Over the past couple of months, I’ve starting doing something unusual: traveling for my own sake rather than work duties. Turns out, all those vacations people keep taking are actually pretty cool, and seeing Europe’s grand cities without my head buried in a laptop is a whole different experience. And yet, even as I’ve left the MacBook Pro and tactical backpack at home, my mobile device has kept me in close and personal contact with the tech industry. I went away to Italy this weekend, and I gleefully neglected my job the whole time, and yet I was still very much working. For Silicon Valley.
What do I mean by this? Well, like every other human with an iPhone or Android device, I use apps and services, and most of those are free at the point of use. The creators of these tools recoup their costs and make their profits by exploiting what I do within them, typically by serving my attention and information to advertisers willing to pay actual money. But what’s really intrigued me over this weekend are all the small ways in which we augment and amplify web services just through our self-centered actions, the ones we take oblivious of the effect they have on companies and businesses halfway round the globe. Here are some of my observations from a couple of days in Milan:
- The camera is the key. Much of what I’m about to discuss stems from the use of the camera on my smartphone. I’ve long thought that a more accurate descriptor for our most used and essential device would be a smart camera rather than smart phone. Think about the fast-launch shortcuts on your phone’s lock screen: there’s always a camera to jump into, but only some Android vendors offer a similar shortcut for launching the phone dialer. You certainly won’t find one on your fresh new iPhone.
- I’ve become a Google Pixel 2 camera advertiser. I can’t help this. Every time I post a photo to any social media, there’s the question of what I shot it with, so now I automatically add the phone model to my Instagram tags or picture tweets. I mean this in both senses of the word “advertising”: I am, on the one hand, informing people about a product’s existence and its qualities, but I am also inciting people to go buy it by the actual posts I make. You’ll know this phenomenon by the #shotoniphone hashtag. Every time we use a technological tool to do something impressive and share that online, we become (usually) unwitting evangelists, uncertified sales agents for that product.
- Let’s stick with the tweet above for a little longer. Beside showing off Google’s amazing camera system, it also earned a lot of engagement for Twitter. At the time of writing, it’s been seen more than 297,000 times and triggered over 52,000 “engagements.” Those are the metrics that Twitter uses to sell ad space. More than that, there are people walking around now who saw some inspiring Milanese architecture on Twitter, and who feel a little better about the beleaguered social platform as a result. By being a good Twitter citizen, I’ve counteracted some of the despair, divisiveness, and social degradation that it usually plays host to. It might be an immaterial contribution, or it might be the sort of content that keeps Twitter creaking on in spite of all its ailments.
- The photos I posted to Twitter in summary form have also been making appearances on my Instagram account. Why? It’s those stupid hearts. Instagram likes are easier to obtain than Twitter ones — people seem to be more generous on the photo-centric social network where everyone is either happy or faking it — and I, like most dopamine-chasing mammals, tend to do things that get me small, shallowly satisfying rewards. Like Twitter, Instagram only thrives if there are people willing to put in the effort to make good contributions. Instagram without the labors of its users is nothing, just a monochromatic skeleton of an app. We are the ones that make it worth billions of dollars by fastidiously picking out the right photo compositions, filters, and hashtags.
- Beside Instagram, I also used Messenger Lite from Facebook’s suite of services. How is that relevant to Facebook’s bottom line if there are no ads on Lite? Well, the people I was interacting with were using the full FB website, so I was drawing them to facebook.com through my desire to communicate. It’s the same dynamic as the way pics posted to Instagram attract more users, who in turn post more pics, and make the place more diverse and appealing. Instagram is a little more evolved in having ads of its own. In any case, the things I did inside Facebook’s apps over the weekend helped Mark Zuckerberg’s online empire as much as they helped me stay in touch with friends.
- I stayed at an Airbnb, so my spending with that company was obvious and direct, but I made an indirect contribution too. Every additional person seeking an apartment to rent in Milan raises the demand — and, consequently, the prices a landlord can charge — just as every additional host improves the supply — and thus raises the required standard of accommodation to earn the desired rent. Basically, Airbnb is a market that only grows better with the more participants it has, and I was one of them. Returning to my point about the camera being key, I took the photo of the beautiful pink sunset (above) on Saturday from inside the Airbnb, and I shared it with my host, who then turned it into the cover photo for their apartment. So now I’ve made Airbnb an incremental bit more attractive through my casual photography.
- There are countless other online services that can be included on a list of the beneficiaries of a vacation by a techie person. Uber got money from me directly. Google Maps and TripAdvisor didn’t, however my use of both to identify and then rate restaurants around Milan helped build up the library of knowledge that makes both services so useful and widely used. Google Photos also didn’t cost me anything, but the couple hundred images I captured are also going into Google’s massive machine-learning factory and adding to the company’s immense image catalog. Even if Google never makes any direct money out of Photos, the service is still financially advantageous when compared to employing people to actually go and shoot the various locations. We are Google’s photography agents and all we ask in return is a little bit of free storage and some quick editing tools.
- I haven’t mentioned the matter of privacy in any of this, because I think it’s a pervasive issue to all of the apps in question, and it’s worth addressing with specificity. In simple terms, if I insist on my privacy, I shouldn’t be using any of the foregoing services. Within Facebook’s realm, I’ve seen facebook.com recommend as a friend someone who I’d just set up a WhatsApp connection with only half an hour earlier. There are no firewalls between FB services. Anything I express an interest for on Instagram is also immediately folded into Facebook’s dossier on me. Do I like the idea of Mark Z poring over the minutiae of my life while laughing his awkward contrived laugh? Not especially. I’m also not psyched about Google knowing exactly where I am when, what I’m looking for, and what I’m photographing. But I’ve made the choice to sacrifice those aspects of my privacy for the convenience of the services I use — I’m not entirely sure how conscious that choice is, whether it’s really worth it, or even if I can actually go on vacation anywhere without all of these services, but that’s how things are now.
Tourism is usually an activity full of trickle-down benefits for small local businesses. If you like a particular place, the best advice is to spend as much money as you comfortably can there, with that act ultimately subsidizing the continued existence and flourishing of your favored destination. But in today’s technological world, we unthinkingly subsidize Silicon Valley whether we go to Milan or the Maldives, Tuscany or Thailand. If I can buy my bus and metro tickets in an app, that’s a tiny bit less money spent at the tabaccheria that relies on selling paper tickets for a regular income. And a tiny increment more heading toward Silicon Valley. Restaurants are now being remodeled to look more appealing to Instagrammers, and there’s even an Airbnb aesthetic taking root. Tech companies have penetrated both the revenue streams and the design sensibilities of the travel industry.
I don’t regret a moment of my weekend vacation, and I’m not about to propose some ascetic tech-free alternative either. But it’s good to be aware of how tech infuses and pervades our lives — something The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo has written about very well — and the economic effects of that when taken to the massive scale at which companies like Google and Facebook operate.