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.

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Filed Under: covid-19, pandemic, techlash, technology


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 1:56pm

    The news media live in their own infobubble, which is a big part of what drives the conspiracy theorists.

    It's not a conspiracy, folk: the professional reporters are just so stupid they don't realize how ignorant they are. So they repeat each other to each other, and each reports on what the other says.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Aug 2020 @ 2:12pm

      Re:

      I am not so sure they are stupid. It is more likely arrogant. The old saw goes if it bleeds, it leads. If there is no real blood in the water, they they try to create it. Besides, if you tell a lie enough times, somebody is gonna believe it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    wiserabbit, 20 Aug 2020 @ 2:07pm

    First Reaction

    "In 2019, more than 600 news articles explicitly mentioned the techlash..."

    WTF is that?

    I did some personal "content-moderation" in November of 2017 removing new media from my platform...so sad I missed this...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Michael, 22 Aug 2020 @ 6:01pm

      Re: First Reaction

      Seriously. I read the news -- particularly tech news -- religiously, and I still don't know what "techlash" is even after reading most of this. It would be nice if the author had defined it in the first sentence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 20 Aug 2020 @ 2:16pm

    Stupidity and self-interest are never "over." Politics couldn't exist without them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 2:23pm

    Idunno. I trust the reporters and politicians calling for antitrust action more than I do Jesse Blumenthal and RCP, which are in the last remaining Koch Brother’s pocket.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 2:38pm

    Zoom is a big hit because its easy to use for ordinary people, Microsoft ruined Skype by trying to turn it into a weird social media app.
    It can be used in a browser or by using the app.
    Google has made meets free to use and has many new users. In the midst of a pandemic most offices are closed , most tech company's have discovered its
    possible for most people to work from home so this
    crisis could make all tech company's stronger.
    There's a tech lash from some old media company's
    who can't compete with Google or Facebook.
    Zoom and tik Tok show there's still a chance for
    startups to make a great new or app service that
    will get millions of users if it's better than the apps the tech giants provide.
    And easy to use for non tech experts

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 3:12pm

    The "techlash" was largely political.

    Step 1: A handful of democrats and another of republicans get booted off these platforms for violating their terms of service.
    Step 2: Republicans, who view these tech platforms as bastions of democratic thought simply because they're run by corporations based in historically democrat areas, blame democrats for their poor behavior. Democrats with similar opinions of the companies motives ignore it as obviously those people were booted for ToS violations.
    Step 3: Higher profile republicans, thanks to the froth whipped up by the orange in chief, see an opportunity to go after something perceived as democrat and whip up their fanbase for personal political gain.
    Step 4: News outlets (can we really still call them outlets if they themselves help generate the news?) smell blood in the water and go nuts with the story.

    Then fast-forward to COVID-19:

    Step 5: A bigger scoop comes along the news can use to sell more ads. Techlash is forgotten.

    People are getting tired of coronavirus news, though. As soon as a politician gets back on the techlash soapbox I expect we'll see a resurgence of news on that topic. And just like the rest of Trump's kneejerk, insane presidency, we'll get to repeat all of that nonsense. I can only hope that we the people have lost interest in that topic, too, and all the hot political air will be just that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 4:24pm

      Re:

      The techlash is also driven by the legacy publishers; the new media because Google and Facebook have stolen the advertising market from them, and bloggers are a competing new source. The studios, labels and publishers because the Internet has enabled self publishing on a vast scale, with social media giving self publishers a means of adversing their wares.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Aug 2020 @ 5:13pm

    Techlash was a lie; monopoly the new one

    Really the so called techlash stank of astroturf from the start and didn't match up with opinion poll numbers. They saw that now was not the time and pivoted to abusing the definition of monopoly and ignoring the glaring inconvenient facts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thad (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 9:47am

    I think it's complicated.

    The pandemic has certainly called attention to the upsides of technology, but that doesn't mean the downsides have gone away. I can be grateful for the convenience Amazon offers while still being extremely wary of its business practices.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Samuel Abram (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 4:45pm

      Re:

      And surveillance practices as well. Not to mention Jeff Bezos hoarding at least $1,000,000,000,000 while the workers get very little. It's why I try to shop at amazon as little as possible (which I can definitely do).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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