Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and so it can be useful to check in with your assumptions from time to time to see whether they still hold up.
Such an occasion presented itself over the weekend, when the New York Times
published an op-ed by Rob Walker with the provocative title “There is no tech backlash
.” Walker argues that whatever jaded media types and politicians might be saying about the big tech platforms, consumers remain enamored of them, and the companies’ financial performance has been superb. He writes:
Facebook is not the only demonized tech platform; social media companies in general are routinely criticized as toxic swamps full of trolls, liars and bots. But again, there’s no evidence of any exodus. In the same quarter, Twitter added
five million new daily users, and Snap reported
that the daily user base of its flagship Snapchat app grew 7 percent, its best-ever performance as a public company. According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Americans use
some form of social media, a percentage that has risen steadily for years and shows no sign of flagging. (The people I know who quit Facebook all use Facebook-owned Instagram, WhatsApp, or both.)
Moreover, Walker writes, consumers continue to buy potentially privacy-destroying gadgets like voice-controlled speakers and surveillance-camera doorbells. And so while it might seem like there’s a backlash, the argument goes, in reality technological progress is proceeding apace — and the rest is just noise.
Elements of Walker’s argument are true on their face. Technology companies indeed remain big, successful, and admired. And regulatory action, which so far has taken the form of relatively small fines, has spurred little change. But if you’re trying to evaluate whether cultural attitudes toward the technology industry have changed — whether there is a tech backlash — this strikes me as the wrong place to put the goalposts.
What would be a fairer way?
First, we could look at direct consumer actions against tech companies. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, we have repeatedly seen consumers protest the big tech platforms. In 2017, Tristan Harris began leading a consumer movement accusing Google, Facebook et al of creating a “digital attention crisis” by “hijacking our minds.” Within a few months of Harris’ work gaining attention
, Google, Facebook, and Apple had all introduced robust screen time controls into their services.
In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal went supernova. It caught Facebook by surprise, in large part because the basic facts of the case had been public for years. What turned it into crisis was global consumer outrage — outrage that has contributed to dramatic changes in Facebook’s product roadmap, most notably this year’s pivot to privacy.
You simply can’t understand Cambridge Analytica as anything other than a groundswell of people suddenly awakened to the ways, both real and imagined, that social media can manipulate their behavior — and perhaps that’s why Walker leaves the most famous tech backlash of the past two years out of his tech-backlash essay entirely.
Second, we could examine how consumer attitudes about tech have changed. As it so happens, Pew Research released some new findings on the subject just over a month ago. Authors Carroll Doherty and Jocelyn Kiley write
Four years ago, technology companies were widely seen as having a positive impact on the United States. But the share of Americans who hold this view has tumbled 21 percentage points since then
, from 71% to 50%.
Negative views of technology companies’ impact on the country have nearly doubled during this period, from 17% to 33%, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
That all feels like a meaningful backlash to me. And it offers some statistical weight to all the conversations you likely had with friends and family last year as they explained why they deleted their social media accounts, or dramatically scaled back their usage.
Third, we could look at all the government action that has resulted from changing consumer attitudes. This month, the New York Times posted a handy tool for tracking ongoing investigations
into the big tech platforms. It found there to be two Congressional, six state and local, and eight federal investigations now underway. (Some of them made progress over the weekend, as you will read below.)
When I made this observation on Twitter yesterday
, some folks responded that government action did not count as a backlash, it had not come from “consumers.” This strikes me as a strange argument to make about a representative democracy, in which consumers (or citizens, as they were previously known!) elect people to protect their interests. Politicians responding to changing consumer attitudes to crack down on the excesses of large companies has a long history in the United States, and strikes me as rather powerful evidence of a backlash.
If all that’s true, though, why are
tech companies still so successful? Well, that’s one of the many nice things about monopolistic businesses: it’s very hard to avoid being a customer. Kashmir Hill demonstrated that fact earlier this year in a brilliant series of stories
in which she attempted to cut out the big five tech platforms from her life. Doing so required the use of special hardware, custom software, and an effort that could only be called Herculean. It’s little wonder that customers haven’t been fleeing the platforms en masse — it’s unclear how they even can, assuming they wish to continue using the modern internet.
Now, it’s certainly still possible that the platforms will emerge from this regulatory moment relatively unscathed. It’s a concern I raised here myself this summer, when Facebook shrugged off an FTC fine
. But to make that argument at this
moment — when US antitrust forces have roused themselves to attention for the first time in a generation — strikes me as very strange. The tech backlash is here, it’s real, and it’s accelerating.