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Tech’s Trust Gap

Morning Markets: Tech companies are losing the public’s trust. That’s cause for alarm and positive change.

Recent data from Pew details a dramatic decline in American sentiment regarding technology companies. After enjoying positive opinion for years, technology companies have seen their public perception slip.

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Notably, the declines aren’t too partisan. It isn’t rare to see American sentiment change quickly based on the turning of our internal politics (see U.S. voters’ views on Russia, for example), but in this case members of both the major political parties have seen their views of tech turn more negative in recent years.

The data is stark. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who viewed technology companies as “having a positive impact on the United States” has “tumbled 21 percentage points since [four years ago], from 71% to 50%.” Among Americans who are Democrats or lean in that direction, positive sentiment regarding tech companies’ impact has fallen from 74 percent to 54 percent since 2015. Republicans and folks who lean in that direction saw their views slip from 72 percent positive to an underwater 44 percent over the same timeframe.

How many  Americans say that technology companies have a negative impact on “the way things are going in the country?” That figure rose from 17 percent in 2015 to 33 percent in 2019. That’s nearly a doubling in less than half a decade.

So What?

Tech companies big and small depend on consumer trust to get work done. Seeing trust fall among a very profitable portion of the global population (American tech companies are brilliant at extracting value from American DAUs; see slide five here, for example) is a cause for concern for technology companies that want to acquire new users and expand their revenue.

It’s not going to be easier to acquire customers if the pool of potential customers is curdling against your industry. And according to the Pew data, trust and faith in tech companies is doing just that.

You can see why in both honest and cynical terms. In the honest category, some tech companies have been poor actors; some technology companies are willing to compromise their core missions until exposed; some growing technology companies have had to shake up their internal cultures after treating workers poorly; facial recognition is a worry; many tech companies outsource much of their workforce, so that they can pay them less (this comes in many flavors); many gig jobs are set up to induce worker compliance but avoid the legal ramifications of such control (i.e. employment); one company managed to find a way to spin a record-setting fine for bad behavior as a win; the whole DoorDash tipping saga; you can add to the list, I’m sure.

Staying in the honest criticism category, some of the innovation that we flocked to wound up not being so great. Facebook’s ability to connect you to friends wound up as a way for the firm to harvest your two-factor authentication number to send you texts about coming back more often to the service. That sort of thing.

Cynically, you can complain that tech companies can be silly (true, but immaterial), or strange (same retort), or focused on the wrong problems (not every tech project that winds up being serious has to start that way).

At the same time, tech does a hell of a lot of good, allowing us to do more, more quickly in an increasingly competitive world. Technology itself made it possible for me to write to you this morning. Indeed, I’d hazard that it was the superpower-like power that tech has given us over time through its various revolutions (radio, then television, wired Internet, wireless Internet, etc.) that contributed to why we liked it so much. That and the companies that powered it often stood at an angle to the world. Google was a perfectly lovely odd duck. (More recently it’s famous for poorly handling harassment, and for trying to build a censored search engine for the Chinese market on the sly.)

But there was a lot to like about Google before it became the incumbent. Now when I think of Google my first thought is how slow Chrome has become and how mobile Google search is so full of UI-bloat that I’m considering giving Bing a try. So I suppose I at least partially fit in the category of companies losing some optimism concerning tech companies.

Adoption Of The New

It’s hard to note change when you’re in the middle of it, but I wonder if the erosion of public optimism regarding technology companies will slow adoption of new services. That could favor incumbents and dent startups.

Which brings me to something that Martin Bryant, an old colleague and present friend of mine wrote for The Next Web, my old home. In a piece entitled “I miss blind, dumb enthusiasm for new tech,” he riffed on the fun times when things like Google Wave launched and the Internet ground to a halt as everyone jumped aboard to give it a try.

Two sections, in particular, resonated:

It’s healthy to have a critical attitude to the technology that plays a much bigger part in our daily lives than it did 10 years ago, but I can’t help but feel we’ve lost a healthy level of enthusiasm for embracing new things, too. All too often, new technology is greeted with questions about how it might make the world worse, rather than better. […]

Tech has become a much more important part of our lives over the past decade, but I do worry that by focusing too much on the dominance of tech giants, foreign interference in elections, deepfakes, and everything else that scares us about the future, the media is leading us all to lose our sense of wonder at the little ways tech can make our lives better.

In a sense, the second paragraph details why the first paragraph is happening. Because big tech companies have been rather bad lately (here’s some Microsoft news from this week, for example, that made me mad), consumer sentiment is changing. More clearly, big tech might be poisoning the well for smaller companies.

You can see a piece of that in reaction to privacy legislation, worries that big companies will wind up entrenched at the cost of smaller companies.

I should confess my own biases before we go. I’m a technology optimist, but I think I’ve become net-neutral on many technology companies. Once public, a company has an insatiable drive to continue revenue and profit growth. Those demands will eventually clash with ideals, and, at times, what’s best for consumers. These pressures are not unique to the technology world. Indeed, they are merely a facet of capitalism, a method of structuring economies that I favor over others.

But if technology companies are going to arrogate all sorts of power and authority over our data, we can demand more from them. And the Pew data shows that Americans are.

I just hope that we don’t lose all of our optimism about the power of technological change because some tech companies can’t seem to find where they put their ethics.

Illustration: Dom Guzman