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Head in the Cloud

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My closest friends are moving across the country. I’m packing up my things from the apartment I’ve called home for the past two and a half years of college. Another semester winds down to a close. 

Change is unsettling for me. Attachment, and quite possibly nostalgia, tether me to what feels like the perpetual present; I’m always wishing that I could stretch out moments for longer. And maybe that’s why I like living in California so much — where the changing of the seasons is barely noticeable and the passage of time is felt on my own accord. 

Yet despite my resistance to change, I find myself in the midst of an industry that’s notorious for how quickly it changes. There’s never a shortage of startups being acquired for billions of dollars by this or that company, friends leaping between different companies and biweekly software updates coming out. The tech industry evolves so quickly that analysts can’t tell if the economic growth is sustainable. It’s so fast that laws can barely keep up.

In tech, there are always new user interfaces for app users to adjust to, new programming libraries for software engineers to catch up on and new psychological findings for designers to optimize their designs for. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, how my personal experience of technology has shifted drastically since I first got online when I was 7 years old. While the internet used to be an exploration of pixelated, fictional worlds for me, it’s now a singular, interconnected digital world in which I need to be registered in order to exist.

Especially when Facebook’s ruthless motto of “move fast and break things” has permeated across tech culture, rapid change and disruption are worshipped in the tech industry. And regardless of whether they’re positively accepted by users or not, tech companies continuously roll out features and products with the hopes that some of them will stick. 

When companies introduce changes to their products, it’s important to think critically about the reasons behind those decisions. When gentrification rolls over the historic and cultural landscape of the city, it’s not enough to simply succumb to the belief that the nature of the city should change. On the surface, it may seem that the tech industry is always evolving, but the systems in place behind the face of the tech industry have always been the same — it’s always been about scalability and optimization, increasing engagement and making more money.

A lot of change happens without a lot of progress. At work last summer, I found myself among other software engineers feeling a repetitive drag in merely rearranging buttons and tracking metrics for whether user engagement increased. With the allure of “innovation,” we’re always excited by “new” features that are constantly being added to apps until we realize that those same features are being implemented in other apps already. 

And the more that the tech industry seems to shift beneath our feet, we don’t need to accept companies pivoting business models nor do we need to remain ambivalent toward building an app feature that’s designed to make the app more addictive. We tend to think of technological change as inevitable, but when we realize that there are actual people behind the decisions being made, we’re able to float the idea that there might be other alternatives.

As trivialized as tech industry changes can be, it’s the frequency at which the industry evolves that makes me optimistic that more meaningful change can happen within our lifetime. It’s why, as much as I complain about the tech industry, I choose to stay.

There’s no real incentive for the industry to change its model of optimizing for maximum user engagement or amplification. After all, it’s what generates revenue. And with cushy salaries and shiny benefits, there’s not much real incentive for software engineers to rock the boat either.

But as resistant to change as I am, tech is running out of attention to capitalize on, and playing along with the tech industry’s existing game of infinite amplification is unsustainable. 

So, in the midst of warming temperatures and cities opening up again after a yearlong pause, I’m learning to be more comfortable with change. Rather than yearning for moments to last forever, I’m excited to make new memories in new cities with my friends who are moving away, renovate the new apartment that I’m moving into and kick off my final year of college next semester. I’m still afraid of the emotional uncertainty that the flow of time brings, but I’d much rather keep moving than be fossilized in the past.

So as this column comes to a close and I get closer to entering the industry, I think it’s about time that I start acting on the changes that I want to see. I’m going to stop bending to existing power structures, build products for more than just a tech audience and scrutinize the meaning of “good” in tech. Individual change gives me hope that maybe the tech industry as a whole can evolve for the better — and faster than we expect.

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