A Policymaker’s Guide to the “Techlash”—What It Is and Why It’s a Threat to Growth and Progress

Growing animus toward “Big Tech” companies and generalized opposition to technological innovation engenders support for policies that are expressly designed to inhibit it. That is deeply problematic for future progress, prosperity, and competitiveness.
A Policymaker’s Guide to the “Techlash”—What It Is and Why It’s a Threat to Growth and Progress

Introduction

What Is the Techlash and Where Did It Come From?

Why Techlash Matters

22 Techlash Issues

Getting to a New Acceptance: Not Tech as Savior, Not Tech as Enemy, but Tech as a Valuable Tool

Endnotes

Introduction

Does information technology (IT) solve problems and make our lives easier, allowing us to do more with less? Or does it introduce additional complexity to our lives, isolate us from each other, threaten privacy, destroy jobs, and generate an array of other harms? As Microsoft President Brad Smith has asked in his new book, is technology a tool or a weapon?[1] Until quite recently, the answer for most people would have been the former—that it is a valuable tool that makes our lives and society better. But in the last several years, views have shifted, particularly among opinion-leading elites who now finger “Big Tech” as the culprit responsible for a vast array of economic and social harms. Termed the “techlash,” this phenomenon refers to a general animus and fear, not just of large technology companies, but of innovations grounded in IT.

While the evidence suggests the public is more comfortable with modern technology than many pundits, activists, and politicians are—consumers still line up to buy the latest iPhones, and they use social media at record levels—the techlash is still, we believe, an important issue. Techlash manifests not just as antipathy toward continued technological innovation, but also as active support for policies that are expressly designed to inhibit it. This trend, which appears to be gaining momentum in Europe and some U.S. cities and states, risks seriously undermining economic growth, competitiveness, and societal progress. Its policies are not rational, but the techlash has created a mob mentality, and the mob is coming for innovation.

Techlash manifests not just as antipathy toward continued technological innovation, but also as active support for policies that are expressly designed to inhibit it.

To be clear, not all of the concerns being raised about technology today are frivolous or without merit. Issues around privacy and cybersecurity—to name just two—are real, and they deserve considered policy responses. But overall, while perhaps a natural response and overcorrection to an earlier trend of techlust—the mindless techno-utopianism and boosterism of Silicon Valley—the techlash phenomenon is likely to reduce individual and societal welfare.[2]

Rather than techlash, we need “tech realism”—a pragmatic recognition that today’s technologies, driven in particular by IT, are like virtually all past technologies: They are a fundamental force for human progress, but can in some instances pose real challenges that deserve smart and effective responses. However, technology bans, taxes, and overly stringent regulations are almost never effective responses, as they “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” To be sure, many advocates focused on whipping up techlash would certainly welcome such an outcome. But giving into techlash passions would slow down economic and wage growth, reduce national competitiveness, and limit progress on a host of critical societal priorities, including education, community livability, environmental protection, and human health.

This report examines the nature and origins of the techlash, and explains why it matters. It then briefly analyzes 22 issues that have been raised as part of the techlash. In each case, we have identified the issue, provided examples of arguments being made about it, assessed the veracity and merits of the claims, and then, where relevant, identified what we believe to be the appropriate solutions. The report acknowledges that some of these issues are complex and deserve detailed and thorough responses. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and its Center for Data Innovation have provided thorough analyses of some of these issues in separate reports.[3] Other issues will be addressed in forthcoming works. But for now, this report serves as a high-level overview of the major claims that define the techlash.

Rather than techlash, we need “tech realism”—a pragmatic recognition that today’s technologies are like virtually all past technologies: They are a fundamental force for human progress, but can in some instances pose real challenges that deserve smart and effective responses.

In the final analysis, we encourage those who care about innovation and progress to resist the techlash and instead embrace a new tech realism that recognizes technology as a fundamental source of human progress, and also realizes that in some cases, smart and effective policy responses are required to maximize the net benefits. The question is not whether technology has costs, but whether the costs can be managed sensibly and are outweighed by the benefits. The answer on both counts is unquestionably, “yes.”

What Is the Techlash and Where Did It Come From?

Until recently, IT and the companies that produce IT-driven products and services were largely seen in a positive light. Indeed, media coverage of technology in the 1980s and 1990s was extremely favorable, with a preponderance devoted to the advantages afforded by technological advances.[4] Even as late as 2010, when the Arab Spring uprisings occurred, as protestors used social media to organize, unify, and get their messages out, the Internet was seen as a liberating force. The media referred to other similar events as Iran’s “Twitter Revolution,” Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution,” and Syria’s “YouTube uprising.”[5] In 2010, Time featured Mark Zuckerberg as its “Man of the Year” for connecting people, mapping social relations, creating a new system of exchanging information, and changing how we all live our lives.[6] Netflix was “killing piracy.”[7] And Spotify was a growing and popular start-up, that would let users download and stream songs for free.[8] Google had “amazing people,” and its founding fathers were among the world’s top “tech geniuses.”[9] In 2011, the world mourned the loss of Apple visionary Steve Jobs, who had launched the “magical” smartphone.[10] Amazon was seen as providing more choice and liberating convenience to tens of millions of consumers.[11] Massive open online courses were democratizing education.[12] In short, technologies and Big Tech were catalysts for positive and needed change.[13]

