John Buni: The backlash against big tech is understandable. But it’s still a force for good in the world.
At times, the rise of Silicon Valley’s titans of tech has seemed unstoppable. And then autumn rolled around. Stocks in Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google—the so-called FAANG companies—started to tank. By the third week of November, a mass sell-off was officially underway.
Shares in Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have now dropped 10 percent since the market peaked. Shares in Facebook and Amazon have dropped more than 20. Since 3rd October, the FAANG companies have lost a combined $728 billion (£568 billion) in market value. Clearly something has changed, but what?
You could blame the tense trade relationship between the U.S. and China or President Trump’s corporate tax cuts. And there’s no doubt, too, that mixed forecasts and disappointing earnings reports from the companies themselves played their parts. But a major reason for this chaos has to do with a change in public opinion towards digital technology.
It was a shift that didn’t escape the notice of anyone working in the sector. Once, companies like Facebook and Apple were seen as agents of positive transformation. They were huge, benevolent organisations with the power to remake the world socially and politically for the better. But amid allegations of sexual misconduct, mismanagement, and abuse of private data, faith began to erode.
Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, said he felt “tremendous guilt” for his role in creating “tools” that “are ripping apart the social fabric”. Sean Parker, who founded Napster and was Facebook’s first president, said the social media giant was designed to exploit human “vulnerability”. Poll after poll started to show that the public no longer trusted tech companies to act in their best interests.
Then there was criticism of the technology itself. The Internet, we were told, was overloading our brains and causing our memories to atrophy. Our attention span was dwindling; our phone notifications were playing havoc with the reward centres in our brains. We were told that smartphones were making us anxious and shallow. Shows like Black Mirror exploit our emerging suspicion of technology.
The backlash is understandable. But digital technology itself is not to blame. The systems in the brain that are exploited or affected in negative ways by digital technology far outdate it. And though that might seem obvious to some, scan the headlines (even—quite ironically—online) and you’ll find that the question of whether tech is “good or evil” is hotly debated. “Digital technology”, ran one Washington Post opinion piece, “is destroying your mind.”
Put aside job creation and economic contribution and still digital technology shows itself to be, overwhelmingly, a positive force in the world today. For one thing, anyone with an Internet connection has all the world’s knowledge at her fingertips. That doesn’t ignore the fact that there is a lot of misinformation around, too, but it’s a small price to pay to bring information to billions—in particular to those in poor regions or developing countries. And there are even online universities, such as edX or Coursera, where users can study courses from leading universities including Harvard and MIT. From Bangladesh to Belfast, a young girl or boy can educate themselves and improve their lot without leaving the room.
Online communities or groups help us to solve problems or take correct action in the first place. We don’t need to waste time, effort and willpower experimenting with ways to approach an activity when we can learn from the experiences of others and move in the right direction from the off. Groups can also offer motivation and support. Trolls will always make the headlines, but there are far more people offering the digital equivalent of a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on.
And that reflects the fact that we can communicate with people all over the world, for free—something that we now take for granted. Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp and all the major social media sites allow us to find each other and communicate with each other wherever we are. That has implications for work: someone who for reasons of poor health couldn’t feasibly travel to work can work remotely, or set up a business, thanks to tech.
The list goes on and on. Digital technology gives us freedom. It makes life easier and cheaper. It lets us do more. There are justified concerns about privacy, addiction and loneliness. But nothing is perfect, and the beauty of technology is that it can help us to solve the problems it may have caused. So familiar are we with digital technology today that we rarely step back and marvel at all the good it has achieved.
This is not to defend those who have misused tech. But it is the way that tech is used, and rarely tech itself, which poses problems. And what’s more, in this industry, the rate of change is such that problems emerge before we even have time to anticipate them. Our aim, then, should be to approach digital technology with open eyes and use it ethically and responsibly. The opposite would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.