I’ve Come to Hate the Tech Industry (or: Technology as a Lifestyle vs. Technology as a Business)

I’ve been trying to make time, at least once a week, to sit down and write something substantial. Something more than excited gadget/software lust, more than a collection of 140 character microposts. I’m really enjoying it. I’m learning a lot about myself, my goals, and my motivations. I try to go to a place where there’s no internet connectivity to minimize distractions – I’m easily led afield by my feed reader – and do some reading before I write (which always stirs up ideas). So far, so good.

Yesterday, I was in Mountain View, California, at Research@Intel Day. I was there to shoot video and otherwise cover interesting stuff for my group, Intel Software Network, and our developer community. Research@Intel Day is Intel’s annual public science fair, where the researchers and groups in CTG (the Corporate Technology Group) get to show off the stuff they’ve been working on to the press. Most of it is future freaky science fiction-type stuff – a biological microprocessor, dynamic physical rendering, etc. I’ll have some videos, photos, and blog posts up soon about what I saw there this year.

As I was on the plane at the San Jose airport, coming home to Portland, I reflected on the culture of Silicon Valley. It is the heart of the technology industry – hardware and software, startups and ancient tech companies like Intel, side by side. Their names are all over the buildings you pass on the freeways. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a technology company. Usually more than one. There’s Yahoo, next to EMC, next to McAfee, next to Sun, next to Intel. And oh, look – there’s Moffett Field, where the Google guys park their private 767.

The airports, hotels, restaurants, and roads are crammed full of people who obviously work in tech. Tan slacks, polo shirt with a company name or name of some conference they attended on the sleeve, maybe a sport jacket if they’re really important. Bluetooth headset stuck to the side of their head, BlackBerry in hand, or doing that weird walk-around-with-their-open-laptop-perched-on-their-forearm thing. There’s no mistaking them. They’re everywhere. Doing business. Talking about business. Exuding business.

You’d think I’d feel right at home there, among “my people”.

But I don’t. I feel like an alien every time I go there. A vague, uneasy feeling like I don’t really fit in. It’s not just an “Oregonian in California” thing, or because I actively thumb my nose at fashion, walking around in orange Crocs, cargo pants, and a faded black geeky t-shirt from Penny Arcade or O’Reilly or ThinkGeek. I’ve got my uniform just like they have theirs. So what’s the difference? What keeps me from feeling like the Valley is my homeland, and making plans to move there (besides the insane real estate prices)? I’d never really given it much thought before, but sitting in the airplane yesterday, waiting to take off (my eyes being involuntarily drawn to the laptop screen of the Boeing guy in front of me, who was broadcasting how important he was by looking at some obviously confidential spreadsheet long after the crew told us to turn off and stow our electronic devices), I had sort of an epiphany.

I’ve come to hate the technology industry.

Hate is probably too strong a word, and that statement doesn’t mean what you might think it means at first, so let me explain.

I love technology. I was born practically surrounded by it, and grew up as a citizen of that world. It was clear that I am 100% geek by about age 5 (and remember, this was before it was cool to be a geek!). Every job I’ve ever had has been in the technology industry. Web development, support, QA testing, community building, and teaching. It pays my bills, buys me gadgets, and I’m not really suited to do much else. So how can I say that I hate the technology industry?

It’s because I make a distinction between technology as a business, and technology as a lifestyle.

Silicon Valley, and it’s culture, is all about technology as a business – all about the money. And that is what I realized I hate. I don’t think it’s wrong for people to be in the technology business – in fact, I depend on them. I need them, like you do, to keep churning out the improvements, upgrades, and new stuff that makes our lives easier, more efficient, and more fun. And I’m not blind to the fact that this industry pays my paycheck, and always has. In fact, I absolutely love my job. Does that make me a hypocrite?

