191917 tech backlash
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It’s fun, and increasingly fashionable, to complain about technology.

Our own devices distract us, others’ devices spy on us, social media companies poison public discourse, new wired objects violate our privacy, and all of this contributes to a general sense of runaway change careening beyond our control. No wonder there’s a tech backlash.

But, really, is there? There certainly has been talk of a backlash, for a couple of years now. Politicians have discussed regulating big tech companies more tightly. Fines have been issued, break-ups called for.

A tech press once dedicated almost exclusively to gadget lust and organising conferences that trot out tech lords for the rest of us to worship has taken on a more critical tone; a drumbeat of exposés reveal ethically and legally dubious corporate behaviour. Novels and movies paint a sceptical or even dystopian picture of where tech is taking us.

We all know people who have theatrically quit this or that social media service, or announced digital sabbaticals. And, of course, everybody kvetches, all the time.

The reality

However, there is the matter of our actual behaviour in the real-world marketplace. The evidence there suggests that, in fact, we love our devices as much as ever. There is no tech backlash.

Consider Facebook: It’s hard to imagine a more backlashable company. Facebook is widely associated with data breaches, the spread of dubious information and a basic deterioration of interpersonal communication. It was recently fined nearly $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission for mishandling its customers’ data.

And, given its ubiquity, it’s also a handy stand-in for the corporatisation of online life in general. If you’re going to make a show of quitting a tech service, Facebook may be your best choice.

Numbers don’t show it

But according to its most recent quarterly report, the number of Facebook accounts used daily (1.59 billion) and monthly (2.4 billion) each increased by 8 per cent over the prior quarter. Despite all the anecdotes you’ve heard about people deleting their accounts, the company’s flagship app added about 1 million new daily users in the US alone.

Revenue was up 28 per cent. Even factoring in the FTC fine, Facebook recorded a profit of $2.6 billion.

Facebook is not the only demonised tech platform; social media companies in general are routinely criticised as toxic swamps full of trolls, liars and bots. But again, there’s no evidence of any exodus.

In the same quarter, Twitter added 5 million new daily users, and Snap reported that the daily user base of its flagship Snapchat app grew 7 per cent, its best-ever performance as a public company. According to the Pew Research Centre, 72 per cent of Americans use some form of social media, a percentage that has risen steadily for years and shows no sign of flagging.

Add-ons

Habits die hard. But even more remarkable than our apparent reluctance to ditch the technologies we love to dis is a fervent embrace of newer new things that seem, at the very least, worth approaching with caution.

Take smart speakers — the kind that respond to vocal prompts and questions — as an example. It’s exactly the sort of technology that gives people pause. Is this thing listening to me all the time? What about these weird stories of smart speakers laughing or cursing, or randomly recording a conversation and sending it to the owners’ contacts?

The tech press has gotten better and better at chronicling the latest troubling answers — for instance, people may in fact listen to your voice activations as part of the process of refining the device’s functionality — and detailing what, if anything, you can do about it.

Nevertheless: As of last year, a little more than a quarter of American households owned a smart speaker, according to one estimate. The category leader is the Amazon Echo, equipped with the Alexa voice-recognition software; Amazon says it has sold more than 100 million Alexa devices.

‘Smart home’ trend

Certain tech-use indicators have in fact levelled off in recent years, but that’s mostly because they correspond with categories that are already thoroughly established and widespread: Around 95 per cent of consumers in the US say they have or use a cellphone, and 89 per cent have or use the internet, according to Pew.

But dig a little deeper into that data, and it turns out that “new connected devices continue to emerge” and we continue to embrace them. In addition to voice assistants, smart TVs and wearable devices are growing in popularity.

Perhaps most remarkable, if you think we’re in the midst of tech backlash, is the traction of the aggressively hyped “smart home” trend, encouraging you to link your locks and lights and other household infrastructure to the internet. Amazon (which intuitively ought to be suffering in a tech-backlashed environment) recently announced that the record sales on its most recent Prime Day promotion included “millions of smart home devices”.

A shrug and nothing more

So if there is no tech backlash, why is that? Probably a combination of factors. For starters, technology can be complicated, and most of us don’t bother to read terms-of-service agreements, let alone try to understand how something like Alexa, or even Facebook, really works.

By and large, tech companies prefer it this way, and they either actively obscure the way their algorithms make decisions or passively encourage you to focus on the post-user-manual idea that technology “just works”, and you don’t need to worry about whys or (especially) hows.

Also, we really, really like much of what technology has to offer. There are good reasons to feel that way: Technology has improved the world, and our lives, in plenty of ways. But it often seems we are willing to overlook significant potential downsides in exchange for rather trivial payoffs.

Maybe being a more determined backlasher just feels hopeless. Quitting Facebook or boycotting Amazon seems similar to removing a drop of water from the ocean. Even an unfamiliar start-up backed with piles of venture capital has the resources to get around whatever entity is supposed to regulate it.

The Luddites lost. Why not just learn to stop worrying and love the gizmos?

I wonder if the main reason more of us aren’t active participants in a tangible tech backlash is that we assume lots of other people are. After all, the same tech lords people pay to worship at pricey conferences are now occasionally hauled before US Congress, and there’s some sense that cracking down on them might be a political winner.

Sure, the actual plans for doing so tend to be vague (and those tech lords don’t seem to be suffering). But everybody’s complaining about technology all the time — there’s nothing more on-trend than lamenting our ephemeral hashtag culture.

So it’s easy to believe that there really is a roiling tech backlash that will somehow head off any dystopian outcomes, while we lean back and ask Alexa whether it’s raining. In other words, it’s a virtual backlash: so convincing we can really see it, if we just wear the proper goggles.