Ordinary the World Economic Forum, in the snow-capped Swiss town of Davos, is an opportunity for tech’s leading lights to puff out their chests and lay bold claims to society’s future.
Not so this year. While the tone of past editions of the event, known for its ability to bring together billionaires, politicians and celebrities, has been self-celebratory, 2018 saw a succession of CEOs and experts reign in ambition, focusing instead on clawing back trust with the general public.
Rather than fist bump, tech’s leaders chose to hand-wring. A number of high-profile heads even posited the unthinkable: will Silicon Valley ask the White House to regulate it?
“Here’s a product: Cigarettes,” Salesforce chief Mark Benioff told CNBC. “They’re addictive, they’re not good for you…I think that for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive and we need to rein that back.”
Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who is fighting a massive public backlash against the actions of his firm and its misbehaving founder Travis Kalanick, seemed to concur. “I’d ask regulators be harsh with accountability,” he told an audience at the show.
Set aside the dichotomy of a company whose core business plan includes taking entire cities to court over regulation, and something quite astounding is occurring: Tech is beginning to realize its own misdeeds, and that the public – its customers – have lost faith in the benevolence of technology that is playing ever more complex and integral roles in society.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, dodged questions on the issue, and refused to be drawn on whether the company, worth around $580 billion, is too big. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to show public contrition for his platform’s role in propagandizing the media industry. But as yet little has been done to change the company’s direction: and recent adjustments to its advertising model are wiping out smaller, independent media companies worldwide.
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment,” businessman and philanthropist George Soros told a Davos crowd. The Hungarian-American, known for promoting liberal causes around the globe, called social media platforms a “menace”, and warned of “far-reaching political consequences”.
Talk, of course, is cheap. Brands like Google, Facebook and Uber, whose products are irreplaceable for millions of people, will likely continue to make huge profits in the near future. And whether public opprobrium to questionable transparency, tax and media ethics correlates to a loss in customers remains to be seen.
But political leaders in Europe and North America have long sounded an alarm over the effects tech companies are having on nations. If more figures like Benioff and Khosrowshahi demand that governments step in, it will give a green light to lawmakers, like the EU’s Margarethe Vestager, to clamp down on the Valley’s key players.
That, coupled with a crescendo in critical media – including recent stories about how firms’ C-suites limit their use of social media and other products – will surely have a huge effect on the industry down the line. It may not come now, but 2018’s biggest tech story is unlikely to be about technology: it will be a year the market tries to win back its base.