From Wired’s newsroom, the future always looks better. Since 1993, Silicon Valley’s house magazine has chronicled the region’s rise from a few hackers to home base of the world’s biggest companies. Twenty-five years later, its view of the future is, well, complicated.
Wired threw itself a party to mark its 25th birthday at the San Francisco Jazz Center on Oct. 15. The publication gathered the winners of the technology revolution to discuss their companies and the future. Founders Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, and Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square strolled out on stage. Apple’s head designer Jony Ive sat down for a cozy interview with Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour.
And it wouldn’t have been a Wired event without an opening act gushing about tomorrow. “Change is our mantra,” said Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto to start things off (he once described the magazine as one that “feels as if it has been mailed back from the future“). Behind him, a 1990s video montage played clips of the magazine’s writers and editors interviewed about what it was like to work there. One described the magazine’s mission as covering the territory “west of California…the future.”
Once the lights came up, Rossetto told the audience that the digital revolution we’ve just experienced was merely the beginning. “Neobiology, the energy revolution, space, blockchain, augmented intelligence,” said Rossetto. “These revolutions are going to make the digital revolution look like schoolyard games.” Wired’s former editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, continued the thought that afternoon when asked what he would change about the internet. “I don’t think I’d change anything about the internet,” he said. “I think it’s perfect just the way it is. Just like I wouldn’t change anything about evolution. I like that it has its ups and downs, but it trends up. Evolution doesn’t have a direction either. It’s going to evolve.”
Which way to the future?
Throughout the conference, a utopian future seemed to lay just around the corner. Entering the doors of the SF Jazz Center, the first thing attendees received was a tiny chip stuck on their wrist by a greeter (one attendee described it as “peak Wired”). The aesthetic was slick, modern, and matte black. Bento boxes of seaweed and sushi rolls were on the tables (delicious). Clothing was Silicon Valley’s muted uniform of earth-tone vests and slacks, with a technicolor interruption from New York by Vogue’s Wintour.
It’s worth noting that Wired has nailed some of its predictions. Mobile phones have indeed put most of human knowledge at our fingertips. People can communicate with almost anyone around the globe for free within seconds. Today’s chips run faster than yesterday’s super-computers. It foresaw the “phonecam revolution” a mile away. Humanity, on average, has never been healthier, more connected, wealthier, or better educated.
But, clearly, everything is not fine. Whereas Wired once predicted a Digital Nation in which “the world’s information is being liberated, and so, as a consequence, are we,” democratic societies are disintegrating around the world, hastened by the tools meant to free us. Tribalism and nationalism are on the rise. Climate change is slowly cooking the planet with muted official alarm. Few beyond the elite have shared in the riches of the technology economy as America’s middle-class shrinks and the working class sees its life expectancy fall.
So the utopia that Wired and the Valley’s prognosticators predicted has failed to scale. Once Silicon Valley’s technology left its garages and corporate campuses, the ills of the old world entered the virtual one. While it’s easy to blame policymakers and human nature, that was hardly unpredictable. Yet few in the tech world expected it. The question put to the tech luminaries on Monday was in essence: What now?
An earlier era of executives might have dismissed these concerns as growing pains. This time, there was no avoiding them. Twitter CEO Dorsey admitted on stage that the social network he co-founded had built a gladiator arena for the culture wars. Much of Dorsey’s time at the conference was spent apologizing for his platform’s enablement of bullying (“We have been behind in this regard. We do need to fix it.”) and filter bubbles (“I think Twitter contributes to filter bubbles and I think that’s wrong of us and we need to fix it.”).
Yet even his acceptance of responsibility underscored Dorsey’s belief in Twitter’s necessity and inevitability. “[Twitter] is like a text message to the entire world. Once the world saw that, there was no turning back,” he said. “There is a possibility and need for a more global public conversation. …We’re looking at what our fundamentals were when we first started, and what made sense 12 yrs ago that may not make much sense today.”
This shoot-first-and-ask-questions-after-the-IPO philosophy of Silicon Valley means we all endure the unintended consequences of what these companies create. To some degree, that’s unavoidable as technology advances. But deep thought is only given to remedying those problems years later, if at all. A movement is afoot, led by groups such as the Center for Humane Technology, to design ethical considerations into the products from the outset. Even Google now says it wants you to use its products less so you can pay attention to what matters.
Little of that sentiment found its way on stage. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, when asked about social media’s role in increasing identity politics and tribalism, portrayed it as a problem of time, not intent. “The internet in its current inception is a confirmation bias machine,” he said. “Society develops an immune response to bad technology, but it takes time.” But time may not be the limiting factor in fixing our technology. Social media makes us feel bad in part because it is designed to fuel negative feedback loops that boost engagement and advertising opportunities. Healthier social media networks possible? Perhaps. But redesigning them takes not just time, but the will to do so even when profits are at stake.
The fallback is Silicon Valley’s faith that the future is intrinsically better. Just a night before the event, at a posh dinner for Wired’s guests in San Francisco, the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, told a New York Times reporter (paywall) that “a lot of stupid people are pessimists.” Yet a lot of smart people are worried anyway.
On stage, Google CEO Sundar Pichai clasped his fingers as he aired his concerns. Silicon Valley’s recent work with the US military has inspired visions of Terminator among its critics. Since that franchise debuted in 1984, people have been laughing at the prospect of Skynet, the self-aware artificial intelligence that turned against humans. But Google’s top brass doesn’t think it’s so funny. It has renounced certain AI-powered weapons systems after an employee revolt. On stage, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said it was “cautious about working with the military.” It’s not just employees, he said. “Senior AI technicians share the same concern. If you’re so early in a technology, how do you use it responsibly?”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella echoed this sentiment. “We want to take tech and empower the world with it,” he said. ”That’s at the center of how we approach things. That said, we have the responsibility that the tech we provide is used for good.”
Finding a systematic way to do this beyond slogans of “changing the world” is not at the core of how technology companies work. It’s a future consideration. That fact that humanity can go backward is an abstraction.
At the conference, Bezos described most technology as “dual use.” Biotechnology will cure cancer, but it can also be weaponized. People will decide how it’s used to ameliorate problems that arise. ”We don’t know the solution to these problems yet, but we’ll figure them out,” he said. “The last thing we ever want to do is stop progress of new technology.”
Silicon Valley is only just beginning to invest time and energy in fixing the problems it creates. Facebook is realizing, belatedly, what ignoring such problems for years can mean. As Silicon Valley comes to dominate the global economy and humanity’s interactions, that’s not surprising. Steven Levy, editor-at-large at Wired, says tech executives have no choice but to promote the upside of their creations. “I think they’re locked into optimism,” he told Quartz. “If they’re not optimists, what’s going to happen to their businesses? But they’re also super-smart people who are cognizant you have to address the dark side.”
What does Levy think himself? “Personally,” he said. “I’m a little more optimistic than pessimistic.”