How Tech is Ruining Things by Making Things Better

Saturday, October 31, 2020.

It’s possible that tech is responsible for our present-day ills, but not in the way you think.

As recently as the 80s it was normal to deal with a bureaucracy to get something done. You walked into an office, you sat in a waiting room, you showed pieces of paper to someone who might be able to help you. Often enough, they couldn’t, and you repeated this slow dance of supplication a second or third time. This was completely normal.

Today you pull a thing out of your pocket and click a button. Food arrives, a car arrives, help is summoned, entertainment instantly fills the void. We have four decades of relentlessly consumer-focused tech companies to thank for this. But plenty of interactions in our world at large are still stuck in the 80s, or earlier. And now that we’ve tasted the new forbidden fruit, we resent the old. We resent what we once accepted as completely normal: not because it has necessarily changed for the worse, but because it hasn’t changed at all.

This is likely to continue in certain sectors, even as the contrast deepens. Try as they might, your local DMV is not about to become a relentlessly consumer-focused tech company. They’ll adopt technology when they have to, but it will always be full of little quirks and bugs, and it will always be 5-10 years behind.

Hey, it’s just the DMV, so we can laugh at the quaint difficulties we encountered, right? “You won’t believe what I saw on a sign at the DMV today,” we’ll say to our partner after the harrowing 0.75 hour ordeal is over. “A cartoon beige computer with a mouse on a mousepad! Haha! Oh, also, their appointment system doesn’t actually work.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just your local DMV that's fallen behind. It’s most government services. It’s quasi-public utility companies and mass transit. Protected industries like banking and insurance. Ossified institutions like schools and universities. The Byzantine alternate reality of health care.

These entities have fallen behind for a simple reason: they lack the institutional incentive to keep up. Incentives matter. We can fix some of them, but we won’t fix all of them. Meanwhile the contrast grows, and with it the resentment. It’s hard to stay mad at the DMV, but when the same trend applies to our trusted institutions, we risk the settling-in of a broad and more dangerous despair.

It's no accident that the entities we once trusted are now rapidly losing our trust. Trust erodes the very incentives that earned it. Over the long run the probability of betrayal approaches 1.

Perhaps one challenge for us is to recognize this not as an irony, but as an entirely natural process, and to update the trusted roots in our brains more often. It’s harder to be disappointed by an outcome you expected. Expecting an entity with bad incentives to continue to follow them can also be freeing — we can instead focus our energy on those with the right incentives, where our odds are better. So, half of the work for us here may lie in managing our own expectations.

The other half, of course, is fixing the incentive problem wherever and whenever we can.

Posted by Alan on Saturday, October 31, 2020.