"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“The problem is not to use technology but to realize that one is used by it.”- Paul Virilio
Once a term gets widely adopted by the press, and earns itself a space in dictionaries, it becomes challenging to argue that the thing the term stands for does not really exist.
At least this is the case with the “techlash.” A term which is everywhere, even as the thing that it names can be a bit trickier to pin down.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary “techlash” is a noun meaning “a strong negative feeling among a group of people in reaction to modern technology and the behavior of big technology companies.” The term seems to have first been used in 2013 in the pages of The Economist by Adrian Wooldridge in an article titled “The coming tech-lash”—which was something of a warning that the outrage that had manifested itself in the form of the Occupy movement would eventually come to train its ire on the rich and powerful of Silicon Valley. And while the term enjoyed rather limited popular uptake at first, as 2017 came to a close The Economist was predicting that the “techlash” was “coming”—and between the Cambridge Analytica scandal and tech executives being unhappily dragged before Congress, 2018 certainly seemed to be the year that the “techlash” arrived. At the start of 2018, Axios was covering the “‘techlash’ warning” and saying “The techlash has just begun,” in 2019 The Wall Street Journal was embracing the term as official shorthand for “the increasingly sharp rebukes of Facebook, Google and others,” in 2020 the New York Times was arguing that the “techlash” had hit college campuses and that “bright-eyed students” were no longer viewing the major tech companies as “dream workplaces.” The “techlash” term was everywhere! And then in 2021, Axios was already suggesting that “The techlash is a bust”—sure some of the companies had taken a bit of a reputational hit, but their profits were still great, and they had pretty much escaped any meaningful legislation. Granted, long before Axios could call it “a bust” there had been some who were skeptical of the term.
Nevertheless, though it may be that many tech companies escaped the “techlash” fairly unscathed, it seems that discussions around technology still cannot escape the term “techlash.” The word still pops up frequently when the tech companies are criticized, is still mentioned by critics of technology, and continues to set many of the parameters for debate and discussion. Which makes this as good a time as any to consider what the “techlash” was, what it currently is, and what it represents as a framework moving forward. The following theses are presented in that spirit.
The “tech” in techlash does not stand for “technology”
In current discussions, when people write or speak of “tech” they are very rarely using the term as an abbreviation for “technology.” Rather, “tech” generally refers to something more specific, namely: information technologies (those with computing at their core, that are generally connected in some form to the internet). Granted, the term “tech” rarely even refers to information technologies (as such), instead the term is frequently just a stand in to describe a handful of companies and the devices/platforms for which they are known. Or, to put it more clearly, when the term “tech” is used it generally refers to Meta or Amazon or Apple, as opposed to computers or the internet (or technology more broadly). Go visit the “Tech” section on a website like Gizmodo, or The Verge, or even The New York Times and you will find the section overwhelmingly populated with reporting that focuses either explicitly on, or orbits around, major companies and their executives. “Tech” is more of a shorthand for “the tech sector” than it is a shorthand for “technology,” even as our broader conversations about “technology” come to act as though only what passes for “tech” can be counted as “technology.”
And this contemporary use meaning of “tech” should be kept in mind when considering the term “techlash.” For the “techlash” is not a backlash against technology itself, it isn’t even really much of a backlash against information technology itself, rather the “techlash” is more narrowly a backlash against particular companies, their devices/platforms, and their executives. Thus, the Cambridge definition gets it half right by emphasizing “big technology companies,” but is rather off in its emphasis on “modern technology.” Certainly, the “techlash” has raised issues about matters like algorithmic bias, privacy, and misinformation—but when these issues come up as part of the “techlash” they are generally framed in reference to the companies being faulted for exacerbating these problems instead of being seen as problems inherent to the technologies themselves. In other words, the “techlash” alludes to frustration with how Meta and Alphabet and TikTok and [insert company of your own choosing here] have made use of computing technologies, but almost never suggests that perhaps the problem has something to do with computing technologies.
The significance of this is that it means that the “techlash” is a space in which it is possible to criticize various companies (as well as their devices and platforms) while retaining a hopeful adoration towards the underlying technologies. The “techlash” permits criticism of Meta’s metaverse even as one can remain quite intrigued by the idea of AR/VR, the “techlash” allows for disparagement of how little Spotify pays musicians even as one can remain appreciative of having access to a massive quantity of streaming content, the “techlash” can soak up an ocean of negative statements about this or that company and this or that platform but it maintains a space wherein it is still anathema to suggest that we have overly invested our hopes in the power of information technologies. In works that take a critical stance towards technology it is common for the author to make a defensive comment in which they state that they personally love technology and the internet, they just have some pointed observations to make about this or that company—and that sentiment is the leitmotif of the “techlash.”
