Humanity and Tech
I hadn't seen this from Matt when it first came out last month, but it hit me timely today:
When tech oversteps its mandate as a tool and tries to be everything, you get this all-in-one convenience we all know and love. But you also accept a platform’s entire worldview, ideals that might not even align with your own, and even a brittle foundation for your business. Indeed our love for technology often disarms our deeper thinking, helps us absorb new ideas without question, and forget quiet presumptions about our own human nature.
I've been away from here because I've been off building. Which has been great. And also exhausting. It feels like I've had a few years of work experience crammed into about five months.
On the other side now, and likely to make another shift even further away from where I've been before, this notion of how platforms impose worldviews is much on my mind. For lack of a more precise description, I've been involved in that world of startups and VCs and trying to build software recently. It is necessary re-exposure and experience after a long time away from that world. And the same things struck me as had disappointed me years ago, distilled in the intervening years to big tech's current change-the-world mantras and myopia. There is a desired startup path to success from product to market to platform, where the end result is always that people and their behaviors are transmuted to data riches. What may have started as a tool serving users must inevitably, to satisfy investors seeking huge rewards, become a platform serving up users to other users and other uses. And it is all wrapped up in the verbiage of “changing the world”; indeed, anything as small as a tool is not a winning proposition. It's no moonshot.
There are no end of books now on the problems of big tech. (Check out recently, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/622177/abolish-silicon-valley-by-wendy-liu/) I've been wondering recently whether edtech can always be a business, but not a VC-backed Silicon Valley style business. Should edtech always be little tech, so as to retain a core humanity? The headlines all go to big platforms recently, and huge valuations or big IPOs. But those are rarities and, inevitably, seem destined for the kind of problem that Matt points to. The platform's view prevails. That is, I realize, what I often have written about here. The platform shapes the way we teach rather than facilitating teaching with a tool that has capabilities, affordances, and disadvantages in various degrees.
Here's Matt again:
It needs to lack the grandiose “better world” bullshit that so many products shove down our throats, and stay grounded in what’s real and true today. We would all laugh if an art supply company claimed you would become the next Rembrandt just by purchasing their paintbrush; why do we keep a straight face when tech companies do the same?
There's an important distinction for entrepreneurs between an idea that might be a business and what goes under the name “startup”. Proven vs. unproven, risky vs. insanely risky, steady growth vs. explosive growth. Particularly in tech, I remember teachers who were starting their own businesses writing software for their educational use case, i.e. making tools. The idea of a platform was barely there, when platform meant AOL. As with all things nostalgic, that seems a more humane time in retrospect. But there's something to be said now for the legitimacy of making tools. Not everything needs explosive growth. In educational technology in particular, maybe nothing does. Would we be better off if everyone focused energy on making the small tools rather than shooting for the all-encompassing platforms? To echo Matt, why do we keep a straight face when tech companies aim to lock us into educational platforms, learning systems and the like, when the product that we need is simply a paintbrush?