Tech needs to decide which master it’s going to serve
Google announced this week that their self-driving car project has reached a new milestone, with prototypes in use that leave out all the traditional controls humans use to drive cars — no steering wheel, no pedals, etc. And the press went predictably gaga over it, oohing and aahing at the novelty.
Me, I’m less enthusiastic. The reason is simple: control. When I drive my car, I’m the one who decides where it goes, and how fast, and what route it takes to get there. In a self-driving car, someone else would be making those decisions for me.
The pitch is that ceding this control makes the whole experience more convenient. Who wants to futz with wheels and pedals, Google asks. Wouldn’t it be easier to just sit down and be magically whisked to wherever you want to go? Wouldn’t that be neat?
It actually probably would be neat, at least at first. But I can’t silence the nagging voice in my head that warns me about what would come next, if I give up my right to choose my own route. If Google’s the one planning the trip, how long until I find my trips start taking me consistently past businesses that advertise with Google? Maybe the car will even wave a digital coupon in my face as we approach them, to entice me to stop.
Or take the thought a step further. What if, instead of taking me on a tour of nearby Google advertisers, the car starts plotting routes for me that take me away from businesses that don’t advertise with Google? What if it refuses to take me to one of those at all, or forces me to wade through a long confirmation process before it will deign to take me there? “I know you said McDonald’s, user, but our valued partner, Burger King, has a location nearby as well! Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a hot and juicy Whopper™? Are you sure?”
These misgivings aren’t limited to Google, either. I have them about most tech companies these days. Even Amazon, who have long been one of my favorite companies for their laser-like focus on excellent customer service, has started putting their own interests before those of their customers. And Amazon is a company I actually pay money to! Imagine how little a business that gives away its services for free will care about what I want, compared to what its advertisers or partners or shareholders want.
All of which was annoying when we were talking about things that were optional, but the deeper tech burrows its way into our lives, the further beyond “annoying” it goes. Tech is now central to the way we live — and, as the Google car shows, it’s only going to get more so. So if it’s built on a rotten foundation — on a foundation that requires us to give up big chunks of our value system to use and enjoy it — that’s a problem, and a big one.
This, I think, is the first sign that an existential crisis is looming for the tech business. Ever since the personal computer revolution in the 1970s and ’80s, tech has sold itself with the language of personal empowerment — the promise that it was selling tools that would let you be the best you you could be. Back in those days, that promise was actually true; the products were clumsy, expensive, and hard to use, but those who made the commitment found that they could amplify their personal potential dramatically. And that was true because the tech was built to serve the user, who funded its existence by buying it.
Increasingly, though, this just isn’t true anymore. In the 2010s, the user isn’t the one who’s bankrolling the products she uses every day. It’s someone else — an advertiser, most often — who’s doing that. And since companies listen most closely to the stakeholders whose money keeps the lights on, it’s inevitable in an advertising-driven company that, when the interests of advertisers and the advertised-to clash, the advertisers will win.
As someone wiser than me once said, “no man can serve two masters.” And I want the things I use, the things I own, to serve me, not someone else.
If the future of driving is a future where that’s impossible, I guess I’ll walk, thanks.