Despite what its name might suggest, the “techlash” is an oddly technophilic response to technological problems, it preserves the love for the underlying technologies by directing all of the blame at a handful of companies that are charged with mishandling the adored technologies. Which is why it is important to remember that the “tech” in “techlash” doesn’t actually stand for “technology.”
By focusing on the present, the “techlash” conveniently forgets the past
A funny thing happened around 2016, suddenly everyone had always been an impassioned critic of tech. Wherever you looked scholars, reporters, and politicians were going out of their way to not only express anger with the tech giants, they were also acting as though they had never gotten caught up in all of the hype and hope that had surrounded these companies. Suddenly everyone had always known that Zuckerberg couldn’t be trusted, everyone had always known that Theranos and WeWork were too good to be true, everyone had always seen through the claims about how social media would usher in an era of (small d) democratic triumph, and everyone had always been very concerned about the quality of information (and how it flowed) across internet platforms. All of the magazine covers featuring tech executives standing in triumphant poses, all of the editorials oozing with praise for how this or that company was transforming the world for the better, every piece suggesting that slothful democratic institutions needed to adopt the “move fast and break things” ethos—were quickly forgotten. Amidst a moment when the utopian veneer chipped away to reveal the tech companies for what they really were, few people wanted to admit that they had ever fallen for the facade.
There was a time, not that long ago, when if you dared to criticize any particular tech company you would find yourself derided as a technophobic Luddite who just wanted everyone to go back to living in caves. And then a moment came in which many of those who had previously denounced others as technophobic Luddites started to claim that they in fact had always been the ones weathering slings and arrows for their heretical willingness to speak out against tech.
The point here is not to name or shame any particular individual, or publication, or users of a certain platform. Instead, the point is to emphasize that it is worth remembering how “tech” was covered and how “tech” was talked about prior to the “techlash.” And if you look back you will see that many of the tech companies received coverage that ran the gamut from laudatory to worshipful. The tech companies were hailed not only as the companies of the future, but as the companies that were creating the future, and that the future they were creating would be a better one for all parties involved. According to much of the coverage the tech companies were going to connect everyone, make everything affordable, provide access to a library of content containing everything, make elected officials more accountable, break down informational and educational boundaries, solve inequality by providing access to digital tools—and they were going to do it all while turning a sizable profit that would reward their investors. And when things went wrong in those halcyon days? Such stumbles were just attributed to growing too fast, or youthful blunders, or they were papered over with assurances that the company meant well.
To understand the idea of the “techlash” it is necessary to recognize the gap between what was promised and what was delivered. The problem, however, is that many of the discussions around the “techlash” tend to forget what had been promised, and the volume at which those things had been promised. In the era of the “techlash” it may have become somewhat fashionable to direct scorn towards Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, but there is not much remembrance of the many years during which it was decidedly unfashionable to criticize Zuckerberg and Facebook. And it is also largely forgotten that Zuckerberg had legions of adoring helpers (many of them in activist spaces, the academy, and the press) who were eagerly promoting his, and his company’s, vision of the future. Many people seem a bit embarrassed these days to admit how hopeful they had once felt about the various tech companies, and the danger here is that this is starting to verge on a sort of denial. Yet the very term “techlash” suggests a sort of reaction, which requires a consideration of what the reaction is to. Yes, some of the “techlash” gets at a reaction to specific actions and misdeeds by the various tech companies, but more foundational than this is a deep sense of disappointment between the future people thought the tech companies were creating and the reality of what they actually created.
The “techlash” refers to a moment not a movement
While the term “techlash” has certainly made its way into discussions around tech, a word that hasn’t made many inroads is “techlasher.” The truth is that there just isn’t really a word that is used to describe participants in the “techlash.” On the one hand, this means that there isn’t a ready made epithet for technological-optimists to reach for as they blast those participating in the “techlash.” On the other hand, it means that there also isn’t an identifying banner under which those who see themselves as advocates of the “techlash” can gather. Granted, the reason for this is pretty straightforward: the “techlash” does not refer to, or name, a social movement, rather it seeks to put a title on a particular moment in time. There has been no real need to assign a name to the participants in the “techlash,” because the “techlash” doesn’t refer to specific people but refers to a widely distributed attitude throughout the larger society.