But that optimistic tone has now turned markedly dark, with significantly more attention focused on the purported ill effects of technology: its displacement of face-to-face interactions, role in environmental degradation, threat to employment, and overall failure to live up to some of the more grandiose predictions about its impact.[14] All of this led up to the point where the term “techlash” was runner-up in Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year. Oxford defines the term as the “strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence that large technology companies hold.” But this is too narrow. Techlash, in fact, represents something broader: a negative reaction not just to a few large technology companies, but to technology itself, particularly IT. Indeed, the backlash against technologies such as facial recognition, e-scooters, and sidewalk delivery robots is not so much about the size and nature of the companies making them, but a reflection of souring views toward the technologies themselves.

Techlash did not emerge spontaneously. Even during the period when IT was largely seen as a positive, liberating force, there were strong undercurrents of techlash emanating largely from pundits promoting jeremiads—and themselves. Katherine Albrecht warned that radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) were, as the title of her book indicates, Spychips. Jeremy Rifkin provided the titular warning of the coming End of Work. Evgeny Morozov wrote about The Net Delusion. Nick Carr wrote that Google is “making us stupid” in IT Doesn’t Matter, and Andrew Keen penned The Internet Is Not the Answer. Jaron Lanier asked in his book, Who Owns the Future? (Big Tech does). Susan Crawford warned in her book, Captive Audience, that we are all just that to rapacious “Big Broadband.” Scott Galloway even argued that Big Tech companies are responsible for virtually every economic and social ill facing America, calling it, “Silicon Valley’s Tax-Avoiding, Job-Killing, Soul-Sucking Machine.”[15] These and other pundits worked tirelessly to lay the intellectual groundwork for the techlash. They were answering often overly utopian claims about IT with distinctly dystopian counterclaims.

But the fuel for the techlash fire came at least in part from actual events, including, among others, the revelations Russia used social media platforms to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections, Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook data for political purposes, and Google was investigated for antitrust violations. Panic spread on a parallel track as new technologies such as deep learning, certain forms of artificial intelligence (AI), and autonomous vehicles came to be seen as both transformative and imminent. Even technology entrepreneurs joined the fray. Elon Musk made news around the world by claiming AI was a “demon” that posed an existential threat to the human race.[16] Bill Gates warned automation was proceeding so quickly that governments should tax robots in order to slow down its progress.[17] And in a widely cited but fundamentally flawed study, Oxford scholars Osborne and Frey predicted technology would eliminate almost half of American jobs in 20 years.[18]

On top of that, initial excitement about the marvels of IT was wearing off. Most people began taking for granted they could use a search engine to access foreign-language news sites for free and have their web browsers automatically translate them into English. Or that they could order products with a couple of taps on their phone and have them show up on their doorstep the next day. Ho-hum.

All of this created a perfect storm for a full-fledged techlash. IT is now widely criticized, at least by elite influencers, for contributing to a host of harms. There is a broad audience ready and willing to believe the “tech is bad” narrative. And a wide range of activists rely on and stoke these conditions to help advance long-held policy agendas (e.g., strong privacy legislation, public ownership of broadband services, an economy predominated by small businesses instead of large corporations, etc.). Indeed, technology and the big companies producing it are many activists’ favorite political hobby horse.

But how broad and deep is this techlash? To listen to those who are most heavily invested in it, the techlash reflects the sentiments of a large majority of Americans who have turned against tech and tech companies. But certainly, at the most basic level, this is not true. As Rob Walker wrote recently in The New York Times, if there were a real techlash, one would expect to see Americans reducing their use of technologies.[19] But in fact, the opposite is occurring, with use of social networks and devices increasing, not decreasing. For example, 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.[20]

A wide range of activists rely on and stoke these conditions to help advance long-held policy agendas.

