Understanding the techlash

‘Techlash’ is one of my favourite words at the moment. I think I use it too much, particularly when writing about technology. Perhaps it’s made me lazy - the term has become shorthand for a vague feeling of resentment or anger towards both technology companies and technology in general.

This societal malaise is warranted. But I do worry that there’s a danger that when we talk about the techlash in general we miss the complex range of issues and problems that it raises and covers.

In fact, I’m starting to think that the techlash isn’t not simply a movement to resist and challenge the power of the largest tech companies, but maybe something more akin to a pained howl of confusion at the complex shitstorm Google et al. has got us into. That means solving it becomes an even bigger challenge - but it also means it involves forms of cooperation and understanding at a political and social level that goes far beyond straightforward regulatory mechanisms.

When did the techlash begin?

To try and unpick the complexity of the techlash, let’s go back to how it began.

At first glance, this appears fairly straightforward: there’s one event that stands out as the moment the techlash began - the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the public imagination this was the precise moment when the relationship between technology, capitalism, and politics came into full view.

That’s not to say that those domains weren’t related before - to suggest otherwise is plainly ludicrous.

It was more that the event, with its relationship to seismic events in international politics - Brexit, Trump etc… - carried a certain urgency. If both Brexit and Trump felt like terrifying nightmares that had impossibly come to pass, a reminder that the foundations on which the status quo are built are shaky and contingent, Facebook became a neat focal point to explain exactly how our socio-political fabric had changed.

[For a clear explainer on the Cambridge Analytica Scandal and its relationship to Trump, you could do a lot worse than this on Vox.]

Yes, Facebook is a platform, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted that it is a platform that doesn’t stabilize existing social relations - it does the opposite. That might have been immediately obvious to people with an interest in tech, business, or politics, but to those who use Facebook to share out-of-date memes, the fact that Facebook’s role in exploiting the data of millions of people in a way that could have impacted two significant elections (a fact which I remain somewhat sceptical about) is now on the front page of newspapers and the lead story on television news is a real shock.

Wired earlier this year called the Cambridge Analytica scandal ‘the great privacy awakening.’ It’s hard to find a better way to put it - but this underlines exactly why the event feels instrumental in bringing about the techlash we’re still living through today.

Did the techlash actually begin before the Cambridge Analytica scandal?

Although the explosive nature of the Cambridge Analytica scandal makes it feel like a watershed moment, the term actually first appeared in the press around 2 months before the Cambridge Analytica properly emerged.

This adds an additional layer of complexity and makes things harder for us.

The word can be found in a piece published by The Economist in January 2018 titled “The techlash against Amazon, Facebook and Google—and what they can do.”

It’s a strange piece. Ostensibly written by ‘Eve Smith’ from ‘Invisible Hand Strategies LLC’, and taking the form of an email to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, it’s a clear nod to Adam Smith - the economist that had a clear sense of how capitalism should and should not work.

‘Eve Smith’s’ analysis of the techlash in January 2018

The article does a good job of highlighting the various ways in which governments (at both a national and supranational level) were already starting to take a firm line with tech giants.

In Europe, ‘Smith’ writes, things are “getting worse. Having levelled a fine of $2.7bn against Google in 2017, the European Commission’s Magrethe Vestager wants to go further,” as do other national governments in Europe.

The article goes on to note that political opposition is beginning to show even in the U.S. on both the left and right.

Interestingly, there is “one ray of light:”

“Almost all your services remain wildly popular with consumers; they use your products to communicate, to navigate, to search for stuff, to buy things and to socialise. They cannot imagine life without you. This is one reason investors have dismissed anti-tech rhetoric as political grandstanding.”

This is a nice slice of irony - only a few months later would the Cambridge Analytica scandal steal headlines around the world.

But even despite this ray of light, the article still notes that there is some level of concern from the public. The tech giants are viewed, ‘Smith’ writes, as:

  • anti-competitive

  • addictive

  • anti-democratic

So, from this perspective, it’s possible to suggest that even before the Cambridge Analytica scandal the public was conscious of technology’s negative impact on society.

The article later goes on to offer some potential solutions techlash. Just as the problems are diverse ranging from child safety to democratic meddling, so to are the solutions - they cover everything from competition and data regulation to content liability and “technical committees.”

A fragmented set of challenges

This seems significant. While the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a brilliant story that will stand as a watershed moment in how the public treats Silicon Valley with scepticism (maybe even opprobrium), The Economist article is a reminder that the techlash itself is something formless and fragmented.

It is composed from many different complaints and challenges. Some of these come from huge media conglomerates that realise their power is fading, some from parents worried about device addiction, cyber bullying and online grooming.

This means the techlash isn’t just a straightforward socio-political response to a malign influence (like, say, the Remain campaign) - instead it is a complex and multi-layered thing.

It’s likely that the techlash will contain many different interests - indeed, that’s something we can already see in the various responses of the left and the right to the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. All we can hope for is that interests are can be aligned in a way that works for everyone.