Mark Hill: The future looks dim: Silicon Valley and the race to make everything more annoying

Is it time to unplug our overlords?
Attendees wear VR headsets while previewing the Caliverse Hyper-Realistic Metaverse experience at the Lotte booth during the CES tech show Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP Photo.

The fallout from Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse has been the lowlight of a horrible month for America’s tech sector. Canadian banking regulations may protect us from a financial shockwave, but assuming you use the internet rather than having had a print-off of this article handed to you by a helpful passerby, you might feel the effects of Amazon and Meta axing tens of thousands of people. 

Meta’s layoffs won’t come as a surprise to anyone still using their products. Facebook has bled users, reducing news feeds to wastelands where inspirational memes drift by like typo-riddled tumbleweeds. And wherever the deserters have gone, it certainly isn’t the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s ode to setting billions of dollars alight. If it feels like just months ago that we were told “Web 3.0” was going to change life as we know it, that’s because it was, but so far all it’s changed is Silicon Valley’s employment statistics. 

Now that crypto has crashed and NFTs are a thing of the obnoxious past, the new buzz is over ChatGPT, the AI writing tool whose introduction Thomas Friedman recently called “a Promethean moment” that will revolutionize the creative arts, presumably before he was rendered speechless by an unusually feature-laden toaster oven. 

Its hype men may think that ChatGPT is Shakespeare with a dash of Skynet, but as pointed out by critics like Canadian sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, AI isn’t really intelligent; ChatGPT is essentially a glorified upscale of the autocomplete technology that tries to tack “wife” onto your attempt to Google search celebrities and athletes. Thousands of furtive perverts have already chosen that option, and so Google thinks you might be interested too.   

Predicting what comes next with reasonable accuracy is a useful skill that some venerable newspaper columnists may lack, but stringing sentences together doesn’t make for accurate paragraphs. GPT struggles with math and logic, while Google’s competitor to GPT, Bard, confidently declared the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to be true. A word that sounds correct can often be the wrong won. 

GPT will have its uses, but it certainly doesn’t appear qualified to replace jobs, a fact that has not stopped it from doing so anyway. CNET, the once well-respected tech site, was caught flooding the internet with AI-written articles featuring financial advice that was simple, straightforward, and riddled with more factual errors than a hungover freshman’s midterm paper. Apparently Prometheus is bringing us clickbait. 

Will there still be useful financial advice out there? Sure. But good luck finding it, because Google’s search engine has become so inept that people are unironically using Bing. Search for anything more complicated than “pizza” and you’ll have to wade through a slurry of spam and lies, a problem that arose because, apparently, a growing portion of the internet is nothing but spam and lies. Google profits when you click on ads and feed it data, not when you get a satisfying answer to “What new tv model is best?” 

In fact, most of Silicon Valley’s stars are dimming. Airbnbs, once an affordable travel alternative, are now as expensive as hotel rooms, and their owners expect you to take out the garbage, shovel the sidewalk, and file their taxes. Amazon is flooded with fake and knockoff products. Netflix is raising prices, cracking down on account sharing, and trying to keep us loyal with ground-breaking original movies like Glowering Ryan Gosling Shoots Gun. Maybe you’ve already read about some of these problems by squinting at what few words news sites deign to make visible amid a flurry of ads placed by venture capitalists wondering why none of their stones will bleed. 

I don’t want to be overly nostalgic for the days when Uber was growing by flouting laws and letting founder Travis Kalanick run his company like a frat house, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t found Uber useful. Now, however, Silicon Valley seems less interested in improving our lives and more interested in trying to sell us ways to get so rich so quick that these problems will be beneath you. Don’t worry if your crypto portfolio tanked; you can grab a copy of The ChatGPT Millionaire: Making Money Online has never been this EASY from Amazon

On the off-chance that doesn’t lead you to your fortune, you may wonder what the internet and the companies that dominate it have done recently to solve a problem instead of create one. Our phones are faster and our laptops are sleeker, but we’re using them to log onto Vichy Twitter and see someone elucidate on the economic opportunities of slurp juice. “Summon a car” and “Crash on a couch” are clear use cases. “Believe in the future of connection,” as Meta encourages us to, is not. I don’t want to “Work up a sweat alongside my friends in a virtual studio” by strapping on enough doodads to qualify as semi-cyborg. I want to search for the best gym nearby without having to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. 

The Facebooks of the world want to pretend they’re still agile startups powered by Red Bull and dreams, but they’re lumbering behemoths responsible for important aspects of our lives. You’d think that being a behemoth, with all the power and profit that implies, would be a comfortable position. But rather than coast into the future, they seem hellbent on making our lives much more annoying for the sake of insisting they’re still innovative. That’s not how you save a marriage, let alone a corporation. 

And so between Zuckerberg burning his empire to pursue a sci-fi vision straight out of 2003, and Elon Musk taking time out of his ostensibly busy day to ensure an influential Twitter account named after cat feces remains content, the veneer of infallible Silicon Valley genius has been sandblasted away. What’s left, if you believe the hype, are tools that promise to make the internet even less reliable. ChatGPT’s creators say they’re shocked by its popularity; if so, maybe Silicon Valley needs to actually start thinking about what it’s making. 

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