The late 1950s were a good time for moonshots. Through the confluence of a booming scientific era and Cold War-fueled urgency, the Atomic Age produced some rather outlandish schemes to reshape our world to better serve our needs. Need to build a harbor in a remote part of Alaska? Why not carve it out with some atomic bomb blasts, locals be damned? Soviet winters not fertile enough? Why not melt the Arctic to bring forth a balmy, productive Siberia?
Looking back, those projects sound patently insane. The logic—reaching a techno-utopia requires some rather big thinking—should feel familiar. From a groundbreaking new method of transportation or bringing internet to all, to the big phones trend and apps for finding a taxi, our future is built on the back of promises.
Many of them are bright. Every day I'm stoked to be living in the future. It's not quite The Jetsons, but still, the future is pretty fucking out there. And yet those promises are sometimes misguided—planning to blow up part of Alaska with atomic bombs isn't that much worse than an app for on-demand toilets, when you think about it—and often don't come true. All the best promises don't mean much if they don't deliver what we actually need.
If tech and science innovation is supposed to make lives better, and it is, then we must move past fetishizing the tech itself and onto investigating whether it's lived up to its promise in addressing essential human needs, from our needs for knowledge, opportunity, and security, to our most basic need for healthy bodies and a healthy Earth.
I've spent much of the beginning of the year thinking about what ties all of Motherboard together. It remains a good time to be covering tech and science because it's everywhere. Debates about crypto, climate solutions, net neutrality, automation, genetic modification, and everything else anchor our global discourse about the future we hope for.
So we, as reporters and editors, have the luxury of tech and science issues being at the forefront of the public's interest. Gone are the days of needing to convince readers why they should even give a shit in the first place. (Well, okay, for the most part.) What is the best way to report critically in that environment?
The only way to report on something as powerful as technology is to take a critical look, not at its superficial utility, but at its relationship with the end user and everyone else.
Motherboard stories should be human, subversive, fun, raw, welcoming, and perhaps even a bit sketchy, but above all smart. Yet aside from a list of adjectives that could be summed up by our unofficial tagline “Motherboard: the most cyberpunk tech website out there,” there's a deeper thread that connects my favorite stories we’ve done: The ideal Motherboard storytakes a skeptical eye to the promises made by tech and science to humanity at large.
Last week, Uber announced a rebranding that articulated its mission in terms of creating “industries that serve people." Aside from a weirdly psychedelic veneer, it represents exactly the type of promises for a bold tomorrow that you'd expect from a $60+ billion company that says it can fundamentally reshape how humans get around. But who is that promise for?
In the nü-Uber vision, Uber services will make all of our lives simpler, from getting around to having groceries delivered. But "all" in that case is actually just consumers (or, in many cases, those consumers privileged enough to afford an $800 phone). Yes, the taxi industry was stagnant, and Uber has certainly proved convenient to many of us. Despite Uber's massive aspirations, there is one group its tech is definitely not designed to serve: the employees it wants to eventually replace with self-driving cars. Many folks, the ones tech often forgets, can't afford to use Uber at all.
With a long enough timescale and wide enough lens, innovation is a net-positive. It drives progress. To argue otherwise is silly. But that progress has never been, nor ever will be, distributed evenly. And therein lies the rub: Despite the myriad dogmatic viewpoints held in tech and science world, it's possible to believe in the power of tech and science as a progressive force, while still being critical of the promises paving the path to get there.
This is especially important if you subscribe to the idea that we're entering a disruption winter. At the very least, we're in an era of consolidation. In most industries Motherboard covers—Silicon Valley, telecom, pharma, and so on—giants aren't just jockeying for market share. They're also competing to implement their own visions for the future. Whose needs will those futures better address, theirs or ours?
That's the most critical question I want Motherboard to ask. The only way to report on something as powerful as technology is to take a critical look, not at its superficial utility, but at its relationship with the end user and everyone else. Accordingly, we're focusing our editorial coverage on looking at how tech addresses our needs—and whose needs those are—because that's how we can help ensure we move towards what we need most of all: a hopeful, better future.