Could it be that people still use and like these technologies but don’t like the companies making them, and therefore want government to act? Not according to public opinion polling. In fact, public opinion is still by and large favorable toward IT and tech companies. As of summer 2019, 50 percent of Americans believe technology companies have a positive impact on the country, according to Pew survey data, versus 33 percent who believe they are detrimental.[21] To be sure, that is down from in 2010, when 68 percent believed tech companies had a positive effect, versus just 18 percent believing them to have a negative effect.[22] But according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, a significant majority of the public still maintains a basic faith that tech companies do the right thing most of the time.[23] Their April 2019 survey found that, globally, the technology sector is the most trusted of all industry sectors, with 78 percent of respondents expressing faith in it. And even in the wake of the techlash, this was up 4 percentage points from 2015. The number is even higher for what Edelman calls the “informed” public: 84 percent. American support is somewhat lower, at 73 percent, but is still higher than it is for any other industry.[24] Indeed, 60 percent of people agree that the tech sector is conscious of societal impact and contributes to the greater good. However, Edelman does report that trust in search engine companies and social media platforms declined significantly from 53 percent trusting them in 2017 to 42 percent in 2018. Moreover, 47 percent believed technological innovation was happening too quickly. When it comes to specific technologies, only 56 percent of people trusted blockchain, 55 percent trusted self-driving vehicle technology, and 62 percent trusted AI.[25] We see similar findings from an August 2019 poll from Gallop, wherein, of 25 industries, Americans view the computer industry second-most favorably (with a net positive score of 50 percentage points). The Internet and telephone industries rank lower, but still have strong net positives (13 and 16 percentage points respectively).[26]

So, while public views of tech and the tech industry are less favorable than they once were, they are still by and large quite positive. Meanwhile, there is somewhat mixed evidence that Americans want elected officials to crack down on technology companies. In an Axios-Survey Monkey online poll conducted in November 2017, 40 percent of respondents said they worried the government wouldn’t do enough to regulate tech, while 57 percent said the government would do too much.[27] In a February 2018 poll, that number had increased to 55 and 39 percent, respectively.[28] However, a September 2019 Morning Consult/Advertising Week poll found that the tech industry ranked 15th out of 19 industries U.S. adults said presidential candidates should be more critical of.[29]

The techlash, in fact, appears to be driven by opinion-leading elites, advocates, and pundits. Indeed, across the political spectrum, these critics are sounding shrill alarms of gloom and doom.[30] Liberal icon Robert Reich has said Big Tech has become “way too powerful.”[31] Robert VerBruggen, writing for the conservative National Review, called Google, Facebook, and Amazon “Our Digital Overlords.”[32] And the bipartisan pairing of Bill Galston, a center-left thinker who helped shape President Clinton’s domestic agenda, and Bill Kristol, the center-right thinker and veteran of the first Bush administration, have formed a new group with a reform platform that includes “Challenging the Tech Titans.”[33] And virtually no claim about the malevolence of tech companies or the injury being caused by tech is now too outlandish to generate considerable attention—from killer AI that will enslave the human race to maps on smartphones leading to early onset of Alzheimer’s.[34] Virtually any and all negative claims are now routinely asserted and then widely circulated as truth, and repeated at TED talks, online, and elsewhere, much like other urban myths have spread.

While public views of tech and the tech industry are less favorable than they once were, they are still by and large quite positive.

Joining the fray are an array of economic interests that are more than happy to pile on the techlash, including brick-and-mortar retailers, newspapers and other media, and other industries that have been hurt by technological innovation and competition.

Against this backdrop, many elected officials appear to believe that voters are demanding action, so they have responded with proposals to control technology and Big Tech.

To be sure, fear and opposition to technology is certainly not new. People have long opposed new technologies, fearing they would be unsafe, destroy morals, hurt jobs, harm children, and lead to a range of other purported ills. As the podcast Pessimists Archive has documented, these technologies include tunnels, the telegraph, recorded music, electricity, the elevator, and even the Walkman.[35] Indeed, many of today’s complaints mirror those of yesteryear. We have seen this before. Case in point is the turn-of-the-20th-century techlash against the automobile, wherein some places passed red-flag laws that required a person to walk in front of “horseless carriages” waiving a red flag.[36] (See figure 1.) However, the scope and vociferousness of today’s techlash suggests it might be more serious than in past episodes, and as such deserves a more serious response.

Figure 1: Early techlash: red-flag laws for cars

Why Techlash Matters

If one believes IT is largely harmful—“more weapon than tool,” to use Brad Smith’s analogy without the benefit of his nuanced analysis—then techlash is a positive development, akin to the antinuclear movement of the last half of the 20th century, which raised badly needed awareness. But if one believes, as ITIF does, that tech and tech companies big and small are not only largely beneficial, both economically and socially, but vital to future progress, prosperity, and competitiveness—and that any challenges are manageable—then the techlash is deeply problematic.

Some argue that techlash is focused almost solely on big Internet and platform companies, and therefore the cause for concern is somewhat lessened. But while it is true there is less public support for the Internet industry, and that some of the policy measures (e.g., Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, laws defining contractors, etc.) focus more on them, techlash also leads to technology bans, taxes, and regulations that can negatively impact technological innovation more broadly.

Indeed, the risk from techlash is that it could lead to one or both of the following outcomes: a neo-Luddite “smash the machine” response, including government technology bans that would slow productivity and wage growth; or a modern-day Gulliver response wherein regulatory frameworks are so stringent and restrictive, innovation and even consumer welfare can’t flourish. (See figure 2 and figure 3.)

Figure 2: Possible response from techlash: neo-Luddite technology bans