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A Failure to Learn – How BigTech (literally) Capitalises on Failures to Succeed
What role do 'failures' play in our engagement with technology? Is it simply a concept being reinforced by BigTech to sustain its business models? Or a collective failure on our part to learn from these mistakes?
22 November, 2020

Illustration Credit: Dale Edwin Murray

This is a story of how BigTech capitalises on our failures to succeed, and how we never truly learn from them.

A recent book by Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander entitled ‘Failure’ highlighted the nature of failure as ‘a product of judgments that reflect various arrangements of power’ – not an immanent fact of life. Yet in the context of technological advancement, failure is often embraced by BigTech companies and entrepreneurs as being an inevitable step before achieving ‘success’. Our daily frustrations with technology, whether it be disrupted internet connection or an inconsistent battery life, proves that there is still much more room for improvement. Would this be considered a failure? What role do ‘failures’ play in our engagement with technology? Is it simply a concept being reinforced by BigTech to sustain its business models? Or a collective failure on our part to learn from these mistakes? 

In 2018, Apple and Samsung were at the heat of the discussion after it was reported that both companies deliberately slowed down the performance of older models upon release of new software updates. Inevitably, this drew huge backlash from its customers. Unknown to the wider public, this business strategy is actually known as ‘planned obsolescence’, which entails designing products with an artificially limited lifespan to shorten the replacement cycle and thus prompt renewal. The reliance on routined failures can therefore be seen as a broader commodification of habitual failure — an economic model that produces its own ‘problem’ and in turn, offers its solution. 

Social media and online streaming services illustrate this paradoxical phenomenon well. Our social media feeds generate content through predictive algorithms, which are solely designed to occupy our attention for as long as possible. When we mindlessly watch shows on Netflix for hours on end, habitual failures e.g. in the form of lagging, further amplifies our desire for more. BigTech takes advantage of our normalisation of failures to sustain customers’ digital consumption. If we continue ignoring the systematically prevalent failures, we will ultimately miss out on the opportunity to demand for a more sustainable and healthy method of digital usage.  

In addition, the increasing prevalence of the gig economy also captures the way our obsession with speed and convenience have made us overlook habitual failures. Tech giants like Amazon and Uber create a communication loop between the product designer and end-user, utilising failures such as an unsatisfactory ride or delivery in order to drive improvement. While the companies are constantly gathering data and learning from these failures, the people who actually run such services are not benefitting. For example, Uber drivers are incentivised to remain on the platform through features like ‘surge pricing’, which in reality, lacks any real transparency and causes huge dependence on algorithmic ‘bosses’. These communities have been described to be ‘exploitative, self-serving and anti-social’, exacerbated by the influence monopolies have over the market. 

These vicious encounters with technology demonstrate the critical importance of understanding failure. As individual consumers, we often do not perceive these incidents as ‘failures’ because it has been completely normalised in the pursuit of success. BigTech companies consistently rely on techno-failures not only to make profits, but to sustain its monopolistic position. 

The underlying problem of our society lies in the way ‘failure’ has lost its critical force and our collective failure to recognise these habitual failures. This allows BigTech to prey on our ignorance and reinforces the power imbalance between digital giants and the individual consumer. 

Peter Frase articulates the paradoxical situation of our time as ‘a crisis of scarcity (ecological catastrophe) and abundance (technological advancement) at the same time’. Climate change and automation are not problems in and of themselves, but the real danger lies in the way they manifest in a neoliberal global economy, in which money and power are concentrated in the hands of elites. This goes back to the fundamental understanding of failure. Once we recognise the nature of failures as judgements informed by societal values and biases, we can start asking the questions of who should judge and who should be responsible for these failures. 
By questioning the narrative of BigTech and developing a new set of vocabularies in understanding failures, we can begin to envision a market that is mutually beneficial for consumers and technological innovation. We will operate in an economy that fosters a collective sense of solidarity in addressing the existential challenges of our time.

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