What Technology Wants
You do, and I do. But technology doesn't.
Everything you love about technology, and everything you hate, is not its own doing. Technology is only a multiplier.
Use it for good, and it will flourish. Use it for evil, and it will corrupt everything in its path.
For a long time now, I've had this abstract idea of how I think technology should be. Today, I want to share some of that vision and reflect on what I'm working towards.
It will be extremely idealistic. I don't think it will materialize tomorrow (or maybe ever). It'll also be focused on software. I know other types of technology are important, and there's plenty of problems in society that cannot be solved with technology alone. But this is a vision seen through my eyes, and it serves as an ideal to strive for in my work.
When I think about technology, I am excited about the limitless possibilities. It has radically changed the way we view the world. If you had a time machine, drove 100 years into the past, and explained people from that era the information you can get in less than a second; they'd take you for a lunatic. And that's not limited to things you can do online, you are carrying in your pocket a device more powerful than anything they could ever imagine. We take it for granted, but if you could send a mobile device back in time it would change everything.
But it doesn't always work this way. Some technology builders are closing their gates, and limiting the possibilities for their own gain. This is detrimental to society because it only benefits the individual (even if that "individual" is an organization). But technology is not a zero-sum game, so we're shooting ourselves in the foot. Imagine if the mobile phone you sent to the past required in-app payments or internet connection to work. It would be no more useful than paper weight. That is the reality we're living in today, and most people just accept it. But it could be better.
Taking a closer look
One of my major frustrations are streaming services. Technology would allow us to consume any piece of media, anywhere in the world, anytime. And yet what we have today is a mishmash of platforms, each with their own walled garden, and with catalogs that lose content on a regular basis.
If there's a movie you want to watch, your first step is to start fishing for platforms that have it available. If the ones you happen to be subscribed to don't have it, you're out of luck. You may still be able to rent it in some other platform - if it's available in your country. By this point, you can consider yourself lucky if you've spent 20 minutes searching, filling up forms and accepting terms and conditions you didn't read. If you're not lucky, you just wasted 20 minutes of your life.
And I know what some of you are thinking, this doesn't happen to you. Sure, if you are going to watch last week's hollywood blockbuster this won't be your experience. But try to watch an obscure japanese movie from the 80s and let me know how that goes.
That's why most people don't do that. Most people don't keep a list of movies they want to watch. Instead, they log into their walled garden of choice and start browsing. Or watch movies recommended by other people. Movies those people found on the same walled garden, of course.
In this situation, human behaviour is driven by the algorithm. Technology is using you. It should be the other way around, you should be using technology.
Not to mention how preposterous it is that these platforms are called "streaming services" to begin with. Why is it so hard to download media for offline consumption in an open format? You know the answer is not some technical limitation.
What's even more preposterous, why don't these platforms have all the movies from public domain available within their catalogs? You know the answer is not some technical limitation either.
With all this non-sense going around, sometimes we end up with some pretty ridiculous situations. From technology's point of view, this is inexcusable. But if you look beyond technology, there are some pretty good explanations.
There is another world out there, though. The so-called world of Piracy. I'm saying so-called because there is nothing illegal about the technology powering the sites that are deemed so.
In that world, the gates are wide open. The problems I've mentioned are replaced with a different set of problems, none of which arise from technology itself. But this paradigm has been threatened an ostracized for a long time, so it's becoming ever more obscure.
And yet, their catalog is unrivaled. You can only imagine how life would be if technology were completely freed from its shackles.
I know what you're thinking though, so let's talk about the elephant in this post.
On Business Models
The main reason why any of these limitations exist is money. Don't get me wrong, I know that creators should be paid for their work. And I'm well aware of the disease of "free" products (spoiler: nothing is free). But I think the way we are monetizing isn't great, and business models shape the world.
Let's go over the most common ones.
Free products Ads
There are no free products, those companies are usually selling ads. Or straight up selling customer data... or selling the users themselves (more commonly referred to as "making an exit").
I won't even get into why I don't like these business models, because I could write an entire blog post about it and I don't even know where to start.
I'll just leave you with this: If something is free, you are the product.
Next up are subscriptions. This business model has become more pervasive over the years, and I don't have any issues with the model itself. Some subscription services make perfect sense, and I'm happy to pay for those. The problems start when this gets out of hand. It comes down to this: when you are paying a subscription, what are you paying for?
I suspect a lot of people would say that you are covering server costs. After all, these subscription shenanigans started when syncing data to the cloud became more prevalent. But I don't think that warrants a subscription. The current ecosystem works under the assumption that managing your data is the service provider's responsibility. Instead of having your own cloud, your data is stored in somebody else's cloud. And this is an assumption I'm very much against, as surfaced by movements like Solid, Unhosted and Local-first software.
So, server costs are not an excuse.
Another common reason is to support ongoing development. However, when you buy into a product, it doesn't mean that you'll automatically like every new feature that comes out (sometimes it's the opposite). Sure, you can always cancel your subscription if you're unhappy with new versions. But at that point, you've already funded its development. And because you don't own your data, you probably can't abandon the service without paying the switching costs of vendor lock-in.
I'm also not a fan of the short lifecycle of apps nowadays. I'll talk more about this in a moment, but suffice to say that software should strive to live until the end of the internet.
So, supporting the ongoing development is not a valid reason either.
