Discover more from Erik Torenberg
The Techlash That Never Happened
The Techlash was about tech vs media, not the American public
This week on Moment of Zen, Dan and I discussed Elon, Open AI, depression, and crime.
This week on Upstream, I spoke with Samo Burja about geopolitics, AI, and new elites.
After last week’s episode with Ben Smith, I was inspired to write more about tech vs media.
Did the Techlash ever really happen? The ‘Techlash’ term was coined by The Economist to describe the ostensibly rising hostility towards tech. The Techlash has always been an odd phenomenon, because the average American actually really likes tech. If you asked the average American on the street about tech, they would tell you they like to use products like Airbnb, DoorDash, Uber, Facebook, Amazon, and many other supposedly maligned companies.
But most people aren’t worried about the fine intricacies of privacy law, or the latest Taxi vs Uber saga, they are too busy enjoying how tech is improving their lives, whether with faster travel, cheaper goods, or better entertainment. Any industry touched by tech gets cheaper—a welcoming change to the growing cost disease in all other areas of our society.
You can see this phenomenon in public opinion polling. Tech ranks highly among industries with net positive sentiment scores:
Additionally, tech also falls low on a list of industries that people want presidential candidates to criticize, surprising given the relative politicization of tech over the last few years (e.g. Cambridge Analytica, Hunter Biden, and Trump getting kicked off of Twitter). This falls in direct contrast to the narrative that tech is in an active fight against the people. Most people simply aren’t worried about tech.
Why then, has there been a supposed “Techlash”? One idea is that in reality, Techlash is primarily a media phenomenon. As in, there is a group of people railing against tech—it’s just the media class, not the American public. If you look at sentiment trends, you can see that tech has seen a gradual decline in positive coverage. Here, you can see the average monthly sentiment of New York Times articles that mention Facebook. There is a general trend downward, starting in about 2013.
This collapse in media sentiment coincides with an interesting phenomenon. Facebook revenue surpassed newspaper advertising revenue in 2013, just when negative sentiment around tech really began.
Newspaper revenue was mostly driven by ad sales, and the ability for businesses to use automated platforms with precise customer targeting meant that newspapers didn’t stand a chance against social media giants like Facebook. They simply lacked the reach and technological sophistication to compete. Perhaps the economic threat motivated media to increase their criticisms of their tech competitors. But it’s not the main reason in my opinion. Many journalists after all are more motivated by impact and status than economics, otherwise they wouldn’t be journalists. As tech got more and more powerful, and as it went from helping Obama to Trump, it suddenly went from friend to enemy.
The Techlash was framed as tech vs the people, but it was never the people vs. tech, it was really a fight between media and tech.
An alternative narrative around media’s turn on tech goes like this: Silicon Valley tech folks could take the moral high ground against big bad corporations and folks who didn’t do open source. That worked from basically 1995 to 2011. That was a self-confident ideological movement which created a ton of wealth and led to the rise of incubators worldwide and startup culture and so on.
All these opponents roughly speaking were on the broad implicit right — Republicans, big corporations, military dictators. Their opponents were the “series of tubes” guys and Steve Ballmer and the dictators that Twitter overthrew, etc.
After Jobs’ death in 2011 and Obama’s election in 2012, though, other parts of the Democratic Party started to look at tech not just as a ready source of money and talent, but also as a possible threat. Tech was getting too big for their britches, and disrupting media as well.
In 2011, tech stopped becoming beloved to the left because it was doing the following things:
Economically attacking traditional American left power centers (NYT, Hollywood, starting to go after academia too)
Undercutting their prestige and influence (see all the complaints about fake news and filter bubbles)
Pulling away their top talent (eg Larry Summers, Eric Holder, David Plouffe all working for tech companies)
Becoming a more powerful global culture exporter (Stanford taking over as #1 school from Harvard, YC becoming a “top school”, incubators popping up worldwide)
Building a network of super-wealthy people with an alternate social network and path to power (rather than becoming president, becoming CEO)
What they mean by tech was a “threat to democracy” is that their fundamental modus operandi is in danger. MO = Harvard does a study, NYT reports it, US gov’t enacts it.
