Aarti Shah 05 May 2020 // 5:52PM GMT
It’s been three months since PRovoke Media, in partnership with Ruder Finn, had a conversation around techlash at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. The question, at the time, was: how can technology empower humanity. In those days, protecting humanity meant reducing digital addiction, stopping misinformation, securing privacy, and being a good corporate citizen and employer.
Those issues are still relevant, that hasn't changed. Humanity, however, has fundamentally changed and that's completely altered the conversation around 'techlash'. We reconnected with the panelists from the January discussion, and others, to ask them the same question, now against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
‘People are looking to big tech’
“How you measure a company's success I think has to change,” Lightspeed Venture's founding partner Barry Eggers said at the Four Seasons. He pointed to Facebook and Google’s astronomically ballooning market caps, despite growing consumer backlash. “Do I think behavior change is going to happen? No.”
Eggers was right, the companies didn’t change. We did. As Covid-19 ravages through our population and economy, we’ve relied on technology for survival. Numerous publications — Wired, The Verge, The Economist, among others — have asked the question in recent weeks: has coronavirus killed techlash?
“People are looking for the big tech behemoths to help get us out of this,” Eggers said when we revisited this conversation in late April. For instance, last month Google and Apple announced a joint effort to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus. The effort has been mired with questions, but contact tracing is considered a critical factor in re-opening the economy. “We can keep printing money but the only thing that helps us get out is to keep employing people, help people get back to work.”
Another panelist, Sarah Frier, a reporter who covers social media at Bloomberg recently published No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. In January, she noted how companies like Facebook prioritize shareholder value. “Facebook is reporting earnings and it’s the same story every year — they are expecting record profits, record revenues,” she said. “They talk about how their profit margin might be impacted by the amount they are spending on improving the way they monitor content. But it’s not to the extent they are spending on trying to figure out what the next big business model is.”
Turns out that the new model found them. Last month, Frier tweeted: “It turns out we really need social media when we're stuck at home. Snap says it's not just the chatting we're into — we're tuning into more of their shows and using more of their AR filters and games, too. Stock is up.”
Social media usage has spiked during the pandemic. A few months ago, there was a movement for abandoning or minimizing time on social networks, now these platforms have become a salvation for people hungry for social connection.
“Through this pandemic, technology has taken on a new role – a lifeline,” said HP CCO Karen Kahn, who also appeared on January's panel. “Whether it is PCs to keep our kids learning and all of us working, to displays and tech accessories to help create home offices, to video conferencing technology to keep us connected or 3D printed parts to support critical PPE production. Tech has become the glue that is connecting us in this ‘new normal.’ When the pandemic abates, I only hope we can hold onto that good feeling about tech. Our industry will need stronger consumer support for a recovery.”
‘Tech is an essential worker’
The technology sector often has its best reputation as an employer, especially for its knowledge-workers. Generous compensation packages, humane parental leave policies, uncomplicated flexibility — these benefits mostly began with technology companies and have since rippled into other sectors.
That’s not to say the tech sector hasn’t been challenged by employees who are calling out toxic work cultures and other issues. But at a moment when more than 30 million are unemployed, some technology companies have been a bright spot during a bleak economic forecast. Google continues to hire for some of its 600 openings in the Bay Area, Salesforce has more than 2,000 open positions and is prioritizing hiring those impacted by Covid-19 through a referral program, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“When you look at data for who’s the most trusted source of information, it is your employer. It’s a really big deal for us,” Kahn said in January. When asked how to maximize employee happiness at work, she added, “I think it’s about creating a culture that values them, that recognizes their work, with an honest and authentic work environment, that honors them and makes them feel creative.”
More recently, Kahn noted that amid this crisis “tech is an essential worker. I don’t think anyone is thinking about techlash – unless you are like me and spend entirely too much time videoconferencing."
The tech sector, of course, hasn’t been immune to the economic devastation happening around us. Just last week, Lyft announced it would laying off 17% of its workforce, among reductions at many other companies. But there are also examples of layoffs being handled with notable humanity. Carta CEO Henry Ward shared his empathetic layoff announcement in hopes that “it will help other CEOs as they think about their layoff programs.” Among one of the most powerful paragraphs in the email was this one, taking full responsibility for the impending fallout:
It is important that all of you know I personally reviewed every list and every person. If you are one of those affected it is because I decided it. Your manager did not. For the majority of you it was quite the contrary. Your manager fought to keep you and I overrode them. They are blameless. If today is your last day, there is only one person to blame and it is me.
