What We Got Wrong About Tech

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

Happy New Year! (I can still say that on Jan. 4, right?)

To kick off 2022, I asked smart people to confess: What have you been wrong about related to technology, and why? Reflecting back on misjudgments can help us all more effectively look ahead.

This exercise was inspired by Bret Taylor, the co-chief executive of the software company Salesforce, who posed a similar question on Twitter months ago. Taylor said that he had been wrong about how quickly driverless cars would become commonplace.

Among my mea culpas was believing that Apple would soon become a fading tech empire. Ha, nope. (I’ll dig more into this in tomorrow’s newsletter.) Here’s a selection of responses, which have been edited.

Tech cannot fix problems caused by car dependence:

For a long time, I was excited about technologies related to transportation, including apps that made it easier for people to take an Uber to a train station or a scooter ride the last mile to work from a bus stop. I thought that they would help cities liberate themselves from a reliance on cars. I was wrong.

America’s cities are so reliant on cars not because we lack tech options or alternatives. It’s because we have policies that subsidize automobiles. There is free parking, zoning that separates people’s homes from work and shopping and a lack of investment in public transit, walking and cycling to make alternatives to car trips more appealing. These are policy failures. Technology can be helpful, but often it’s extra credit when we haven’t passed the basic test.

David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who researches cities, technology, and how people and goods move around

Technology improved people’s lives and incomes, but the gains were uneven:

Pretty much everything that makes our lives better, healthier and more secure comes from new technology. But since at least the Industrial Revolution, new technology also displaces people economically. What I and many other economists didn’t fully grasp was how many jobs would be lost to technology automation and how quickly that would happen.

Tech also helped create new jobs, and wages have increased, but much of the gains went to high-end knowledge workers. There are good jobs out there, but we’re just not good at getting people to that work and training them for it.

Allison Schrager, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research center

Educational records are still scattered all over the place:

It’s now much easier, though far from perfect, to gain access to my health records online because of policy and technological changes over the last decade. I assumed that electronic educational records would come swiftly after that. They haven’t. Workers, parents and companies still have no simple way to retrieve records from education and job training. It hurts us and the economy.

Job seekers and military veterans don’t always remember all their certifications and training that could help them get better work and higher pay. Workers and parents have to do so much work to get school transcripts and other records that are often still kept on paper. Companies spend a lot of time verifying people’s credentials, degrees and licenses. The government should have centralized databases from accredited colleges and universities. It should be easy.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the career website ZipRecruiter

Facebook didn’t learn from its grave harms:

I was wrong that playing a role in enabling genocide would be sufficient cause for a major tech company to make meaningful changes.

Anil Dash, chief executive of the programming company Glitch, a veteran technology entrepreneur and a frequent critic of Facebook. (Dash first wrote this as a response to Taylor’s tweet, and he told me that it’s still the biggest thing he has been wrong about in technology.)

We’re still clinging to hopes for driverless cars:

People claimed that we would have self-driving cars on every road by 2020. When 2020 came and went, I thought self-driving car enthusiasts would give up on the dream. I thought people would realize that autonomous vehicles don’t work in snow or bad weather. I thought that people would realize that the computer vision algorithms in self-driving cars don’t detect people of color well, that they’re as racist as the algorithms in soap dispensers or facial recognition systems.

I hoped that a public conversation about racial bias in algorithms would lead to companies’ making better decisions about rolling out tech that has obvious racial, gender or ability bias. I was wrong. I would like to be less wrong about this in 2022.

Meredith Broussard, an artificial intelligence researcher and associate professor in data journalism at New York University

If there’s a lesson from these varied responses, it may be that we have a tendency to both overestimate and underestimate the amount of change that technology can spark in the world. Humility about technology feels like a useful mode for 2022.

Before we go …

  • Guilty verdicts for Elizabeth Holmes: A jury found the founder of the failed blood testing start-up Theranos guilty on four charges related to defrauding investors, my colleagues Erin Griffith and Erin Woo write. Holmes is expected to appeal.

    Related: Erin Griffith writes that technologists tried to distance themselves from Theranos, but that the company and Holmes relied on the Silicon Valley start-up playbook of overly optimistic puffery, denigrating doubters and stoking a “fear of missing out.” Also read David Streitfeld on the indictment of the “fake it until you make it” culture.

  • Calculating the threats of political violence: An investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post found at least 650,000 posts in public Facebook groups that questioned the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election victory, including false information and violent threats, in the months before the Capitol riot one year ago.

  • A personal word game that became a big hit: A software engineer in Brooklyn, Josh Wardle, created an online word game called Wordle just for his partner. It took off. “It’s just a game that’s fun,” Wardle told my colleague Daniel Victor.

Hugs to this

Spend 20 seconds taking in the sheep and the beautiful hills of Yorkshire. (Thanks to the Daily Respite newsletter for sharing this.)

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