The Pattern of Technology

Almost a decade ago, the comms lead at Square wrote this piece on how the media builds up, and then tears down, its subjects like clockwork. At the time, we were—to use the horological analogy—at the metaphorical 11th hour, with the tech media questioning our business model and competencies as a payments processor, preceded by years of praise and attention and admitted rosy coverage of partnership announcements. Understandably, he wanted to tackle the negative press from another angle.

It turns out, this pattern applies not only to tech journalists covering their beats, but maps well to the industry at large. If you suspect that media helps shape narratives and therefore perceptions of the general public, then the current, extended techlash is partly driven by the aforementioned journalistic clock of hype and disparagement. A decade ago, tech could do no wrong. Now, it is either: no better than what it sought to displace, or the root cause for society’s major ills, and perhaps a bit of both1.

To be fair, it is objectively true that some of the initial premises of the technological disruptors of the 2010s have evolved, and in some cases are being actively unwound. We were sold on the notion that software innovations would enable both faster and cheaper services, first subsidized by venture capital money but only until the economies of scale kicked in to keep costs down. By the time some of these companies became big enough to go public, though, these business plans were already pretty iffy—the IPO disclosures and subsequent quarterly financial reports made it clear that keeping things as they were wouldn’t fly with public market investors, and the ongoing pressures for profitability will act as a forcing function to raise prices.

Granted, I wouldn’t expect paying customers of Uber, AirBnb, Netflix, etc. to follow quarterly earnings statements to intuit the above inevitability. But, the information is easy enough to find, and the business analysis is readily available. If anything, it exposes the lazy journalism that is optimized for creating sensational headlines rather than informing readers of the totality of the situation. A better article could highlight how the streaming services have had to consolidate, after overspending in competing for high-production-value content and selling underpriced subscriptions, to try to capture market share and garner outsized market capitalizations. Instead, someone just grabbed the latest prices from the major streaming services to make the point that they cost more now.

I guess I’m irked by how the news has become a perpetual machine of controversy generation. When applied to tech, this has translated into constant cycles of building it up, tearing it back down, and then angling redemption arcs to begin anew. Like clockwork, though, it’s wholly predictable; it reminds me of this quote, attributed to way too many people:

It’s never as good, or as bad, as it seems in the moment.

  1. Which goes to show that the “more tech better” manifesto completely fails to read the room.

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