To be clear, there is a great deal of important activism in and around the tech sector going on—and much of this activism pre-dates the “techlash.” There are activists championing privacy protections and battling surveillance, those pushing back against algorithmic bias, plenty of movements amongst tech-workers that seek to challenge the tech companies from within, computer scientists and ethicists speaking out about AI, groups oriented around the right to repair, those pushing for (and actually doing the work of) inclusive design, and a host of different causes that often attract the attention of hackers. There should be no doubt that there is a great deal of activism in and around the tech sector, with much of that activism being clearly oppositional towards the dominant forces in the tech sector. Furthermore, many of these groups and causes were active long before anyone had used the term “techlash,” and many of these groups will still exist once the business press feels safe asserting that the “techlash” has ended. In other words, even as some of these groups may have seen their membership swell during the “techlash,” these groups are not the “techlash” and their members are seldom (if ever) derided as “techlashers.”
There certainly are people out there who believe that challenging the power of the tech giants will require a mass movement—one that can simultaneously push for action in terms of government regulation while also building out actual alternatives. This is the sort of argument that can be found in quite a few recent (and not so recent) works on the tech sector that have been published by left-leaning presses. And it is reasonable to assume that there are a decent number of people out there who would participate in such a movement. However, such a movement does not really exist right now (except perhaps in a very nascent state), and the “techlash” does not name such a movement, or its members.
And this goes a long way to explain the vagueness around the “techlash.” It refers to a sort of ambient raising of dissatisfaction with the misdeeds of the biggest tech companies, but it is largely divorced from coordinated demands for action being called for at a mass scale. The “techlash” puts a name on a momentary shift in prevailing attitudes, but it does not name a movement that can turn those attitudes into results.
The “techlash” is an offense disguised as a defense
One of the best things to have been written about the phenomenon of the “techlash” was a short essay with the title “It is Fashionable to Criticize Technology.” The title was meant not as an endorsement of that perspective, but as a way of naming a perspective that was becoming increasingly common. And, in fairness, there are worse ways to define the “techlash” than to say that it refers to a moment when it became “fashionable to criticize technology.” Let us turn to how the essay’s writer began their piece:
“This commonplace is really very common among technicians, technologists, technolasters, technophagi, technophiles, technocrats, technopans. They complain of being unappreciated. They complain of the ingratitude of these people for whom they work and whose welfare they desire.”
And as the writer noted later in the same essay, referring still to the technologists and technophiles:
“They must be not only the heroes of knowledge and power, but the victims of incomprehension and reaction as well. They need not 98 percent of public opinion behind them, but total unanimity, for any reservation is a grudge against them.”
While much about the “techlash” tends to refer to the perception of a shift in public attitudes towards the tech sector, the above quotations point to another key aspect of the “techlash.” A sense of rage and indignation on the part of those in the tech sector who feel that they are not receiving the adoration and accolades that are their due. Contrary to the focus the “techlash” places on the public, a consideration of the term itself makes it evident that this was always more about how the tech sector viewed its own treatment than about the way the public was changing its view of the tech sector. After all, the “techlash” is a term that owes its origins not to activists or critical scholars but to the business press, and few groups have more eagerly embraced the concept of the “techlash” than the business press and the tech companies themselves. For the idea of a “techlash” shifts the attention off of the things that the tech companies have actually done and instead allows them to don the mantle of the martyr as they depict themselves as the misunderstood (and unappreciated) victims of a crude social backlash.
Frankly, “techlash” has always been a rather hyperbolic way to describe a situation wherein a bunch of companies did some really irresponsible things, and people became frustrated with those companies for doing those things. Many people feel with very good reasons that they, their families, and their societies have been the victims of decisions made on their behalf by the tech companies. And, lest there be any doubt, looking back at the many times the tech companies have been fined or otherwise punished (many of which pre-date the onset of the “techlash”), provides ample proof that these tech companies really have caused a range of serious harms. Yet, what the “techlash” does is it shifts things around so that the people who have been harmed are no longer the victims seeking redress and accountability, rather the real victims are the tech companies who are being hounded by the people. And that those people hounding the tech companies are the ones who were harmed by the tech companies is conveniently forgotten.
The “techlash” lets the tech companies strike a defensive pose, but it also allows them to redouble their offense. In the face of an “anti-tech” backlash, the tech companies get to act as though they are still committed to building a better future, even for the people who are now critical of them. Instead of accepting genuine accountability, showing true remorse, and taking the sorts of steps that might be necessary to prevent causing future harms, the “techlash” protects the companies from having to really change—for the “techlash” makes it so that the companies are not the guilty perpetrators that need to change, but the aggrieved victims who have done nothing wrong. They are not only the heroic companies building the world of tomorrow, they are also the unfairly misunderstood geniuses who are hated by the very ones they are trying to save—as the author with whom we began this section noted, the “technicians and technologists” need a “supplement of honor and virtue. They also need to be pitied and loved.”
