To Perceive Tech, Look Past the C.E.O.s
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To understand what is happening in the world, we need to understand the (mostly) men who rule global technology superpowers. But I also wish these guides were less consistent and took up a lot less space in our brains.
What 21st century tech barons like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma believe and do matters. But when we focus on the business leaders, we sometimes neglect to realize that normal people, not poobahs, are doing technology as we experience it. Wikipedia volunteer editors, online community moderators, Uber couriers, and teachers translate and create what the tech bosses turn into a living reality for the rest of us.
My colleagues and I write a lot about the handful of tech companies that influence how we communicate with one another, how we shop, our relationship with our government, work, and culture. Mammoth institutions like tech giants aren’t one-man shows, but the people at the top are extremely influential.
When we talk about the power of tech companies to change the world, we really mean the power of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Tim Cook, and Satya Nadella to influence billions of people – whether or not we (and they) are aware of it Not.
It wasn’t a spreadsheet that chose to pay Amazon employees at least $ 15 an hour and affected wages at other employers. Nothing that significant happens at Amazon unless Bezos wants it. Zuckerberg designed Facebook with him as absolute ruler, and his beliefs have melted into Facebook’s bones.
If Elon Musk hadn’t pursued his mission to destroy fossil fuels, governments and big auto companies probably wouldn’t plan to kill conventional cars. Contradicting corporate agendas and personal vendettas between the managing directors of Apple and Facebook as well as Amazon and Tesla control the future of the internet and space research.
Understanding what makes these people tick and how their minds work is important because their choices are so important. And humans – even the people who run tech companies – aren’t robots. All of our decisions depend on who we are, our life experiences and our weaknesses.
But I also wish that the Tech Power Brokers are not so important in their own companies.
The folks who moderate Reddit forums and root out the worst abuses on Facebook probably understand better than tech CEOs how internet company designs and guidelines affect our online behavior. Couriers who work for delivery apps like DoorDash have more reasons than anyone to grapple with the flaws in the software that sets their wages. Teens who create TikTok dances influence what people do for fun in their living rooms.
Tech bosses don’t always anticipate how people will react to what they create. It is the people in the technology trenches who live the benefits of technology services and their pitfalls, perhaps more so than the generals of Silicon Valley. If they had more control over the technologies we use, how could things be different?
It’s important, but not enough, to get to the minds of tech bosses at the top of the world. As technology creeps into every moment of our lives, there are tens of millions of mostly unknown people reshaping bosses’ beliefs and preferences in ways that affect us all together.
We can try to understand the world around us by remembering the leaders. Or we can pay attention to what the foot soldiers of digital life are doing. We need both.
Before we go …
Where extremists can make a lot of money: The live streaming website Twitch has become a place for right-wing figures to spread conspiracy theories about the election and coronavirus vaccines, reported my colleague Kellen Browning. In some cases, the streamers use the Amazon website as a forum to promote their goods or solicit donations.
Lyft Leaves Self-Driving Cars: The company sells the operation that worked on driverless vehicle technology to a division of Toyota. Uber also handed over its self-driving car project a few months ago.
Here is my newsletter from last year on why driverless auto technology is harder than almost everyone expects. (The start-up I was writing about at the time, Voyage, also recently sold to a larger company.)
Do online thrift stores encourage over-shopping? According to Vox, people buying used clothing for resale have become big draws on TikTok, YouTube, and the Depop shopping app. However, some sellers fear that the trend will lead to used clothes becoming more expensive for people who need them.
Watch a dog “win” a high school relay race in Utah. The human runner is Gracie Laney. The canine athlete is Holly, who freed herself and couldn’t resist sprinting on the track.
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