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I recently made a promise to myself, and I would like you to join me. When I consider something new bubbling up in technology, I have vowed not to get overly excited about either its potential benefits or its downsides.
I know nuance is rare these days, but please join me in the vast zone of complexity between “wow, cool!” and “that won’t work” or “that’s evil!” I want to live in those shades of gray.
I’ve been thinking about this gray zone because of two things: a tweet and Elon Musk.
Sriram Krishnan, a technology executive whom I respect, tweeted a few days ago asking for more optimistic descriptions in movies and television of people building technology. He didn’t put it quite this way, but I imagined he wanted less fiction like “The Circle,” about a surveillance-state corporate cult, and more like “Iron Man,” in which a tech nerd cobbles together a suit that saves his life and gives him superhero powers.
I get what Krishnan is saying, and there’s a bigger meaning behind it. Right now, there’s a lot of pessimism about the harm of social media, the creepiness of digital surveillance of our smartphones and our faces and the nefarious power of tech giants.
Those downers sometimes drown out the ways that we know technology has made many of our lives immeasurably better. Both “The Circle” and “Iron Man” encompass some form of reality, but it’s easy to see technology as either one or the other.
You could see that in reactions to Musk’s flashy demonstration on Friday of brain-implanted computer chips that he hopes may someday help combat serious health conditions like strokes and spinal cord injuries.
Musk is a master showman, and every time he does an act about an underground car tunnel in Los Angeles or bulletproof electric pickup trucks, there is the same reaction: Some people say he is making amazing and life-changing innovations. And other people say that Musk’s promises are unproven and unoriginal hype.
I can’t predict what happens with Musk’s Neuralink company. Musk has repeatedly promised technology that doesn’t pan out or that seems pointless. His companies have also helped advance electric cars, enabled commercial space travel and forced the entire auto industry to rethink what cars combined with computers can do. Sometimes the doubters are right about Musk. But so are the cheerleaders.
That’s why I want both “The Circle” and “Iron Man.” I don’t know how to get the balance right, but it’s worth starting by acknowledging that both sunny and grumpy people have a point.
We need tech optimists to shoot for the moon — literally, in Musk’s case. But I sometimes think tech companies also need to give more voice to chief pessimism officers who ask, what if this technology doesn’t work? Who might be harmed by this technology, and how can we prevent that? And do we need this at all? Give those Eeyores a corner office.
The tech downers and the “Iron Man”-loving optimists need each other more than ever. Technology is not something that exists in a bubble; it is a phenomenon that changes how we live or how our world works in ways that help and hurt.
That calls for more humility and bridges across the optimism-pessimism divide from people who make technology, those of us who write about it, government officials and the public. We need to think on the bright side. And we need to consider the horribles.
I wrote in Monday’s newsletter about some app makers’ complaints that Apple has too much control over what iPhone apps people can download and charges unfairly high fees on some app purchases.
Some readers emailed to say that they sided with Apple exerting its power to keep the App Store safe, and that app makers get a good deal for the commissions Apple charges them. Here is selection of what they said:
“I really like that Apple closely scrutinizes apps before allowing them on the App Store. I had an Android previously and felt like it was more of the Wild West in terms of what apps might actually do or if they were in fact harmful. I therefore didn’t download many at all. I hope that things that matter to us users aren’t overlooked in how this squabble gets resolved.” — Vicki Rundquist, McHenry, Ill.
“What you specifically do not talk about is the convenience Apple gives it developers for placing an app within their environment. Apple does a whole lot of work to make it easy to use the App Store. I want Apple to control what is offered to us within its App Store. They want Apple to do a whole lot of work and then not even get paid for it.” — Gordon Musch, Richmond, Va.
“I think Apple could resolve the dispute with Epic and avoid a possible finding that they are a monopoly by allowing users to sideload apps, but only after the users have received a series of scary warnings about how they are giving up the protection Apple gives them from malware. If the warnings are scary enough, I think most people would rather download from the App Store, even if they could sideload apps for less money.” — Blaine
(Note from Shira: “Sideloading” refers to downloading apps outside the official Android or Apple smartphone app stores. Apple doesn’t permit people to sideload apps. Android phones do, but Epic said that Google made it unfairly difficult.)
Pay attention to Australia’s proposed law on online news: Facebook (and Google) are suggesting that they might make it harder for people to share news stories online in response to a proposed Australian bill that would require the companies to pay news organizations for articles that appear on their sites. This is essentially a negotiation in public over the details of the proposed law.
My colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac write that the Australia example shows how government measures to restrain tech companies threaten to further erode the principle of a single unified internet.
The perfect encapsulation of the gig job market: Delivery drivers for Amazon and its Whole Foods supermarket have figured out a way to get first in line for orders. Some of them are perching smartphones from trees near grocery stores or delivery outposts, Bloomberg News found, because the software that dispatches Amazon delivery couriers doles out jobs to people who seem to be closest.
A pioneer of online learning is worried about online learning: Salman Khan, the creator of Khan Academy online learning videos, has tips for parents and schools doing remote learning: Opt for shorter online learning sessions for younger kids with more breaks, and have open conversations with schools about whether students are being asked to do too much.
Khan also tells The Washington Post that he’s worried about children who are being left behind by remote school, and parents who are taking on too much.
You might need a dose of good news as much as I do. Here is how people teamed up to rescue a young humpback whale that was stuck in a tangle of fishing gear.
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