I had blinked at the aesthetic poverty of the most recent pitch for Meta’s Horizon Worlds VR game, featuring Mark Zuckerberg’s dead-eyed cartoon avatar against a visual background that one Twitter wag charitably compared to “the painted walls of an abandoned day-care center.” I had let out a quiet sigh at the news of Ring Nation, an Amazon-produced TV show featuring “lighthearted viral content” captured from the Ring surveillance empire. I had clenched my jaw at a screenshot of the Stable Diffusion text-to-image model offering up AI artworks in the styles of dozens of unpaid human artists, whose collective labor had been poured into the model’s training data, ground up, and spit back out.
I recognized the feeling and I knew its name. It was resignation—that feeling of being stuck in a place you don’t want to be but can’t leave. I was struck by the irony that I studied technology my whole life in order to avoid this kind of feeling. Tech used to be my happy place.
Naturally, I poured my emotion into a tweetstorm:
SHANNON VALLOR VIA TWITTER
I struck a nerve. As my notifications started blowing up and thousands of replies and retweets started pouring in, the initial dopamine reward for virality gave way to a deeper sadness. A lot of people were sitting with that same heavy feeling in their stomach.
Still, there was catharsis in reading so many others give voice to it.
Something is missing from our lives, and from our technology. Its absence is feeding a growing unease being voiced by many who work in tech or study it. It’s what drives the new generation of PhD and postdoctoral researchers I work with at the University of Edinburgh, who are drawing together knowledge from across the technical arts, sciences, and humanistic disciplines to try to figure out what’s gone awry with our tech ecosystem and how to fix it. To do that, we have to understand how and why the priorities in that ecosystem have changed.
The goal of consumer tech development used to be pretty simple: design and build something of value to people, giving them a reason to buy it. A new refrigerator is shiny, cuts down on my energy bills, makes cool-looking ice cubes. So I buy it. Done. A Roomba promises to vacuum the cat hair from under my sofa while I take a nap. Sold! But this vision of tech is increasingly outdated. It’s not enough for …….