Tech's tunnel vision

A couple of days ago I linked to this post by Tim Maly which is full of interesting thoughts sparked by attending the XOXO conference. I wrote then: “Makes me want an at least partly explicit socialist / social democratic tech conference.”

Yesterday a friend asked me what I meant by that, so I had to spend longer thinking about it than the few seconds it had taken me to write the sentence.

While I frequently roll my eyes at the more extreme examples of the tech industry’s Randian selfishness and California Ideology thoughtleading, the homogeneity of the mainstream ideas seems just as alarming. Free market capitalism, to one degree or another, is the default setting and it’s hard to imagine alternatives.

In part, these are the times we’re living in (in “the West” at least). In the UK the three main political parties offer variations on a theme rather than drastic alternatives. I’m in my 40s and have no adult memory of a time before the 1980s, and haven’t lived in any countries that offer an even slightly different society (e.g., maybe the Nordic model). I find it really hard to imagine a different kind of economy and society; my brain has, by now, been wired to accept free-market capitalism, with slight variations on the amount of social saftey-net, as the default and only possibility.

The tech industry takes this tunnel vision even further, with its standard economic behaviours being more extreme and showing less variety than in business as a whole. Not all tech companies are funded by venture capital, growing as rapidly as possible, concentrating on growth over profit, and caring little about wider society, but enough of them that this is the default. You can do things differently, but it almost seems peculiar. You need a very good reason.

None of that should be a revelation of course, but I’m trying to explain why thinking of different ways of doing things is so difficult. The default stories are so strong, so ingrained, that even imagining viable alternatives is hard. But there must be alternatives; there always are. And the tech industry loves alternatives! Let’s disrupt!

Trying to imagine a tech conference that would embody an alternative viewpoint — a more “socialist / social democratic” alternative — actually seems like a good way in. I don’t have to imagine a whole new society and economic model, but only try to imagine what kinds of topics might be talked about at a conference along those lines. Some topics I quickly wrote down:

  • Different models for start-ups. Co-operatives. Employee ownership. Normal, slowly-growing, profit-making businesses.

  • Ruricomp — technology for people who don’t live in cities.

  • Technology for people who don’t live in the first world. (There’s a lot of them and they have a lot of technology, but most of us know nothing about it.)

  • What governments can do, should do, and are doing.

  • Websites that make the whole Web better. (To quote Tom Coates (PDF).)

  • New services that work fine on technology that’s been around for years.

  • Innovative ideas for improving genuinely public transportation (rather than private transportation or very expensive “public” transportation).

  • The benefits of unions, and how to start or join one.

  • Services designed for people who have little money.

  • Services designed for people who aren’t fully able.

  • Models for keeping services running over the long-term. (What happens when your company closes, or to your personal projects when you die?)

  • The state of technology and digital services in the NHS.

  • How to treat low-paid workers as humans rather than interchangeable meat robots.

This is a very mixed bag. You may be able to come up with more and better ideas. And I suspect a conference that included some or all of these topics could be utterly unbearable and full of tedious bleating people like me wanting to make the world a better place. I make me sick.

But I’ve realised that I spend a lot of time getting annoyed about things in this industry that annoy me, and I’m worried I increasingly define myself by the things that I don’t believe in. Not all of tech is terrible. There are plenty of decent people doing worthwhile things, whether traditionally “worthy” or not. I need to start noticing the things and ideas I do believe in, that I want to emulate, help or achieve.

I’m still fascinated by new technology and ideas and problems but the frame within which those are set is important. The default worldview of the tech industry feels constraining rather than liberating, and restricts the kinds of technology, ideas and problems that we think about. There are alternative viewpoints, even if they’re hard to imagine.

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23 Sep 2014 at Twitter

On this day I was reading