Tech Readiness: How technology has affected American society over the last 15 years

I started writing this essay back in late 2019 after seeing scary recurring patterns of behavior around the use of technology in the areas of American society I have visibility into. With every passing day, the more I see how normies interact with tech, the more I’m convinced that their prolonged exposure to it contributes to their misery. Bear with me as I attempt to philosophize for a moment.

We are not ready for the technological hegemony we find ourselves in

Exhibit A: 1000+ Unread Emails

notification overload

No clearer identifier of a person overwhelmed by technology than this exists. They may be too proud or ashamed to admit it but if you watch their behavior long enough it’s obvious that they’re subservient to the technology they use rather than the other way around. This isn’t a “smarts vs dumbs”, “richs vs poors” or “youngs vs olds” problem either. Family, friends, acquaintances and coworkers—dozens of people spread out across the full spectrums of human intelligence, socio-economics and age—live this way. Thousands of unread emails spanning several mail providers.

Mind you, this is not a condemnation of email. On the contrary, I think email is possibly one of the few legitimate communication channels we have available online.

Enter Big Tech with a “solution” for the little guy

You say you can’t delete them all and start from zero because “something important might be in there”? Have no fear because Big Tech—the ones that poisoned the well, mind you—are here to sell you bottled water. “Ignore the chaos in your mailbox and let us sift through all of it and tell you what we think is important.”

I won’t mince words here: Focused Inbox, Priority Inbox and VIP are all bullshit techie excuses for having inflicting this mess upon normies in the first place.

Ignoring the privacy implications of letting your private communications be pored over by, sorted and then fed back into AI/ML farms trained by harvesting the data of your fellow inbox overload victims, this just puts a bandaid on the problem. Any number over let’s say 100 renders the notification badge useless. Looking at that badge, it’s impossible to tell if you actually have anything new since the last time you looked at it. I’m convinced this is why the people who suffer from inbox overload all tell you they prefer SMS or $messaging_app_du_jour even when they’re the type that take hours/days to respond to messages.

Companies trying to reach customers have their own workarounds

So how do companies deal with the fact that their customers suffer from inbox overload? Simple! More notification emails of course. Keep the company’s name “at the top of their inbox”. Surely if we keep sending notifications, it’s bound to be at the top of their inbox eventually, right?

This is not a condemnation of mailing lists. I’ve remained on a number of specific vendors’ mailing lists because I like to know when their inventory changes. But hopefully you see the feedback loop here: Sally gets too many emails and can’t read them all, AwesomeCo wants Sally to read an email about a sale so they send more emails to Sally, rinse and repeat.

Arrogance all the way down

Techie arrogance is what feeds the delusion that the flood of emails filling up normie inboxes is acceptible because “we can just make some technical fix for that”. Techie arrogance is what causes smart people to think “yeah I can probably solve that with code” instead of “no, there’s a bigger problem here that we need to address”. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, many meatspace problems have no viable technical solution and can only be solved in meatspace. Clutter is very much one of those problems.

A complex tagging and inventory management system isn’t what a hoarder needs. A maid isn’t what a hoarder needs. Getting the hoarder to understand that they are both cause and solution to their own problems; to understand how to manage the items in their life, digital or physical; to understand how to recognize when things are getting out of hand and how to start down the path of fixing it; even just to understand that it can be fixed. That is empowerment. Teach a man to fish, don’t do it for him. Teach him how to unsubscribe from notifications and mailing lists he doesn’t need anymore. Teach him how to block senders. Teach him how to mark things as spam. Teach him how to set account forwarding between old email addresses so he doesn’t have to log into 5 different sites to check for an important message.

Exhibit B: Cyclic Messaging (multiple messages to convey a single thought)

cyclic messaging

Let’s discuss another phenomenon: chopping up a single or set of related ideas and feeding them to a conversation partner two or three words at a time in rapid succession like some weird kind of write buffer rather than using a single message consisting of complete sentences. It’s not that the messages themselves are spaced far apart temporally. In fact, they’re usually sent rapid-fire over the course of 3-5 seconds. This was much more of a problem back when mobile carriers charged by the text: talking to one of these types could literally take $5 out of your pocket in a matter of minutes.

