the on tech newsletter
We’re grappling with how to handle the tech we have, and imagining what to make of the tech of our future.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.
This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
One proof of that victory is that it’s hard to define what “technology” even is. Tech is more like a coat of new paint on everything than a definable set of products or industries. Health care is tech. Entertainment is tech. Schools are tech. Money is tech. Transportation is tech. We live through tech.
Technology is also in a liminal phase where the promise of what might be coming next coexists with the complicated reality of what is happening now.
We’re grappling with the benefits and the drawbacks of the still relatively recent popularity of smartphones in billions of pockets, online shopping and the social media megaphones that both help us build community and tear us apart. Many people are also leapfrogging ahead to a future in which computers might increasingly predict cancer, beam internet connections from space, control weapons and blur the line between what’s real and virtual.
The “ugh, now what?!” stage of technology is colliding with the “what’s next?!” phase. It’s both exciting and unsettling.
It’s confusing to know how to shape technology that exists today to best serve human needs, and also do the same for an imagined future that may never come. Package deliveries by drone and driverless cars were among the technologies that insiders predicted would be relatively common by now. (They’re still both far from that.) It’s reasonable to expect that some of today’s promised innovations will take awhile to go mainstream, if they ever do.
What may be most unusual about this “what’s next” moment in technology is that it’s happening relatively out in the open, with billions of people and power brokers watching or involved.
Steve Jobs and Apple dreamed up the first modern smartphone mostly in secret — although, people gossiped about the iPhone long before it was introduced in 2007. Today’s Apple and a zillion other companies are testing driverless cars on public roads and with regulators and the public peering over their shoulders.
This is one example of what happens when technology is no longer confined to shiny gadgets or pixels on a screen. When technology is woven into everything, it doesn’t sneak up on us. Once, perhaps, technology felt like things that magical tech elves invented in their workshops and handed over for humans to adore. No more. Technology is normal, not magic. And — like everything else in the world — it can be good and bad.
That can sometimes feel disappointing, but it’s also healthy. We have all grown a little savvier about the nuanced effects of technology in our lives. Technology is neither the cause of nor the solution to all of life’s problems. (Yes, “Simpsons” nerds, I see you.)
Uber and similar on-demand ride services are handy to both passengers and people who want a flexible job. Those services also helped clog roads despite early promises that they would ease traffic, and might have helped popularize a form of perilous work. Technology in our homes helped us muddle through work, school and a social life during the past couple of years. And yet it’s so hard to make a stupid printer work.
Technology didn’t cause the coronavirus pandemic, nor did it invent vaccines and distribute them to billions of people. Social media has contributed to social divisions in the U.S., but it’s just one of the forces of polarization. Technology is probably not the magical answer to climate change, nor to climbing rates of violence in parts of the U.S. Technology can assist us in finding the community that we need, but it can’t do the difficult work of sustaining those connections.
I hope that we’ve become skeptical but not cynical about the forces of technology. We can believe that tech can help, and we can also keep in mind that sometimes it can do harm. And sometimes tech doesn’t matter much at all. Technology alone does not change the world. We do.
I wrote this week about my eagerness for more technologies that can give us microdoses of human empathy and connection. And I asked what technology you wanted most in 2022 and beyond. On Tech readers are smart! Here are a few of your responses. (They have been lightly edited.)
Stephen Young in New Orleans:
I would pay to use an app that connects me IRL with people who share similar interests. It would be so cool to open an app and see a heat map that indicates the presence of people who share my interests (and want to connect) and who are in public places.
(Editor’s note: You can try Meetup for a similar experience, although it’s not exactly like this.)
Mo in Vancouver, British Columbia:
I’d like some tech that inspires me to make time for non-tech activities I used to love but have drifted away from. Things like painting and dancing around for the fun of it.
Jack Schaller in Philadelphia:
I would like to have better “intelligence” built into our email client engines to intuitively sort the fire hose of mail we all receive into bins for processing, storing, referencing, etc.
Gerald G. Stiebel in Santa Fe, N.M.:
I would love to see tech that helped with the continuous issues that we have with our tech. Let us know why Xfinity suddenly went out on both of our TVs at the same time. Why do my Sony headphones beep and stop my music or video until I reset them? Why do my apps suddenly change how they work when there is an update that “improves” my service?
If there were one place all this information would appear with recommendations for repair or to restore my apps and interrelated material, this would take a lot of pressure off our lives, particularly if we are over 30.
Andrew in Toronto:
We all long to travel again. To encounter new places, to meet others and to engage different cultures. NOT in the metaverse, but in the real world.
Where is the technology that can listen to what I want, understand my location and interpret my answers to provide suggestions on things to do, places to go and experiences available to me that meet the need for adventure, romance, relaxation and discovery? What algorithm exists that can figure out the things that will feed happiness and encourage me to explore a city or neighborhood?
It took me all of two seconds to come up with this tech I want to have: an automatic feed machine that will take one’s old (really old) music tapes / cassettes / CDs and transfer / convert the contents to one ginormous [data file] worth of MP3s.
Aleksi V. in Helsinki, Finland:
The technology I’d most like to see in 2022 is anything that brings us real, meaningful progress on the climate crisis. I trust that there are many organizations out there working on projects geared toward solving it, but it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve heard of something really impactful in that area. It would just be nice to see something that could give me hope for our future again.
Capping a complicated year for Amazon and its hourly workers: My colleague Karen Weise reports that Amazon reached a settlement that would give company workers greater flexibility to organize unions in its buildings.
“Victims really are on their own.” Greg Bensinger from The New York Times’s Opinion section says that Uber’s policies discourage its customer service agents from suggesting that passengers and drivers call the police about claims of sexual assault or other crimes. “Police reports can puncture Uber’s carefully crafted safety image — and open the company up to more lawsuits and responsibility,” Greg writes in his column.
Some people get bored with their Alexa toys quickly: Amazon sells lots of voice-controlled smart speakers and other gadgets over the holidays. But Bloomberg Businessweek reports that some years, up to one in four of those new Alexa device owners stop using them within a couple of weeks. (A subscription may be required.)
My favorite version* of “My Favorite Things” is this TikTok duet from the gospel singer Robyn McGhee.
*(Other than Julie Andrews’s.)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.
The Year in Photos: Look through the pictures that helped us tell the story of 2021.
2021 Firsts: A round-up of events and trends, surprising and serious, noted for the first time ever this year.
Making Black History: Here are the achievements that shaped the first year following the country’s racial reckoning.
Moments in Sport: In 2021, players and leagues tried to return to normal in the shadow of the coronavirus.
Quiz: Do you recognize the notable people whose stories defined the year?