Is the tech-lash phenomenon still relevant?
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Over recent years, some of our biggest tech firms have been accused of a plethora of wrong-doings. However, Covid-19 has shown us that technology is an absolutely fundamental part of our daily lives. Are tech companies getting a reprieve?
Open Google’s code of conduct in 2000 and you’d be met with the opening sentence: ‘Don’t be evil’. It was a simple message which quickly became the tech firm’s unofficial motto. “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains. We will live up to our ‘don’t be evil’ principle by keeping user trust…,” Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote in the company’s 2004 prospectus as part of its S-1 filing to go public.
However, many people believe Google failed to keep its promise. “Back in the 2000s, Google in particular was the darling of Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley was a new wonder of the world,” says Morgan Ames, assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and author of ‘The Charisma Machine’. “However, with the relentless push to grow and to make profit, it, along with many other big tech companies, threw caution – and ethics – to the wind. Scandal after scandal hit the news – and people got fed up. This spawned the beginning of the ‘tech-lash’.”
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence that large technology companies hold”, the tech-lash has steadily grown in recent years.
“The tech-lash phenomenon is the result of several things,” explains Hemant Bhargava, a professor, Jerome and Elsie Suran Chair in technology management at the University of California, Davis. “At an individual level, it’s the sense that technology firms are creepy in the way they collect data about us. At a collective or societal level, it’s the feeling that many tech firms have become too powerful – they have too much market share, make excessive profits and they gobble up or play nasty against new competitors. It’s also about the fact that they are just too big and strong to face real competition in the future.”
“Some of the general fears are that technology will reduce privacy, eliminate jobs and threaten democracy and individual rights,” adds Joe Kennedy, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) based in Washington DC. “Tech-lash proponents also argue that large internet companies are consolidating too much economic power which they will use to raise prices, increase profits, impede innovation and influence government in their favour.”
It’s easy to see where this distrust comes from. In 2017, the European Commission fined Google 2.42 billion euros for breaching antitrust rules, asked Apple for up to 13 billion euros in back taxes and investigated a range of companies for anti-competitive practices.
The following year, billionaire investor George Soros took to the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos to deliver a stark warning to US technology giants. “As Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation, and they have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware,” he said. “They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near-monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access.”
Less than two months after that, and the news broke that Cambridge Analytica had attempted to influence elections both in the US and the UK by using data from millions of Facebook users, without their permission. These happenings sparked an online movement #DeleteFacebook, which trended on Twitter.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. A long list of scandals, covering everything from user privacy through to fraud and algorithmic bias, has caused Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, Palantir Technologies and Uber to make it into ‘The Evil List’ – Slate Magazine’s 2020 list of the world’s most dangerous technology companies.
Yet despite all this, technology from these firms is a huge – and increasing – part of our lives. Of the more than 6,000 business and IT executives worldwide that Accenture surveyed for its recent Technology Vision report, 83 per cent acknowledge that technology has become an inextricable part of the human experience. As part of the same study, Accenture also surveyed 2,000 consumers, 70 per cent of whom expect their relationship with technology to be more or significantly more prominent over the next three years.
“At Accenture, we consider the term ‘tech-lash’ to be a misnomer,” says Michael Biltz, managing director for Accenture Technology Vision. “While it is true that some have referred to today’s environment as a tech-lash, or backlash against technology, that is simply not the real story. In fact, people still love technology; they use it more than ever. We are not facing a tech-lash; we are facing a tech-clash – a clash between business and technology models that are incongruous with people’s needs and expectations.”
Biltz has a point. We remain excited and intrigued by new technology – and, in the face of our current pandemic, this has never been more apparent.
‘Technology tools are enabling people to stay connected with friends and family and to continue working.’
“Technology is no longer an option – it is a requirement to connect employees, consumers and business partners,” Biltz says. “Technology tools are enabling people to stay connected with friends and family and to continue working. In the midst of crisis, people need technology solutions more urgently than ever.”
“Clearly, everyone’s use of big tech products and services has shot up during these days of working from home and social distancing,” adds Bhargava. “It reminds people of the fundamental and enduring value these firms provide. Facebook lets you connect with family and friends. Amazon allows you to replenish your supplies when you can’t go shopping. Covid-19 has focused people’s minds a little more on these positive aspects, and a little away from the negative ones.”
Biltz even goes as far as to say that the current pandemic has given big tech firms something of a reprieve from the tech-lash. “The global challenge of Covid-19 has spurred a massive innovation effort from companies, governments, universities and individuals,” he says. “Robots are now disinfecting cities, cooking hospital food and delivering packages. Smart devices are monitoring patients’ health and collecting valuable health data. Human-AI collaboration is leaving the proof-of-concept stage and becoming a critical tool for scientists studying the virus.”
Indeed, while much of the world is shut down or on hold, innovation is accelerating. In fact, many would argue that the big tech firms are going above and beyond what is expected.