Which takes me to the only argument I will concede for subscriptions: Maintenance. Things like answering support emails, fixing bugs, and the like. But this one comes with a lot of caveats. It's a well known fact that no software is perfect and no software is finished. But there is also plenty of software out there that has done great with minimum maintenance costs. Especially when the gates are open for the community to help each other.
So, if the only real cost is maintenance, why are subscriptions so popular nowadays?
The real answer, that no company will ever confess, is that some of them are just milking their customers. It is people farming.
Now we're getting somewhere. I like sponsorships, because they are basically voluntary subscriptions. If you want to support the ongoing development, why not do it explicitly instead of being strong armed into it?
But there is such a thing as the tragedy of the commons, so it's not realistic to think that this will work for everyone. That's why sometimes, sponsorships end up being subscriptions in disguise (when the perks are too sweet).
There is something in between that I like: Sponsorware. The idea is that a product will be private until it reaches a certain level of funding, at which point it becomes a public good. Unfortunately, I haven't seen many people following this model. But I hope it becomes more widespread, because I think it fits really well in the intersection between making your work sustainable and not limiting the technology.
Buying, instead of renting, is the purest form of value exchange. If you own something, you can do whatever you want with it. And this business model should remove any incentives to limit the technology. But there is such a thing as planned obsolescence, and sometimes you don't even own what you buy.
Do you remember that time when you bought a DVD and you knew you'd be able to watch that movie ten years later? Those days are gone. Sure, you can still buy DVDs. But do you?
There are good reasons for DVDs to go out of fashion though. But why don't we have the online equivalent? It would be great if you could buy the license for a movie, and that license stayed with you forever. In that world, when you want to watch a movie you can choose your favorite streaming service (who competes on UX, not catalog) and pay them according to your consumption. That's it, no subscriptions.
Most subscriptions should be pay-per-use services instead. I don't want to stop paying for a service when I realize I haven't used it in the last 3 months.
Ultimately, I believe the way a business makes money should be aligned with their value proposition. If it isn't, customer interests will eventually clash against financial incentives. And you know who will lose in that situation.
Ads or "free products" are completely misaligned, that's why they are the ones I like the least.
Subscriptions can be aligned, but they are often used to milk customers. That incentivizes making a product that people use on a regular basis, even if the problem at hand could be solved in one instance. Or locking away customer data, even if the product itself does not add any value.
Buying can have the best alignment, but it can also be abused because increasing lifetime value is often disincentivized.
In this post I am arguing from the point of view of building technology with the end goal of being useful to people. But the reason why this is idealistic is that it's often used as a vehicle for personal gain. This is especially obvious with some companies' relentless pursuit of growth.
So, there is no silver bullet. But there is definitely room for improvement, and hopefully we can learn from the current situation and make things better.
What can you do about this? Vote with your dollars, and put your money where your mouth is. Nothing will make a greater impact on the ecosystem than customers rejecting business models that are against their interests.
On Open Source
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's go back to talk about technology.
Why isn't all software Open Source? Or even better, free (as in freedom)? You may think it's because of security, but it isn't.
In my rant against subscriptions I mentioned that customers end up funding the development of new features. HEY is an example of that.
I am a big fan of Basecamp, but they pride themselves on going against the grain. Most of the time that's good, because that's how innovation happens. And if they were to implement every feature requested, things would get ugly fast. But an unfortunate consequence is that they'll often focus their efforts in features I don't want, instead of making the ones I yearn for (converting "The Feed" to a real RSS feed, better classification rules, etc.).
There is a solution to this conundrum: Open Source. If HEY were Open Source, I could implement these features myself. Or somebody else would have done it already.
But of course, there is a caveat to this solution. If HEY were Open Source, how would Basecamp keep people from using HEY without paying? They wouldn't be able to do it, not without limiting the technology. And that's the tradeoff we live in today.
I chose this example precisely because I like Basecamp, as you can tell if you've been clicking through the links in this post. They are awesome, and I'm happy to be a paying customer because I love their work beyond HEY (and HEY is nice, even if overpriced for my use-case). But this shows how endemic the problem is, if we are in an ecosystem where the best of the companies is limiting their technology.
The Bright Side of Technology
So far I've focused on the negative, or rather limiting, uses of technology. But there are also great examples of technology empowering people. So I'll end the post by focusing on the positive.
There is one technology I love above all others, and that is The Web. The Web is free (as in freedom), The Web is open, and The Web is here to stay.
There are also other technologies that are great, for example Email and RSS. And there are some up and comers that I'm cheering for, like Solid and Activity Pub.
Can you notice anything in common? These are all protocols, not implementations. And those often thrive on interoperability. If a technology is interoperable, it means that anyone can adapt it to their own needs.
If you are a solo developer and want to focus on your own projects, you can.
If you want to build a community that contributes to humanity as a whole, you can.
Unfortunately, if you want to build a multi billion dollar empire that is a closed silo, you also can.
But those aren't technology's fault, so it's on us to make it better.
Hey, you're still here? Consider the post finished, but here's some things I wanted to mention before you take off.
I am aware that the title of this post is the same as Kevin Kelly's book. However, it has nothing to do with it and I haven't read the book. But I like the way it sounds :).
I am also aware that money is a story, and most companies would not agree with the way I characterized subscriptions. But I don't like this story, and I can't help but feel that subscription models are hurting more than they are helping.
Finally, you may see this post as a modest critique of Capitalism, not very well articulated. If you're interested in that, you should read DHH's take on the topic: The enclosure of internet commons.