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The end of tech’s 9/11 era

September 9, 2021, 6:58 PM UTC

When the planes hit the World Trade Center 20 years ago, I was just about two miles away, a few blocks from the Hudson River in Jersey City. I was 14 then, just started high school. When the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., I watched it happen through the window frame in my English class while my teacher tried to distract us with a practiced spiel about Romeo and Juliet.

About a week later, a friend and I went to downtown Manhattan and snuck past some NYPD and National Guard barriers to get a closer look. My pictures from that day aren’t that great — I took them on a point-and-shoot camera — but when I look at them now, they capture the brutal physicality of that time, the confusion, the sense of dysphoria that’s largely been memoryholed for stories about unity and patriotism — emotions that are, if nothing else, easier to poll. 

Anniversaries, like the one coming up on Saturday, are important for providing context about our current state of affairs. My Fortune colleague Jonathan Vanian has written elegantly about the rise in surveillance since that horrible day, and it’s something I’ve also reflected on in previous newsletters. 

Tech as we know it wouldn’t exist without the Patriot Act, signed into law 45 days after the towers fell. It became the prerogative of the intelligence community to monitor, say, every single conversation in Afghanistan. It also opened up the floodgates for Google to collect and profit off massive amounts of metadata. For there, engineers figured out they could aggregate data on behavior and make money fast. Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff dubbed this the age of “surveillance capitalism.”

And yet, nobody likes to be surveilled. It’s a constant reminder that you’re not in control. It breeds mistrust. But there was a sense that, hey, if it meant I could just get better ads in front of my eyeballs, what’s the big deal? 

That brings me to today. Since the start of the pandemic, the legacy of 9/11 has come into starker relief. Take a look again at a recent Pew poll about the public’s trust in the government: we’re near all-time lows. In fact, the post-9/11 jump in trust that led to modern day highs — just after the go-go Clinton years — seems pretty modest compared to the deep decline that followed. 

As tech companies have sought to replicate the intelligence community, trust collapsed there, too. Social media companies are dragging down the public’s esteem of tech in general, with the spread of misinformation and the erosion of privacy among the top reasons for the disfavor. 

One thing that sticks out to me from those pictures I took is how people are just milling about, looking around, taking in the wreckage of their surroundings, rather than trying to capture it in a picture or a video. There are no phones. Ads are printed on paper and aren’t placed under little cameras that track engagement. Those small details are worth reflecting on this weekend as we think about the 2,996 people who died that day. There is no way to turn back the clock on the surveillance economy, but that doesn’t mean the 9/11 era — or economy — has to exist in perpetuity. 

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

Four eyes. Silicon Valley's quest to make its own eyewear has its newest entrant, as Facebook unveiled today plans to sell glasses that would let people listen to music and take video. They follow Snap and Google, whose spectacles didn't catch on with the public.

Free speech. Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has temporarily banned social media companies from taking down posts that contain political lies, like his claims about vote-rigging in the upcoming election. The order allows sites like Facebook and Twitter to take down posts that contain nudity or copyright violations, but require court orders to remove posts that contain wrong information about COVID or voting. 

Hot chip. A group of 13 Republican legislators have raised concerns with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about approval for auto manufacturers to buy chips from China's Huawei. Huawei has previously been blacklisted over espionage concerns, and the lawmakers expressed concern that this could give China data on U.S. drivers and infrastructure.

Microsoft office. The tech giant is indefinitely suspending its return to the office, the latest major software company to have its business plans interrupted by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. More than 103,000 employees were set to return to the office around Oct. 4. 

Buzz buzz. Sales at Buzzfeed jumped to $89 million last quarter, a 51% increase from the same period last year, the media company said Thursday. Ads and rebound in commerce drove the increase. The company plans to merge with 890 Fifth Avenue Partners, a special purpose acquisition company that's also planning to acquire cultural news group Complex Networks. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Pay the cost. Well, this doesn't sound good: About half of Millennials and Gen Zs who use buy now and pay later services like Affirm or Klarna have missed a payment. That's larger than the overall share of a recent survey, which finds that a third of people who use the services are behind — and the clear majority of those people have had their credit score affected. 

Most of these purchases are relatively small. People aren't buying houses with these services. But debt traps are a real thing — that's why so many states outlaw payday loans — and the people who can least afford a pair of jeans are the most likely to spend years financially recovering from one bad purchase. Is this the next subprime? Not by a long shot. But it's another drag on two debt-saddled generations, and these things add up. 

From the article:

A third of U.S. consumers who used "buy now, pay later" services have fallen behind on one or more payments, and 72% of those said their credit score declined, a new study published by personal finance company Credit Karma showed.

The study, conducted by software firm Qualtrics, surveyed 1,044 adult consumers in the United States last month to measure their interest in buy now pay later (BNPL) and found 44% had used these services before.

The usage figure was slightly up from a similar survey conducted by Credit Karma for Reuters in December, while missed payments was down from 38%.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

20 years after the Twin Towers fell, you can still see them by Mia Diehl

Amazon is debuting its own line of televisions in October by Lucas Shaw and Bloomberg

The best way to protect against ‘strategic’ cybercrime? Keep moving your data by John Arquilla

China warns gaming firms against a ‘solitary focus of pursuing profit’, shares tank by Coco Liu and Bloomberg

From Jim Carrey fan site to Clubhouse: A founder’s journey to social media success by Jonathan Vanian

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BEFORE YOU GO

"Education partners." Amazon announced today that it would pay full tuition, including books and other costs, for all its hourly employees who've worked at least 90 days at the company — an initiative that's expected to cost $1.2 billion by 2025. That also includes high school, G.E.D., and English as a second language education. 

This is a huge initiative, and sounds great. But I still have questions.

First, the announcement says it will pay for the tuition for "education partners," which goes undefined. Who are these partners? What's the catch for a university to become one?

Second, will this mean that Amazon will work on its retention? The company's been plagued by an unusually high annual turnover rate of 150%. If workers aren't expected to last that long, how much can this really benefit them?

And what's the actual projected investment here? There are now 750,000 people eligible. That's $400 or so per person annually until 2025. Obviously, not everyone will take advantage of this, but if that's it, how did they come up with these figures?

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