Now that the problems have been exposed, maybe we can finally fix them
Every year, around this time, I like to share something that happened in tech that has made me thankful. It's usually a piece of technology that has improved our lives or a positive trend in the industry.
This year, it's different. Something has changed in the last 12 months or so; there's been a definite shift in how people look at tech. It's almost impossible to ignore everything that's happened in the tech world in the past year and what that means for the industry going forward.
Look all that has happened in 2018: from Elon Musk's Twitter antics, which have hurt Tesla's stock price, and which also might get him into legal trouble, to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which has completely eroded public trust in companies like Google and Facebook, to the recent announcement of Amazon's new headquarters in New York City, which has people from both sides of the aisle calling foul, there seems to be some kind of reckoning going on right now with one of America's largest, and most influential, industries.
While this is bad news for all of these companies in the short term, it doesn't have to be a bad thing in the long term, if they play their cards right. Facebook and Google still have a chance to right these wrongs and to regain public trust. That window probably isn't going to be lost, but it is there, if they can take advantage of it.
That's why I'm thankful that tech has lost a bit of its luster in 2018, because it might be the very thing that saves the industry from itself.
The promise of tech versus the reality
The promise of technology is now, as it always has been, that it will improve our lives, making things more convenient, freeing us up to do more of what we want to do, rather than spending time on menial tasks.
Companies like Google and Wikipedia, for example, were built on the premise of bringing information to the web, making it faster and easier to gain knowledge about any subject. Facebook and Twitter were created to connect us, to bring people together from across the world, fostering greater relationships. Amazon was supposed to make buying a seamless, and cheaper, experience, enhancing the retail experience.
These promises were, and remain, so enticing to people that it seems like they were willing to overlook some of the glaring problems for longer than they should have.
For example, think about how few people seemed to question the idea of Google deciding what we would and would not see when we searched. It would stand to reason that a company with as many interests as Google has, which encompasses basically the entire internet, might be tempted to promote its own products while suppressing competitors. Of course, that's exactly what it did and it was fined $5 billion by the European Union earlier this year. But it took decades for that to really come to the forefront.
Suddenly, it seems like these potential problems we chose to ignore for so long are finally coming to the forefront.
Facebook's very bad 2018
No company embodies the idea of the chickens coming home to roost in 2018 better than Facebook.
The company's woes started in 2016, with accusations over how its platform was used and exploited during the U.S. presidential election, with revelations about how the Russians had used the platform to try to interfere in the 2016 election by swaying public opinion through fake ads, paid in Rubles no less, centered around social issues, including gay marriage and gun control.
Facebook's 2018 started even worse, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which pointed a harsh light on how Facebook, as well as others, including Twitter and Google, were handling their data. The data of 87 million Facebook users was said to have been affected, causing CEO Mark Zuckerberg to be hauled in front of Congress to answer questions about how the company handled its data, and how it was going to prevent such misuse from happening again.
That was followed by another data breach, which was said to have touched 90 million Facebook users.
Most damning of all, though, was a recent report from the New York Times, in which Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg are accused of actively covering up the extent of Russia's interference into the election cycle and to discredit its critics. That included hiring a Republican opposition-research firm to link protesters to George Soros.
There are now serious calls for Zuckerberg to step down as chairman of Facebook, if not also as CEO.
Where do we go from here?
Why, you may be asking, am I thankful for all of this? Obviously, none of this seems like very good news. However, there's a potential silver lining to all of this: now that the problems are out in the open, there is an opportunity to fix them.
The solution for Google and Facebook to get the trust back is transparency, especially when it comes to data. People want to know what it's being used for and what exactly these companies know about them. While there will still be some who will not like it, they will have a chance to opt out; there's also the fact that studies have shown that people are willing to give up their own data if they feel like they are getting value back for it. No matter what, the better option for long term success is always to be open about such things.
There may be some hard choices that need to be made in the short term, including some changes in leadership that may have seemed unthinkable a few years ago, but, in the end, it may prove that this dark chapter for tech was the best thing that ever happened to it.