Aborting the mission of good

Head in the Cloud

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When I decided to major in computer science, all I knew was that I liked building websites, looking at fonts and browsing the internet. The glamorization of hacker culture made tech seem shiny and exciting and I wanted in on it.

I didn’t know about the money or the lax lifestyle yet, nor was I aware of the common burnout and toxicity that people often experience in tech. Computers merely offered me the promise of being part of something bigger than myself. And like almost every high school student applying to college, I was blindly altruistic in believing that I would someday single-handedly make a massive impact on the world.

I’d like to think that in the beginning, Silicon Valley really did want to make the world a better place too. The missions of social media companies to create a “free and global conversation” sounds noble, and Google’s philosophy of making information more accessible for everyone is convincing. Beneath the optimistic skies of the Bay Area technocracy, it seemed impossible for tech to morally clash with anything.

But soon enough, tech’s culture of worshipping founders stopped making sense as data privacy violations, internal corporate harassment scandals and antitrust hearings began to reveal Silicon Valley’s failures. 

Silicon Valley’s ethos of progress isn’t believable anymore; instead, its hype comes from “entrepreneurial opportunity.” But a closer look reveals that these opportunities are mere attempts to fill voids that were created by eroding existing institutions. For one, Airbnb is demolishing the housing market as it lifts property owners from the long-term market into the short-term one.

And as tech becomes oversaturated with founders selling their startups to investors, I find that it is increasingly difficult to justify that the purpose of tech is to “make the world a better place.” For example, Uber launched Uber Health to enable health care workers to pick up patients in Ubers and transport them to the hospital. And currently, they have an initiative to provide rides to and from vaccine appointments under the rhetoric of “removing transportation barriers to vaccine appointments.”

But as naively “good” as all of that seems, it raises the question as to why Uber thinks it should be the one to solve these issues when medical transport services are already in place to accomplish this. Many in tech assume that tech can and should solve all our problems and I find that too often tech workers merely want to feel like heroes. They patch things up with flimsy lines of code instead of addressing any real issues or social impacts. What results is no real fix, but 10 apps that look only slightly different from each other and all do the same thing.

The tech industry is aborting its promise of what it could’ve been. And last summer when I interned at Facebook, I felt the rippling effects of its abandoned purpose.

Spinning around in my swivel chair and poking at keys on my keyboard, I couldn’t help but feel a certain hollowness and meaninglessness at work. Even though I enjoyed solving technical problems and liked the people on my team, I simply didn’t care about what I was doing because my code could be overwritten at any time and its contribution to the world was fleeting. My work felt detached from myself, and in a world where people strive for meaning, my work didn’t offer any. 

The biggest manifestation of my conflict of purpose was during the antitrust hearings last summer. With the Facebook codebase pulled up on my desktop monitor while live footage of Mark Zuckerberg’s court interrogation played on my laptop, even my self-delusion that my work could make the world better couldn’t get me to believe in Facebook’s mission to connect people anymore. 

As the gleam of our generational gold rush fades, the tech industry’s desperation to mean something is starting to show. Day in and day out, startups try to prove their worth to investors, raising funding for tech workers with a dwindling “save the world” mentality to build apps that sell data. And to keep companies afloat, employees are expected to constantly push code and design features without being able to take the time to think about why they’re doing it in the first place. 

The tech industry is becoming filled with more of the same B2B services, cloud computing and data analytics software, and the illusion of innovation and altruism is starting to flicker.

As I start to consider where I want to work after I graduate, I don’t want to give up the perhaps naive belief that I’ll make a positive change in the world. I’m still holding onto the hope that I’ll get to work with people I like, that I’ll like the product that I’m building and that I’ll be meaningfully challenged by my work.

But most of all, I still think that hope lies in those of us who are beginning to see the tech industry for what it is, and who refuse to settle for the “it’s business as usual” mentality. I don’t know what the future of tech looks like, but I want to continue questioning the narratives that companies are standing by and scrutinizing what they consider “good.” Maybe that way, I can start putting together for myself what good in tech can actually look like.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.