When we tell the story of the development of digital technology through the turn of the last century, we often talk about the cultural and political philosophies that influenced the dreamers and schemers who took the great leaps and climbed out on all the limbs. They were the ultimate gamblers; they broke things, built things and placed bets on the future, all with the idea that the new systems, products and platforms would guide us down the path to a society that the Bay Area counterculture movements only dreamed of. So why has technology, with its promise to connect the world, left us feeling so disconnected, so isolated, so twitchy? It’s too easy to blame the tech itself. Too easy to say we are living under the tyranny of algorithms, when it is actually the people, not the tech, who are to blame.
Not that we have anything against risk takers. Without the original bets on technology, we wouldn’t have the abundance of communication options, cameras in our phones and the entire on demand world we have come to rely on. Personal computing has been taken all the way. It all seemed innocently revolutionary at first. All that decentralization, self expression, and self sufficiency was the road to equality. The PC, in whatever form, became the ultimate social signal: that of modernity. But unfortunately, not all futurists were created equal.
In fact, “there are stark ideological differences between those who originally shaped new technology to serve a purpose, who came up in the cultural continuum that emanates from the Bay Area, and that next wave of visionaries, risk takers, gamblers and disrupters, who saw themselves as geniuses in a vacuum, dreaming not of the broader future, but of only the future of tech.” Fair enough, but as technology touches everything in our world, these gamblers’ inability to think outside their user interface has inadvertently disconnected us from not only from our shared reality, but from each other as well.
In his new piece, Silicon Valley veteran Randy Komisar thinks what ails the Valley is culturally two fold. First, that the Google and beyond crowd, those who built the systems we struggle with today, didn’t grow up in the Bay Area reading The Whole Earth Catalogue, steeped in the history of American social movements and their aftermath. These “Techno Utopians” like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and even Bill Gates, endeavored to use the emerging personal computer technologies to seize control from the establishment and democratize not just technology, but also the power and wealth it engendered. They were not myopic technology zealots; rather, technology was just their latest weapon in the culture wars. But this new generation, defined by people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, didn’t share the Techno Utopian quest to use technology to further social change. “They were Techno Libertarians, convinced that technology was a movement in its own right.” Read Down In The Valley.
Also, with the build up of a false mythology, overexposed by a fawning tech press, tech culture has an inability to consider that a lot of their successes have been just pure luck. “Even in a world where the best fail more often than they succeed, everyone feels they can beat the odds because they are smarter than the rest. Techno Libertarians believe in the superiority of technology, and as a consequence tend to believe in their own superiority as the masters of it. Successful business people cringe at that word. It robs them of what they covet most: a sense of superiority. Of being winners. Of being self-made. Heck, if you are a Techno Libertarian, luck is anathema. Many argue that since luck must be evenly distributed, their success must be about them, not luck.”
The problem is that we bought into the idea that these internal architects, the ones who have built the systems, written the algorithms, and structured the cloud, knew what they were doing or had a purpose in mind, at least one less vaguely superficial than do no evil, connect the world, or defend and protect the user’s voice. And now we’ve been left with a disjointed panicked society more interested in hitting refresh than getting some fresh air. Yep, it all went wrong. And of course, they claim not only to not be responsible for the monsters they built, but more shockingly still, claim that they alone can fix it. But their algorithms, like it or not, do not have minds of their own, they are merely echos of the dangerous minds who authored them. For them it’s just double or nothing, while they continue to break society’s bank.
Nothing epitomizes the true spirit of Steve Jobs’ Techno Utopian bent than that of Apple Computer's 1984 Superbowl TV ad that wowed audiences across the country. A brutally powerful take on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, it played off his ideas of centralized government control. It caused such a chaotic media frenzy that it managed to go viral some twenty years before anyone was sharing anything on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. The commercial is credited with ushering in more than just a new era for Apple. It raised the bar for all of Super Bowl advertising to follow. Now, the commercials are as much a spectator sport as the game.
Directed by Ridley Scott, it featured blank-faced people who are unwillingly transfixed on a broadcast of Big Brother on a giant television screen. All of a sudden a woman appears sprinting down the aisle with a hammer. In a grand gesture, she hurls it at the screen, which explodes into a bright white light. Suddenly, a message mysteriously appears: "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."
In the entertainment industry, it was the dawn of the cinematic Super Bowl ad. For historians, it was a notable moment in pop culture. But in the tech world, this was culturally the birth of Apple as we know it, in all its Techno Utopian glory. It became their calling card; the true expression of their ethos. They saw technology as a powerful tool, not the end goal.
Though hard to imagine, at the time Apple was the David in the PC market share wars to IBM’S Goliath in its "Big Blue" peak: Apple was taking a huge gamble with a literary, allegorically inspired ad that didn't even bother to display the product onscreen. Apple’s board actually didn’t want the ad to play and it tested horribly. Not surprisingly, Steve Jobs was the only person to have full faith in the project, which ended up being a wild success. And, well, for Apple the rest is history.