When did tech become a dirty word?

The world is turning against tech. Silicon Valley is in danger of becoming the new Wall Street – public enemy number one. And it’s easy to see why. Facebook is being used to influence elections and promote hate speech. Google is pressuring think tanks to fire people they don’t like. And meanwhile Uber has grown into one of the most obnoxious companies on the planet. That’s just the news in 2017. To that, you can add enduring concerns over privacy, the dangers of AI, losing our children to their devices, and perhaps most dangerous of all, a growing sense that tech is a leading cause of the growing inequality of wealth. Meanwhile, we are easy to ridicule.

All this has come as a bit of a shock to much of the tech ecosystem. Collectively we’ve been happily beavering away, content that our work is driving innovation, economic growth and job creation. We haven’t been wrong. Young companiesĀ are responsible for nearly 100% of net job creation.

We have, however, been in denial about the negative side of the massive growth in tech. It’s easy to be dismissive of privacy concerns as misguided (been there, got the t-shirt) but they matter deeply to a lot of people. Similarly, with kids spending all their time on their phones; there are pros and cons and it’s easy to focus on the pros – it’s truly fantastic that my children have all the world’s information at their fingertips.

But, as with most everything in life, tech has its good sides and its bad sides. What’s important is that we recognise that as a fact. Otherwise we aren’t listening to our critics, and so, in turn, they won’t listen to us. This was probably always true, but it’s pressing now that tech is such a large part of society. On 30 June this year, the four largest companies in the world by market cap were Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Amazon. Facebook was number eight. Products of the tech industry are now everywhere, all of the time and it’s not surprising people are paying attention.

Our opportunity is to move to a more nuanced and honest dialogue. It’s important to continually re-emphasise the good that comes out of the startup ecosystem, mostly jobs and productivity growth. But in the same breath, we should acknowledge that some of the fruits of our labour are hurting us and need regulating. Perhaps more challenging is to recognise that change is scary to some people and that their opinion is as valid as ours. We should start to look beyond simply creating enduring companies, to how we can build technology and businesses which can have a long-lasting positive impact.

None of this is too difficult. Lots of the raw ingredients are there already. We have data on the positive impact that startups have on jobs and the economy and we have lots of great products and much-loved companies. AirBnB stands out to me as a good example that has hit a lot of scale, and there are literally thousands of smaller companies I could cite. We should continue to tell this side of our story much as we have been, but start thinking like members of society rather than tech advocates when it comes to issues like those listed above. That will be easier if we stop identifying with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. They aren’t startups anymore. They are large self-interested institutions with a big influence on society which, inevitably, has its good sides and its bad sides.

If we don’t move to a more honest dialogue, we will end up in a shouting match with the rest of society, where neither side is hearing the other. There are important policy issues that we need to address and if we don’t go about it in the right way news like last Friday’s announcement from TFL that they won’t be renewing Uber’s license to operate in London will start to become the norm rather than the exception. I am hopeful that calm heads will prevail in that situation and more generally but that will only happen if we in the tech industry open our hearts and minds to the concerns of other parts of society.

  • chrishwh

    Agree.

    It’s a complex situation and I think that events are going to conspire to make it more so.

    I feel we’re now moving into an “anti-business” phases as far as electorate/political parties are concerned (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-41388032) and tech giants with their massive profits and opaque tax payments are going to be an easy target.

    Having just said that, though, I’m really surprised by the strength of feeling amongst young people around the Uber ban. I would have thought that such a dreadful toxic company would attract little support amongst the “woke” generation but they don’t appear to be that bothered.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I’m intrigued about your comment that AirBnB is a self-evident good. I can see lots of bad things with it. It perpetuates wealth inequality (between those who have capital and those who do not); it drives up house prices; it turns residential streets into transient ones. (The difference in our street between the hotels – regulated, front staff, etc – and the AirBnB, where guests often turn up, can’t get it, knock loudly for 15 minutes and so on, is stark.)

    I struggle to see AirBnB as a social good. I do see it as a clever business though. It is, for me, at best neutral.

    And I used to like tech…