Extraordinary times demand an extraordinary response, and as the world reels from the impact of the novel coronavirus, big tech billionaires appear to be stepping up. Bill Gates is using his enormous wealth to build facilities to fund research of vaccines for COVID-19, while Twitter's Jack Dorsey is donating a billion dollars to the fight against the virus. For these actions, they are being widely and rightly hailed, which makes for quite the contrast when you consider that the last few years have been marked by the so-called "techlash": the name given to the backlash heaped upon the companies of Silicon Valley.
Has the virus killed the techlash? That was the argument made by outspoken venture capitalist Balajis Srinivasan, in response to noted critic of technology Anand Giriharadas tweeting that he had perhaps underestimated the usefulness of tech (the tweet has since been deleted). But rather than the end of the techlash, perhaps the current moment simply clarifies what the backlash was and should have been against — not that tech is some inherent evil, but instead, that it is the business and structure of tech that is the problem.
What is clear at the moment is that people are rediscovering just how great tech can be. If at least part of the techlash was rooted in the idea that tech is flippant, a sort of plaything that leads us away from the physical world, connection, and intimacy, that idea has been starkly challenged. During the pandemic, the use of video chats to talk, online platforms to watch film or listen to music, and the simple use of social media as a source of connection and information have all contributed to making an awful experience feel both more human and more humane than it would be without technology.
At the same time, the problems with those technologies haven't disappeared. Facebook helps communities stay in touch and organize, but it also incentivizes inflammatory content, has helped spread misinformation, and has had a string of privacy gafffes. Smart speakers can make it easy to listen to music or entertain bored kids, but they also listen in constantly and the companies that make them have haphazard policies about privacy. And while gig workers provide a vital service to deliver food and other essentials to people stuck at home, they are also exposed to risk and precarity in ways that just don't match up with their paltry pay. Even during this particular moment there has been a raft of misleading information about the virus, a baffling conspiracy theory about how 5G wireless tech is responsible for the disease, and privacy and harassment complaints about popular video chatting service Zoom.
How then should we think about tech going forward when, on the one hand, it's clear that there is so much good in it, but on the other, so much still wrong?
Perhaps it starts with understanding the techlash as not some overly simplistic idea that tech is bad, or that change is to be resisted, or even that capitalism is itself the enemy. It is instead about the specific decisions made by tech companies to, say, prioritize an ad-based model that required surveillance, a refusal to deal with the effects of tech on working people, and a focus on metrics and profit at the potential expense of people's well-being and mental health.
A long-term goal might be working to create more community-owned online enterprises — a sort of redux of the earlier web when it felt like the internet fostered collectively-run services rather than what happened with the emergence of Facebook and Twitter et al. That, however, is likely far off, if it is indeed viable at all. In the meantime, it seems like overly simplistic tech boosterism — the kind that seems to uncritically praise the Valley as the home of all good things — must continue to be counteracted by a skepticism of big tech.
Consider, after all, that for the magnanimity of Gates' and Dorsey's moves, the need to rely on the generosity of billionaires reflects a state that is scrambling to react to the virus, and often poorly. That we must turn to private citizens to help mobilize a social response feels deeply wrong.
What is broken with tech is what is broken with society more broadly: an increased outsourcing of public life or shared responsibility to private corporations and their billionaire owners. The novel coronavirus hasn't changed that fact. Tech's benefits are obvious, and the industry doesn't need us as its cheerleaders; it is instead up to us to highlight where it continues to fall short.
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