Big tech companies faced a barrage of questions at Davos this year, shifting the tone from a celebration of all things tech to concerns over minimal regulation, political polarization and the impact of social media on mental health. One attendee even compared the addictive properties of social media to the cigarette industry and said that the government needed to step in.
Confidence and trust in the tech sector has certainly been falling. Last year there were billion-dollar fines over antitrust, data privacy and taxes; research highlighting the dangers of social media addiction; evidence of fake news; accusations of election meddling; and extremist content on the internet.
But is all the negative sentiment surrounding the tech industry warranted? And are people right to feel diminishing confidence in tech giants, at a time when their role in our lives seems to be ever-expanding?
The tech sector has given us so much
It's important to take a step back and remember all the good things tech has given us. We now have robots that take on risky jobs like detecting IEDs and cleaning up hazardous chemicals. Think of medical technology and minimally invasive surgeries. Traffic apps that save us time and being able to stream entertainment wherever we are.
Then there's artificial intelligence and automation, taking away the repetitive parts of our jobs and freeing people for more creative, strategic roles.
Tech companies add trillions to the economy, populate the Global Fortune 500 and invest heavily in R&D. Data scientists, developers and data analysts are some of the most desired, high-paying jobs. And employment in the IT sector generally outpaces overall job growth.
Tech advances have already changed the way we work, live and play. More change is on the way and I, for one, welcome it.
Is it time to tackle the tech giants’ unprecedented power?
As we move toward this Transformative Age, however, we face some stark realities.
There is a serious concentration of power, unlike anything we've seen since the Industrial Age. Market capitalization of the tech titans surpassed US$3t in 2017.
With their enormous cash reserves, they snap up new entrants, raising accusations of stifling innovation by eliminating potential competitors.
So, given how much we all depend on tech and tech platforms, are the tech giants now too big to fail?
Two historical parallels come to mind: the US railroad barons of the nineteenth century and Standard Oil, which, in the early years of the twentieth century, controlled more than 90% of US oil. Both enjoyed monopolistic power until regulation curbed their excesses.
So is it time to do the same to the tech giants?