As the techlash continues to gather momentum, and as legislators in Washington and Brussels start to sharpen their pencils, I have one request of them; don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sure there are issues with technology and how technology companies are behaving – the social media giants are not exactly covering themselves in glory at the moment - but an over course correction that dilutes innovation, stifles competitive behaviors and handicaps disruption across all technologies would be an historic mistake which could undermine the west’s medium to long term future. New York’s anti-Amazon move is one such mistake. At a time when the future of work is being built around the world and rests on the new tools and techniques we see emerging in the businesses my company works with every day, a turn against technology runs the risk of waving this future goodbye.
This view was brought home to me very vividly recently at IBM’s Think Conference in San Francisco. During the course of three days I met with over 500 people from every corner of the globe who are using new technology to improve healthcare, education, transportation, the environment, and disaster relief efforts in their parts of the world. A team of young people from Pittsburgh were working on a low cost solution to quickly deploy Wi-Fi into an emergency zone when normal communication systems have gone down, and authorities can’t co-ordinate rescue efforts. An executive from a bank in Uganda was putting in place Blockchain to create a quick, easy, and affordable banking infrastructure for a country that doesn’t have one. A professor from Vietnam was developing an online learning platform that could allow young people in rural areas to get access to an education which currently is completely unimaginable to them.
All of these people, and the many, many more I met with, were full of energy, enthusiasm and passion to use technology to make their societies better, their organizations better, their own lives better. Many of them had flown for 18 hours (in coach) to be in San Francisco to learn, to network, to be inspired. Instead it was I who was inspired.
Tech in the west is now in what Gartner call the “trough of disillusionment” - the reaction to a period of overinflated hype and techno-utopian mumbo jumbo - in which cynics and skeptics, and ordinary everyday people cry out that the Emperor has no clothes. In part this pendulum swing is self-inflicted. Some technology companies have behaved badly. Sometimes simply to try things on the “bleeding edge”, sometimes for less honorable reasons (doing anything to drive growth and satisfy investors), the mantra of “moving fast and breaking things” has abused customer trust and failed to fully consider the consequences of what might have seemed like a cool idea.
But we should recognize that this bad behavior has actually been confined to a small number of companies operating in one quite specialized part of the technology arena; social media. Really what people are upset about - understandably and quite rightly - is social media companies that have created a new public square but then showed little interest in maintaining order and good behavior there. As long as people have shown up, what happens is none of our business the logic has been. Legislators will be quite right to say that can’t go on - and that “platforms” do bear a responsibility for what happens in these new modern forums.
However, in doing that, legislators need to be able to distinguish between that part of society and the economy, and others. Technology companies haven’t abused trust in supply chain management, in medical device manufacturing, in deploying smart connected cars, in creating entertainment options that a decade ago would have seemed mind-boggling. Technology is at the heart of flying, of shopping, of communicating with our friends and family and colleagues, of the healthcare we receive. And how do people feel about those technologies? Fine - better than fine in fact; we love them. Try prying the phone out of the hands of a teenager using Spotify. Or a senior playing Words with Friends. You can’t!
The people I met with in San Francisco - a veritable United Nations of Tech - are using incredible new inventions - artificial intelligence, augmented reality, quantum computing, Kubernetes - to build a better world. Whether it’s in Bolivia or Croatia or Kenya or France, the people who I talked with are not baddies trying to do anyone ill. They’re ordinary people who know that technology is 100% central to the future of their work.
So, senators, congressmen and women, members of parliament, members of the commission, don’t forget what is at stake here. Sure, let’s stop bad behavior and bad actors where we can. Let’s put the rules of the road in place for the Information Superhighway. But let’s not overdo it and regulate things that don’t need to be regulated. The next waves of growth and opportunity - for everyone - will come from smart technologies that continue to unfold. And smart management by those with a hand on the tiller.