Jun 11, 2020 - Technology

Tech giants' life cycles shape their crisis responses

Illustration of a cursor in the shape of a first next to a normal cursor pointing

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the big five tech giants face a trifecta of crises over pandemic disruptions, government investigations, and protests against racial inequality, their ages and life stages are shaping their responses.

Between the lines: Companies have life cycles that mirror those of people. And like people, they handle stress in different ways at different stages of maturity.

The big picture: Tech companies recruit and motivate workers with promises of wealth and missions to improve the world. Now, when U.S. society is focused on the painful realities of inequality and injustice, those two projects look more incompatible than ever.

Facebook — founded in 2004 — is dealing with this dilemma like someone in their late adolescence or 20s, still figuring out its identity.

  • Only recently has Facebook begun to understand just how much power it has through its control of one of the world's largest online platforms.
  • It's bewildered when others try to hold it accountable for muddled choices and ethical misfires.
  • As employees have begun to protest the company's policies, Facebook has seemed more interested in keeping its options open than in taking difficult stands.

Google — founded in 1998 — acts like someone in their 30s, beginning to question the future.

  • It over-achieved as a youngster but now, as its passion to "organize the world's information" becomes more of a maintenance task, it's beginning to wonder what's next.
  • YouTube, Google's massive video platform, faces the same misinformation and bias controversies as Facebook — and the parent company is bracing itself for likely monopolistic-behavior charges this summer.
  • "Don't be evil," the youthful Google's keep-it-real motto, feels like a cruel taunt now. Today's powerful Google can't take a single step without considering a far more modest injunction — "first, do no harm."

Amazon — founded in 1995 — behaves like someone in their 40s, feeling the weight of multiple burdens.

  • The online retail giant was already facing complex labor challenges when the pandemic turned its delivery business into an essential lifeline for many American families, prompting it to raise some pay and hire 175,000 additional workers.
  • Meanwhile, the company's Amazon Web Services subsidiary forms the technical backbone for countless other online service providers.
  • Amazon is now a company with a vast portfolio of responsibilities, some of which — like the health of its warehouse workers — it's being criticized for neglecting.

Apple — founded in 1977 — has the questions and doubts of someone in their 50s, as it wonders whether it can add another transformational act to a lifetime of achievement.

  • Despite its midlife comeback with the iPhone's success, the company has never found a way to reconcile the revolutionary aspirations of its "1984"-ad youth with the reality of its latter-day wealth and power.
  • CEO Tim Cook has walked a difficult line between public statements embracing diversity and social justice while continuing to meet with Trump and engage with the administration when possible.
  • Apple, perhaps more than any of its rivals, could take big risks in rethinking how a tech giant can stop fueling and start fighting inequality. Some fans and employees are waiting to see how far the company will go.

Microsoft — founded in 1976 — now plays the role of tech's 60-something grandparent, setting some examples while knowing that it can't dictate the future.

  • The company fought its own stubborn battles in its arrogant youth, and today lives off the fruits of valuable investments made long ago.
  • It has been wise enough to embrace some of its old enemies, like open-source software development.
  • Neither its employees nor its customers are up in arms, but the company may wonder if that's because it's doing a great job or the world just doesn't care that much.

The bottom line: Big tech's giants all face the same problem: They're massive concentrations of power and wealth who have all positioned themselves in their own and employees' minds as agents of change.

  • Each company will choose its own path across this maze, but right now there's no guarantee any of them will find a way out.
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