IT community needs to counter concerns behind 'big tech' backlash

Sometimes reporting the latest tech news at Computer Weekly throws up an entertaining juxtaposition. Take these two headlines, for example, from last week:

TechUK calls on Matt Hancock to fast-track NHS digitisation and Citizens don’t want the NHS to prioritise digital health, report finds.

Just as IT industry trade body TechUK is pushing health and social care secretary Matt Hancock to accelerate his grand technology vision for the NHS, the Institute for Public Policy Research publishes a report that suggests digital healthcare is the lowest priority for patients.

Sound familiar? The tech sector telling its prospective customers they should be buying more stuff, while the ultimate users of that stuff show somewhat less enthusiasm? In one form or another, this has been a recurring trait throughout enterprise IT history.

Of course, it goes back even further than that. Vehicle manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford is widely attributed as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

While NHS patients might like the idea of faster doctors and nurses, there’s no escaping the reality that technology will accelerate their capacity and capability far more effectively.

But this particular juxtaposition highlights a deeper trend at the moment. In the decade since the launch of the iPhone, we’ve seen technology becoming ever-more ubiquitous and popular, but in the past year or so we’ve seen the start of what is, perhaps, an inevitable backlash.

Much of the growing negativity towards tech is coming from the dominance of US internet giants like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple – and especially continuing revelations about topics such as Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards our personal data, Amazon’s working practices, or Google’s tax policies.

It’s a concern that the phrase “big tech” is becoming commonplace, carrying with it the hint of malfeasance that originated from “big tobacco” and “big pharma”.

The underlying positive aspect is that the backlash is a natural response to our increasing reliance on tech, and the influence it’s having on driving social and cultural change. Such a process is never easy, but if you believe the benefits of technology outweigh the concerns, then it’s incumbent on tech evangelists to continue to make the case.

The next few years are likely to be difficult for the tech sector, and those who come through successfully will be the ones who change their behaviour – grow up, so to speak, from tech’s adolescence. Tech is not the young upstart anymore, it needs to be a responsible member of society.

For everyone who works in IT, it’s your responsibility too, to focus on the benefits, and mitigate the potential downsides of the digital economy.

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