Take Microsoft, for example. In a note to employees which he posted on LinkedIn, the firm’s CEO Satya Nadella said how proud he was that the company has adopted a first responder mindset, working with so many customers on the front lines, including governments, health providers, schools, food suppliers and other commercial customers critical to the continuity and stability of services in every country. “We’re providing critical infrastructure for the communities where we operate, and they are counting on us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Google has launched several AI-based solutions to help during the pandemic and has teamed up with Apple to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus.
Amazon has not only launched the $20m AWS Diagnostic Initiative to accelerate Covid-19 research but has also committed almost $23m to support those most affected by the pandemic in Europe. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos donated $100m to Feeding America and the company has also hired 175,000 additional full- and part-time employees, providing an income to many of those who found themselves out of work.
With all this in mind, Christian Lanng, co-founder and CEO of cloud-based business network Tradeshift, believes tech firms have stepped up where governments haven’t. “One of the most striking things about the current crisis has been the lack of genuine leaders on the political stage to coordinate a response to the pandemic,” he says. “Contrast that with the coordination shown among big tech companies. Technology has done more in the past three months to alleviate the pain caused by a lockdown than any government initiative.”
As a result, Laang believes a lot of tech companies will emerge from the crisis with a lot of goodwill in the bank. “But as the saying goes, it takes years to build a reputation, and seconds to destroy it,” he warns. “Big tech has emerged from the pandemic with their reputations enhanced by the actions they have taken. But the underlying issues haven’t gone away.”
Kennedy’s feeling that the tech-lash won’t go away any time soon is for a different reason: “The tech-lash movement is here to stay, for the simple reason that proponents of it benefit too much: they can use it to sell books, give Ted talks, and raise funds. Big tech, because it is big and popular, needs to understand that at least for a significant share of advocates, it will remain in the crosshairs. Companies should be not assume that just because they are innovating and developing beneficial technologies and applications people will understand and embrace them.”
Biltz agrees. However, he also believes that the tech-lash isn’t something that big tech firms need to fear. “It is a problem that can be solved if the right measures are taken to account for a post-pandemic future,” he says. “This preparation can start now, by exploring new models, applying technology responsibly, assuming accountability for the impacts of their products and services and, most importantly, building trust with people. In other words, it is time for companies to challenge existing business and technology models and create something wholly new and human-centred to deliver business value that is balanced with people’s values – now and in the future.”
This is exactly the point made by Microsoft president Brad Smith in his book ‘Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age’, which was published late last year.
“As we keep working to bring more technology to humanity, we also need to bring more humanity into technology,” he said.
Smith writes that it’s unrealistic to expect the pace of technological change to slow, but it’s not too much to ask that we do more to manage this change. “In contrast to prior technology eras and inventions such as the railroad, telephone, automobile, and television, digital technology has progressed for several decades with remarkably little regulation – or even self-regulation,” he said. “It’s time to recognise that this hands-off attitude needs to give way to a more activist approach that addresses evolving challenges in a more assertive way.”
One part of the solution is giving customers agency – the ability to make relevant choices that inform their experiences. “This can turn passive audiences into active participants,” Biltz explains. “This in turn will increase engagement, transforming experience delivery from a one-way street to dynamic and responsive collaborations. Rather than be the sole administrator of experiences, businesses can become true partners, increasing transparency and sharing control. In doing so, companies will build trust among their customers – a necessity in a world where digital is everywhere.”
Ultimately, Smith argues that the issues are bigger than any single person, company, industry, or even technology itself. “They involve fundamental values of democratic freedoms and human rights,” he said. “The tech sector was born and has grown because it has benefited from these freedoms. We owe it to the future to help ensure that these values survive and even flourish long after we and our products have passed from the scene.
“The greatest risk is not that the world will do too much to solve these problems. It’s that the world will do too little. It’s not that governments will move too fast. It’s that they will be too slow. Technology innovation is not going to slow down. The work to manage it needs to speed up.”
Charles Duan, director of technology and innovation policy at the R Street Institute, a non-profit free market think tank based in Washington DC, believes progress is already being made in this direction. “A key change I’ve observed over the last few months is a rapid increase in the revamping of policy departments and hiring of numerous well-respected policy experts into big tech firms,” he says. “Facebook’s repeated expressions of “willingness to be regulated” also suggest these companies’ move toward greater policy engagement.”
Get this right, and tech firms have an opportunity to get even closer to users. “Forward-looking firms are beginning to understand that success is not just about creating the next best technology tool; it’s about making the next major strategy and business decision for continuing enterprise transformation,” concludes Biltz.
“There are huge opportunities for companies to truly innovate and introduce entirely new models that reflect people’s values. Those that forge ahead, prioritising the concept of elevating the human when releasing products and services, will be best positioned as leaders of tomorrow.”
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