Technology industry

There is no “tech industry”

The label has become too big to be useful, and the technology could suffer.

Fast: What do a car leasing supplier, a condiment company and the producers of a serious television series have in common? If your answer is “almost nothing”, then you are right. If your answer is “they have such similar roles in society that they should be regulated and reported in the same way”, then congratulations – you still believe that “the tech industry” exists.

Uber is provide predatory risk leases to its drivers via its subsidiary Xchange. Mayonnaise Startup (yes, 🙄) Hampton Creek is under investigation by the SEC for buy your own mayonnaise. Amazon goes with companies like HBO with a prestige series like Transparent. And absurdly, we expect lawmakers, the media, and average consumers to understand these vastly different offerings — and countless others ranging from mattresses to medical tests — as part of one infinitely complex industry.

It’s an impossible task and the wrong way to think about the role of technology in society. Perpetuating the myth of a monolithic “tech industry” overloads our ability to manage the changes that technology brings to society, and this overload threatens to have increasingly negative impacts.

Once upon a time, it made perfect sense to talk about the “high-tech industry” in America – pioneering companies like Intel or Fairchild Semiconductor or IBM or Hewlett Packard made computer processors and related hardware, and most Silicon Valley companies dealt with real silicon from time to time. These companies offered competing products that shared a market, a set of customers, and sometimes even had employees in common when talent moved from one company to another.

But today, the major players in what’s called “the tech industry” are huge conglomerates that routinely encompass everything from semiconductor factories to high-end retail stores to production studios. Hollywood style. Business newbies can work on anything from cleaning your laundry to creating drones. There’s no way to cram all of these different types of products and services into a cohesive bucket now that they encompass the entire business world.


Everything eats everyone

It is no wonder that those who follow the challenges of today’s media environment more closely believe that “covering the tech sector presents one of the most profound accountability challenges in modern journalism” — what a journalist could Credibly move from covering Apple’s water consumption in its new data center to assessing whether fashionistas will embrace the latest Hermès-branded Apple Watch accessory?

The danger is not just that a blogger does not know how to review the latest gadgets. Simply put, all industry and all sectors of society are powered by technology today and transformed by the choices made by technologists. Marc Andreessen said that “software eats the worldbut it’s much more accurate to say that the neoliberal values ​​of the software tycoons are eating the world. Peter Thiel is everything to Donald Trump, who has publicly suggested replacing our military’s digital communications with human couriers carrying paper missives.

Similarly, it is easier to understand Uber as a machine for converting state-planned metropolitan transit systems into privately-controlled automated dispatch systems; the fact that an app is used to make this transition is almost incidental to the overarching goal of owning a market. And what does a company like Uber have in common with a social platform like Pinterest, except that both employ coders who know how to create iPhone apps? Little precious.

But why a “technology industry” evil?

“So what?” you ask. Sure, tech companies have become complex conglomerates, but why does it matter what we call the industry as a whole? The reason is simple: a reductive name for the industry hides a huge set of social challenges that we need to address quickly. Mature industries develop their own regulatory frameworks, their own self-regulatory systems, and their own standards for monitoring transgressions within the industry. Today, technology as an industry is almost completely lacking in all of these areas.

When the financial crisis happened in 2008, we knew that banks and other financial institutions were part of an industry for which we had created a regulatory and administrative framework, even if this infrastructure was unfortunately not prepared to handle the task. We can criticize the way the SEC reacted to the financial crisis, but what would it have looked like if we didn’t even have had an ECS? This is the situation we could find ourselves in as soon as the financial arms of technology companies continue to present themselves as technology rather than financeeven as Uber configures Xchange to make it a new era GMAC.

When we see a company like Theranos grow from a widely acclaimed medical technology pioneer to a investigated in a criminal investigation for misrepresenting its products, one of the reasons the scam was able to persist for so long was that the company, its founder, and its investors all shielded themselves under the cultural cover of being a glamorous member of “the ‘technology industry’ rather than a prosaic supplier doctor.

It also helps to spread technology’s well-known gaps in inclusion and diversity into new areas. Today, companies described as tech startups do everything from making mayonnaise to making grilled cheese sandwiches to delivering pizza. But given that companies ranging from AirBNB to Uber have relied on their status as “tech companies” to systematically circumvent troublesome laws in every new city they enter, we can expect at least any of these food companies entering the market as part of the “tech industry” will also find the sanitation and inspection rules too onerous and use their tech status to evade health regulations.


So what is the answer? The first place to start may simply be to be in more specific language about the companies that shape our society. Rather than accepting that a company like Facebook, which knows more about our personal lives than any entity that has ever existed, is simply “tech,” we should talk about it as an information broker, as a government surveillance agent, as a media publisher, as a producer of unmanned drones, or in any other specific description that will assign appropriate responsibility and context to their actions. Should Facebook be regulated like an airline if it eventually develops a fleet of flying planes? Perhaps! Or maybe not! But we should let the experts in this field make the decision – and that will only happen if we talk about the business as it is.

Likewise, when we talk about a young company, simply describing it as “a tech startup” is not a meaningful signifier. Every new business in existence relies on technology, so we have to be diligent in labeling a mayonnaise business as a condiment supplier, lest we allow it to end up with a “tech industry” type economy that drives it to nonsense like the secret wholesale purchase of aioli.

All it takes is a little discipline in how we communicate. The way we talk to each other, to our legislators, to the media – each of these small changes will affect how we think about the impact tech companies have on the world. There is no doubt that technology itself can have a hugely positive impact. But to be sure, we may need to dismantle the idea that technology is created or supported by a “tech industry” in the first place.


This piece is part of my ongoing series on human technologya discussion of how we can bring the necessary ethical and social reforms to technology.