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Resist the tech backlash before it’s too late

An increasingly unhealthy narrative has grown up around the tech sector – some of which is justified. But industry leaders need to push back and argue for the benefits of technology, too

The CEOs of leading digital technology firms have grown used to being admired. For half a century, they have been portrayed as visionary, passionate and committed to building a better, smarter world. Combined with their often astonishing wealth, they have enjoyed a public profile matched by few business leaders, mixing easily in political, cultural and celebrity circles. 

But societal perceptions are clearly shifting, and these same leaders – and the technology industry itself – are on the defensive as never before. Today’s digital giants are now routinely accused of destroying jobs, ending individual privacy, widening economic inequality, systemising societal bias, inciting political polarisation, avoiding taxes, abusing their monopoly power, being ripe for foreign manipulation, and generally being untrustworthy in an age of data-driven machine intelligence. 

Is all this negativity just a passing phase, or a sign of something more fundamental? Bitter complaints and eye-rolling frustrations about the oil, pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, cable TV, telephone, airline and other major industries are now baked into contemporary culture. Does Big Tech face a similar future?

The good news is that although there is at least some truth in all of the above complaints, much of today’s criticism is, on balance, unfair, exaggerated or addressable by relatively straightforward actions. The bad news is that, because the response of our leading firms and executives – in both the media and recent government hearings – has been mostly apologetic, non-confrontational and even dismissive, the negative narratives are taking hold, especially in media, academic and political circles, from both the left and the right.   

It’s time to wake up. Unless all of us in the IT industry start doing a better job of taking on the critics, today’s attacks will surely continue, and negative perceptions will increasingly spread to the public at large, and even our own organisations. Below are nine messages that can help to turn the tables and put tech’s critics on the defensive:

  1. Because they enable us to read about all manner of sensitive subjects in the relative anonymity of our own homes and screens, the internet and smartphones are among the greatest privacy innovations ever.
  2. People have been wrongly predicting that technology-based automation will become a net job destroyer since at least the industrial revolution. Until there is much more actual evidence, there is no reason to believe that this time the Luddites are right.
  3. Both the digital world and society overall often exaggerate the impact of social media. In most countries, traditional media, especially television, remains the most important cultural and political force.
  4. The youth of today are often described as being dangerously addicted to video games, smartphones and social media, just as they were once seen as addicted to movies, radio, TV, and rock and roll. This, too, will pass.
  5. Although no system is ever totally objective, on balance, machines have far fewer biases than humans. It’s not like doctors, lawyers, professors, judges, executives, managers and coaches are pillars of objectivity.
  6. Companies such as Amazon and Uber need to visibly pay and treat their low-wage workers better, and the tech giants must resist the temptations of large-scale tax avoidance. Companies should be embarrassed to be behind the curve on these two issues.
  7. As we have seen in the past with IBM, Microsoft and Intel, periodic concerns about monopoly power – and calls for government restraints – are not new to the IT industry. But in each previous era, shifting technologies have humbled seemingly unbeatable market leaders.
  8. It is easy to list the many benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) across a wide range of services and industries. AI’s critics should be challenged to come up with a similar list of actual problems and damage.
  9. Many people – even some prominent tech leaders – are now calling for more government regulation to address the challenges listed above. They should be careful what they wish for. In an environment where people are demanding that tech companies somehow separate truth from falsehood, real from fake news, harmful versus safe speech, and so on, it’s not easy to write laws that will do more good than harm.

By consistently advocating the nine messages above and taking the necessary supporting actions, the technology industry can start to roll back today’s increasingly negative narratives, and steadily build up a more balanced understanding of both technology’s many benefits and the real challenges that inevitably come with them. 

But the starting point is for today’s tech giants to stop being a media and political punching bag. If our industry doesn’t defend itself, no one else will.

Read more from David Moschella on the tech backlash here. 

Read more about the tech backlash

This was last published in December 2018

Read more on Managing IT and business issues

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