This may be more of a pet peeve than a full-blown symptom of a bigger problem but I’d like to consider the cause. Why can’t adults—not children mind you—collect their thoughts long enough to construct a fully formed coherent statement or set of statements before pressing send? And it’s not just SMS: it’s the same on Slack, RocketChat, MatterMost and Teams so you can’t say that their thumbs keep accidentally tapping send. Maybe they’re generally hyperactive but I doubt that’s the case for all who do this. This may be a second order effect of how notifications pull the attention in dozens of different directions at any given moment:

bzzbzzzz Yay someone liked my Facebook post.

bzzbzzzz Oooh, Sam just posted new pics of her vacation.

bzzbzzzz Email.

bzzbzzzz Atomic Panda just went live on Twitch. I’ll check that out later.

bzzbzzzz Ugh, thought I blocked that dude…

…all over the course of five minutes. I think conditioning your brain to act like a puppy following a ball in its owner’s hand has to have some lingering negative effect.

I’ll admit this hypothesis seems a little squishy. I may need more time to observe this and come up with something a bit more solid.

Exhibit C: Deification of Technologists

lol xerxzos
Xerxzos. Giggled like an idiot the whole time making this one. Also, the irony of criticizing Amazon when my site is hosted on AWS.

Jeff Bezos. Bill Gates. Jack Dorsey. Elon Musk. Mark Zuckerburg. Sure, you can find people who despise one or maybe all of them but the fact that so many normies know who those people even are shows how powerful a hold technology now has on their lives. How many people in the 90’s or even the early 00’s knew the name of the CEO of Barnes and Noble? Sun Microsystems? Mirabilis? Ford? AOL?

Nerd? Really?

The same people you now see proudly self-applying the term “nerd” would’ve cringed or even thrown fists at anyone for calling them that in middle school, high school or college. In a society where tech seems to be prized over all else, everyone wants to be the next clever 20/30-something that clevers their way into Rockefeller money by building some well-timed app or service.

Code slingers have become a caste that large parts of society envies and strives to become while not really understanding the difference between appearances and actual technical ability. You can see this effect clearly in the labor market as organizations desperate to “innovate” their way ahead of their competition take on technical projects they don’t understand and rapidly hire on teams of people who claim skills the organization doesn’t have the expertise to properly evaluate. What happens then? Well, fakers and the lazy inevitably talk their way in and end up writing poorly designed and worsely (probably not a word) implemented bug-ridden and security vulnerability-ridden software and have no idea how to get control over the problem in piles of code they so hastily wrote. If even great developers can make big security holes from time to time, why does it surprise anyone that the Equifaxes of the world can’t seem to keep barbarians from constantly storming their cities?

What people forget is that before “tech all the things” became the answer to all of life’s mysteries, the accountants, the secretaries, and the logisticians of the world were handily holding organizations together with grit, ingenuity, Excel macros and PowerPoint.

Blind Trust

We’ve replaced our gods with the Big Tech CEOs, our clerics with tech workers and our temples with their platforms. Look no further for proof of blind trust in techies than the fact that normies voluntarily install always-on listening devices into their own homes to make things “more convenient”.

I read 1984 15 years ago so to me, this is nightmare fuel. But I’m a fairly paranoid guy (and so was Orwell as I understand it) so maybe I’m the crazy one. Let’s say you do trust the company not to abuse their ability to surreptitiously eavesdrop on your intimate moments and they actually honor your privacy to the best of their abilities. What if they get hacked? What if the device has a vulnerability that allows a remote takeover by an attacker? The back door a good guy uses can just as easily let a bad guy enter the house.

The fact that hardly anyone asks that question shows just how deep and how blind that trust in technology is, even in the face of repeated security breaches and massive data exfiltration being reported every single week.

Exhibit D: Ransomware

ransomware everywhere

A few months ago, the school board of the county I live in sent out notices to all parents that they’d been hit by a ransomware attack, at the height of mandatory all-virtual learning for all kids in the county because of the pandemic lockdowns, for which they’ve distributed hundreds if not thousands of presumably remotely-managed laptops to kids from low-income families. How does this happen? How do the bad guys get in?

