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Full Version: The myth that everything is "tech"
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The label’s become too big to be useful, and tech could suffer for it.

Quick: What do an auto leasing provider, a condiment company and the producers of a serious TV drama have in common? If your answer is “almost nothing”, then you’re right. If your answer is “they have such similar roles in society that they should be regulated and reported on the same way”, then congratulations—you still believe there’s “tech industry”.

Uber is providing predatory sub-prime leases to its drivers through its subsidiary Xchange. Mayonnaise startup (yes, ?) Hampton Creek is under SEC investigation for buying back its own mayo. Amazon is going toe-to-toe with companies like HBO with a prestige series like Transparent. And absurdly, we’re expecting lawmakers, the media and average consumers to understand these wildly different offerings—and countless more ranging from mattresses to medical testing—as part of one single, endlessly complex, industry.
That’s an impossible task, and a bad way to think about technology’s role in society. Perpetuating the myth of a monolithic “tech industry” overtaxes our ability to manage the changes that technology is making to society, and that overload threatens to have increasingly negative impacts.

Once upon a time, it made perfect sense to talk about “the high tech industry” in America — pioneering companies like Intel or Fairchild Semiconductor or IBM or Hewlett Packard made computer processors and related hardware, and most of the companies in Silicon Valley dealt with actual silicon from time to time. These companies offered competing products that shared a market, a set of customers, and sometimes even had employees in common when talent would move from one company to another.

But today, the major players in what’s called the “tech industry” are enormous conglomerates that regularly encompass everything from semiconductor factories to high-end retail stores to Hollywood-style production studios. The upstarts of the business can work on anything from cleaning your laundry to creating drones. There’s no way to put all these different kinds of products and services into any one coherent bucket now that they encompass the entire world of business.

Everything is eating the world

It’s no wonder that those who most closely follow the challenges of today’s media environment feel that “coverage of the tech sector presents one of the most profound accountability challenges in modern journalism” — what journalist could credibly switch from covering Apple’s water consumption at its newest data center to evaluating whether fashionistas will embrace the latest Hermès-branded Apple Watch accessory?

The danger isn’t simply that some blogger won’t know how to review the latest gadgets. Put simply, every industry and every sector of society is powered by technology today, and being transformed by the choices made by technologists. Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world”, but it’s far more accurate to say that the neoliberal values ofsoftware tycoons are eating the world. Peter Thiel is all-in for Donald Trump, who publicly suggested replacing our military’s digital communications with human couriers carrying paper missives—clearly this techie’s top priority is not feeding the planet to the all-consuming software beast.
Similarly, it’s easiest to understand Uber as a machine for converting publicly-planned metropolitan transportation networks into privately-controlled automated dispatch systems; the fact that an app is used to achieve that transition is almost incidental to the overarching goal of owning a market. And what does a company like Uber have in common with a social platform like Pinterest, except that both employ some coders who know how to make iPhone apps? Precious little.
In short -- and as short as I can make it -- creating a technology is "tech". Using it is finance, administration, creative activity, or (at worst) new and clever forms of exploitation. So if Uber simply finds a way to get around taxi licensing by using the Internet, then it is not so much technology as it is a new model of business. If Amazon can get away with replacing the retail experience of impulse shopping for books or recorded music, then such is the exploitation of technology for an economic shortcut.

It's the new and clever forms of exploitation for which we must be on guard. We need a fresh assertion of the value of humanity, and being being overworked and underpaid has never been real progress. Perhaps it can be means to an end, but if it is the end in itself we see nothing more than the revival of capitalism at its worst -- exploitation without service.