When Worlds Collide

on May 30, 2014

After reading Ben Thompson’s recent blog post titled “The Net Neutrality Wake Up Call,” I couldn’t help but shake my head a little.

This is not a knock on Thompson; his article was well written and his qualitative analysis of the tech industry is exceptional in my opinion. However, it often seems like a strong belief in (some would say “love of”) technology creates a bit of cognitive dissonance. Technologists of all stripes, whether journalist, pundit, analyst, or consumer, often seem to have an almost religious relationship with technology. They believe in its transformative power and often do not understand or appreciate why elements of society would resist it. To paraphrase Thompson, he stated that often when the tech industry is challenged in a fashion in which its fundamental operation may suffer, tech supporters will generally wait until the last minute to raise their voices to meet the challenge. I think that is the case because the tech industry seems to have a hard time understanding that some people and organizations, for distinct reasons, are simply not as invested in the change technology brings as they are.

I’d first like to address Thompson’s statement of technology “changing the world.” It’s very tempting to immediately view change as a positive, especially in hindsight. However, consider that the World Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the rise and fall of several great empires also changed the world. While change is necessary for the world to evolve, it’s a mistake to ignore the negative impacts of such a process. In the same way technology has enabled the most noble elements of society, it has also benefited those with the least noble intent. Not to mention there are injustices committed in the world today that technology has yet to touch. In fact, as is the case of certain working conditions, it could easily be stated technology may, at times, even facilitate injustice.

And who is to say, when all is said and done, we won’t bear technology’s ultimate costs. We live increasingly in a world in which our actions are monitored around the clock. Technology has built an apparatus the likes of which tyranny never had. If the U.S. were to fall into the hands of a dictator, he (or she) would not only control the most technologically advanced arsenal in history, but also the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus ever devised. As dystopian as it may seem, there are many plausible scenarios in which technology is just as likely to seriously harm our civilization as it is to enrich it.

Change is the root of technological advancement and conflict often accompanies great change. In the current Net Neutrality situation, I see both the seeds of change and conflict. As technological growth accelerates, technology companies increasingly encounter resistance from entrenched interests. Whether it’s Tesla facing the legacy car dealerships, Amazon’s dust up with Hachette, Uber and Lyft challenging the regulatory system that favors the traditional taxi industry, or Aereo waging its court battle against the television and cable industry, the forces of disruptive change are meeting stiff resistance from incumbents who have spent a generation or more not only building their industries but leveraging political power to protect them.

Technologists like to view those interests as the “old guard,” dinosaurs hopelessly clinging to an archaic system already been rendered obsolete. This is a grave simplification in my view. Resistance is a natural response to challenges that threaten the very existence of a being or system. No entity ever wants to be displaced; it’s often a painful process that destroys years of “creative construction.”

I’ve witnessed a great deal of disruptive change in my relatively short lifetime, particularly in the technology industry. Within the last seven years, I’ve seen the original Personal Computer (PC), a paradigm that took over two decades to become ubiquitous, be completely overwhelmed by mobile computing, a technological wave staggering in its implications. Fortunately, this change has been mostly beneficial for the huge majority of people, so resistance has been minimal.

However, I can’t help but wonder what will happen as technology becomes more pervasively active versus passive. How will people respond to a sky full of drones or streets with self-driving cars and robots? Will this become our new normal or will people view them as intrusions or worse, potential extensions of the surveillance/police state? How much will technology supplant the things that are distinctly human, such as the jovial UPS guy on our route or the friendly server at our favorite restaurant? It wasn’t very long ago people used to deliver milk to our doorstep. When drones are delivering our packages and our cars are driving us rather than vice versa, will we simply ease into this new reality or will some elements of our society vigorously, maybe even violently, resist this change?

Net Neutrality has sparked this thought exercise in me because it is one of the rare instances in which I can witness the effects of this technological sea change happening at its intersection. On one side, you have the interests representing the physical internet, the “pipes” so to speak. They live in a world of slow development, high capital expenditure and investment. Their end game is Return on Investment. The way they see it, their pipes are extremely expensive to build and maintain so they want to make as much money on them as possible to drive both value creation and future infrastructure growth. On the other side are the interests of the “virtual” internet, the ones and zeros, the digital realm. They live in a world of rapid development, much lower capital expenditure and investment relative to the returns. Their end game is network effects. The way they see it, capitalism is now being driven by the innovation they produce, eliminating a variety of business and communication inefficiencies while enabling billions of people to come out of poverty by making the tools for entrepreneurship amazingly inexpensive and accessible to all. To me, it’s the perfect example of not only how our world is changing, but also our perceptions of wealth, worth, and value.

Software and intelligent machines are altering our lives, but we often forget how much they still rely on the resources of the physical world which is deeply rooted in the past. Tesla has leveraged technology to transform how cars are built, powered, and sold yet it still requires a massive amount of physical capital to make its business viable. Our smartphones, which open up vast windows of possibility for even the world’s poorest people, are still mostly assembled by hand in factories. Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Netflix may have transformed the way we find and consume information, entertainment, and products, but they still rely heavily on huge amounts of physical infrastructure. The virtual world intersects the physical world a lot more than some are willing to admit. The digital world relies on the material world for its existence. Change happens at the speed of thought in virtual space, but far more slowly in real time. As those forces continue to collide, I expect to see far more resistance, particularly as that change directly impacts the vested interests of the physical world.

As far Net Neutrality goes, I’m not sure how it’s going to play out — though, if I have to admit it, I’m a little pessimistic about the situation being resolved in a way that benefits innovation and consumers.

However, I’m more certain the virtual world and the physical world will increasingly find themselves at odds. How those conflicts resolve will reveal a great deal about how our world will likely change in both the short and long term. Will the politically connected, entrenched interests prevail? Or will they eventually be swept away by the irresistible technological wave that seems determined to swiftly transform our world more in the next decade than it has over the entire course of human history?

The present may favor the former outcome, but history certainly favors the latter.