Most companies and organizations can’t or won’t tell you how their systems get infected with ransomware. The topic of infosec is well out of my wheelhouse but I’d imagine a big vector is phishing or social engineering. These types of tactics work because many normies don’t know and don’t want to know the intimate details of the systems they are using. If a techie or someone who appears authoritative tells them “run this thing”, they’ll probably do it. Why? I suspect it’s because organizations can’t train people enough to spot the risks in the ever-growing pile of software they use for their jobs.

Exhibit E: Information manipulation, social media, echo chambers and censorship

vuvuzela at the world cup
From Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Also, the irony of criticizing Wikipedia on the same page that uses one of their images.

Wikipedia as the repository of all human knowledge

Many people turn to Wikipedia when they want to know more about a specific thing. Few stop to think of how fluid Wikipedia’s corpus actually is.

People joke about rewriting history. I contend that is literally possible given the degree of trust normies give Wikipedia and the design of the system in that it is a living document. I’d imagine that the mere existence of Wikipedia has driven hundreds if not thousands of reference sites into obsolescence over the last 10-15 years. People don’t buy encyclopedias anymore. They probably aren’t going to the library for research anymore either. For millions, history is something to be looked up in Wikipedia. And Wikipedia is subject to constant change at a moment’s notice. See the danger?

At the snap of a finger, an update can change core elements of an entry, even to the point of completely contradicting or invalidating a point that was previously strongly asserted. For this reason, I keep certain reference books in print. Yes, they may be invalidated over time but at least I can produce actual evidence of why I thought something at one point rather than blankly saying “I could have sworn I read that on Wikipedia before…”

Google, Facebook and Twitter as the arbiters of truth

“The Commons” has intentionally or unintentionally migrated onto a small number of platforms controlled by a smaller number of megacorporations. For better or worse, relationships are made and nurtured on Facebook, education and entertainment are created and consumed on YouTube, and real-time events are shared and discussed on Twitter.

There’s some good in the everyone-in-the-same-room approach in that positive relationships can and do serendipitously form between strangers who otherwise would never have met. But the crowd always draws bad actors. Trolls love an audience. What’s happened on social media is the trolls and the people who feed them have turned most social media into a multidimensional battleground. So much of Twitter today is people huffing in outrage over one thing or another, demonizing other groups of people for whatever reason, piling onto someone for wrongthink today or yesterday or even 20 years ago, and denying the humanity of anyone perceived as the enemy. No one should be surprised that all the animus and mob behavior spilled over into meatspace during the second half of 2020 and early 2021.

I consider there to be at least two major archetypes on these platforms: The Busy Professional (BP) and The Warrior (W). W spends all of his day locked in glorious battle with Sworn Enemy (SE) while BP is off doing professional things (because she’s a professional), nose to the grindstone and not paying attention to the conversation at all because she’s getting stuff done. Eventually, W’s war cry becomes loud enough to finally get BP’s attention. BP is friendly with W and sees he’s upset about something. W mumbles something about how evil SE is and must be defeated. BP joins W in battle against SE even though she didn’t see all that went down and only heard W’s account of how terrible whatever SE did was. On his own, nobody really took W seriously but BP’s presence now gives him an air of credibility. Thus, a mob forms.

I grew up with message boards and chat rooms. Bad behavior was easy to spot because either the person had been there long enough for everyone to know they’re an ass or they’re so new it’s obvious they’re a troll account. Moderators knew the members, members knew moderators, thread locks and bans were issued to bad actors and peace generally ruled the day.

At the scale these companies operate in, their platforms are too big and too diverse for them to do old-school moderation because that requires knowing people in your community and a large degree of tenacity. So they do the only thing they can do which is protect their advertisers, The Money. They figure if a few people need to disappear for the mob to stop screaming and making the advertisers nervous then, so be it.

