COVID-19 Killed the 'Techlash'

COVID-19 Killed the 'Techlash'
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For months we have been told that Americans are fed up with technology companies and demanding a change. Big tech is destroying startups, innovation, and even our democracy. And people — especially certain politicians — have had enough. The “techlash” was here to save us.

The term “techlash” was coined by The Economist to explain the phenomenon of growing hostility toward large tech firms. It even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, “A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.”

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. 

Then real crises came. 

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered day-to-day life for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. And as we followed the advice of public health officials, the importance of technology became immediately obvious. 

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.

Communications technology has also kept major portions of our economy functioning by providing many with the ability to work from home in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even 15 years ago. 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. 

More than keeping us connected, technology shines a light on tragedies that previously may have gone overlooked and underreported. The horrific killing of George Floyd, captured on video, sparked mass protests around the globe. Those protests were organized in Facebook groups, Google docs, and messaging apps. They were livestreamed to the world on social media platforms. All of this occurs without gatekeepers deciding what gets seen. That is good for society.

Technology is a set of tools that can be used for good or for ill. The last few months have shown us what a vibrant and diverse toolkit exists. For example, Zoom is receiving plenty of competition from similar programs. Skype, WebEx, Hangouts, Teams, Meet, and others are all giving Zoom reason to continually improve its level of service. 

The question is, who was pushing techlash to begin with? Like many things, the answer is politicians seeking the limelight (in particular, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Josh Hawley) egged on by companies eager to use the powers of government to punish business competitors. 

Those politicians made a name for themselves by making increasingly provocative statements to the press. From calling for the government to investigate companies whose leaders had publicly differed from their own party’s president to a failed campaign for president that promised to break up certain firms that activists in your party disliked, a small vocal group of politicians has tried to exploit people’s worst fears about the technology industry for their own benefit.

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

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.  

We have an opportunity for a course correction. Rather than focusing on ways to punish disfavored companies or industries, we should be asking what barriers to innovation can we remove to unleash the next wave of improvements in communication, automation, transportation, and health care. 

It is time to acknowledge that techlash was always overblown. It was a solution in search of a problem. With that in mind, we should turn our attention to accelerating the ways technology can strengthen our communities.

Jesse Blumenthal leads technology and innovation policy for Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute.

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