In recent years, some of our largest tech companies have been accused of a plethora of errors. However, Covid-19 has shown us that technology is an absolutely fundamental part of our daily lives. Do tech companies get deferred payments?
Open Google’s code of conduct in 2000 and you’ll see the opening line: “Don’t be evil.” It was a simple message that quickly became the tech company’s unofficial motto. “We are convinced that in the long run we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world, even if we forgo some short-term gains. We will live up to our ‘don’t be evil’ principle by maintaining user trust…” Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote in the company’s 2004 prospectus as part of the S-1 application that was made public.
However, many people believe that Google has not kept its promise. “In the 2000s, Google was the darling of Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley was a new wonder of the world,” said Morgan Ames, assistant adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and author of “The Charisma- machine’. “But with the relentless push to grow and make a profit, it, along with many other major tech companies, threw caution – and ethics – to the wind. Scandal after scandal made the news – and people got tired of it. This led to the onset of the tech lash.”
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “strong and widespread negative response to the growing power and influence that large tech companies have,” the tech lash has grown steadily in recent years.
“The tech-lash phenomenon is the result of several things,” explains Hemant Bhargava, a professor, Jerome and Elsie Suran Chair of technology management at the University of California, Davis. “On an individual level, there’s a sense that tech companies are uncanny in the way they collect data about us. On a collective or societal level, the feeling is that many tech companies have become too powerful – they have too much market share, make excessive profits, and take or play mean to new competitors. It’s also about being just too big and strong to withstand real competition in the future.”
“Some of the common fears are that technology will diminish privacy, eliminate jobs and threaten democracy and individual rights,” added Joe Kennedy, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), based in Washington D.C. . “Tech-lash proponents also argue that big internet companies are consolidating too much economic power that they will use to raise prices, increase profits, hinder innovation and influence government in their favor.”
It is easy to see where this mistrust comes from. In 2017, the European Commission fined Google €2.42 billion for violating antitrust rules, asked Apple up to €13 billion in back taxes and investigated a range of companies for anti-competitive practices.
The following year, billionaire investor George Soros took the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos to issue a clear warning to US tech giants. “As Facebook and Google have grown into increasingly powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation and have created a variety of problems that we are only now becoming aware of,” he said. “They claim they are just spreading information. But the fact that they are near monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to stricter regulation aimed at preserving competition, innovation and fair and open universal access.
Less than two months later, news broke that Cambridge Analytica had attempted to influence elections in both the US and the UK by using data from millions of Facebook users, without their consent. These events sparked an online movement #DeleteFacebook, which was trending on Twitter.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. A long list of scandals, encompassing everything from user privacy to fraud and algorithmic bias, has led Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, Palantir Technologies and Uber to make it to ‘The Evil List’ – Slate Magazine’s 2020 list of the world’s most dangerous technology companies.
But despite all this, technology from these companies is a huge – and increasing – part of our lives. Of the more than 6,000 business and IT executives worldwide that Accenture surveyed for its recent Technology Vision report, 83 percent acknowledge that technology has become an integral part of the human experience. As part of the same survey, Accenture also surveyed 2,000 consumers, 70 percent of whom expect their relationship with technology to become more or significantly more prominent over the next three years.
“At Accenture, we view the term ‘tech-lash’ as a misnomer,” said Michael Biltz, managing director of Accenture Technology Vision. “While it’s true that some have called the current environment a tech lash, or resistance to technology, that’s just not the real story. In fact, people still love technology; they are using it more than ever. We are not faced with a tech lash; we are facing a tech clash – a clash between business and technology models that are not aligned with people’s needs and expectations.”
Biltz has a point. We remain excited and intrigued by new technology – and in light of our current pandemic, this has never been more apparent.
“Technological tools enable people to stay in touch with friends and family and keep working.”
Michael Biltz, Accenture
“Technology is no longer an option — it’s a requirement to connect employees, consumers and business partners,” Biltz says. “Technological tools enable people to stay in touch with friends and family and keep working. In the midst of a crisis, people need technology solutions more urgently than ever.”
“It is clear that the use of major tech products and services by everyone has increased during these days of working from home and social distancing,” Bhargava added. “It reminds people of the fundamental and lasting value these companies provide. Facebook allows you to connect with family and friends. Amazon allows you to replenish your supplies when you can’t go shopping. Covid-19 has made people’s minds a little bit more focused on these positive aspects, and a little bit away from the negative ones.”
Biltz goes so far as to say that the current pandemic has given major tech companies a bit of respite from the tech lash. “The global challenge of Covid-19 has led to a massive innovation effort from companies, governments, universities and individuals,” he says. “Robots are now disinfecting cities, cooking hospital food and delivering parcels. Smart devices monitor patient health and collect valuable health data. The collaboration between humans and AI will move beyond the proof-of-concept stage and become a critical tool for scientists studying the virus.”
