TATESJ: Unintended Consequences

Preparing to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (TATESJ) has given Jason Compton a lot to think about. He shares his thoughts here, when he should be rehearsing…

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a tale of unintended consequences. In one of the most moving sections of the performance, Mike speaks with Steve Wozniak about the things they both learned from Foxconn. Wozniak is horrified and tries to make clear that he didn’t fuel the personal computer revolution so that people would suffer and die to build a new digital infrastructure for the world. And I believe him, and I think we all should.

Because the world is full of unintended consequences. People, particularly influential and powerful people, don’t do things solely or even primarily to be mean. Real, genuine, unbridled malice is uncommon among leaders and visionaries because it’s not very productive. But their actions do have real, unintended consequences.

I think people lose sight of that and think that just because something is revealed to be bad or harmful, it came from a malicious mindset. The people who designed trans fats weren’t trying to harm your health—they were trying to solve for a very desired set of characteristics for shelf-stable, plant-derived cooking ingredients. The people who invented factory farming and potent herbicides weren’t trying to poison groundwater or be mean to animals. They were trying to solve the problem of a dramatically (and continually) growing population. Experts forecast calamity from the world’s unbridled population growth. People got together and figured out ways to feed the population. Some of it has worked. Some of it hasn’t. Some of it has had ugly, unintended consequences. But they weren’t driven by malice.

We’re surrounded by unintended consequences, especially those in which one tech completely outpaces and overtakes another.  For instance, one of the completely ridiculous unintended consequences of the near-universal penetration of cell phones is that it’s harder than ever to get people to answer their phones. And there are a lot of reasons for that, including the now-universal penetration of Caller ID, and people permanently scorched by increasingly abusive and deceptive telemarketers and robocalls. I’m guilty too. I don’t see a call coming in from a number I don’t recognize and say, “Oh, a potential new friend!” I say, “Oh, that’s the number Charter’s trying to bother me from today!”

Back in 1996—a year that in hindsight might be the single most important in tech history, and that’s saying a lot—now-defunct long-distance company MCI launched a product called MCI One. MCI One was a confused and confusing basket of phone and computer services that people had a hard time grasping. It was too expensive to be of value to almost anyone, but it was a good idea. One of the premises of MCI One was that it would be a way for people to call one phone number and reach you anywhere. Remember, before universal cell phone coverage and ownership, you had to know where to call people. You had to know their home number and their office number, and if they weren’t in either place you had to figure out where that was. (Or you could use their pager number if they were that guy.)

There were other attempts to solve the problem, like call forwarding, but call forwarding was kind of a pain in the ass and people tended not to use it correctly. MCI One was going to change everything by giving people a single number that would work everywhere.

Today, we have that. But it doesn’t help us get our friends and business partners on the phone because nobody wants to talk on the phone anymore.

That switch became clear to me around 2010, when I realized that the way I was using phone and email for business was obsolete. For the 1990s and much of the 2000s, email was a helpful adjunct to business communication. It was a great way to get conversations started, to convey lots of information in a will-read-later fashion, to send attachments, etc. What it was bad at was reaching people in a super-timely fashion. Inboxes were overflowing with spam. People would get to the office in the morning, hack through as much mail as they could, and then kind of be overwhelmed with the whole business.

If you wanted to get somebody’s attention, you called them. It was interruptive. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to answer, but if they were at their desk, they probably would. It was more reliable than email if you needed something quickly.

Then the growth in both mobile email and cellular availability flipped the formula. Now, it’s so easy to read (and aggressively purge) email on a phone that people have better control of their inbox. Texting and messaging services are replacing a lot of what email would have been used for in the first place. And it’s easy to mash out a quick reply on a phone’s keyboard.

Meanwhile, nobody wants to answer their phone. In fact, it’s actually become a badge of pride, particularly for those who grew up in an age of rapidly growing cellular coverage, never to answer their phone.

So, today, we have the dream. We have a 10-digit number that can be used to start a voice contact with almost anybody we know, and that number will ring a phone that is within arm’s reach at almost every moment of the day. But the reality is that people are less inclined than ever to talk to you. A bizarre unintended consequence, but it’s easy enough to see how we got to that point. It doesn’t mean having a universal 10-digit number was a bad idea, but by time we got there, it had become a lot less valuable than it was when people first dreamed it up.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, produced by Left of Left Center and directed by Jake Penner, opens August 31 at the Bartell Theatre.