I’m in a contemplative mood this week, as this is my final column for Techpinions, and as such I thought I’d share a few big picture thoughts on the state of the tech market in late 2017. It strikes me that from a consumer perspective, in many ways we’ve never had it so good, but at the same time there are new threats and concerns which are also unprecedented. We will therefore be tempted to seek regulatory remedies and limits on the power of tech companies and technology, and while some of these may be worth pursuing, there’s also a danger that we politicize technology and undermine progress even as we seek to protect consumers and startups.
We’ve Never Had it so Good
First off, I’d argue that as consumers of personal technology we’ve never had it so good – the devices we have access to are unprecedented in both their raw power and in their specific capabilities, from cameras to connectivity to displays and audio. And the key thing here is that no single manufacturer either dominates sales or has far and away the best devices: one of the best things about the current state of the market is that consumers have a number of great options in key categories from smartphones to PCs to tablets and TVs. On the smartphone front, Apple and Samsung make the most and arguably the best premium smartphones, but new players like Google and Essential are creating promising new entrants, while the old guard including LG and others continue to produce interesting devices too. On key features like cameras, Apple, Samsung, Google and others all have great performance and it’s mostly a matter of personal preference rather than objectivity which is best.
In the smartphone market in particular, it’s also notable that consumers don’t have to spend the $700-plus that’s now required to buy a top-of-the-line smartphone in order to have a great experience. There are less powerful but still serviceable smartphones available at nearly every price point from $50 to $800, making this technology available to consumers throughout the world and thereby transforming lives and economies. All of this is also true in other categories like tablets and PCs, though low-end PCs still tend to prove the maxim that you get what you pay for more than other categories of consumer hardware.
Technology is an Enormous Force for Good
That last point is worth expanding upon: not only is our technology great, but it has done great good in the world, connecting people with each other and other resources as never before, opening up a world of information and content to anyone, anywhere, on the device of their choosing. The Internet has both allowed even the smallest publisher to reach massive audiences and allowed tiny interest groups to find comradeship across the globe. Technology is connecting families, giving opportunity to poor and otherwise marginalized populations, including the disabled and ethnic minorities.
But It Has Also Created Worrying Side Effects
None of that is to say that technology has created unalloyed good in the world. Many of the same enablers that have permitted innovation, positive communication, community building, and more to flourish have also fed conspirators of various stripes, trolls, and other bad actors and their ability to do nefarious work. Platforms designed to allow people to connect in positive ways have also enabled the spread of misinformation, harassment and abuse, and more recently even meddling in elections. It’s clear that we’re only beginning to discover the scope and potential of some of the negative effects of technology in our lives.
Meanwhile, tech as an industry is characterized by other unpleasant characteristics, notably a lack of diversity and a tendency to downplay or ignore the potential of new technologies for evil as well as good. Too often Silicon Valley demonstrates its lack of diversity in its lack of understanding of how its inventions will impact marginalized populations or even the population as a whole. Its self belief is one of its greatest strengths but also one of its greatest weaknesses. I’ve also pointed out that, with few exceptions, the largest companies in the industry are dominant and threaten to continue to squeeze out innovators.
Regulation is a Tempting Solution
In light of all this, voices from both sides of the political spectrum in the US and beyond are calling more loudly for regulation of big tech companies, whether on antitrust, content, advertising transparency, or other grounds. Some of these calls have obvious merit, and would bring the tech industry in line with older industries that provide similar functions. But my biggest worries with tech regulation are always that those writing the laws have an imperfect understanding of the market and that the process is so slow as to be ineffective in dealing with real problems while often creating unintended consequences. I’m also increasingly aware that in some of these debates a key constituency – media – has an inherent conflict of interest because it’s threatened by some of the very platforms it covers.
I’m hoping that we don’t see knee-jerk, often politically-motivated calls for regulation resulting in laws that would limit the ability of companies to innovate while not really solving the underlying problems. I have little faith that the current US political leadership will get anything meaningful done here without screwing it up, while the bigger threat to US tech currently comes from the EU and its efforts to punish big US tech companies for underpaying taxes and squeezing out local competitors.
A Promising Future
I’m inherently an optimist, and that optimism extends to the tech industry and the role of technology in our lives. I’m not naive enough to think that all the issues will merely go away, but on balance I think the positive benefits will be greater than the drawbacks, and humanity as a whole will continue to benefit enormously from the advances that will be made, especially in areas like healthcare, where consumer tech companies are just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible. AI and machine learning bring their own threats and downsides, but I tend to think the more apocalyptic voices here are off the mark, while there could be significant benefits from smarter technology in our lives too.