The tide has turned on the tech revolution. Over the past year the breathless articles that used to accompany new tech innovations have dried up, replaced with dystopian concerns about the Dark Web, privacy, hacking, fake news, and the deadening and manipulative effects of social media addiction.
Tech was going to disrupt everything:
Even after the word lost its meaning from overuse, it still suffused our understanding of why the ground beneath our feet felt so shaky. They tried to freak us out and we believed them. Why wouldn’t we? Their products were dazzling, sci-fi magic come to life. They transformed our days, our hours, our interior life. Fear of being stranded on “the wrong side,” in turn, primed us to look to these world-beating companies to understand what comes next.
It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction—of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships. The tech visionaries’ predictions did not usher us into the future, but rather a future where they are kings.
Teens are not getting on Facebook, for the first time social media use is flattening or declining, and 42 percent of Facebook users said they took a break from the platform at least for a while in the past year. Pew reports that a growing number of those surveyed say they wouldn’t find it hard to give up social media.
We all got addicted to free services on the web, not realizing that there wasn’t anything free about them, that our behavior, the data we generated while using the services, was actually the ultimate product. It’s not actually as diabolical as it seems. We’ve watched “free” TV and subsidized newspapers for years. But tech just found a more sophisticated way of being able to take advantage of it. DNA testing services and genealogy sites that are cheap to use aren’t actually making a living off your purchases of their services; they’re collecting your data and selling databases to their true clients.
Tech business models fooled us into thinking we were the client, when in fact we were the product.
So what to do about it? Look at the products you use and decide whether you care or not. Social media has changed how we think about privacy, and you might not care. On the other hand, if you’ve just had your credit cards exposed in a hack or you’re the victim of identity theft or you’re depressed because social media distraction has dulled your senses, you might.
And meanwhile, on a bigger scale, the everything-wants-to-be-free ethos has ruined a lot of business models that support culture. WIth a new skepticism about tech disruption, we’re starting to see some industries – like music and publishing and newspapers – start to figure out how to get past this. But it’s going to take a while.