Don't expect the companies that make or intensively use technology to do more in helping society as a whole make sense of what's going on.
Seemingly every day, there's news about yet another technology company getting into trouble with customers, competitors, or the law. Google's collecting passwords and email traffic from home WiFi networks. Facebook's keeping people's data and photos long after they've canceled their subscriptions. And the one I personally experienced two years ago, to the tune of $750 in fraudulent charges and days on the phone with my bank: The payment system in Apple's iTunes store is -- or was, anyway -- as leaky as a sieve.
The missteps and the oversteps, the data losses and the data thefts, they never stop. Yet, all the while, masses of people line up overnight to buy the newest smartphone, live more of their lives on the wild and wooly Web, and surrender more of their identities to companies working somewhere in the entirely virtual "cloud."
What's going on here? Nobody really knows, I have come to conclude.
Computers, the Web, mobile devices, wireless nets, big-data analytics -- all of these developments are fast erasing old boundaries, rewriting long-standing rules of business and personal etiquette, overturning economic assumptions, changing laws, and putting many, many people on edge. Sure, technology's fun, technology's cool, technology's where to get a job and to invest your money, but technology's also tipping over and turning inside out the world as we've known it.
As the New York Times pointed out the other day, everybody right now is dizzied and dazzled by digital technology, perhaps nobody more so than the companies actually serving it up as fast as they can to an endlessly rapt and voracious audience. These companies have no better idea about what's right or wrong, what's acceptable or not, than the rest of us do.
So, don't expect them to pause for even a nanosecond and try to explain what they're trying to accomplish with their flood of products and services or what they expect those products will do to society or the world as a whole. The relentless economics of computing drive these suppliers to constantly test boundaries and try to get away with as much as they can as quickly as they can. They all know, even if they'd rather not admit or discuss it in such terms, that if they don't push hard and win ever more turf, some competitor will. And that, history shows, can rapidly lead to game over.
In short, we are living through a remarkable moment in history. Today, technology (and its close companion, innovation) is the water society swims in. It's enormously difficult to grasp or gain any perspective on. Technology -- by which is mainly meant digital technology -- is widely accepted as the answer to every problem under the sun, from spurring economic growth to making health care affordable to fixing the schools to halting global warming to reigniting marriages. Indeed, for every problem technology may have caused (e.g. highway congestion) it's typically another dose of technology (e.g. smart highways and driverless cars) that's viewed as the best solution.
For some, such as digital piano maker and "singularity" theorist Ray Kurzweil, technology will -- not may, but surely will -- solve the "problem" of mortality itself.
Some of us are old enough to remember a time when serious calls were put forth to place limits on technology. Books with titles such as Small is Beautiful and Tools for Conviviality were widely read, discussed, and acted on. (Ironically, to a large degree, this inspired the personal computer.)
When Congress actually voted against funding the US development of a supersonic passenger plane, there was hope in certain circles that the political process might actually keep technology in check and guide its evolution.
Today, such limits are virtually impossible to discuss. More technology is better, end of story. This laissez-faire attitude may or may not come to bite us in the rear end somewhere down the line. For now, it seems, all we can do is hang on for the ride.