Should the Tech Industry be Concerned About its Image?

Should the Tech Industry be Concerned About its Image?

Popular perception of corporations and industries are built carefully over time, but destroyed by the popular media in an instant. The family fun time image of Sea World was forever changed by “Blackfish”.  The pure-bred American brand of General Motors was dented by “Roger & Me”.  McDonald’s made enormous profits for decades, until “Super Size Me” laid the groundwork for a significant backlash.

Now it may be the technology industry’s turn.  “The Social Network” was the first film which effectively brought out the dark side of tech for public examination.  “The Internet’s Own Boy” drew the arc of technological achievement from promise to despair.  Now we have a triumvirate of Steve Jobs films (a documentary and two fictionalized histories) which weigh the benefits of innovation against the venal personalities which sometimes drive it.  Should the industry be worried?

At first glance, the answer appears to be no.  The dominant narrative of technology continues to be overwhelmingly positive.  The innovation economy is lauded as the present and future of American business.  People continue to vote with their feet, streaming to Silicon Valley faster than its woeful infrastructure and strained housing market can handle.  We increasingly rely on technology to power every aspect of our lives – a trust that few other industries can dare hope for.

And yet there are seeds of a countertrend which threaten to undercut this seemingly impenetrable basis of support.  Google buses are the subject of protests.  Technology companies are blasted for refusing to comply with government subpoenas.  Carly Fiorina’s time at HP is now a political liability.

At some point or another, every industry comes under the gaze of public scrutiny.  It could even be said that technology deserves more scrutiny than most, given the amazingly short time it took to colonize every aspect of our lives.  Our image of the innovation economy was bound to become more nuanced.

Yet we can say that shifting perceptions of the industry come with a particular danger – one that is linked with the messianic ambitions which pervade most technology companies.  “Don’t be evil” was Google’s corporate motto (until it was recently replacedby the more positive-sounding “do the right thing”).  That’s only the most prominent example – most technology companies have some form of “change the world” in their mission statement.  The unspoken inference is that technology will always change the world for the better.  Yet as popular culture increasingly reminds us, that is not necessarily true.

It could also be argued that image is particularly important for technology businesses, many of which rely on trust as a key part of their business model.  People tweet and fill out Facebook profiles on the assumption that the companies behind them will protect their information.  E-commerce transactions are viable because consumers believe their money will be handled appropriately. When someone calls an Uber car, they expect that the driver will be pre-screened.  If the general public stops trusting technology companies, the business models of those companies could be in serious jeopardy.  Opting out is a threat.

That’s not to say that a single Ashton Kutcher movie could ever change anyone’s mind about anything.  It would take a monumental shift in public opinion to displace technology’s role in the economy – something more than any single cultural event could produce.  Yet the industry is not immune from such a shift.