Dopamine Shot” by Kim Taylor, Redhorse Studio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

I have a very intimate relationship with technology.

Not only do I use it, I create it. It’s like a child to me. And I’ve come to accept that it’s not always good.

It all began in high school. Status games determined the pecking order. Who’s the most popular, who’s the smartest, and who gets picked on.

With everyone joining Facebook, these games restricted to the school became permanent. You’re connected to everyone, and that brings with it all the good and the bad. I was just a part of the game and I was on top. I didn’t see this compromise then.

But, I got lucky.

Around this time, I was starting a two year transformative project. My revered mentor asked me to try an experiment - take a break from Facebook. So, I did. A year later, I asked my younger brother to test it out too. Another year later, at the end of my project, I came back online. My brother never came back. He didn’t make the compromise.

The Compromise

Technology isn’t just digital. We started with stone tools. A hardware technology that made hunting and building easier. Then, came agriculture. A revolutionary tech - growing food in one place had lots of desirable side effects. We could grow more food, sustain a larger population, and people could specialize.

However this came at the cost of hunter gathering. People were tied down to one place and disasters could wipe out everyone. People lost a varied diet - since they’ll eat what they’ll grow. Specialization led to social inequality.1

That was the compromise.

Every new tech since - has a compromise.

But with digital tech, the number of trade offs are going down.

Now, I understand why I came back online and my brother didn’t. I came back because I wasn’t making the compromise anymore. I was reaping the benefits without the downside. My conclusion? The digital technology revolution seems different from the ones that came before it. It hasn’t been tamed, yet.

The Configurability

The digital technology revolution seems different because I wasn’t here for the invention of writing and money.

I divide technologies into two - physical and mental.

With physical technologies, you can see the invention: it exists in physical space.

With mental technologies, the physical substrate is just a means of expression. The real tech is how you use the substrate. It’s more a process than a physical technology.

Take writing. You can write on rocks, on paper, on the internet, in clay tablets - the result is the same: You’re sharing ideas or keeping a log of what happened. What’s the difference? The medium, the substrate determines how and where your message goes.2

What’s the big deal then? Before writing, the only way to communicate was to talk with someone. People die, rocks and paper don’t. With writing, everyone didn’t have to learn everything from scratch. You could pick up where your ancestors left off.

Likewise, software. It’s a tech that multiplies effects of writing and money. It’s a tech that acts as a medium, a physical substrate for writing and money - our two original mental technologies.3
We designed software to be flexible. After all, it’s a medium for existing technologies as well as a new mental technology.

Given its flexibility, its open to configuration. And that is the key to reducing trade offs. You can configure digital tech to your needs and remove most of the trade offs.

Consider the mobile phone, our new distraction king. I can’t deal with my phone controlling my life. My resolution? Tame it.

I knew I could move icons on my iPhone around. I didn’t know I could do the same with the first screen - the default apps from Apple.
I didn’t know I could switch my iPhone to greyscale - and remove all visual stimulation.
I didn’t know I could remove all notifications and mute all but a few calls.

However, you can’t configure everything.

What can’t you do? Remove the business plan from the situation.

Products today are designed to be configurable, minus the business plan.

Consider Facebooks ad model, which thrives via collecting personal information. You can limit the data collection a bit, but if it’s a real problem: Switch to an open network where you control your identity. (Like uPort). The challenge though, is that not everyone will be there - not everyone considers the data collection a problem. You’re trading off privacy for social connection.

Every other aspect of Facebook? You can configure it.

Afraid of filter bubbles? You can curate your feed.

Don’t want the hassle with random people messaging you? You can disable all inbound requests.

The resolution

Tech as it stands isn’t perfect. Like we saw, the business model is concrete. Companies don’t want you to move it around.

When I tamed my iPhone, I removed the compromise4. My iPhone now works like the ancient Nokia - with the upside of storing all my books. To top it off, it’s all in greyscale - so I love reading books on my phone. There’s no strain. And, it never rings. It has stopped screaming for my attention.

Now, what if I wanted a Facebook without ads? Not another clone, no. My friends aren’t on the clone. I want Facebook with zero tracking.

Can we configure tech to make this happen? A product that lets you choose the business model? - Thus altering the entire experience?

What would such a product look like? Crowd-funded by a section of the population. Subscription model for another fraction. Ads model for another fraction. You can choose the model depending on what plays well with your needs.

The best bit? Everyone would be happy. Facebook earns about $2 per customer per month. For those who don’t want ads, a subscription for $2 per month is ideal. Free and without ads? Sounds like a new business model is in order!

It will still come with a default5 - and most people will be on that. After all, defaults are powerful.

Despite accepting that tech isn’t always good, I’m describing how great it could be - like a parent who refuses to accept their child can be a thief.

  1. Jared Diamond, in The Worst Mistake of History . Some specializations are more special than others. 

  2. Or, as Marshall McLuhan would put it, “The medium is the message” 

  3. Software is eating the world 

  4. I didn’t remove the business model from the picture though. I paid for the phone - that compromise still exists. 

  5. I suspect the defaults would be the existing models - they’re the stable equilibrium.