Another problem is the medium itself. For example, during the height of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents would constantly post videos and pictures of beheadings, torture and other vile crap on Facebook and YouTube. The companies hired moderators to deal with this. That means that someone had to watch this evil to identify them as such and take them down. And the people that got hired for this weren’t highly paid. Imagine getting paid $20K a year to manually screen an countless hours of videos a day for snuff films. Eventually, techies clevered their way past this by throwing AI/ML at the gory content moderation problem, presumably freeing many of the human moderators from the most miserable of their duties. Now the human moderators presumably have more time to do other things but remember, they have their own biases just as much as any other human being. If they watch something they disagree with politically, are they more likely to click the “this video is inappropriate” button and gin up some flimsy rationale for the decision out of spite? I’d imagine this happens a lot.

Finally, it’s no secret that tech workers, particularly in Silicon Valley, have a very noticeable political leaning in one direction. So any moderation they do, even if they could apply it without bias (which I don’t believe for a second that they do, let alone want to), will have the apperance of a partisan attack. So there’s no easy answers. But techie arrogance being what it is, someone will eventually clever their way to some other “solution” that kicks the can down the road.

Exhibit F: “Expert beginners”

Also, the irony of criticizing Google on the same page that includes YouTube videos.

The Expert Beginner (2014) is a concept Erik Dietrich writes about at length. The term describes a person whose skill and/or knowledge has plateaued at a level substantially lower than mastery whose attitude towards deliberate improvement keep them at that plateau.

In his post, he uses a bowling story as an allegory to explain this:

I am a fairly athletic person. Growing up, I was always picked at least in the top 1/3rd or so of any people, for any sport or game that was being played, no matter what it was. I was a jack of all trades and master of none. This inspired in me a sort of mildly inappropriate feeling of entitlement to skill without a lot of effort, and so it went when I became a bowler.

Most people who bowl put a thumb and two fingers in the ball and carefully cultivate tossing the bowling ball in a pattern that causes the ball to start wide and hook into the middle. With no patience for learning that, I discovered I could do a pretty good job faking it by putting no fingers and thumbs in the ball and kind of twisting my elbow and chucking the ball down the lane.

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

It actually worked pretty well the more I bowled, and, when I started to play in an after work league for fun, my average really started to shoot up. I wasn’t the best in the league by any stretch–there were several bowlers, including a former manager of mine, who averaged between 170 and 200, but I rocketed up past 130, 140, and all the way into the 160 range within a few months of playing in the league.

But then a strange thing happened. I stopped improving. Right at about 160, I topped out.

I asked my old manager what I could do to get back on track with improvement, and he said something very interesting to me. Paraphrased, he said something like this:

There’s nothing you can do to improve as long as you keep bowling like that. You’ve maxed out. If you want to get better, you’re going to have to learn to bowl properly.

You need a different ball, a different style of throwing it, and you need to put your fingers in it like a big boy. And the worst part is that you’re going to get way worse before you get better, and it will be a good bit of time before you get back to and surpass your current average.

(Dietrich 2014)

Companies are hiring whoever they can, however they can, as fast as they can just to keep up with the increasing demand for tech. Some of the people they hire are Expert Beginners. Or they are actual beginners and stay with the organization for so long that they become Expert Beginners over time as they stopped growing, learning and improving because they had no time to seek out better ways of doing things.

The scary part? I’ve met dozens of developers over my career but only a handful that I thought truly understand AppSec well enough that I’d trust to design or implement a system to live on the Internet and not tucked safely away inside some corporate intranet somewhere. Oh, plenty of people talk a good game so it sounds like they know what they’re doing to non-technical stakeholders but if you look at their code you’ll find the back doors they wrote for themselves “just in case”, unvalidated user inputs passed directly to trusted contexts, misconfigured security parameters scattered throughout anything they touch. Is it any wonder that we can’t go longer than two weeks without hearing about yet another high-profile security breach?

Buggy software is an annoyance. Buggy security has the potential to destroy companies and governments. Security is not well understood by the people who have the biggest impact on it and nobody wants to pay for testing.

Worse is that to combat this, most enterprise security defaults to draconian measures and ignores the impact on workflows, leading people to seek dangerous workarounds. Stupid password complexity requirements? Reuse the same password across systems. Short password expiration dates? Write the password on a sticky note and slap it under the keyboard. The company does all the above and disables password managers? Use a keyboard walk.

