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A goodbye to readers and a reflection


By Shira Ovide


I’ve had the opportunity to write the On Tech column for the past 2 1/2 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 column 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 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 naive.


“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 the U.S. 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 about crummy technology that is a symptom, not a cause, of broader structural failures in areas such as 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 column 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.



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