I like being cynical. The tech industry only encourages this attitude with its mixture of pervasive stupidity and malevolence.
But today I listened to an episode from The Vergecast (The Verge’s podcast) that suggested that this cynicism is misplaced - silly even. On it, Paul Ford, who’s CEO of a Product Studio in New York and an all-round technology polymath (he wrote a full edition of Bloomberg Business that explained code back in 2015), talked about why he is still optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibilities and opportunities of tech.
It’s worth listening to, but if you’re not an audio fan the context for the conversation was this piece that Ford wrote for Wired in May.
In it he tells the story of how he fell in love with technology almost 30 years ago (back before the dotcom bubble), emphasising how the long and apocalyptic shadow of the Cold War only made the possibilities that would begin to emerge just years after the fall of the Berlin Wall even more exciting. “I’d spent my childhood expecting nuclear holocaust and suddenly came out of college with a knowledge of HTML and deep beliefs about hypertext, copies of WIRED (hello) and Ray Gun bought at the near-campus Uni-Mart.”
The thrust of Ford’s point - in the podcast and the Wired piece - is that what’s really valuable about tech is the ability to build things. Ford bemoans, for example the fact that as a CEO he hardly ever gets the chance to actually build software. “I would like to,” he says, perhaps with a tinge of melancholy.
“Something about the interior life of a computer remains infinitely interesting to me; it’s not romantic, but it is a romance. You flip a bunch of microscopic switches really fast and culture pours out.”
Although Ford is hopeful, he hints at a tension within ‘tech’ that should cause us all concern. This is the seemingly irreconcilable contrast between the tech that tracks, monitors, collects, compartmentalises, surveys, and reduces us all, and the tech that can empower us to be creative, to share ideas and build communities.
Ford likens tech to U2:
“We never expected to take over the world! It was just a scene. You know how U2 was a little band in Ireland with some good albums, and over time grew into this huge, world-spanning band-as-brand with stadium shows with giant robotic structures, and Bono was hanging out with Paul Wolfowitz? Tech is like that, but it just kept going.”
This is an amusing analogy, and I think it particularly underlines the way in which the industry that has disrupted - and arguably damaged - the world as we know it has its beginnings in a small group of passionate, intelligent, yet largely ignored, people.
I think there’s another way of thinking about this - it’s like the link between art and advertising. Advertising needs art, it needs ideas and creativity and flair, but it’s always in the service of manipulation - it has an end goal in that it wants us to do something.
Art meanwhile, is really just a way of producing and consuming things - simply because you like them, because they express something about you or allow you to express.