Technology has agency, you just need to know where to look.


A line of reasoning that I just can’t get behind: Everything tech companies do is downstream user behavior, and they, people who lead them, have real no agency.

It makes some sense; consumers are fickle, culture flips on a dime etc. And definitely talking points are there too. “Competition is a click away”, “Mobile address book means switching costs zero”, “We don’t deserve your data, if we mess it up”. It’s all cute, and it makes some intellectual sense. But only the surface.

Many smart people use these arguments not necessarily to exonerate people, but to bring some sobriety to the discussion, steer away from cheap personal attacks. That is a noble and valuable goal. However, that idea that agency isn’t there doesn’t survive even the most basic analysis. You can’t argue in good faith that these companies are worth hundreds of billions by simply following the trends.

You can’t argue that the executives make millions of dollars, simply by reading the tea leaves better than others, or just aligning themselves faster than the competition. These are successful companies, led by smart people, doing their best to do what they are doing. They make a lot of money, and there’s nothing with that goal.

They spend millions on lobbying (which is uncomfortable, but seems to be required in US), probably similar amounts funding academic and commercial research, various advocacy groups, think tanks etc.But besides that, they are less building stuff on existing infrastructure, but in many cases are the infrastructure. You can’t congratulate WhatsApp on handling more texts than SMS, and argue otherwise. Be honest.

When you are so ingrained in people’s lives and have so many metrics -Facebook users spent upwards of 50 minutes on it in 2016-, it’s easy to be enamored by what you measure. I get that. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of you measure what matters and what matters is what you measure.

I remember distinctly people would say, when Instagram was switching from time to also, “we looked at any measurement at Facebook, people prefer algorithmic feeds”. Now that talking point is uncomfortable, because we know such shallow, lossy metrics easily lead to radicalization. It’s easy to say “we looked at data, and we made some calls” but you can’t both argue that “we’ve been shallow, haphazard in our approach” and also say “it was data, we had no agency, riding users wave”. These are decisions; you decide to rely on your data, that you gather. This doesn’t happen by itself.

So when Facebook buys WhatsApp, or Google decides to put basically other companies’ entire business as a widget on their search engine result pages, this is agency. These are major products that require resources, planning. There are unlimited things you can do, and you pick these things to do.

And when Mark Zuckerberg says “I guess I have to because of where we are now, but I’d rather not.”, this papers over the fact that Facebook’s bread and butter for years has been “growth”. They have, arguably, set that as part of SV culture more than any other company.

I try to steer away from personal attacks as much as possible, and I agree to some level that structural issues underlie many of the problems. Lack of competition is one, and the utter sense of inability to imagine a better future is another. But if we want to make things better, we should hold ourselves accountable, and responsible. Decisions are everywhere.