A Growing Shift in Opinion on the Rise of Technology

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg who was preparing to go public with Facebook, released a thunderous IPO (Initial Public Offering) letter detailing his vision of the site’s future. Zuckerberg argued that Facebook was not just a convenient tool for social networking; it also had a moral and political goal. The CEO claimed that Facebook’s real drive came from its social quest to “make the world more open and connected,” stating, “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

At the time, you didn’t need to take the letter’s portrayal of Facebook as a selfless philanthropic operation at face value to understand the company’s appeal. In the wake of the Arab Spring’s organization through social media, Facebook’s claims that it was providing the world with “more honest and transparent dialogue around government” and “solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the letter, seemed to make a very real point. All of this looked like a free market’s dream come true — start-up businesses could harness new tech, put it to work solving serious problems and be rewarded with huge amounts of money for doing so. Silicon Valley success stories piled up on each other relentlessly: Uber came out of nowhere to revolutionize transit while Amazon, already well established, accelerated its rapid expansion, making shopping more convenient than ever before. Behind these massive names, smaller tech companies like Ecosia, a nonprofit search engine focused on reforestation, and Ruck.us, a website builder designed for political candidates in local and state elections, set their sights on attacking political and social problems across the board.

Overwhelmingly, American popular culture embraced the optimistic Silicon Valley narrative that the tech industry represented progress. Pew Research Center polling from 2010 to 2015 found that the number of Americans who believed technological industries had a positive effect on the country consistently hovered around 70 percent. But in the last few years, a decisive change has occurred. When Pew redid its survey in 2019, it found that the share still holding that opinion had fallen to 50 percent, while the proportion of those who believe the industry’s effects are primarily negative had nearly doubled from 17 percent to 33 percent. Furthermore, 55 percent of the population agreed that “tech companies have too much power and influence,” indicating that even many who believe in the tech industry’s potential benefit feel a need for increased regulation.

Popular fear of new technology is nothing new. Luddites smashing textile machines in early 19th century England, the looming Cold War terror of nuclear annihilation and countless Terminator-style stories depicting the robotic overthrow of mankind all fit into a long tradition of reaction against technology. But the Pew polls suggest that, until very recently, opposition to the modern tech industry had been limited to a small group. On the whole, the huge potential upsides of following the road of progress seemed to have outweighed the risks of any potential bumps along the way. Public opinion backed Zuckerberg’s mantra: “move fast and break things” — the pieces can be picked up later.

Growing concerns about the tech industry have also filtered into television. In 2011, “Black Mirror” and its depictions of technology running rampant were ahead of the curve, but its $40 million Netflix purchase in 2015 and haul of eight Emmys over the last three years demonstrate increasing mainstream alignment with its viewpoint. The comedy “Silicon Valley” has poked fun at its namesake’s practices since the show’s inception in 2014, but its early seasons never offered anything like a systemic critique of the tech industry. Recent seasons have adopted a harsher perspective, replete with issues of inclusion, Congressional hearings and billionaire investors with ties to Chile’s Pinochet regime.

Interestingly, the shift in opinion also appears to have permeated beyond party lines. While Pew’s polling found major gaps in Democrat and Republican support of almost every other major institution — from finance to churches to universities to the news — the gap in opinion on tech companies is only 10 percentage points (54 percent of Democrats believe in its positive effects compared to 44 percent of Republicans). Whatever cultural shift has occurred doesn’t seem to have a solely political explanation — while the fact that 64 percent of Republicans feel that major tech companies oppose their political views could play a major role in right-wing disenchantment with Silicon Valley, this rationale does not explain why so many Democrats are also changing their perspective on the tech industry. Social shifts such as the disintegration of public trust in the tech industry’s ability to maintain privacy after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or frustration over tech companies’ inability to follow through on promises of positive real-world change might provide a more rounded explanation. Whatever the cause, America’s honeymoon with Silicon Valley is ending, and the results of the fallout are guaranteed to be significant.