Technology is a Racket

Like a boy raised on a farm visiting a town for the first time, things are not as they appear. But instead of encountering such systems once in a month, technology enables us to encounter a hundred separate systems in the hour before breakfast

Technology is a Racket

"War is a racket" General Smedley Butler said almost 100 years ago.

Butler was one of the most decorated soldiers alive at the time. War is a horrible thing, but Butler was not saying that all war is bad. He was saying that war is an interlocking evolutionary system that the average person doesn't know about but should.

Eisenhower made the same point decades later, talking about the Military Industrial Complex in his last presidential address.

Folks commonly confuse realism, post-modernism, cynicism, and nihilism. To vastly over-simplify: realism is "things are this way and we have to deal with them whether we like what we have to do or not". Post-modernism is "we have this modern ways of solving problems, these things are broken in these predictable ways. Pretending they're not isn't helpful". Cynicism is "everything is broken". Nihilism is "everything is broken, there's no fixing anything, and in the end it doesn't matter"

If I had one thing I could tell 18-year-old entering society, it would be that "technology is a racket" Like a boy raised on a farm visiting a town for the first time, things are not as they appear. But instead of encountering such systems once in a month, technology enables us to encounter a hundred in the hour before breakfast.

This week the site reddit decided that no, you couldn't make apps to show people posts there without paying a high API fee. Twitter went down that same road years ago. YouTube is rumored to be getting much more aggressive with ad-blockers.

These are not bad or good sites and these decisions are not bad or good. They just are. The news here isn't that "Free stuff gotta be paid for somehow", it's that so many people thought the party could continue. There's some deep-seated fraud here, but not of the overt kind. You might call it "fraud by complexity". These complex systems arrive, are offered for free, and some way or another there's a business model, perhaps multiple business models, that exist sub rosa. Once again, not bad or good. The point here is the overall ignorance of the public, over and over again.

Google offered free "top links". But wait, that was paid for by ads. Hotmail offered free email. But wait, that was paid for by data scraping and then ads. Facebook: find out what your old friends are up to! Tumblr: collect cool sites and share! And so on.

I love tech. You can't build anything at scale without having some kind of plan somewhere. Somebody's simply gotta pay the server bills. But tech has invaded everything, software has eaten the world, and everything is now some kind of racket. That's the point here, not certain sites. Tech and the way it works has made life a racket.

Listening to that podcast where the top-selling author is being interviewed about their upcoming thriller? Podcasts are an ecosystem. You get on the "podcast train" and there are rules and ways of moving ahead. It's a racket. Best-selling authors? That'd been a racket for a long time before even the net. All those great reviews? Racket. Writing for mass markets? Racket.

All of these things are really great! But they're all these interlocking evolutionary systems that the average person really, really should know about. At some point, like I suppose Butler and Eisenhower did with defense policy, I get the feeling that every time I interact with tech I'm participating in various kinds of cons looking for rubes in the public to play along without them knowing it.

This is realism: technology is a racket. Deal with it. Because it's eaten the world, software has made the vast majority of every interaction in our lives part of some standardized ecosystem that exists based on rules and interlocking systems we are only dimly aware of. Many times if we could see our interaction from afar we would be much less inclined to sing the praises of tech and much more likely to both practice and urge caution. These systems may be the best thing we have, and I love science and progress, yay us, but the post-modernists were right: standardized, modern solutions give us standardized, modern side-effects. Ignoring them don't make them go away.

I am not being cynical nor nihilist. We solve problems by continuing to describe them at higher and higher resolution until the answer is obvious. The intent here is simply to continue that tradition.