior, enabling criminal activity, see my Jan 20, 2023 column. More recently, see today’s Ars Technica piece about out-of-control “malvertising” on Google Ads.)

Elsewhere, both reflecting and explaining the mood today, there’s Cory Doctorow’s recent essay that has deservedly gotten a lot of attention. Cory writes about what I’ll call (the FCC-friendly term) “enfecalization”: he describes how consolidation in the tech industry has caused Google, Facebook/Meta, Amazon, and TikTok to intentionally degrade the user experience of their platforms, surveilling users and exploiting their data for maximal profit. What I wrote about two years ago – Why I’m losing faith in UX – is only more pertinent today. There is no true UX when the very business model of a company is built on deceiving and exploiting its users.

Another article that made the rounds this week: The Junkification of Amazon (by John Herrman in New York magazine, Jan 30, 2023). The article’s central question – “Why does it feel like the company is making itself worse?” – answers itself: because the company is making itself worse; because Amazon is not, in the end, concerned with customers’ long-term benefit, in shopping or otherwise; because Amazon, like the other Big Tech giants, has found that a short-term strategy to eke out just a hair more profit is to mercilessly surveil and manipulate customers, rip off third-party vendors, and shamelessly self-deal in every possible search result and category listing page. The reason why it feels like Amazon is getting worse is the same reason that so many people, today, feel like all of Big Tech is getting worse. Because it is.

It’s an interesting moment when everyone from the Department of Justice to New York magazine is waking up and saying – hey – why are these platforms all so... fecal? Even Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-time (and 99-year-old) business partner, has joined in, writing Why America Should Ban Crypto in the Wall Street Journal two days ago. (If you hit the WSJ paywall, here’s an excellent summary in Wall Street on Parade today, which expands on Munger’s ideas.) While Munger is writing about cryptocurrency, not Big Tech, his conclusion rings true across the entire tech industry:

Such wretched excess has gone on because there is a gap in regulation.

We need more regulation, because – as these disparate voices are all saying in unison – the tech industry is going in the wrong direction. Asking individuals to “get off Google,” as I do at the end of every Techtonic, may be a fine suggestion, but it’s unworkable at scale. We need a systemic response.

I’ll grant that the problems in tech may run too deep for us to hope for a regulatory fix. Paul Kingsnorth, a past Techtonic guest, published an outstanding article today arguing just this: our society is too wrapped up in the Machine, as Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford and others warned us years ago. So we need a new stance: in Watch the Great Fall (Feb 3, 2023), Kingsnorth discusses how to proceed “beyond progress and nostalgia” to a third way, of open-eyed observation, which can lead to “rebellion, restoration, protection, the building of new structures.”

All four of these are worthy efforts, and I feel energy to pitch in on of them: rebellion (against Big Tech), restoration (of what we set out to build 25 years ago), protection (of users, communities, and ecosystems), and the building of new structures (using digital technology for better outcomes). Given that UX has been broadly co-opted and perverted by rapacious tech companies, I see limited opportunity to advocate for customer-inclusive design as I once did. But there’s a future in building new structures online, in fostering new sorts of community. My initial effort is this newsletter (subscribe here), and in the community we’re building on the Creative Good Forum, which I’d like you to join.

In the meantime, it’s important to acknowledge that we all play a part in what happens in tech. Stated another way, we all bear some responsibility for what happens from here. This came up on Techtonic this week, as I interviewed Torie Bosch about the book she edited: “You Are Not Expected to Understand This”: How 26 Lines of Code Changed the World. You can stream the show (interview starts at 3:24), see episode links and listener comments, or download the episode as a podcast.

Our final topic of the interview covered Ethan Zuckerman’s essay, “The Pop-Up Ad: The Code That Made the Internet Worse” – in which Zuckerman, the inventor of the pop-up ad, ruminates on culpability. Who’s really responsible for the over-surveilled, junkified mess that the internet has become? Is it the Big Tech CEOs and venture capitalists who got rich off of it? Or regulators who looked the other way? Or computer science professors who didn’t teach a sense of ethics? Zuckerman suggests – and I agree – that all of us, all of us, play a part, in deciding the outcome of our tech landscape.

And this is the conclusion I wanted to drive towards today. If you, like so many others, are feeling that “something is in the air,” that tech is on the wrong track – then you know who really should do something about it. It’s you. Take an action that will make things better. Join my Creative Good community, or some other group working for the good of tech.

Being in tech, we have the unique ability to change our trajectory, at least locally: think how many tools and frameworks are available to us as free open-source software! Think how many ways we can connect, and share, and learn, via the internet – outside the grasp of the Big Tech giants! All of which means we should stay hopeful, because it’s not too late. If you’re reading this, there’s still time to improve.

'modern concertgoer' figurine is a person glued to their smartphone instead of watching the concert

Until next time,


Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
Email: mark@creativegood.com
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