The techlash

People hate hubris and hypocrisy more than they hate evil, which is, I think, why we’re seeing the beginnings of a bipartisan cultural backlash against the tech industry. A backlash which is wrongly conceived and wrongly targeted … but not entirely unfounded. It’s hard to shake the sense that, as an industry, we are currently abdicating some of our collective responsibility to the world.

I don’t want to overstate the case. The tech industry remained the single most trusted entity in America as recently as last year, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest man in the world, and Elon Musk probably its highest-profile billionaire; of course they’re going to attract flak from all sides.

Furthermore, tech has become enormously more powerful and influential over the last decade. The Big Five tech companies now occupy the top five slots on the Fortune 500, whereas in 2008, Hewlett-Packard was tech’s lone Top Ten representative at #9. Power breeds resentment. Some kind of backlash was inevitable.

And yet — the tech industry is by some distance the least objectionable of the world’s power centers right now. The finance industry has become, to paraphrase Rolling Stone, a vampire squid wrapped around the our collective economic throat, siphoning off a quarter of our lifeblood via increasingly complex financial structures which provide very little benefit to the rest of us. But a combination of learned helplessness and lack of hypocrisy — in that very few hedge fund managers pretend to be making the world a better place for anyone but their clients — shields them from anything like the rancor they deserve.

Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of the worldwide right-wing populist uprising which has led governments around the world to treat desperate refugees like nonhuman scum; turning them away by the boatload in Europe; imprisoning them on a godforsaken remote island in Australia; tearing children from their parents and caging them in America.

Tesla and Amazon’s treatment of factory and warehouse workers is at best questionable and at worst egregiously wrong … though if they were all replaced by robots, that would eliminate those complaints but also all of those jobs, which makes the complaints look pretty short-sighted. But it’s not whataboutism to suggest that outrage should be proportional to the relative scale of the offense in question. If it isn’t, then that indicates some seriously skewed priorities. What is it about the tech industry’s relatively venial sins, compared to those of finance and government, which so sticks in the craw of its critics?

Partly it’s the perceived hubris and hypocrisy — that we talk about “making the world a better place” when in fact we sometimes seem to only be making it a better place for ourselves. Life is pretty nice for those of us in the industry, and keeps getting nicer. We like to pretend that slowly, bit by bit, life is getting better for everyone else, too, while or sometimes even because we focus on our cool projects, and the rest of the world will get to live like us too.

Which is even true, for a lot of people! I was in China a couple of months ago: it has changed almost inconceivably since my first visit two decades ago, and overwhelmingly for the better, despite all of the negative side effects of that change. The same is true for India. That’s 2.6 billion people right there whose lives have mostly been transformed for the better over the last couple of decades, courtesy of capitalism and technology. The same is true for other, smaller populations around the world.

However. There are many, many millions of people, including throngs in our own back yards, for whom the world has gotten decidedly worse over the last ten years, sometimes as a result of those same changes or related ones (such as increasing inequality, which is at least arguably partly driven by technology.) Many more have been kept out of, or driven away from, our privileged little world for no good reason. Why is it somehow OK for us to shrug and turn our backs on them? The tech industry is enormously powerful now, and Peter Parker was on to something when he said: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

So why is it that we’re only willing to work on really cool long-term goals like electric cars and space exploration, and not the messy short-term stuff like inequality, housing, and the ongoing brutal oppression of refugees and immigrants? Don’t tell me it’s because those fields are too regulated and political; space travel and road transportation are heavily regulated and not exactly apolitical in case you haven’t noticed.

That painful, difficult stuff is for governments, we say. That’s for international diplomacy. That’s some one else’s problem. Until recently — and maybe even still, for now — this has been true. But with growing power comes growing responsibility. At some point, and a lot of our critics think we have already passed it, those problems become ours, too. Kudos to people like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, who says “But we cannot delegate these complex problems off to the government and say, “We’re not all part of it,”” for beginning to tackle them.

Let’s hope he’s only among the first. And let’s hope we find a way for technology to help with the overarching problem of incompetent and/or malevolent governments, while we’re at it.

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