I’ve long believed the public has a good bullshit meter. It’s imprecise and sometimes temporarily misdirected, but people usually sense when something’s up. And they smell a problem with big tech.
Think back a few years. Remember how optimistic you were about the digital revolution and how total connectivity and limitless information would make us all wiser, freer, kinder and happier? Lots of extremely intelligent people swallowed this guff. Sure, there were sceptics who warned that the coming digital utopia wasn’t nailed on. But these miserable old farts were easy to ignore because they didn’t ‘get it’. So we galloped ahead, embracing every new gadget, phone, platform, website and app. It obviously helped that Facebook, YouTube et al cost nothing to use and were incredibly useful – Google Maps alone has saved me hundreds of lost hours – but more importantly, they were cool. They screamed progress. And who’s against progress? Silicon Valley was the future, and its cheerleaders were young, nerdy, and wore hoodies to the office. They shopped in Whole Foods and had strong takes on social justice. Not like the suit wearers in banks or venal politicians.
But something changed. 2017 is the year of the techlash: when people started to turn against Silicon Valley, and maybe even technological progress itself. All their promised ‘disruption’ was great when it offered new ways to message far flung friends, but this year we woke up to find that tech firms are far more powerful than we thought. They’re not just disrupting our economies with gadgets – but also our media, culture and politics. For several years, people have been worried about how much data the big tech firms are collecting about us – but according to a recent Information Commissioners Office survey, internet companies are now the least trusted sector when it comes to personal data. Several companies have been exposed as either being sexist, aggressively minimising tax, and playing fast and loose with regulations. In fairness, plenty of other businesses act like this too, but the tech firms always promised they were different.
A couple of years ago tech criticism like this was original and edgy, but now everyone’s at it. Complaining about how Uber drivers are treated or how much data Facebook collects is starting to sound staid and predictable. Newspapers, aggrieved at how much of the ad revenue big tech is scooping up without being held to the same legal publishing standards, smell weakness and have more or less declared war on Facebook and Twitter. (Only direct financial interest could invoke such ridiculous front page headlines as the Daily Mail’s ‘Google, The Terrorists’ Friend’). Politicians, sensing the mood rather than driving it, have leapt on to the zeitgeist with a coward’s vigour. Already this year, the European Commission fined Google £2.1bn (€2.4bn) for anti-competitive behaviour. Germany passed a law allowing fines to be imposed on social media platforms that don’t remove hate content sufficiently quickly. TfL decided not to renew Uber’s license to operate; and Facebook is getting dragged into Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 US election.
This techlash is a welcome brake on the runaway tech train. But here’s the problem: it’s turning into a blind emotional rage against the machines. Perhaps it’s the wrath of disappointed expectation. Perhaps it’s a visceral unease that some company on the other side of the world has all this power over us on the basis of a deal we never really understood and now can’t get out of. My view, however, is that we are collectively behaving like a self-hating addict. The more we impulsively check, swipe and update, the more we hate ourselves for doing the very thing we dislike. Rather than take the blame, we lash out at the object of our pathetic addiction.
If left unchecked this will become as big a problem as the tech itself. Already the internet is being used as a convenient excuse to avoid hard questions. It’s far easier for Democrats to blame Trump on fake news or Russian bots than the uncomfortable possibility that they were incompetent, out of touch and hubristic. It’s simpler to blame Twitter for Isis than our own limp efforts at integration. And if crap jobs are Uber’s fault, then we don’t have to undertake the complicated task of creating decent ones.
Because the techlash is fundamentally an emotional response, there’s no knowing where it ends up. At the current clip, we’ll be smashing machines by 2020. I’m serious! Don’t bet against the next big political movement being anti-tech, because the tech revolution is just getting started. Machine learning – a branch of artificial intelligence which essentially means giving a machine lots of examples from which it can learn how to mimic a particular human behaviour – is improving faster than even its proponents expected. From driverless vehicles to clerical work, and from burger flipping to voice recognition – machines are able to undertake more and more jobs that were previously the preserve of humans. It turns out that even intuition and creativity can be reproduced, if there is enough of the right sort of data available. Maybe we’ll create new jobs. But maybe we won’t, because there’s no natural law that says technological change always benefits people; nor that winners and losers will be evenly distributed.
If we’re becoming anti-tech now, imagine the rage when machines start taking jobs, our cars grass us up to the police for speeding, drones deliver our Echo, and our fridges are all online. If we turn on the tech too much, investment will dry up and regulations will damped innovation and take up. Then all the social and economic benefits of this remarkable revolution will be lost to our indulgence. The loss would be devastating. Big data in health care could produce a penicillin-sized leap forward. Industrial productivity could soar and inefficiency slashed. Some monotonous and dangerous tasks could be handed over to those reliable robots. We might even get on top of environmental change. Unless we can recover some optimism, and unless our politicians can shape the tech revolution so the benefits are more evenly spread, the current techlash will be a warm up act for a modern Ned Ludd. And when we stop jumping up and down on the wretched machines, we’ll look up to find the rest of the world has happily moved on and left us behind.