Darlings to Damaged, and Back Again

April 3, 2020

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Might COVID-19 change perceptions of Tech for the long-term? It’s up to Tech to decide

In the past couple of weeks, a new conversation within the tech sector has started to emerge. The overall theme is that the Coronavirus pandemic might be a cure to the so-called techlash. This leaves Tech at a crossroads. There is now a real opportunity for it to rebuild reputation on the back of the world’s new appreciation of the vital role technology plays in society. But to do that, tech companies as a cohort must think about their impact on the world. They need to behave in ethical, socially responsible ways to address the sometimes unintended negative consequences of the technology which has become so critical to our lives in lock-down.

Less than a year ago, in June 2019, we looked at the very real reputational challenges technology companies were facing in our Darlings to Damaged report. The findings combined original research with insights from some of the world’s leading thinkers in this space, including the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the CIO of Canada, a Harvard Fellow and many more. In that report, we also pierced the gloom by considering how to ensure technology can continue to be a force for good in a world that increasingly needed drawing together, not pushing apart.

At the time, very few of us could have imagined a global pandemic of the kind we are now living through. All of us are dealing with worry about loved ones. The ongoing uncertainty about what each day will bring, personally, professionally and for the communities that we’re a part of. An unending news cycle. Having to work with children in the back (and sometimes fore) ground.

And in that environment, one of the things that is making a positive difference to our everyday lives is… technology.

Technology companies have become — in a way that they’ve only ever talked about and promised before now — the connective tissue helping hold both society and business together. From online shopping, to virtual meetings, to data science being used in the rush to get testing and drug discovery moving, Tech is playing a truly vital role in society.

And being seen to play that vital role too. This is thanks to two broad trends.

First is their ability to provide the technology and tools to keep the world connected and our homes functioning. From the fixed and mobile networks our virtual work and family calls are taking place over, to the platforms making us feel connected with friends around the world, to the ability to get groceries (except toilet paper, naturally) at the click of a button, tech has made life in the pandemic so much more manageable for people in the developed world.

Second has been their willingness to act fast and responsibly when it comes to doing the right thing: workforce pay, pledges around job security, executive pay and more. Tech companies have donated tens of millions of dollars to relief efforts. And Big Tech’s willingness to more proactively ‘police’ fake news in the wake of the pandemic has also been lauded around the world.

This is all in stark contrast to the ‘techlash’ the industry was undergoing just a year ago.

So will this pandemic change perceptions of Tech for good? Potentially some of the answers lie in the research we conducted last year.

Much of the public, even back then (82% to be exact), still said they embrace technology and trust its providers. That said, 7 in 10 said they would look more favorably on tech companies if they addressed the effects of their tech. Effects is a critical word here.

And within that context of effects, two core issues stood out: regulation and privacy.

31% said tech companies are regulated too little. Not surprisingly, this number skewed highest among Boomers (38%). And our 2018 Authentic Insights report showed that, when it comes to data security and protection, Americans think it’s more important than healthcare or freedom of speech (albeit, the focus on healthcare will almost certainly have skewed, rightfully, in the past few weeks).

What seems clear, then, is that tech has a significant opportunity in the wake of the coronavirus to change perceptions around Techlash and its role in society. But it needs to get it right.

Some pundits are saying that this pandemic will fundamentally change the way we live our lives – especially our working lives – for good. From a tech perspective, we’ve been forced into the social, digital use-cases around working flexibly and virtually that many technology companies have been promising for years. And with the power of 5G networks, Edge computing, AI and more just around the corner, there’s a good chance that change will truly continue apace.

But there’s a ‘but’. In what will hopefully (relatively) soon be a post-COVID-19 reality, it will be clearer which businesses, governments, institutions and industries emerge as the winners and losers of public perception. And for tech, it’s all about that word effect.

It’s become clear during COVID-19 that technology is critical. Some might even say a utility we can barely now imagine living without. So does that mean it should be regulated? That is a question that will surely come back once the pandemic is over.

We’ve also already started to see backlash against tech providers that have seen a massive spike in popularity but are not seen to be taking security and privacy seriously enough. Adjustments to platforms and solutions are having to be addressed in real-time.

And of course, 2020 is an election year in the US. This means that the Techlash narrative has a good chance of returning to the fore as a populist political issue. We must expect conversations around fake news and election interference to come back on the agenda in the next few months.

Back in 2019, we noted that tech companies are starting to recognize that their reputations and brand integrity are the best guarantees of long-term success. So during the pandemic and beyond, the best remedy to the so-called techlash will be companies’ internal and external commitments to working with government, regulators, academia, their internal audiences and each other; and to behaving in ethical, socially responsible ways to address the sometimes unintended negative consequences of the technology which is so important to our lives today. Once we have returned to a (new) normal, they need to make sure they do the right thing, on behalf of all stakeholders. That means addressing concerns around privacy. Dealing with questions around anti-trust. Taking on board employee feedback. And taking seriously demands for greater regulation.

At the moment, we are dependent on technology. And frankly, we’re glad for that dependency. The critical thing will be to not go back to being seen to use and abuse that dependency for profit without consequences.