Wariness of Tech Companies Isn’t Necessarily Resulting in Reduced Use nytimes.com

Rob Walker, New York Times:

It’s fun, and increasingly fashionable, to complain about technology.

Counterargument: it has always been “fashionable” to complain about technological change.

Our own devices distract us, others’ devices spy on us, social media companies poison public discourse, new wired objects violate our privacy, and all of this contributes to a general sense of runaway change careening beyond our control. No wonder there’s a tech backlash.

But, really, is there? There certainly has been talk of a backlash, for a couple of years now. Politicians have discussed regulating big tech companies more tightly. Fines have been issued, breakups called for. A tech press once dedicated almost exclusively to gadget lust and organizing conferences that trot out tech lords for the rest of us to worship has taken on a more critical tone; a drumbeat of exposés reveal ethically and legally dubious corporate behavior. Novels and movies paint a skeptical or even dystopian picture of where tech is taking us. We all know people who have theatrically quit this or that social media service, or announced digital sabbaticals. And, of course, everybody kvetches, all the time.

However, there is the matter of our actual behavior in the real-world marketplace. The evidence there suggests that, in fact, we love our devices as much as ever. There is no tech backlash.

Walker’s entire argument is predicated on the fact that despite numerous lawsuits, data breaches, widespread recognition of privacy violations, and antitrust investigations — all of which represent a radical shift in the way we think about technology companies from just a few years ago — consumer use has risen and, therefore, we are not reacting with our behaviour. It is a silly argument that masks misgivings held by the public at large.

An Edelman survey from earlier this year found that respondents in developed nations were weakly trusting of tech companies; it also found that respondents were generally capable of separating hardware manufacturers — which they generally trusted — from social media companies, which they did not. But we still use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to increasing degrees. We know they’re toxic to us and we know that they don’t give a shit about our privacy, so why do we do it?

Well, probably for similar reasons as we do lots of things that we know are terrible for us. We’ve known tobacco usage increases the likelihood of myriad diseases for decades, but the prevalence of smoking has not consistently declined. Likewise, we’ve known for years that our emissions are smothering the planet, but we keep on emitting at ever-greater rates. Our understanding that something is damaging does not necessarily mean that we will not continue our poor behaviour. After all, we still find that these risky choices are often at odds with how much value we get from these things. We emit more because we heat bigger homes, drive more fuel-thirsty cars, and want more clothes.1

Likewise, we want to send out potluck invitations without starting a gigantic “reply all” email thread, complain about the news in public, and watch goofy videos. We want to passively keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues. We may even want to experiment with photography.

We’ve weighed all of these clearly- and immediately-tangible benefits against the more difficult question of what effects it will have for us to compromise our privacy to monopolistic tech companies, and many people hesitantly accepted those benefits often years ago. Disentangling your real social life from your electronic social life can be very difficult, especially if you’ve built up years of cruft. It’s a job unto itself.

Predictably, venture capital types have reacted to this article supportively, confident in the safety of their practice of growing the user base of bleeding-edge tech products2 and then slapping some surveillance-based ads on them. It’s easier to loudly dismiss public concerns about technology than it is to reform the business model of many of the biggest Silicon Valley firms raring for their IPO.

Meanwhile, public concern over technology is, indeed, far greater than it was not too long ago. Trust in Facebook dropped precipitously after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke — and didn’t recover after a solid year of serious problems were reported — to the extent that Facebook is pretending to change its business model. Google also decided to become a company that ostensibly protects privacy. If these companies were confident that users didn’t see any problems with their services and business model, why would they feel the need to so aggressively tout their privacy credentials, no matter how weak?

Big tech companies with exploitative business practices are worried that their tainted reputation will overshadow our enthusiasm for the implicit progress of high technology. But you can’t quickly turn this billion-passenger ship around, especially when non-technical publications ignored the privacy and security risks of services like these for years.

  1. We also fail to adequately regulate the biggest polluters, which are not consumers directly. ↥︎

  2. If the product is software-based, it’s probably wedging itself into an everyday industry and stripping it of all regulation because “it’s just a platform”. If it’s hardware-based, it’s something that you own that does not presently have either WiFi or Bluetooth, and now has WiFi and Bluetooth. Fund me. ↥︎