Tech executives aren’t fortunetellers

People who work in technology are often incredibly smart. But that doesn’t necessarily make them accurate forecasters of human and social behavior. (Photo: NYTimes)
People who work in technology are often incredibly smart. But that doesn’t necessarily make them accurate forecasters of human and social behavior.
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Airbnb’s chief executive said that he thought more people would hop between multiple homes when the pandemic ends. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook talked about his vision of people using goggles that read their minds. A co-founder of Stripe, the digital finance startup, spoke about a range of things, including worker productivity metrics and the need for improved medical technology.

These were thought-provoking ideas, and successful tech executives have been right an awful lot.

But I am asking for a little more humility from technologists and a little more skepticism from the rest of us. Being really smart and overseeing products used by millions of people doesn’t make tech executives oracles. (That’s true even for the tech company named Oracle.)

As tech has become more enmeshed in our lives and the economy — and as tech founders have become red-carpet-worthy celebrities — people want to know what technologists think about … everything: the future of cities, education, health care, jobs and the environment. It makes sense. I want to hear what they think, too.

Seeing the activity of millions or billions of people and businesses gives technology companies insights that few others have. We want powerful corporate leaders to be thoughtful about the world. And technologists can turn their beliefs into our reality.

But like all of us, technologists have blind spots and biases. They can misjudge or opine on topics that they don’t really understand. And humans are not always good at understanding humans.

The problem, I fear, is that we too often associate running an innovative company with an ability to predict the future. And that can have real consequences if we build policy and our lives around what they say.

One of the most glaring examples was Uber’s proclamations that it would help alleviate traffic and pollution in major metropolitan areas and reduce the number of cars in the United States. In 2015, Uber’s co-founder, Travis Kalanick, described the future of his company: “Fewer cars, less congestion, more parking, less pollution and creating thousands of jobs.”

Research now shows that Uber and other on-demand ride services largely did the opposite. They made traffic in many cities worse, contributed to an increase in miles driven in the United States and pulled people from shared transit to solo cars.

Perhaps Kalanick and others who backed Uber’s vision of a less car-reliant country didn’t mean it. Maybe they just wanted to make Uber sound virtuous.

But more likely, the lesson here is that technologists often don’t foresee how people will respond to what they create. Zuckerberg now says that he didn’t anticipate that Facebook would empower authoritarians and create incentives for the most radical voices.

Some of the same promises that Uber was making a few years ago are now coming from companies working on computer-driven cars, fast trains and other transportation innovations. I’m excited about these ideas, but also mindful what happened to the original hope of the ride services.

That track record calls not for cynicism but for healthy doubt and self-criticism. We need more questions asked, both by the technology companies and the rest of us. We could start with: What makes you think that? What if you’re wrong? What might you be missing?

It might also help if technologists answered, “I don’t know,” when someone asks them to weigh in on China’s gross domestic product.

Geopolitics under the sea

I wrote in a newsletter about the blurry line between countries’ desire for technology self-reliance and protectionism. Now I want to make the connection to undersea cables. (As regular On Tech readers know, I love boring technology.)

Most of us will never see the cables that run under oceans and seas, but a few hundred of these pipelines move nearly all international internet and telephone traffic around the world.

That makes the people and companies that control the undersea cables the masters of the internet. They wield choke points that could be abused to spy on what’s happening online or cut a country off from large swathes of the internet.

With that kind of power, these dull clusters of glass fibers are of great concern to governments.

You can see that in the tussle over a new undersea internet cable called Peace that is snaking from China to Pakistan and then underwater around Africa to France.

This cable is being built by Chinese companies, and US security officials worry that Peace could be used by China’s government for sabotage or surveillance. France says the undersea link will help its economy, and it’s stuck in the middle between its US allies and China.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that a group led by Facebook dropped its plans to build a new internet cable between California and Hong Kong after months of pressure from US national security officials. Again, the officials’ concern is that a physical link to Hong Kong — and China’s greater assertion of control over the island — could be a security risk.

The fights over undersea cables raise a messy question about technology in a fractured world: Is there a way to connect people without laying the foundation for security threats? Shared internet infrastructure has been essential to link the world, but it doesn’t work if countries do not trust one another.