Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Are We Experiencing an Information Technology Fin de Siècle?

It is a strange and interesting time for information technology.

For every example of technology dominating both markets and mindshare – Apple as the most valuable company in the world, Groupon and Zynga accounting for 31% of all IPO money raised in 2011, Facebook’s own massive upcoming IPO – there is an equal amount of nay-saying, second-guessing, and soul-searching. It’s easy to find people who are excited about making money off technology-driven businesses. At the same time, it’s becoming harder to find people who are unreservedly excited about the overall state of information technology and its impact on our lives.

Nick Bilton, the New York Times technology writer, thinks today that the fun is leaving technology. Malcom Gladwell thinks networks aren’t the tool for political and social revolution that they’ve been built up to be. Jolie O’Dell, another technology journalist, lamented two years ago that technology companies aren’t solving real problems. Hermione Way, a British tech PR consultant and journo, argued much the same last year after spending some time immersed in the Bay Area technology community. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley technology journalism itself is under fire as a pay-for-play ‘cesspool’ run from the pockets of venture capitalists.

Peter Thiel, one of the more notable figures at the intersection of technology and finance, has argued very repeatedly that technological innovation, particularly in America, is decelerating. The business press echoes this sentiment, having spent the past several years questioning Silicon Valley innovation (when not celebrating the apparently un-innovative but business-savvy people making piles of money there, inclusive of Thiel). We’re in a technology bubble, they say, but not one that’s likely to directly produce technologies with much lasting social good. The claim is that wallets are expanding, but our list of big unsolved problems is not shrinking proportionally.

Moving into longer form writing, the world of books is full of voices that are at least as critical of the state of IT today, if not more so. Nicholas Carr is worried about what the Internet is doing to our brains. Sherry Turkle thinks technology is undermining our relationships. Jonathan Zittrain is worried that the coming corporatized, locked-down Internet will end a cycle of innovation. Jaron Lanier thinks social technology undermines humanist values. Eli Pariser thinks collaborative filters are narrowing our world. Evgeny Morozov is suspicious of the promise of digital democracy. Interestingly, several of the aforementioned authors spent the earlier parts of their careers as staunch technology advocates and innovators.

I’ve only carved off a sliver of the tech-whinging of the past several years. The summary is basically that people think we’re both not innovating enough and innovating in the wrong directions. Regardless of what you think of the individual arguments, the sheer volume of the chorus of voices criticizing the state of IT today is interesting.

There are any number of possible interpretations of all this criticism, questioning, and doubt:

  1. Technology really is going down the wrong track and these critics are picking up on that first. Or:
  2. People are always critical of new information technologies, and they’re usually wrong. This is just the latest round. Or:
  3. Technology has become so commingled with the rest of our lives that we can’t see the forest for the trees anymore. See Sequoia, don amongst technology venture capital firms, funding a chain of grilled cheese restaurants. Or:
  4. Technology is about to head in a new and different direction, but we’re not yet sure that what that direction is, so there’s a lot of tension and malaise and last-gasp profiteering as we milk the last fifty-plus years of research for all they’re worth.

Or something else entirely.

At any rate, it’s interesting right now. Interesting and strange.

The Game

How Not To Sell Software in 2012