Carta was also notable for its generous severance package that included three months of pay regardless of tenure and coverage of COBRA health insurance payments until the end of the year. Carta is among the portfolio companies at Lightspeed Ventures. Eggers says many companies in similar positions are looking to provide comparable packages.
“No one caused this,” Eggers said. “Most of these companies were doing fine, so there’s a general feeling that CEOs feel terrible. And it’s important how they treat their departing employees. It’s never been a better time to be human.”
“How tech companies respond today, and how they treat their employees, suppliers, hourly temporary workers, will be remembered for decades to come – how many PR students today still read the Tylenol case study from close to 40 years ago?” said Lisa Boughner, VP of global communications at the search company Elastic.
“Tech sector employers who had put employees first prior to Covid-19 continue to set the bar after Covid-19,” said Robin Kim, who heads Ruder Finn’s global technology & innovation practice and also appeared on the January panel.
She added, a recent Ruder Finn survey of 10,000 US employees revealed the majority feel “fully confident” their employers are looking out for them. The tech sector was also among the first to send employees home — beating government-mandated Shelter in Place orders, perhaps contributing to San Francisco’s early success in flattening the curve.
‘This is an unprecedented social experiment'
Instagram has taken a hit for its role in "narcissism culture" with its highly-curated and manicured feed. The company, owned by Facebook, recently took action in removing ‘likes’ in some markets to help mitigate the never-ending aspiration for those coveted clicks. This small gesture, however, doesn't change how much Instagram has altered the way we move through the world. For instance, long before the pandemic, many hotels, restaurants and other venues created Instagram-friendly backdrops in hopes of making it into people's feeds.
“When you look around you and into the world, you can see the impact of Instagram in a way that you can’t necessarily see the impact of Facebook or Twitter because it’s very visual and very much about striving for that relevance in society,” Frier said.
Now, however, people are more commonly posting pictures of themselves not under neon pink signs but against the dull glow of their living room lights.
Julie Albright recently published Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream and also appeared on the panel. She said before the pandemic, young people were increasingly untethering their lives from traditional institutions and instead fastening their existences to digital personas — and paying a price with increased anxiety and depression.
“Now a good part of the globe is practicing social distancing and is suddenly and unexpectedly ‘living untethered,’" she said. "And calls to mental health hotlines are up over 800% as a result. So this is an unprecedented social experiment at scale, in a sense where we are seeing the impacts of being disconnected from one another. It’s really a pivotal moment.”
‘The momentum driving these issues has diminished’
Let’s go back to the original question: can technology, with all of its complexity and complications, truly be a force that enables humanity? Can we even know this as the coronavirus' ultimate impact on society and human psychology is still in progress?
“Covid-19 doesn’t make any of the issues driving techlash less valid, but the momentum driving these issues has diminished,” Ruder Finn’s Kim said. “Tech companies will need to use this time to reset their relationship with their users. If not, the government will do it for them afterwards. Interdependence in solving problems together at scale, versus finger-pointing, will also be a mindset we will need to keep as we emerge and reset from the pandemic.”
There’s a number of ways that tech companies have contributed during this crisis. Microsoft created a 'Plasma Bot' to help recruit donors from those with Covid-19 antibodies, 3D printing company Carbon is working with its partners to produce Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) face shields and patient sampling swabs, Facebook is pushing high-quality information from organizations like CDC and WHO, among other examples.
Boomi, a Dell Technologies business, recently launched a free ‘chatbot’ that helps nonprofit, healthcare and education teams provide timely and accurate information to their constituents. Within 10 days of launch, more than 150 organizations were using the technology.
“This was developed in 6 days, and developed after we received more than 100 suggestions, from employees, about how we could use Boomi’s technology for good,” said Emma McCulloch, head of global PR for Boomi. “If technology companies have the means to help, they should set an example," she added.
Just as we thought techlash was, perhaps, on pause, a new crop of issues are emerging. Already, Zoom — seemingly the technology winner of this pandemic — has been hammered for security issues and more recently the existential problem of ‘Zoom fatigue.’ Technology has enabled many to continue working, but for some, especially those juggling rivaling responsibilities right now, these platforms have pushed them to the brink of burnout. As of Saturday night, there were about 26,900 results for “Zoom fatigue” on Google News.
“The techlash conversation will no doubt continue as a big chunk of the population now working from home for the first time realize how overwhelming the potential to work around the clock really is,” said Geraldine Lim, global PR co-lead at SAP Procurement Solutions. “Work boundaries are being broken around the world. But I do think the tech industry will come out of this pandemic in a better position because of the diversity of creative solutions being created and offered.”