October 20, 2019

The Tech Backlash Has Started

“Is there a backlash toward the technology industry in the culture? I tend to think so, having written about its various twists and turns most weekdays for the past couple years now. But sometimes an obsession with a beat can lead to myopia, and so it can be useful to check in with your assumptions from time to time to see whether they still hold up.

Such an occasion presented itself over the weekend, when the New York Times published an op-ed by Rob Walker with the provocative title “There is no tech backlash.” Walker argues that whatever jaded media types and politicians might be saying about the big tech platforms, consumers remain enamored of them, and the companies’ financial performance has been superb. He writes:

According to its most recent quarterly report, the number of Facebook accounts used daily (1.59 billion) and monthly (2.4 billion) each increased by 8 percent over the prior quarter. Despite all the anecdotes you’ve heard about people deleting their accounts, the company’s flagship app added about a million new daily users in the United States alone. Revenue was up 28 percent. Even factoring in the F.T.C. fine, Facebook recorded a profit of $2.6 billion.

Facebook is not the only demonized tech platform; social media companies in general are routinely criticized as toxic swamps full of trolls, liars and bots. But again, there’s no evidence of any exodus. In the same quarter, Twitter added five million new daily users, and Snap reported that the daily user base of its flagship Snapchat app grew 7 percent, its best-ever performance as a public company. 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. (The people I know who quit Facebook all use Facebook-owned Instagram, WhatsApp, or both.)

Moreover, Walker writes, consumers continue to buy potentially privacy-destroying gadgets like voice-controlled speakers and surveillance-camera doorbells. And so while it might seem like there’s a backlash, the argument goes, in reality technological progress is proceeding apace — and the rest is just noise.”

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