Tech locks us all and throw away the keys

Mar 29, 2024
consumer-facing technology
Is the tech market an Adam Smith paradise with perfect competition or a distorted ecosystem where incumbents are bound to always win?
notion image
Starting any discussion by saying "this situation is getting too crazy" is challenging today, because defining "situation" is the easiest part. Explaining what "getting", "too", and "crazy" mean is an ongoing process of finding references in a world that is obliterating references in a world where we know we need to have references. Having admitted my own limitations, the situation today is the direction consumer-facing technology is taking. It's too fast, too anti-capitalist, too irresponsible, and with zero risk of working in the end.
I dislike writing in the first person. Today we cannot read news without some self-centered journalist placing himself in the story (”I meet Noomi Rapace in an elegant Victorian café on Joe Bloggs Boulevard”). I understand: the generations under 40 grew up most of their lives exposed to their core, feeling relevant due to the bubbles they created around them and seeing the world from a navel-gazing perspective that is the primary driver for polarisation, but this note cannot start without a first-person text. Sorry. I swear I am suffering for it.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me about Obsidian. I had heard about it before, but I didn’t want to risk testing another app and go into a slow-burn decision process of shifting from my decent comfort to another app that will bring another ecosystem, architecture and whatever. But the ability to see the graph view of my own archive pushed me towards the abyss.
After being astonished about how cool the graph stuff is (it really relates to a project my Obsidian-influencer-friend and I have), I went to read about the movement the app is creating and how it is nipping at Notion’s heels with a different proposition that seems to be more no-strings-attached than Notion itself. Then, the doubt about “should I change or not” came, and enlightenment blurred all the situation and kept me thinking about how what seems to be the supreme triumph of capitalism and free competition is, in fact, a huge hoax in which capitalism is nothing more than an inert shell around a completely rigged system that generates thousands of consequences, from FOMO to uncertainty in creating anything that has a longer shelf life than six months.
The duality I face between Obsidian and Notion is replicated in thousands of others. Free use of the tools, as Slack was one day, are nothing more than a hijacking process that takes users into a situation where they will not have, in practice, the choice to abandon the service or not. Ask anyone using Slack since their garage days to tell how duped they felt when they were presented the option of losing years of information or a monthly bill.
At first glance, it seems the clear Adam Smith free markets taken to state-of-the-art stage. You are free to choose among many good products and the best will win. This is pure nonsense because once you are in the ecosystem of your provider, it will not allow you to move on to another platform easily. Your data is downloadable, yes but it comes in formats that not even NASA would be able to help you. Competitors don’t talk to each other, let alone allowing you to use both at the same time. The goal is to reach the biggest market share and sell it for billions with an army of blackmailed users tied in the basement, who can only escape if they agree to start almost everything from scratch.
When I think about the “competition is for losers” Peter Thiel phrase, what I see is the most un-capitalistic mindset that Silicon Valley sold with decades of PR as being the home for ideas and competition, where a good idea would always thrive and would make society much more well-served, when, in fact, it's basically a set of cartels that share among themselves the right to treat users like cattle. Everyone knows that, but it’s hard to argue with hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbies just when you are about to jump into your next election campaign.
Regarding the “everyone can try” thing, ask again. If Sam Altman is going around the globe allegedly looking for five to seven TRILLION dollars to invest in the biggest AI super-chips factory, explain to me how a mere mortal, even with wonderful ideas can succeed? The startup model is not the apex of capitalism, but it’s already a symptom of its deterioration. The model outsources the risk of R&D to someone else and purchases the safety of an ongoing, revenue-driven business. Yes, some teams end up rich after an exit, but the mess left behind is outstanding and, amazingly, this fair-chance hijacking system is sold as part of the American dream.
A free market would imply that customers have no cost to move from one provider to another, and all the architectures were built on foundations like universal formats, units, importers and exporters, sync and everything else. Imagine if I could use my Dropbox idle paid plan space to host both Notion and Obsidian, who would use not only the same formats, but also work in sync, so I could optimize what each one does best. Plus, instead of US$10 month per each, I’d have to pay a fraction of it, like a dollar a month each, if I was a heavy user of both. What happens now is that none of this is true and the winner-takes-all model means that at some point one will buy the other or a larger predator will eat both.
I apologise once again for the text in the first person, because as I really don’t care if Joe Bloggs is having a Latte in the waiting room of Hell, I imagine that those who read this may experience the same kind of annoyance. However, the text was much easier to write from a navel-gazing perspective than like in a The Economist style. Hopefully, it will serve someone to come up and read it in the first person too because the problem is universal. In fact, the problems are the only really universal thing. All the rest is proprietary, customised, locked and with subpar free plans.

© Cassiano Gobbet 2023 - 2024