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In Shira Ovide’s last On Tech newsletter, she looks back at how the past two and a half years have shifted her thinking on technology.
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I’ve had the opportunity to write the On Tech newsletter for the past two and a half years, and now that time has come to an end. This is my last edition.
I have been grateful to write what have felt like personal letters to you about the meanings, joys and frustrations of technology in our lives. We have been in this together. I will miss your voices in my inbox and rattling around in my brain with smart ideas, compliments and suggestions to do better.
I will sign off by returning to a familiar theme in On Tech that emerged in the first edition of this newsletter and many times since: Technology empowers us, but technology alone is not enough. We — not technology products or the companies and executives behind them — hold the power to shape the world we want.
My views on technology have been altered by the pandemic and other events since 2020 in ways that I still don’t understand. I feel both more thankful for technology and more impatient about it.
Technology holds the hope of profound, positive change and often delivers it, but at times it falls short, partly because people behind the technologies we love sometimes can be too myopic and unimaginative about the complexity of our lives.
What do I mean? I recently sent a giddy ALL CAPS email to a colleague about a New York Times Opinion column by the health writer Libby Watson, who focused on the limits of Amazon’s ambitions to make navigating American health care as convenient as shopping from our sofas.
Amazon and its peers have done remarkable feats to change what it means to buy and sell products. But the promise of Amazon-ifying health care seemed simultaneously hopeful and hopelessly naïve.
“Any company claiming its innovation will revolutionize American health care by itself is selling a fantasy,” Watson wrote. “There is no technological miracle waiting around the corner that will solve problems caused by decades of neglectful policy decisions and rampant fraud.”
I’m not a health care expert, as Watson is, but I can grasp that bad technology is not really the reason America pays more for health care, for worse outcomes, than other rich countries.
Making Americans healthier demands smarter policies, a better understanding of why people mistrust health institutions, a recognition that changing the status quo will leave some people worse off, and a tackling of the financial motives keeping things the way they are. Making a better customer app won’t fix this.
Over and over, I’ve written in this newsletter about crummy technology that is a symptom, not a cause, of broader structural failures in areas like health care, connecting more of the world to the internet and our interactions with government services. And that means that technology is just one piece of the solution to making things better.
Digital tools are table stakes now — a necessity for any change. But to steal a line that I used in an early edition of this newsletter and think of as a motto for my work: Technology is not magic.
Advances in battery technology and solar energy innovations will help make our planet more livable, but they are one part of the difficult, collective solution to slow climate change. Firing satellites into space or expanding 5G wireless technology may help connect more people to the internet, as I wrote, but tech inventions are not sufficient to tackle all the personal, financial and social barriers that keep billions of global citizens from making the most of modern digital life.
It’s great to imagine that better versions of cars will fix what we hate about transportation, but as I’ve pointed out, they might not.
We need better schools, better infrastructure, better workplaces, better housing and stronger human connections. Technology is a piece of that, but it’s just one piece.
That said, we need the imaginations of technologists to help dream of better ways of doing things.
We know the strong bonds that we can build with people who are on the other side of a WhatsApp message or a Facebook group. My work would not be possible without having endless information one web search away and my colleagues close by on a video call. During the coronavirus pandemic, we have been able to muddle through partly because we have been able to socialize, shop, work and attend school through screens. That is a miracle.
I am also grateful for people in technology with the can-do spirit who keep questioning whether there is a better way. Why should we have to buy eyeglasses or hearing aids from expensive health care providers? What if cars didn’t have drivers or traveled above the ground? What if digital calculations on the blockchain could help us take power from gatekeeper institutions like banks and internet corporations? We need the digital dreamers and tinkerers, even if they go off the rails sometimes.
But I also worry that a belief in the power of invention will be an excuse to avoid the hard work of improving our relationships with one another, strengthening education and housing, making our planet healthier, and keeping us safe and secure.
It’s up to us to take technology and run with it. We deserve to shape technology to serve our interests. And we also need to know when technology is essential, and when it is not enough.
***
Thank you for reading. Endless clapping to all of the creative illustrators who have made this newsletter a visual delight. Thanks to Hanna Ingber, the On Tech editor, and our art directors, most recently Elana Schlenker and Alvaro Dominguez, for making our creation even better. It has been a thrill to be invited into your inboxes.
Our tech newsletter will be taking a hiatus. In the meantime, you can continue to follow my colleagues’ excellent reporting on technology at NYTimes.com, and stay in touch with me on Twitter.
What if your smartphone lasted as long as your car? My colleague Brian X. Chen imagines smartphones with easily replaceable batteries and screens, cameras that can be upgraded and software updates that go on indefinitely. There is a path, he wrote, to a smartphone built for durability and sustainability that could last for 10 years. Brian tinkered with one phone that is trying it.
Teaching the next generation of information-savvy citizens: My colleague Tiffany Hsu wrote about educators who are trying to teach young people to sort out what is truthful information online. It’s contentious and difficult work, Tiffany wrote, but media and information literacy advocates told her that people need help learning to filter the chaos of information online.
TikTok clones where there is no TikTok: India’s government banned the TikTok app in 2020, and Bloomberg News reported that short video apps are now more popular there than ever. Indians have flocked to YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, India’s Moj app and other services that have copied aspects of TikTok. (A subscription may be required.)
I will leave you with the simple, stupid joy of a dog trying to drink from a rapid-fire garden hose.
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