Stories

Tech conversation's big shift

illustration of “tech conversation” as a song being skipped
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The tech industry, long accustomed to seizing the spotlight by unveiling innovations and winning applause with product launches, is adjusting to a new kind of conversation — one that's full of doubts and questions about its wares.

Why it matters: With public criticism mounting and regulatory pressure rising, companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon can choose to participate in the critical dialogue — or circle the wagons and fight.

Driving the news: The Code Conference, held last week, is perhaps the industry's highest-profile gathering, and in years past, the event was where tech executives would announce their latest gadget or service.

The big picture: Tech's conversation is also changing because more kinds of people are participating.

  • For a long time, the dialogue was dominated by the companies themselves. The rest of the world served as consumers.
  • With concerns over privacy breaches, tech's effect on democracy and the impact of smartphones, that's all changing. Politicians, pundits and researchers aren't willing to cede the floor to CEOs and tech visionaries.

The new conversation is increasingly multifaceted, involving privacy advocates, regulators, elected officials and consumer groups.

  • Congress has held hearings into free speech concerns, online misinformation and the prospects for journalism in the digital era.
  • Privacy legislation hasn't moved as quickly as expected last winter, but remains a strong possibility.
  • Politicians and candidates are proposing breaking up big tech companies, and both the FTC and the Justice Department are considering broad antitrust inquiries into the industry.
  • New groups like the Center for Humane Technology have emerged and held events aimed at looking at how tech addiction is affecting our lives.

Even within the industry, the dialogue has shifted. Apple, for example, has made privacy a key selling point of its own products and attacked others for their business models and practices.

  • CEO Tim Cook delivered a blistering attack on his competitors this past weekend, as part of a commencement speech at Stanford.
  • "If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold and even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data," he said. "We lose the freedom to be human."

Yes, but: There are still plenty of tech enthusiasts and lots of venues devoted exclusively to product launches.

  • Consider all the excitement about Libra, the cryptocurrency that Facebook announced on Monday. Even there, though, interest in the technology was tempered by concerns over Facebook's role.
  • The tech world has also shifted toward launching products either at big trade shows like CES and the recent E3 or at companies' own dedicated events. There was plenty of interest in the products at Apple's recent developer conference, for example.
  • The tech community also got excited over leaks about Google's upcoming Pixel 4. Google even upped the ante, tweeting its own real photo of the rear camera array from its official hardware account.

The bottom line: Once tech took such a central role in our lives and culture, it was inevitable that it would spark wider conversations — and sharper criticism.