I came of age at the dawn of the Internet era, the mid-nineties, when all was still possible. Mondo 2000 and Wired magazine framed an inevitable future when all would be mediated online for the greater good.
I would tow this party line through my university years, and through the first decade or so of my work as a technical writer mostly in the 3D software demi-monde around the streets of Old Montreal and Mile End where technology firms still proliferate.
In recent years, however, I have come to suspect that all is not what it seems vis-à-vis this so-called infinite improvement and progress.
I just read Dan Lyons’ much reviewed account of his recent stint at the startup Hubspot, called Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble. I also just now had the opportunity to survey much of the recent, let’s call it anti-tech leftist literature which is a bit more intellectual fare that Lyons’ book which has perhaps one too many sophomoric frat-boy jokes: books like Cyber-Proletariat, the Dark Side of Google, In the Facebook Aquarium and Digital Labour.
As well, I have taken several edX courses which touch on aspects of work and technology, while not necessarily from a leftist perspective, they were at least more critical than one would get from the business press, or from inside a startup. Classes such as Shaping the Future of Work offered by MIT, and Technological, Social, and Sustainable Systems from Arizona State University.
Also, having lived through several startups as well as later stage and even mature tech companies such as Autodesk, I think Dan Lyons’ is right in his cynicism, but really only from a quite superficial level. Dan never really got past the weeds at Hubspot. Most startups I worked for were indeed rather gung-ho, but were also honest and ambitious, inevitably too much so. And they did provide good places to work. Whether one could keep up the pace, and survive the relentless churn in technology that comes with competing globally, is another story, but I think Dan Lyons, as well as a lot of this anti-tech leftist fare, are probably way too pessimistic.
What no longer animates me, however, which this literature did help to demystify, is this Utopian vision—sometimes referred to as a coming singularity—that technology will somehow overturn human nature and solve all, even most problems.
I learned through my studies a concept called “Wicked Complexity” which is an engineering term applicable to any system that includes people. For we are way too complex to engineer out of the equation. That is why these grandiose visions – totally driverless cars – rapid space travel for the layman – the end of scarcity – are things I no longer buy into, at least not as ends in themselves that will somehow stop human error and end human flaw.
And so that is also why as I rededicate myself to technological progress, this time I do so with the blinders off: come what may.