Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Alarming Self-Righteousness in Tech

There is a growing self-righteousness in the tech community, and like any other self-righteousness, it is ugly. The latest example that I’ve seen of this is the manifesto published by Karma, a Techstars NY company with a vision of more user-friendly mobile service. Don’t get me wrong – I agree that the telecom industry has stagnated and that somebody needs to shake it up, and I applaud Karma’s broader goals – but revisionist history and framing ourselves as the “good guys” in a battle between good and evil makes me uneasy about what lies ahead.

Some of the sins of telcos include [emphasis and footnotes mine]:
  •      “[Preferring] you keep sending text messages”
  •       [Wanting] to charge you additionally for your choice of online services, killing net neutrality.”
  •       “[Giving] you an “unlimited*” plan] with an asterisk meaning: “*expect more bills if you’re a fan of our service.”
  •       “[Not letting you] ”share your connection with your own devices, let alone other people.”
  •       Offering a “2-year plan, with a pricing table only an accountant can figure out,” with a “$1000 bill for checking your e-mail during that holiday in Paris.”
  •       Sucking like a vampire.
  •       Trying to drive us “go back to Graham Bell’s phone,” “thereby denying us our humanity” (my paraphrase).

All despite the fact that you and your friends merely want to:
·       “[use apps] to completely change your mobile devices to do whatever you see fit [1].”
·      Be “online everywhere you go.”
·      “pay for what you use” – except apparently quantities of data that overwhelm the network and prevent less deserving consumers from getting the QoS that is your birthright.

The humanity of it all! Being expected to pay more to consume more of a product you are a fan of? That never happens. Why, just the other day I walked into an Apple store and told them how much I liked my iPad and they told me “Here, take another one, on us!” I’m a big craft beer fan, so it’s a good thing I don’t have to pay for extra pours from my neighborhood bar. Oh, and thank goodness my lawyer doesn’t charge me when I take up more of his time.

Just 20 years ago we had to pay for every call we made. At the outbreak of WWII the cost of a 10 minute call from New York to Los Angeles was $13 (that’s $203 in todays dollars) – and you probably had to wait in line to make it. Imagine fighting on the Western front, unable to call your loved ones. This is probably why they were called the greatest generation. Thank god we vanquished the Commies!

The above is clearly dripping with sarcasm, but there’s a point here. Incumbent telcos and technology companies may be an obstacle to innovation, but they aren’t evil. Net neutrality may be a good thing, but it’s not a moral right. SOPA may have been a bad idea, but it wasn’t cause for excommunication [3]. By the way, the same is true of consumers who download files without the legal licenses. A religious war yields deaf ears on both sides – but I can only speak to my own community.

Karma’s post is fairly harmless, and I applaud the intent behind it. It’s less the effort of one idealisticly naïve entrepreneur to rally support for his company, and more that the community thinks that putting things in such black and white terms is a good thing. Many smart people who I deeply respect for their intelligence and insight retweeted this post with universal approval. I understand equally the desire of VCs to pander to startups they want to invest in, or conversely the disincentive to censure someone you like, but the minute you start framing things in moral terms you go from revolutionary to fanatic; from idealism to dogma, and this is a slippery slope [4].

[1] Unless you have an iPhone, in which case you can change your device in whatever ways Apple sees fit, but it’s never been popular in the tech community

[4] Paul Graham is one of my heroes. He is the most creative intellect the tech world has – the best startup blogs pale in comparison with the insight in his essays  My decision to link in footnotes instead of inline is a direct copy of his style. His thoughts on essay writing permeate this very post – I hardly expected to reach the conclusion that YCombinator is the source of much dogma. But that’s where I’ve arrived: my profound respect for PG is why I’m so disappointed in the almost fascist tendencies I’m seeing: that YC companies are inherently superior and shouldn’t be subject to the valuations that apply other startups (an idea I’ve heard from more than one entrepreneur who otherwise I respect), and the Kill Hollywood RFS.

Thanks to Jared Lanier for his NYTimes op-ed, The False Ideals of the Web, which helped inspire this post, or at least make my less afraid to read it.

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