Everything we do is terrible, says the trope. We’re oppressive. We’re exploitative. We’re sexist, racist, classist. We deify horrible frat-boy brogrammer assholes, while funding, and celebrating, morally bankrupt apps that exist to stand in for their mothers and/or servants. We destroy jobs and displace the working class. We cater to the rich and privileged urban elite, while the poor masses fall further behind. How can we possibly claim to be building a better world?
And the thing is, you can, in isolation, actually make a pretty good case that the tech industry is guilty of all of these things. In isolation. But pull back just a little, and it’s hard to deny that most of these things are symptoms, not problems — symptoms of the world in which we exist. Compared to the rest of that world, the tech industry is, mostly, a beacon of hope and progress.
The congenital sexism of our industry has been the subject of whole acres of pixels over the last few years; no need belaboring that point. But at the same time, InHerSight, an organization devoted to providing “a powerful and representative picture of what it’s really like for women in the workplace,” reports that tech is rated by its respondents as the best industry for women to work in. Yes, you read that correctly. The best of all industries. Despite its manifold, manifest flaws.
Is the upper echelon of tech executives heavily, wildly disproportionately dominated by men? It sure is. But consider the context: specifically, that we live in a world where there are more S&P 1500 CEOs named John than there are women. (This is also true of the FTSE 100.)
Do the major tech companies’ diversity reports make for fairly grim reading? Yes, they do. But they’re not outright chilling, unlike, say, reading that: “racial resentment played a larger role in the 2016 [American] election than economic concerns … Trump successfully leveraged existing resentment towards African Americans in combination with emerging fears of increased racial diversity in America to reshape the presidential electorate.” Meanwhile in the UK, well —
People complain that technology’s priorities are pathologically skewed and wrong:
But let me remind you that the most powerful nation in the world recently wasted literally trillions of dollars on a useless war that consumed hundreds of thousands of lives and led to massive destabilization and unrest. Fortunately, the current US administration… uh… yeah, that sentence isn’t going to go anywhere good, is it.
Let remind me you that the parasitical finance industry now consumes some 30% of all US corporate profits, and counting. Of course, because of their important work, the rest of the world gets… well… look, the important thing is that they’re making an enormous amount of money, OK? Don’t ask what the rest of us receive in exchange for that 30% tithe of all profits. No good’s going to come of that.
Almost everyone I know in the tech industry (obviously there’s selection bias there, but hear me out) genuinely wants to do more good for the world, and to help people. But we live in late capitalism1, which straitjackets our options. Even Elon Musk had to hit the jackpot with PayPal before he could build Tesla and SpaceX. Young frat boys are the entrepreneurs of choice because they’re the ones who feel like they can afford to take that risk in the world in which we live. Privileged pretty-people assholes have invaded the tech industry because it has become a locus of power and of cultural cachet. All this was inevitable, in late capitalism.
And please note: yesterday’s expensive luxuries are tomorrow’s low-cost necessities. Mobile phones were outrageously offensive symbols of investment-banker excess, once. Passenger jets used to be so expensive that you were expected to pay for your tickets in installments. The world’s first CD players cost thousands of dollars. Now CDs are obsolete in most countries, and a side-hustle for Kentucky Fried Chicken in others:
Don’t get me wrong. I understand where this rage comes from, and to some extent, that well of fury speaks well of tech. Because while some of it simply comes from the rage of the powerless against the powerful — and while it may not feel like it, my fellow nerds, we now find ourselves in the heart of perhaps the world’s primary locus of power — some of it comes from the sense, the expectation, the hope that tech should be better.
And you know what? They’re right. We should be better; much better than what we so often see around us. We’re the ones building tomorrow, and setting its standards. No one else is going to improve things for us. It is literally our job.
But it’s hard to build a better world, and it’s especially hard when you’re enmeshed in a system whose primary design goal often seems to be to perpetuate power, wealth, and privilege for those who already have it. So cut the tech industry a little slack. We can’t help but reflect the sewers that birthed us from time to time. But remember what Oscar Wilde once said: we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
1For the record, I am a capitalist, and I believe in capitalism and its power to lift the world out of poverty; but at the same time, its excesses need to be checked and corralled from time to time, and our collective failure to do so has allowed it to go all Sorcerer’s Apprentice on us over the last few decades.