The Days of Tech Exceptionalism Are Over

The technology industry, for the better part of the past two decades, has enjoyed a privileged position in the pantheon of American business with approval ratings that floated above those of the rest of corporate America.

Americans were proud that tech was driving innovation and job creation due in no small part to the global growth of name-brand companies like Apple, Google, Cisco, Amazon and Microsoft. We fell in love with the internet, our smartphones and all the incredible new services and apps that they enabled.

But those days are long gone. Americans’ views toward the technology industry have shifted markedly in the last 24 months, fueled by arrogance and major missteps by the industry. The most recent example: social media companies’ failure to protect their platforms from Russian meddling. But tech’s embrace of artificial intelligence and automation, without showing how new industries create net new jobs and wealth for the country as a whole, is also driving massive and growing anxiety.

As a result, Americans now have a deeply divided view toward tech.

The vast majority of Americans – 8 out of 10 – believe that smartphones and internet technologies have made their lives better. Yet, despite the positive views on technology in their own lives, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the effect of technology on society as a whole:

•  60 percent believe artificial intelligence developments will reduce job opportunities.
•  46 percent believe that the internet and social media have had a negative impact on society.
•  38 percent believe technology is making the gap between rich and poor wider.

Perhaps most concerning is the growing perception that the industry doesn’t care about the negative consequences of their technologies. Fifty-five percent of Americans believe that technology companies don’t care about how their products impact society.

In the heyday of the tech boom, Americans largely supported a hands-off policy approach to internet and technology companies that would allow them to innovate, flourish and grow. We believed that tech really did have the power to change the world for the better.

But today, Americans feel that the pace of technological change is moving too fast and policymakers are moving too slow. A large plurality of Americans – 41 percent – believe we don’t have enough regulations on new technologies.

This isn’t just about perception, it’s ultimately about the very business models that make some companies a profitable enterprise. Tech companies are squandering the trust they have with consumers. Now the question is: How can they rebuild it.

The first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. Facebook, after nearly a year in denial, has finally embraced the fact that they did not do enough to protect consumers from fake news, clickbait and trolls. Is their current get-well plan enough? Only time will tell, but it’s a step in the right direction that they are finally taking the issues seriously.

Second, tech has to acknowledge that the “move fast and break things” model is dead. As the recent e-scooter fiasco in San Francisco and other cities has proved, this message may not be getting through. Rather than work with local government, the scooter companies tried an end-around. This only sets up a combative relationship with the very government regulators that control their destinies.

Third, tech has to come to grips with the impact of AI and automation. The industry as a whole must come together and educate policymakers and consumers alike about how these forces won’t just destroy jobs but will create new opportunities as well. Long-term, this is the single greatest challenge facing tech.

And finally, tech companies – especially in highly regulated industries – must show policymakers and the public how their platform, product or service benefits society, creates jobs and other economic opportunities and helps make our nation a global leader.

Tech is at a crossroads. How tech deals with this moment will determine whether the industry continues to flourish in a business environment that fosters innovation or be forced to paddle upstream in a harsh and regulated marketplace.

Scott Gerber is a partner and founder of Vrge Strategies, which earlier this week published a report entitled “The Techlash Paradox: Love & Loathing of America’s Tech Industry.”

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult