The Great Tech Questioning
The past year has been a challenging one for tech, what with #metoo moments, security and privacy breaches, unseemly use of power, and certainly some missteps in the ‘fake news’/Russia meddling arena. And despite the seeming incongruity between these incidents/actions/behaviors and tech company earnings and sky-high valuations, there has started to be a reckoning, of sorts.
But I think there’s a bigger issue in play, one with greater potential long-term consequences. I call it the “Great Tech Questioning”. For the past 10-15 years, going back perhaps to the advent of the smartphone circa 2005, the talk has been about industries that have been ‘disrupted’. At first it was more about substitution, such as cellular replacing landlines, broadband smartphones replacing cameras and GPS units, digital media replacing physical media, and so on. Then it became more about entire industries being disrupted: photography, newspapers and magazines, retail, and so on. But more recently, the types of changes we’re seeing as a result of some of the most successful and fastest-growing companies in history are starting to have far broader business and societal consequences. And we’ve been caught largely flat-footed in terms of the longer-term ramifications and how to deal with them.
Let’s take four companies as examples. First, Uber. It plunged into a space that was ripe for disruption and rife with corruption. And though most of us love the service, Uber and its ilk grew so fast and so unchecked that we failed to assess the consequences: the significant increase in congestion in some cities, thus hampering one of ride-sharing’s key selling points of making it easier (and cheaper) to get from A to B. Another incongruity is that while Uber was initially hailed as a more favorable model for drivers, we underestimated the bottom falling out on medallion prices, which has affected hundreds of thousands of hard-working individuals.
Second, AirBnB. Still a great thing in many respects, but its rapid and largely unregulated growth resulted in its straying from its mission – and not really from any corporate wrongdoing. My wife and I were the initial ‘target’ AirBnB hosts. Sitting right between Boston College and Boston University, we’d rent a room out for $100 per night on our top floor, which was a godsend to parents visiting their kids in under-hoteled and over-priced Boston. This was the problem AirBnB was trying to solve. But then, developers, speculators, and opportunists swept in, killing rental inventory and disrupting the housing industry in already tight and expensive cities.
Third, Apple — as the poster child for the smartphone and its ‘ecosystem’. This wireless broadband pocket computer is indeed a modern marvel. It’s high level of usefulness was hugely evident on a recent vacation: helping us navigate our way, record beautiful places, stay in touch with work, friends and family, and enjoy media of many sorts. But this has also been a year where there have been serious questions about the effects of ‘screen addiction’. Many people have a really hard time applying the ‘everything in moderation’ mantra to their phones.
Finally, Facebook. Similar to the three examples cited above, it’s valuable and useful to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But its unchecked growth, pursuit of profit, and poor corporate judgement have led to abuses of its platform, by the company itself and by myriad third party actors.
As a visceral reaction to this, we’ve seen a lot of questions being asked in 2018, and a giant ‘hey, slowdown’ come from numerous directions: Europe’s fining Google and implementing GDPR; the Zuckerberg hearings in Washington; the caps being placed on ride-sharing licenses in New York, and the various skirmishes being waged daily in locations worldwide; the backlash on ‘over-tourism’ and the attempt by some cities to impose some regulations on AirBnB; the stunning letter in January by two of Apple’s largest investors, reflecting concerns about the effects of technology and social media; and questions about IP theft, figuring into Qualcomm/Broadcomm, Huawei, ZTE, and so on.
The acceleration of big data and AI, combined with a turn toward the autocratic and authoritarian in some countries, are amplifying some of these concerns. This stuff can go from merely creepy to downright Orwellian in a hurry. In our heated conversation about immigration, for example, how long will it be before ICE snoops on individuals’ location data and messaging content?
I’m hoping that all this is the catalyst for some important conversations about the long-term effects of tech acceleration on the future of how we live, work, and get around. Some 27 million Americans are employed in the ‘gig economy’, according to a report I recently read…what happens to these people’s livelihoods, health care, and retirement, long term? Can ride sharing services become more of a conversation about the future of transportation than just ‘cheaper than a cab and better than a bus’? Will the disruption being caused by AirBnB catalyze a conversation about the future of housing in the many cities facing a severe housing crunch? And can we adopt an ‘everything in moderation’ mantra on smartphones, and re-learn (or learn for the first time) some of the people navigation and long-form attention skills that were so essential before the crutch of our phones and e-everything?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But we might look back on 2018 as the year that some of these important conversations started in earnest.