Happy 30th birthday, World Wide Web. Who knew that we’d be celebrating this three-decade tech milestone with such a frenzy of anti-tech fervor?
Not so long ago, the tech sector was the jewel in the crown of the U.S. economy, a vibrant industry that non-tech companies envied and other countries were desperate to replicate. Tech was where America’s best and brightest went to dream big, to move fast and to break things — to “disrupt” the bloated and lazy analog-economy incumbents.
For the grads (and dropouts) of elite universities, going to Wall Street meant selling out. Going to Silicon Valley meant changing the world. And for our common good, presumably.
This cultural adoration of all things “tech” — and “tech” grew to encompass almost any company supposedly in the business of “disruption” (including, somehow, selling fake mayonnaise) — was ubiquitous. The sycophancy of the tech press defied parody. Hollywood, too, lionized the founder-genius, the socially awkward kid who finally got his social due (and payday). And politicians went to Silicon Valley to kiss the rings of these flip-flop-and-free-T-shirt-wearing, newly zillionaired nerds, in the hope of coaxing a few pennies from their Venmo accounts.
The political pilgrims came from both parties. Democrats praised the open-mindedness and social liberalism of Silicon Valleyites; Republicans championed their entrepreneurial mettle and contempt for regulations.
But sometime in the past couple of years, disillusionment set in. Quantifiably so: In Gallup’s sector-by-sector polling, the “Internet industry” was viewed very or somewhat favorably by 60 percent of respondents at its peak in 2015. That plummeted to 45 percent by last summer.
What happened? In some ways, anything hyped as high as the Silicon Valley fairy tale was bound to face a reputational fall eventually. But the blemishes driving that backlash were also plentiful, and varied.
There was bro culture, sexism and sexual harassment. Data breaches — lots of data breaches. Broken laws. Allegations of theft. Ripped-off employees and independent contractors. Privacy violations, disinformation, fake accounts and other user abuses, and changing stories about how much firms knew about them. Lobbying. Lying. Leaching.
There was too little gatekeeping in toxic social-media environments. Or too much of the sort of gatekeeping that threatens free speech, depending on your political persuasion. The amplification of outrage culture, but also of white nationalism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories.
The radicalization of young men worldwide into terrorists, evidenced most recently — though hardly exclusively — in the horrific mass-slaughters at two New Zealand mosques.
The list goes on and the outcome is plain. A sector once seen as a bunch of plucky underdogs has become viewed by many as a greedy, parasitic monolith, indifferent to its effects on democracy, civility and human rights. Or it was recognized for what it was: a sector as inclined to bad behavior as any that came before it, except it exists within an overmatched regulatory environment that has been ill-equipped to impose consequences.
Politicians smelled blood. And now, rather than competing over who could more closely align themselves with Silicon Valley, they vie for the role of toughest on tech. President Trump, who wears his technological illiteracy on his sleeve, was ahead of the game, having pledged way back in 2015 that he would enlist Bill Gates’ help in “closing that internet up,” whatever that meant.
When it comes to actual policy changes, both parties have fallen short. Certainly consequences for data breaches or other privacy violations could and should be more severe. But fixing the tech sector’s systemic problems remains a thornier problem.
Perhaps the real lesson of 30 years of webbed connectedness is that a “disrupted” economic model is every bit as vulnerable to human failings as the one it supplants.