And it extends beyond enterprises. Even though kids today are more tech savvy than their parents, their understanding is shallow—“tap here, click that and you’re good”—but nobody knows and most don’t care how it works but are being trusted for so much more tech than they ought to be.

Prognosis

How do we start fixing these problems?

Hand wringing aside, how do we go about reversing the damage caused by our current obsession with chasing technical solutions? I’m no authority on productivity and I’m not a philosopher but I do have some ideas.

1. Accept that not everything can be solved with technology and that not everything should be automated

As I said before, techie arrogance is what causes smart people to look at a problem and say “yeah I can solve that with code”. While you can think of a way which code can obscure some of the problems around an activity, remember that the problems are still festering somewhere out of view.

People are the underlying cause of nearly all of society’s problems (who could’ve seen that one coming). People problems are rarely fixable with computers or technical thinking because you can’t reduce people to variables in a math equation without taking morally dubious shortcuts that dehumanize everyone involved.

2. Slow down

Once organizations come to terms with #1, losing the insane Move Fast and Break Things (2019) mentality becomes possible as the ever-expanding workload finally starts to stabilize.

MFBT leads organizations to rush bad software out the door. And because there’s no breaks between this release and the next, nobody goes back to patch any of the holes that were in the original release until something catastrophic happens. And by that time, the original developers have likely left the organization so nobody knows where the bodies are buried anymore.

I’m reminded of an article titled All the best engineering advice I stole from non-technical people written by an engineering manager named Marianne Bellotti that really drove home for me the idea of slowing down and being more deliberate about things:

The first of two relevant anecdotes from her article speaks to a risk of not slowing down for organizations:

“People like us make our money in the seams of things”

There’s a long story about how I ended up in a State Department conference room with the NSA, but suffice to say it was a pretty crazy meeting in which a lot of very important people with impressive titles said a lot of stupid things about computer security. This would be the first of many times in my career in the federal government where we came in expecting to have a productive meeting with senior level leadership and were treated instead to a completely pointless dick measuring contest between three letter agencies. I remember the woman — and yes it was a woman — who made this comment was redirecting the conversation after her colleague had said something both wrong and insulting in response to a question from DHS. She was trying to defuse a situation, I doubt she thought much about her choice of words, but her insight was sharp and to the point. Security and reliability are more likely to go wrong in the seams between components. That means literal integrations, but it also means organization seams. Places where no one is sure who owns what, or who is responsible for what are unlikely to have proper monitoring and much more likely to be two or three upgrades behind. The seams are where things get lost, sometimes for years. So if your mandate is security or availability the seams are your best bet of finding a big pay off. (Bellotti 2019)

I’m a veteran, a patriot and thus very pro-military so I admit I’m not worried about DHS, FBI, NSA or [A-Z]{3} as I consider them to be the good guys. But make no mistake, the techniques $agency uses are the same techniques real bad guys use. And the chaos that occurs at the seams of things is the direct result of MFBT.

The second anecdote speaks to the benefits of slowing down for the individual:

“Thinking is also work”

On a personal level it gave me permission to take time when I needed time. Why should I feel guilty about leaving the office to go on a walk? Thinking is also work.

But it also influenced how I ran engineering teams. When I was in a traditional office environment I used to tell my people: If it’s 2pm and you’ve finished your work for the day and you have no meetings, just go home. You’re not cheating the organization, you’re putting that energy in the bank. You’re going to have some on call rotation where you get paged at 3am. Or a hard week where we have to work late to get something out the door. These things happen and are impossible to predict exactly when. If you’re done for the day go home, relax, spend some time with family. Put that time in the bank because we will certainly spent it later.

It seems silly that people need to be told that, but many of us have been trained to believe that if we’re not seen to be working, then management will assume we’re slacking off. (Bellotti 2019)

This is one I’ve personally struggled with. One of the unfortunate side effects of my time in the Marine Corps was the fear of being caught sitting and thinking. Chesty Puller help the Marine found sitting with his feet up in the air, even if there’s legitimately nothing to do, because someone will find something for him to do.

