If tech wants to reverse the crushing tide of negative public opinion, it must start creating public good commensurate with its extraction of private profit.
If the technology industry were in fact a singular entity — if GAFA, or FANG, or whatever the acronym we identify with the world’s most valuable and profitable companies was in fact one huge corporation, the head of public relations for that fictional conglomerate would be hiding under his desk, likely curled in a fetal position around a sizeable bottle of gin.
The tech backlash is here, and it’s pissed off, it’s complex, and it’s dug in for a long, ugly fight.
Tech’s slide into negativity probably started with Uber — a company that proved a perfect exemplar of tech’s most sociopathic characteristics*. The bro culture long parodied in popular culture proved to be virulently on display at the world’s most valuable startup — misogyny, tone deaf management, winning at all costs, ignorance of social and political consequence. It continued with Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, which woke entire swaths of the non-tech economy to the Everything Store’s rapacious and robotic approach to platform capitalism. Around the same time, Europe slapped both Facebook and Google with massive fines and legal uncertainty, focused on both tech’s use of data and its monopolistic business practices.
This has been the year that pundits, academics, and journalists began to pile on, stoking fears of Big Tech controlling our lives through unrestrained super AI, creepy and omniscient data surveillance, and a questionable approach to “consumer engagement” focused not on consumer happiness, but on bottom line profiteering. The election and its attendant swamp of fake news and Russian information ops only deepened the public’s suspicions, Facebook’s half-hearted admissions last week confirmed them, leading sitting Senators to speculate that, in fact, we’ve only seen the “tip of the iceberg” as it relates to technology’s power over our democratic discourse.
And now the stories are coming so fast and furious, one can barely keep up with the river of negativity: Google has become the flash point for our divided country’s culture war, Democrats are considering leaving tech out of their party philosophy in the coming mid terms, Republicans are considering regulating tech like a utility, tech has become shorthand for our epidemic of income inequality, and on, and on, and on.
When I compose essays like this one, I usually link inside the phrases I’ve written, but I’m not doing that this time. It’s far more powerful to actually read the headlines, one after another. Here’s a sampling of recent doozies:
A Serf on Google’s Farm (Talking Points Memo)
Big Tech can no longer be allowed to police itself (Financial Times)
Sorry, But Silicon Valley Isn’t Special Anymore (Bloomberg)
The Pitchforks Are Coming For Us Plutocrats (Politico)
Tech’s Damaging Myth of the Loner Genius Nerd (New York Times)
Can the Tech Giants Be Stopped? (Wall St. Journal)
There’s Blood In The Water In Silicon Valley (Buzzfeed)
That last one is from Ben Smith, the respected editor of BuzzFeed. When BuzzFeed turns on tech, the snake has well and truly begun to eat its tail.
What can be done? There’s certainly no silver bullet, but I believe the answer lies in our largest tech firms getting out of their defensive crouch, acknowledging their most damaging business practices, and truly leading the way forward towards a new form of progressive, inclusive capitalism. That means redirecting their enormous profits and platforms toward creating what Richard Florida, a keen observer of urban economies, calls “inclusive prosperity.” I spoke to Florida yesterday, ostensibly to interview him for a piece about his latest book on urban issues. But toward the end of our conversation, I asked him about what role he thinks large tech firms should have in helping to address society’s ills. His answer is shared in full below. I hope those of you who work in “big tech” will take its admonishments to heart.
Those guys have to buck up and be part of this. I’ve recently been talking to members of Congress. They tell me that for the high tech companies, the pitchforks are now out. High tech companies are now despised. [People] don’t like Uber. They’re pissed off at Amazon about antitrust. Mad at Google. High tech companies have to realize they are the five largest companies in the world. They have all this money, all this personal and corporate wealth.
[They must now] become a driving force of inclusive prosperity. They are taking so much from the city. They’re extracting — but giving nothing back. They’re causing these problems. They treat their knowledge workers like gold, but they treat their service workers like crap. They should be working to upgrade those jobs. They have to help cities solve their transit problems. You have to create public goods. If there was a federal government that could solve transit, for example, they would solve it. But they can’t. These companies must lead.
They have to be part of the solution. If not, then the pitchforks really will be out.
*Although if you read my predictions post for 2017, you’d have already known this was coming…cough humblebrag cough.
And Today’s Top Stories Pretty Much Echo The Debate….
Wall St. jumps on the bandwagon….
Too little, too late?