I know, it sure doesn’t feel like there are many things to feel good about. Tech tools have allowed misinformation, bullying and social division to spread like a virus. They have empowered tyrants and monsters, and created an underclass of impossible jobs. Some days I want to do a Road Runner cartoon dynamite to the internet and start fresh.
I’m grateful for the boring stuff: Technology isn’t only things that scream TECHNOLOGY like virtual-reality goggles for cows, cars without human drivers and hot-air balloons that beam internet service to a remote Amazon rain forest. Technology is also changes in dairy-barn ventilation that make farms more productive. Technology is french fries that keep up with our changing eating habits, stripped-down smartphones that are affordable and usable enough for billions of people, and software that can reduce airport delays by predicting when jet engines need repairs.
I can’t gloss over ways that all technology, even the unglamorous stuff, can have horrible consequences for individuals or painful structural upheavals for economies and job markets. But I also don’t want to underplay the genuinely good changes that are arising from the big and small innovations happening all around us that we may never notice.
I’m grateful for people’s creativity: One of my first “aha” moments about Snapchat came from Jerome Jarre, the young Frenchman who got big on the six-second-video service Vine ( R.I.P.) and then on Snapchat. In a story from around 2015, I think, Jarre — in snippets of videos and photos — showed himself traveling to a town in Africa and coaching young children to make solar-powered lights from plastic bottles. (I’m pretty sure there was a marketing tie-in, because internet.) Jarre told a complete story in jagged bits over a couple of minutes, and the personality of the children and Jarre shone through despite — or perhaps because of — the confined format.
These billion-dollar internet companies are nothing without the people harnessing new tools to do genuinely novel, fun, outrageous or informative things. Yes, these tools of human expression are also hijacked for horror and greed, but every day I see a brilliant moment of distilled human storytelling on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter or some other app. It might come from a 100-year-old news organization or a kid in France, but either way I feel something: joy, outrage, or an understanding of a world I never knew. I’m confident this will keep happening, whatever new ways of communication catch on in the future.
I’m grateful for fear: Every business is terrified of being mowed over by technological change, and wow, is it good for you and me. Companies have to try harder than ever to keep people happy. Does anyone lament the days when cable companies could count on getting paid by 95% of U.S. households, no matter how garbage their products were? Customers of retail stores, car-rental services, airlines, banks and (yes) news organizations are better off with companies that are no longer insulated by monopoly economics and relatively hard to reach with complaints. There’s nothing like being scared of death to bring out the best in companies.
I’m grateful for the watchdogs and the whistleblowers: The horribles of technology are real. That’s why we need academics and researchers who systematically study how misinformation spreads online or root out how our personal privacy is undermined. We need the people working in technology who take the risk of speaking up when they believe something is wrong. We need journalists — self-serving alert — shedding light on the glorious and grim in technology. And even though they get a lot of justified heat, we need regulators and lawmakers to help protect people from the downsides of technology changes. All of us might get it wrong sometimes, but I’m grateful that there are watchful eyes keeping the powerful accountable.
After today, I’ll go back to being grumpy about everything. I promise.