Draining the digital swamp

When digital pioneers start deleting accounts and stepping back from Silicon Valley - you know something is up.

In the build up to our reveal of 2017’s conference theme (Digital Sucks, if you missed it), several things happened which reinforced our confidence that this was the future issue that needed talking about now. And one of those things was prominent tech writer Paul Carr stepping away from the Silicon Valley beat.

Why? Well, because he found it so sucky as to be unbearable:

I had reached my limit with the pervasiveness of the cloud, and the relentless demand for new social “content” to attract ever more Twitter trolls. More than that, though, I was disgusted by the behavior of abusive tech bros, and by the cheerful creepiness of (for example) Mark Zuckerberg’s F8 keynote boast about how his company will soon be able to upload our brains, or Amazon’s decision to launch a sassy new bedroom camera, or whatever the fuck this parade of haircuts is supposed to augur. I was nauseated by the flagrant law breaking, the fraud, the harassment, the discrimination and the endless hypocrisy and bullshit and bad-for-the-universeness of it all.

Coupled with that was the realisation that the problems with the way digital is evolving are becoming a wider topic of discussion. As Carr puts it:

Today, tech awfulness is everyone’s beat. “It must feel good to be right!”, readers frequently joke via email about Uber or Wikileaks or Facebook or holacracy or Thiel or Kalanick or Whestone or any one of a dozen other organizations and people I’ve covered, as if a hypochondriac would be thrilled to have his worst diagnostic fears confirmed.

I’ve noted before that the people who blaze the digital trails often go from evangelists to realists – and possibly cynics – because they both see the incredible possibility that digital brings, but also feel the problems and the downsides. Early adopters — if they stick around — are the people who hit both the advantages and the disadvantages first. It’s up to the rest of us to learn from their example.

Pioneers end up face down in the dirt

Carr’s retreat mirrors blogger Andrew Sullivan’s step back from the digital world:

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

We humans are adaptable creatures – and digital doesn’t need to tell us what to do. Ultimately, we need to make smart decisions about what technology we let into our lives – and part of that decision making is looking carefully at the people behind the technology, and what their agenda is.

Digital sucks – but only because we let other people make it so.