I’ve found that stopping to give myself time to think deliberately, even if that means moving away from a place where those who would steal that time from me can access me in order to do so, has resulted in much better technical designs and implementations than just trying to power my way through it.

3. Get off social media

Get off of Twitter. I’m not sure how much benefit can be extracted from this platform anymore but it’s plain to see how much it’s enabled so much mischief and bad behavior that it’s probably time for it and other platforms that only exist to let people shout at each other go away. I used my Twitter account to follow smart voices in tech and entertainment and to keep up on anime and video game news so I knew what was coming out when. It stopped being usable for that purpose during the ramp up of 2020 US election campaign season so I just didn’t log into it. I found other ways to get the info I need. Deleted the account in January.

Get off of Facebook. I used to be on Facebook so I could share pictures of the kids when they were babies with my family but realized that all my family members have 500+ “friends”. Doing the math, even the most biased timeline sorting algorithm puts the odds of them even seeing that I posted something, let alone actually going into the photos themselves are somewhere around Vegas numbers. Plus there’s the creepy factor of having my kids faces up on the internet for weirdos to find. Nah. Deleted the account back in 2010.

Get off of Reddit. I was a Digg refugee when I found Reddit (and a Slashdot refugee before that). I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And then slowly but surely I noticed a wave of particularly aggressive mean-spiritedness worming its way into every single subreddit I was following. I got to the point of not even wanting to look at comments anymore and asked myself if not for the comments, what’s even the point of being on Reddit? Deleted the account somewhere around 2012.

The only social media platform I’ve kept is Instagram and I only post pictures of cool crap I see around my day to day. I post once, maybe twice a year. Who knows, maybe I’ll get rid of that one day and just put photo rolls up on bazile.org.

Host your own ish, running on neutral hosting provider and keep backups; putting all the eggs in one basket means you empower the basketholder and if you piss them off one day or if they deem you a suitable sacrifice before the wrath of a Twitter mob, it’s bye-bye for you and your followers.

Go back to your message boards. Go back to your chat rooms. No I’m not talking about Reddit. Reddit has the same centralization problem as the other social media platforms. I’m talking private hosted vBulletin, phpBB and the like. I’m talking freenode. The people whose lives are enriched by chat and public forums can absorb it that way just as easily as they can in Big Tech’s walled gardens. The ones whose lives are not enriched will simply stop using the platforms. Yes there will be trolls. Trolls will always be a thing but small communities that aren’t underneath the crushing hand of Big Tech is the way you fix this.

Wow, I just realized how much of a “Reject Humanity; Return to Monke” vibe this gives off… 🤔

5. Stop deifying techies

Ironic thing to say as a presumable beneficiary of this process but I’ve met a lot of unsavory types in this industry: lazy, manipulative, vindictive, vain, indifferent, remorseless, slothful, conniving, greedy and intentionally obtuse; same as any other human endeavor.

Stop treating them like some higher caste. One of the best things America was founded on was the outright rejection of the concept of dynasties and noble birthright. We don’t have lords and ladies. This is a very good thing in every sense. We’re all the same grinning idiots as the rest of the idiots stomping around the planet. Reverence is earned, not given as a matter of belonging to some group.

6. Stop blindly trusting technology in general

If it’s online, it will be hacked eventually. If it computes, it will crash eventually. If it’s code someone’s selling to solve a people problem, it will fail in the most poetically ironic way at the most inconvenient time possible.

7. Stop telling everyone “learn to code”

Stop trying to force the non-technically inclined to learn to code. By all means, encourage underrepresented groups to try it out and see if they like it but stop painting it as some thing people have to do.

Lets let nerds be nerds and let jocks be jocks. Techies need the jocks to deal with meatspace things and the jocks need techies to deal with techspace things.

8. Stop trying to kill email

Slow communications forces you to think about what you’re trying to communicate. You can’t just vomit out whatever half-baked thought pops into your head.

If people are able to embrace deliberate thought again, I’m convinced that we’ll see a return of rational and intellectually honest discourse and respecting of boundaries.

References

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