Techlash refers not just to apathy toward technology, but an actual distain for Big Tech corporations and their practices. The techlash movement calls for increased responsibility in Silicon Valley.
Techlash is a term coined in 2013 by The Economist in reference to growing animosity toward “Big Tech” and technology backlash in general. Since then, techlash has shot up. As the tech industry has grown exponentially in the last decade, so has its impact on the world. While the technology sector used to be seen as something admirable and fascinating, more recently people have been voicing their distain and distrust toward companies like Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon and Meta. With Elon Musk’s recent decision to buy Twitter for 44 billion dollars, it’s worth asking how the increasing monopoly and power held by tech giants will affect the environment, global economy, politics, individuals’ mental health and well-being, and more.
The backlash seen is not without reason. Some examples of techlash in the past include the criticisms of misinformation and fake news spread through social media. Facebook, for example, has been called out for contributing to genocide in Myanmar due to its lack of monitoring propaganda and hate speech.
Techlash Criticisms and Accusations
There are several concerns held toward Big Tech, all of which amount to the culture of techlash.
- Misinformation and fake news: a major area of criticism against the tech industry is the widespread misinformation and fake news found online. Many argue that corporations simply are not doing enough to protect users and consumers from being easily influenced by outside sources. The effects can be devastating. Examples include anti-vaccine fake news spread online, as well as the use of Facebook during the 2016 US presidential election, when Russia influenced social media users to vote for Donald Trump for political gain.
- Lack of data protection: a huge issue within Big Tech is the lack of data protection for individual consumers. Unfortunately, consumer data is all too easily exploited, and there are not enough systems in place to prevent this. Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized use of 87 million Facebook user’s data to leverage Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign is just one example of this.
- Social media addiction: social media addiction is becoming an increasingly large problem. Unfortunately, Big Tech companies are monetarily driven to keep users entertained and engaged as much as possible. Algorithms and notifications are designed explicitly to make people as addicted as possible.
- Monopoly bias: because there is a growing monopoly in information technology, individuals’ opinions and choices can be easily molded based on the media they consume. For example, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are all owned by Meta. Any individual’s use of these apps contributes to vast amounts of their data going to Meta. From a business perspective, companies like Meta are incentivized to use and sell that data to make money, including but not limited to selling data to corporations and altering individuals’ personal algorithms to keep them engaged. This can lead to things like biased search results, echo chambers, manipulative advertising, online radicalization and more.
- Human rights abuses: almost every Big Tech company has been accused of human rights abuses, from the unsafe conditions in Amazon warehouses to Tesla squashing unions and other large tech companies including Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft being sued for using abusive child labor in Congo.
- Corruption: the richer Big Tech companies become, the more concern there is for political corruption. As congress considers new antitrust laws, it’s noteworthy that US politics are highly vulnerable to corruption through donations from elite capitalists like Bezos and Zuckerberg. According to the Observer, president Biden has received millions from Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and more. It’s therefore questionable whether he will be inclined to put regulations in place which hurt these corporations.
- Environmental degradation: the environmental impact of the tech industry is astonishing as well. Companies produce vast amounts of waste through production and frequent updates, and use little of their nearly infinite resources on lobbying for climate policy.
Techlash in Politics
US Americans, maybe surprisingly, are quite united over their concern about Big Tech. The majority of both Democrats and Republicans believe that tech companies hold too much power, and that the government isn’t doing enough to mitigate technology issues.
There are several actions the government can take to address the issues caused by Big Tech. The first includes breaking up big companies such as Meta and Alphabet, the latter of which owns Google, Fitbit, Looker, Youtube, Waze and more. This would help decrease issues caused by the concentration of just a few elites within the tech industry.
Congress could also pass laws to
- criminalize the sale of certain user data,
- hold corporations responsible for monitoring their platforms for fake news and propaganda,
- mandate transparency from corporations in their advertising and data usage, and
- increase corporate income taxes.
On the other hand, experts at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a non-profit think tank aimed at promoting policy solutions, claim that techlash is a concern for growth and progress. The ITIF advocates for “tech realism” solutions to Big Tech, in which the public and private sectors work together to mitigate some of the issues resulting from the rapidly changing tech industry. Their suggestions include
- data privacy legislation,
- FTC involvement,
- increased mental health resources,
- moderation policies that protect free speech,
- investment in journalism, and more.
As techlash grows amongst the public and in Washington, there will be growing support for accountability, and more ethical business practices in the tech industry. Still, Big Tech will not be stopped anytime soon. The modern world’s reliance on technology is far too great. It’s therefore more important that the government steps in to mitigate the damage caused by the tech industry, as it is unreasonable for individuals to change their consumption habits.
Does Techlash Threaten Sustainable Growth?
There is concern from the tech community that any government action against Big Tech may slow innovation and have damaging effects. With techlash on the rise, it may also become more and more difficult for companies to hire new talent. This may be true, but it is difficult to say how much any effect will hurt society. Inhibiting the development of certain technology is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, do we urgently need a new ‘like’ button or self-driving cars?
Technology has a place in sustainable development, but it’s unlikely that any government action against Big Tech will hurt sustainable development. This is because the large tech companies which will be targeted by government regulation are not working on sustainable development. We need to address technology-induced problems without hurting innovation and human rights. There are technology-driven solutions to climate change such as solar technology, wind turbines, ocean cleanup tools and carbon capture efforts. We need to make sure there is space and funding for innovation in social and environmental impact sectors, while preventing Big Tech from hurting our society.
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