Mike, I’m not so sure that it’s a case of being missed, so much as a case that in a lot of ways we aren’t quite there yet. One of the systemic issues that got us where we are with harmful tech is “move fast and break things,” the approach that radical innovation is kind of a panacea, rather than a useful but sometimes risky approach to problem-solving. The most obvious alternative is to slow down (a bit) and look not for the immediate solution but for the right solution.
One of my main focus areas in the last couple of years has been to try to figure out not just what’s going wrong, but why our tech doesn’t align with our human interests the way it was expected to. It turns out a lot of the issues can be tracked to, of all things, our abstract models of how we work and how the world works. The problem, then, is coming up with new models so we stop asking the wrong questions and trying to solve the wrong problems with the wrong solutions.
For example, the best way to augment real-world face to face interactions with tech is probably to make tech that a) helps put people in the same place, b) optionally with some idea of what to start talking about if they aren’t sure yet, and then c) gets out of the way for the duration.
The reason is that our brains and bodies have been developed over geological timespans to work a certain way, and that way is pretty comprehensive. It’s genuinely hard to add anything that doesn’t end up being more trouble than it’s worth, because this is such a fine-tuned system and so universal to us that we almost can’t tell that it is constantly working.
For example, when two people have a conversation, our speech and body language start to harmonize, we adhere to a nearly universal back-and-forth timing, and our brain waves start to synchronize. Our brains also treat the words as only one very limited part of a whole multi-channel communication system that factors in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and pacing, and it seems to believe the nonverbal cues over the text on a regular basis. Moreover, when you cut off some of those channels, our brains seem to want to fill in the gaps by guessing. (This is why sarcasm in text conversations can be hit or miss, since it relies on the reader to guess correctly.) There’s good reason to believe that most readers “hear” a voice when they read text, which implies that they’re also “hearing” tone of voice—imagine someone reading a text message while in a bad mood and interpreting it as being written in an aggressive “tone” because they’re already primed to feel bad, rather than because of the author’s intent or feelings.
What tech can meaningfully intrude into that system and make it better, instead of causing disruptions to a finely tuned engine that basically produces telepathy over short distances? What will introduce signal but no noise? I’m really not sure.
At some point we may have some good ideas! But for now, anyone who thinks they can outdo the human brain and body for communicating between two people probably doesn’t actually understand how ridiculously complex the IRL version really is, or how hard the problem is going to end up being.
That more or less leaves room only for tech to bring people who are distant closer together, then gracefully duck out for a nap. I think there’s enormous opportunity in that zone, at least. You mentioned Meetup, which is in that space, but I’m certain that there are specific approaches that haven’t been tried yet and that might actually do some good.
Nextdoor is, I think, a step in the right direction but it also shows how doing that without building in other improvements is potentially a problem. Lots of people I know who use Nextdoor find it a combination of “useful” and “some of the worst parts of Facebook’s comments, but I know these people are my neighbors and it’s upsetting.” That can be attributed at least in part to some of the ways that current tech paradigms are inhumane, and work to make those models better for Facebook or Twitter or YouTube should also help services like Nextdoor to be better about it.