Editor's Letter — September 2018
Allowing our imperfections to be shown unmasked runs counter to the operations of the world right now. The mechanisms of our “tech eats everything” society is focused on perfection; we’re all soaking in opaque algorithms. The lack of transparency is an intentional defensive play by companies to both protect the secret sauce of how data is managed (and used) and ensure the system isn’t gamed (in many cases the algorithmic design itself results in biases).
Access to data is like digital oil. In its crude form it is largely useless but when refined we’ve seen the huge impact data has on commerce, political campaigns, and more.
Interestingly, we seem to have reached the tipping point into a backlash against reliance on hidden forces dictating our actions and opinions.
Some current events made me reflect more deeply this month: Instagram’s IGTV not gaining traction, Amazon’s entering streetwear through Concepts, and an op-ed by Louis Hyman in The New York Times about technology’s role in culture (and the workforce). Initially, these three items look unrelated but I see an underlying narrative of pushing against perfection and focusing on the grittiness that defines us as a species.
The mundane and “real” world of Instagram Stories continues to be more popular than the polished long-form video content provided by IGTV. While it’s true that Instagram Stories is a clear rip from Snapchat, credit to the original innovator is less salient than remarking on how the format continues to skyrocket and draws massive audiences.
Amazon, arguably the world’s most powerful example of data-driven commerce, is looking to enter the saturated space of streetwear by spearheading a concentrated retail effort with Zappos and Concepts. Hearing this news wasn’t surprising, but I’m curious as to how successful this will be. Streetwear has rarely been described in terms of efficiency and optimization and has a history of looking for honesty in the art and the story, whether glamorous or unglamorous, of those who do it.
The New York Times op-ed titled “It’s Not Technology That’s Disrupting Our Jobs” was looking to set the record straight on the role that technology plays in driving society and culture. Author Louis Hyman stated that: “The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes.” This stood out to me because all along, it was never really the technology in control. We allowed it to leverage itself, but only because we momentarily allowed it.
Tying it all together, we’re entering a point where we’re rebelling against the constant diet of perfection. It’s ok to strive to be perfect, but seeing transparency in the process, mistakes, and reasons behind the way things are more powerful than being served what some (human-designed) algorithm has deduced you want to see.
Setting off into any new place will always encourage us to test our limits. But the limits are never long-lasting and a regression to a more sustainable middle will inevitably occur. The inception of new technology is often predicated on life enhancement, and sometimes we allow it a place at the table under an original vision of societal betterment. But just as a drug or medicine is meant to cure ailments, desensitization is often the outcome.
Humans are fickle and emotional. We rally around ideas of struggle and growth. We seek out stories that we can imagine ourselves playing a part in. Data-centric platforms, movements, and companies remain relevant, but their ability to force resonance is starting to wane.
Culture and society are amorphous. For every Google Trend that is trying to predict the next big thing, there are many things at the cusp of blowing open based on a consolidation of what many would consider mundane and disinteresting. As Hyman stated, technology only amplifies our own beliefs on how we organize our world.
Opening up the process is incredibly difficult. We’ve been conditioned to think of vulnerabilities as something to hide and gloss over the steps of getting somewhere in order to celebrate having reached specific goals. The gatekeepers that control our digital experiences balance their priorities of first running a profitable business for shareholders and then genuinely allowing room for their human users to express what it means to be human.
In ignorance, we were happy to play in the walled gardens purportedly designed with our best interests at heart. With greater awareness, we’re looking for plots of land open to our own designs.
Signing off for the month,