Indeed, while much of the world is at a standstill or at a standstill, innovation is accelerating. Many would even argue that the big tech companies are going further than expected.
Take Microsoft for example. In a note to employees he posted on LinkedIn, the company’s CEO Satya Nadella said how proud he was that the company has adopted a first-responder mentality, working with so many frontline customers, including governments. healthcare providers, schools, food suppliers and other commercial customers that are essential for the continuity and stability of services in each country. “We provide critical infrastructure for the communities in which we operate, and they count on us,” he said.
Meanwhile, Google has launched several AI-based solutions to help during the pandemic and has partnered with Apple to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus.
Amazon has not only launched the $20 million AWS Diagnostic Initiative to accelerate Covid-19 research, but has also pledged nearly $23 million to support those most affected by the pandemic in Europe. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos donated $100 million to Feeding America, and the company has also hired 175,000 additional full- and part-time employees, providing income to many of those who were unemployed.
With all this in mind, Christian Lanng, co-founder and CEO of the cloud-based business network Tradeshift, believes that technology companies have risen where governments have not. “One of the most striking things about the current crisis is the lack of real leaders on the political stage to coordinate a response to the pandemic,” he says. “Compare that with the coordination between large tech companies. Technology has done more to alleviate the pain of a lockdown in the past three months than any government initiative.”
As a result, Laang thinks that many tech companies with a lot of goodwill in the bank will emerge from the crisis. “But as the saying goes, it takes years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it,” he warns. “Big tech has emerged from the pandemic and their reputation has been enhanced by the actions they have taken. But the underlying problems have not gone away.”
Kennedy’s sense that the tech lash won’t go away anytime soon has another reason: “The tech lash movement is here to stay, for the simple reason that proponents benefit from it too much: they can use it to book books, give Ted talks. and fund raising.Big technology, because it is big and popular, must understand that it will remain in the crosshairs of at least a significant portion of the proponents.Companies should not assume that just because they innovate and develop useful technologies and applications , people will understand and embrace them.”
Biltz agrees. However, he also believes that the tech lash is not something big tech companies should fear. “It’s a problem that can be solved if the right measures are taken to account for a post-pandemic future,” he says. “This preparation can begin now, by exploring new models, using technology responsibly, taking responsibility for the effects of their products and services and, most importantly, building trust in people. In other words, it is time for companies to challenge existing business and technology models and create something entirely new and people-centric to deliver business value that is balanced with the values of people – now and in the future.”
This is exactly the point Microsoft President Brad Smith makes in his book “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,” published late last year.
“As we continue to work to bring more technology to humanity, we also need to bring more humanity into technology,” he said.
Smith writes that it is unrealistic to expect the pace of technological change to slow, but it is not too much to ask that we do more to manage this change. “Unlike previous technological eras and inventions such as the railroad, telephone, automobile and television, digital technology has advanced for decades with remarkably little regulation — or even self-regulation,” he said. “It’s time to recognize that this hands-off attitude must give way to a more activist approach that addresses changing challenges in a more assertive way.”
Part of the solution is to give customers freedom of choice – the ability to make relevant choices that inform their experiences. “This can turn passive audiences into active participants,” explains Biltz. “This, in turn, will increase engagement and transform experience delivery from a one-way street to dynamic and responsive collaborations. Rather than being the sole administrator of experiences, businesses can become true partners, increasing transparency and sharing control. By doing this, companies will build trust with their customers – a necessity in a world where digital is everywhere.”
Ultimately, Smith argues that the problems are bigger than any person, company, industry or even technology itself. “They relate to fundamental values of democratic freedoms and human rights,” he said. “The tech sector has been born and grown because it has benefited from these freedoms. We owe it to the future to ensure that these values survive and even thrive long after we and our products are gone.
“The biggest risk is not that the world will do too much to solve these problems. It is that the world will do too little. It is not that governments will act too quickly. It is that they will be too slow. Technological innovation will not slow down. The work to manage it must be accelerated.”
Charles Duan, director of technology and innovation policy at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit free market think tank based in Washington DC, believes that progress is already being made in this direction. “A key change I’ve observed in recent months is a rapid increase in policy department renewal and the hiring of many respected policy experts at major tech companies,” he says. “Facebook’s repeated expressions of ‘willingness to be regulated’ also suggest that these companies are moving towards greater policy engagement.”
If you do this right, technology companies have the opportunity to get even closer to users. “Forward-looking companies are beginning to understand that success isn’t just about creating the next best technology tool; it’s about making the next important strategy and business decision to continue the business transformation,” concludes Biltz.
“There are huge opportunities for companies to really innovate and introduce entirely new models that reflect people’s values. Those who make progress and prioritize the concept of elevating humanity in the release of products and services will be best positioned as tomorrow’s leaders.”