Has The Pandemic Shown That The Techlash Was Nonsense?
from the hopefully dept
There’s an excellent piece over at RealClearPolitics arguing that COVID-19 killed the techlash. It makes a fairly compelling argument, coming at it from multiple angles. First, there’s the question of how real the “techlash” ever was. It’s long appeared to be more of a media- and politician-driven narrative than a real anger coming from people who make use of technology every day:
In 2019, more than 600 news articles explicitly mentioned the techlash, so it is not surprising that many of us accepted it as reality without ever really asking, does it exist outside of a narrow echo chamber?
While there was clearly anger about tech in general, people?s actual opinions of tech firms were overwhelmingly positive. A survey by Vox Media/The Verge in December 2019 found that Amazon, Google, YouTube, Netflix, and Microsoft all had favorability ratings in the high 80s to low 90s. Even Facebook and Twitter, the two most frequently maligned tech firms, had 71 percent and 61 percent favorability ratings, respectively.
And that was before we all became even more reliant on technology, in these lockdown pandemic times. The narrative flame has been fanned by politicians “seeking the limelight” and media organizations more than willing to run with that narrative. As the article notes:
News organizations are not disinterested observers. Indeed, as Professor. Ramsi Woodcock has argued, the media has an incentive to amplify those complaints. Newspapers never succeeded as businesses by selling news, they sold advertising based on their regional monopolies on the distribution of information. Those local monopolies are not coming back. In response, there?s a push for new revenue streams ? some legitimate and innovative, like a shift to subscription for increasingly niche expertise, others less so, such as seeking regulatory favors like an antitrust exemption.
I don’t think it’s the reporters, necessarily, who are doing this, but we’ve certainly seen that newspaper ownership has been eagerly pushing this narrative — from fake “free marketer” Rupert Murdoch whining that Google and Facebook need to be regulated, to Heath Freeman, the hedge fund boss, whose been buying up tons of local newspapers, strip mining them for parts and cash, and now whining about how Google and Facebook are the “real” problem.
And once a narrative takes hold, it can be hard to stop the momentum. It becomes almost self-fulfilling.
And yet, at the same time, the pandemic has shown that many of the claims about the techlash are overblown.
For most of us, new technologies are nice things to have. Sure, having instant Prime delivery, FaceTime and all the information in the world at your fingertips is convenient but in the wake of the pandemic, technology has become essential.
Consider telemedicine ? it is no longer a niche benefit for rural or disabled Americans who cannot easily access a doctor. These remote services provide a desperately needed way to reduce transmission risk by using software to remotely enable patient diagnosis, referral, and treatment. Virtual contact reduces the overall strain to our health care system by providing quality care to people, while shielding both patient and provider from unnecessary hazard.
And it goes beyond that. It’s not just the “big” internet companies that have become so critical. Contrary to the claims that there are monopolists who dominate everything, we’ve seen other companies succeed against the big guys during the pandemic:
The rise of Zoom illustrates this perfectly. For all of the criticisms of the company, it has become a household name and provided 200 million people a day with an easy-to-use platform that keeps workers connected.
The article doesn’t even mention the fact that Zoom has become so successful while competing against Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others which all have competing products.
I’ve also seen some fairly amazing new markets spring up. Here at Techdirt we’re going to be doing some virtual events in the coming weeks and months, and when I started researching back in May, I was stunned at what a vibrant, competitive market there is. Every time I talk to more people about it, they name some other company I’ve never heard of. At one point, I found three different “top 10” lists of companies in this space that had no overlap in names. There are dozens of companies in the space, and none has run off with the market yet. There’s lots of competition and different approaches.
And, so, perhaps the whole narrative of techlash was overblown and the pandemic has made it even more clear to people how useful the internet is in their lives:
Claims about the techlash?s reach were overblown before the pandemic. Americans have moved on to focus on more important topics. Recent polling shows 38 percent say their view of the tech industry has become more positive since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. 88 Percent reported having ?a better appreciation? for tech?s positive impact on society than before the outbreak.
Does that mean that the techlash is over? Or that COVID-19 killed the techlash? That… might be going too far. Narratives, once they take hold, seem to live on quite a while. So the techlash may still exist — but the question of whether or not it’s warranted should be put to rest. It’s reasonable to complain about this or that bad move by this or that company. But the idea that there needs to be an industry wide “reckoning” seems quite overblown, and we should try to leave it behind.