I don’t think so. And here’s why. I have no problem with the fact that the business-centric tech industry culture exists. It’s a good thing. I wish it huge success, and I’m willing to work to make that happen. It’s just not who I am, or where I’m going. People for whom technology is a business go home after work, and become who they really are. I am a geek 100% of the time. I couldn’t turn it off if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. 😉 I choose to find my culture, the things I care about deeply, and obsess over, and do in my free time, elsewhere. I would like to think of myself as “in the tech industry, but not of it”.

So what culture DO I feel like I belong to? The one where technology is a lifestyle, not just a business. The culture of geeks, and people who use technology in new and useful ways because they can, because they see it as a challenge. The culture of makers and hackers and people who read science fiction not just for entertainment and diversion, but for inspiration. The culture of people for whom reputation, and whuffie, and being recognized for contributing something useful or clever is its own reward, and not just a way to make more money. People who learn programming languages for fun, and for what can be learned through the experience. In my culture, technology can be a business, but it’s often SO much more than that.

I devour books by my favorite sci-fi authors – Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Vernor Vinge, etc. – and I yearn for the easy, natural way that people use technology in their stories. Wearable computers, data-enhanced visual overlays, subvocal communication and silent messaging. Direct, fast, effortless connection to information and other people. I look forward to a time when the exponential growth in technology eliminates more and more of the mundane, cruel, painful, tedious problems that affect us as meat creatures. A post-scarcity economy when we’ve finally found way to get rid of poverty, and disease, and death. The natural extensions of our increasingly connected world.

Now, I’m not a Utopian. Or even really a Singulatarian. No matter how often I half-jokingly say I’ll be first in line as soon as they figure out how to do a direct brain-to-Internet connection, there are things outside the world of technology that I care about even more. My relationship with my wife and children. Being a good person and serving others. Right and wrong. You could take away all of my technology and it’s accompanying culture, and as long as I had those things, I would be fulfilled and happy. I recognize and am grateful for the luxury of having time, and money, and access to all of these technological artifacts that I talk so breathlessly about. I recognize that it’s all “extra”.

This was my epiphany – this distinction, in my mind, between technology as a business, and technology as a lifestyle. It helps me make sense of the conflicts and irritation I sometimes feel when I see practically the entire world around me start talking about “social media”, and “Web 2.0”. Things that were once the sole domain of geeks. For a long time now, listening to non-geeks expound upon these topics twisted my stomach – even though it was the stuff I love, and have been promoting and teaching and evangelizing, I felt resentment as more and more people around me (remember, I’m surrounded by the “industry”) started picking up these tools. Until now, I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I think I’ve figured it out. It’s when they’re rooted in the business culture, different from mine, and eyeballing things in my world that they want to use for their own ends, that my hackles go up.

Want to hear something strange? Now that I’ve figured that out, I don’t care any more. It doesn’t bother me, now that I understand my feelings about why it ever did. I can’t explain why, except perhaps to say that now I know better who I am, and how to reconcile the two cultures. Now, when I think of the marketing department (of any company, not just mine) trying to “leverage” some social tool, like Twitter or blogs or podcasting, instead of feeling defensive (“They’re marketers! They don’t really “get” it! They’re going to screw it all up!”), I see it for what it is. And I’m happy to try to help them do it right. To impart cluefulness to anyone willing to listen (those who AREN’T willing to listen still make me mad). Business is important, too, and they’re just trying to do the best they can at fitting in with this rapidly-changing world. That’s a GOOD thing, one that I’m willing to work towards.

Now, instead of wondering if I really am an arrogant hypocrite for getting defensive when marketing catches up to something that was heretofore the realm of geeks, I can accept it, because I understand why they’re doing it. The internet, as a whole, is better off for having been adopted by business. Sure, it has its annoyances: spam, intrusive ads, threats to privacy, etc. But there are ways to deal with them. Would we REALLY prefer to have stayed with a wholly non-commercial internet, a throwback to the days where there was no free webmail with gigabytes of storage, comprehensive lightning fast search engines, and almost-ubiquitous connectivity, because no one could figure out how to pay for it all? I, for one, welcome will tolerate and coexist with the internet’s new corporate overlords.

See? I told you that hate was too strong a word. 🙂