This trailer for a new documentary about Steve Jobs (there's also a biopic in the works starring Michael Fassbender) reminds me that I have been meaning for some time to tell you about a thoughtful essay I read recently called Web Design: The First 100 Years.
Over the last few years a backlash has begun against the technological utopianism of the tech industry, and Apple and Google in particular. I suspect the tech sceptic Yevgeny Morozov has had a lot to do with this shift (see particularly To Save Everything, Click Here), and more recently it has become popularised in the TV comedy series Silicon Valley, in which tech industry CEOs with more than a passing resemblance to the Jobs persona are depicted as ruthless capitalists who have the public image of spiritual leaders. The industry's altruistic pretensions are also regularly mocked by way of a running joke on the mantra to 'make the world a better place':
Maciej Ceglowski, an American programmer who shares this scepticism about Silicon Valley's utopian mission, writes in Web Design: The First 100 Years:
FIX THE WORLD WITH SOFTWARE
This is the prevailing vision in Silicon Valley. The world is just one big hot mess, an accident of history. Nothing is done as efficiently or cleverly as it could be if it were designed from scratch by California programmers. The world is a crufty legacy system crying out to be optimized...This vision holds that the Web is only a necessary first step to a brighter future. In order to fix the world with software, we have to put software hooks into people's lives. Everything must be instrumented, quantified, and networked. All devices, buildings, objects, and even our bodies must become "smart" and net-accessible. Then we can get working on optimizing the hell out of life...
....But what if after software eats the world, it turns the world to shit? Consider how fundamentally undemocratic this vision of the Web is. Because the Web started as a technical achievement, technical people are the ones who get to call the shots. We decide how to change the world, and the rest of you have to adapt. There is something quite colonial, too, about collecting data from users and repackaging it to sell back to them. I think of it as the White Nerd's Burden.
Technological Utopianism has been tried before and led to some pretty bad results. There's no excuse for not studying the history of positivism, scientific Marxism and other attempts to rationalize the world, before making similar promises about what you will do with software.
Ceglowski endorses a more modest vision for the web, one that has largely been achieved: to erase the barriers of distance between people, and put all of human knowledge at our fingertips.