Regardless of the source of the Techlash, the first line of attack the media took was around tech building companies that didn’t matter (e.g Juicero). Then, the narrative was that tech was taking over the world (e.g. Facebook). Trump accelerated this phenomenon, as the 2016 election unfolded, and Trump used Twitter to garner support, and Facebook was used to great effect by the Trump campaign, the message became political—in their minds, tech was supporting republicans.
Even though no tech person in 2016 supported the Republican candidate except Peter Thiel, who was virtually run out of SF for it. Every prominent person and nearly all the employees voted Democrat. Still, the left came down hard on tech. Giving power to the people, which was good during the Arab spring, was suddenly a bad thing. We went from power to the people, to disinformation becoming a problem so harmful that we needed a ministry of truth to counteract it.
Unlike finance, tech doesn’t play both sides of the political aisle. This means it is vulnerable to antitrust actions from both the left and right. For example, Elizabeth Warren is happy to go after tech because she can score political points with the populist left. She knows that tech is primarily center-left, and so she doesn’t have to worry about tech running to the right side of the aisle. Even though Republicans are pro-business, they aren’t pro-tech due to real or imagined slights, such as Hunter Biden’s New York Post story getting censored by Twitter and Facebook. For example, you can see Clarence Thomas’s scathing opinion around big tech here.
None of this is to say tech is entirely without fault. For example, Google in the past has helped the PLA with technology development, while at the same time, backing out from Project Maven, a project to help military drones identify civilians for the US military.
Since the pandemic, tech has fought back against the media class. Balaji has advocated “going direct” with reckless abandon, meaning build your own distribution and tell your own stories. Corporate media is a direct competitor, the logic goes, so they should have a disclaimer around their conflict of interest. There is no neutral view from which they can “hold tech accountable”. After all, who holds them accountable?
Mike Solana has also gone direct, willing to stand up for tech. In another interview on Works in Progress he outlines his case for why tech needs to stand up for itself, which I’ll use to close the piece with:
“The question of what Tech could have done differently is a really interesting one. I think that people in the technology industry are very bad at two things: One, telling their stories in an exciting but not cheesy way; And two, defending themselves when they’re maliciously attacked in bad faith.
Fixing the first piece presents a difficult question: How do you tell a story about yourself that is compelling? For a long time, Tech didn’t and we got away with it because our products were just so good. It doesn’t really matter what stories you’re telling about Uber; everybody just wants to use it. It’s harder now in the midst of an aggressive negative media narrative about how evil we are.
It’s also challenging because Tech companies are different. For each one, there’s a distinct successful story about how people have had their lives improved. On some level, telling that story is just a matter of marketing, and each company will have its own journey.
To the second piece, the higher-level narrative we’re fighting is that Tech is actually evil. While I think the average American is not stupid enough to believe that, it’s hard as an employee in Tech to hear the media saying this all the time and not just feel depressed about it. So I would love to see a lot more founders taking on a little more risk in defending themselves publicly.
The media is constantly spreading misinformation about Tech. I think that there should be aggressive corrections whenever that happens. Whenever the media ascribes motivations to Tech that are not true or malicious, it needs to be corrected. The clap-backs need to happen stronger and faster, and I think everyone in Tech should also defend each other. When Mark Zuckerberg is being maliciously attacked, I think a lot of other CEOs are just ducking and hoping that they’re not hit next. We should all be standing up and defending each other.
But more often than not, the average Tech person is not on the side of the media. They just don’t want to get caught in the cross-hairs themselves, which is completely reasonable if you don’t have much power or influence. But if you have power and influence, you have to stand up and say, “No, we’re building companies that are good for the world. We are building products that are helping people. We are creating value in a way. And these anti-Tech journalists aren’t.” We have a lot to be proud of. I think that we have to just start owning that.”
Thanks to Will and Balaji