Tech has an image problem. How do we fix it?

I am a PR guy. I build brands and polish images. My industry is technology. It is not my client (well, companies within tech are).  But if it were, I’d say there’s a problem. Namely I am getting tired of all the articles slamming the tech industry, and painting it with the same brush.

Here are some recent headlines, and excerpts: 

  • NY Times: How Evil Is Tech? “Not long ago, tech was the coolest industry. Everybody wanted to work at Google, Facebook and Apple. But over the past year the mood has shifted. Some now believe tech is like the tobacco industry — corporations that make billions of dollars peddling a destructive addiction. Some believe it is like the N.F.L. — something millions of people love, but which everybody knows leaves a trail of human wreckage in its wake.”
  • The Guardian: Silicon Valley has been humbled. But its schemes are as dangerous as ever: “An industry once hailed for fuelling the Arab spring is today repeatedly accused of abetting Islamic State. An industry that prides itself on diversity and tolerance is now regularly in the news for cases of sexual harassment as well as the controversial views … An industry that built its reputation on offering us free things and services is now regularly assailed for making things .. more expensive. The Silicon Valley backlash is on.”
  • Wired: The other Tech Bubble: “Will anyone ever write another positive story about a tech startup? We’ve been burned…. The many hype-building stories about deceptive companies haven’t aged well… The issue is bigger than any single scandal.”
  • NY Times: Tech Giants, Once Seen as Saviors, Are Now Viewed as Threats: “Now tech companies are under fire for creating problems instead of solving them. Tech companies have accrued a tremendous amount of power and influence. Their amount of concentrated authority resembles the divine right of kings, and is sparking a backlash that is still gathering force.”

I am not objecting to the reporting of facts, as presented.  And yes; the media are there to keep other institutions in check; I would never challenge their right to do so.  Further, I don’t want to minimize some of the very real problems emanating from the tech world.

All that said, I find the info in many of these stories to be caricatures and generalizations of the industry that I know, having worked with 100s of tech companies, many of the them startups.

Who is to Blame?

There is plenty of blame to go around regarding the role of tech in our lives; and the state of the tech industry.  But my issue is with some of the coverage – and the resulting image issues.  So, let’s go down the list – a long one – because our relationship with tech is complex and did not happen overnight.

  • Do we blame the tech companies? They should be called out for bad behavior; and when their solutions cause problems.  But let’s keep things in perspective.  Don’t assume they’re all evil, or have ill intent – e.g. Facebook did not set out to create a Russian disinformation machine.  Yes, they want to move fast and break things.  This can sound arrogant and lead to unintended consequences.  They have no choice but to address the issues, so people keep coming back.
  • Do we blame journalists who focus on the outsize stories and egos (stoking unicorn valuations), and who conflate Silicon Valley and Big Tech with the rest of the industry?(I guess that is the point of this article. If they’re so sour on tech, perhaps the writers of these stories should unplug and live off the grid).
  • Do we blame the PRs and marketers that promote tech? Sure, if we are peddling hype and misinformation that adds to media cynisism.
  • Do we blame businesses that eat up technology to improve operations and for competitive advantage?
  • Do we blame society at large – and our love for shiny new toys, tech gadgets, and fascination with entrepreneurialism? (Bingo! We have met the enemy, and he is us).

In summary, I just ask for balance in reporting, and that you not kick tech or the industry to the curb.   Tech continues to be an important engine for our economy, and our innovation is key to U.S. global competitiveness  It enriches our lives in so many ways.  We need to improve it, and reign it in when needed.  But not walk away or shame.

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