In many respects the “techlash” places the tech companies in a better position than the one they had enjoyed when they were on top of the world. For now, they get to play the part of the pitiable scapegoat, even as the failure to trim their wealth or power has ensured that they still enjoy the same position of might. To return to the observations of the aforementioned thinker, what the “techlash” and the tech sector’s reaction to the “techlash” demonstrates is that:
“The mere shadow of a doubt as to the absolute value of what they are doing, the most circumspect examination of a given result, the most cautious inquiry into the ultimate value of their activities, immediately brings forth cries of despair, harsh judgements, or an avenging finger pointed at the wretch who has dared to challenge the majesty of progress.”
The “techlash” generally refers to a shift in societal attitudes towards the tech sector, but it would probably be more accurate to describe the obsession over the “techlash” as a temper tantrum on the part of the tech sector that anyone would dare question them.
And to answer your question, the essay from which the quotes in this section have been drawn come from the thinker Jacques Ellul—and these are observations he made in 1968.
In the “techlash” the tech sector acknowledges criticism in order to control it
If you’re looking for a single work that defines the “techlash,” you can’t do much better than the 2020 quasi-documentary The Social Dilemma. Starring Tristan Harris (formerly of Google, and a cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology) alongside a rotating assortment of former tech company employees who have developed somewhat guilty consciences. The film presented a glossy exploration of some of the shortcomings of social media. Carefully nonpartisan, and highlighting the need for personal responsibility, the movie’s parade of former tech insiders were willing to note things that the tech companies were doing wrong, while still emphasizing that the tech companies were filled with caring individuals (such as themselves) who really truly meant well and who now just feel so gosh-darned sad upon realizing that the things they unthinkingly unleashed may be having some negative consequences. The Social Dilemma featured an acknowledgement on the part of (some) tech insiders that they had screwed up, but at the heart of the film is also a sentiment that these now chastened insiders should be trusted to fix things.
(Here is a lengthy critical review of The Social Dilemma, if you are interested)
While an argument can be had over the actual impact of The Social Dilemma (and some might argue the whole point of the film was to not have a real impact), there is still something interesting about so many former tech insiders banding together to publicly say “we made an oopsie.” And therefore the film needs to be considered in terms of the “techlash.” The film came out several years into the period described as the “techlash,” largely a reflection of Harris’s Center for Humane Technology which was founded near the start of the “techlash,” and the movie can be seen both as an attempt to capitalize on the “techlash,” and an attempt to control its narrative. The film is structured around an acknowledgement that the tech companies are doing some less than great things, but this critique was consistently couched in the repeated insistence that the insiders onscreen (and the tech companies for which they worked) all meant well. And this represents one of the main strategies that the broader tech community has adopted in handling the “techlash”: acknowledge that there are some problems, but assure everyone that those problems were accidental and that the people who created those problems will now fix them. Furthermore, in the process of making this argument, the role of critic of the tech companies gets handed over to the former tech company employees—who are going to keep returning to the “we meant well, you can trust us” point.
There was a time when the tech companies could do no wrong, and in which those who dared point out that they were doing wrong would be severely chastised, but that time is behind us—and the tech companies know it. The benefit of the doubt that tech companies enjoyed for so long, has now been replaced by a fair bit of heavily justified skepticism. Where once a tech company CEO could ascend a stage and deliver a speech filled with soaring platitudes about connecting the world, that same CEO is today more likely to be seen as an untrustworthy creep. All of which is to say, the tech companies know that their executives and official mouthpieces can no longer say “please trust us, we mean (and meant) well.” But that exact same message can still be effectively conveyed by former tech insiders who have now publicly assumed the mantle of critic.
It matters who gets to be seen as a tech critic. It really does. For those who rise to prominence as critics are the ones who get to testify before Congress, appear on national news programs, write editorials in major newspapers, star in slick documentaries, and secure lucrative book deals. They are the people who get called upon to voice the critical perspective when another scandal involving a tech company occurs. There are a lot of great tech critics out there (a group that includes many activists and academics), and many of those excellent critics were trying to sound the alarm about the actions of the tech companies back when the folks in The Social Dilemma were actively creating those alarming things, but few of these critics have been elevated to the same stature as the former tech employees turned critic. To the extent that the “techlash” has created a moment in which voices expressing genuine hostility towards the tech companies could be heard (calling for breaking up the companies, for example), the elevation of former tech employees as the voice of criticism has ensured that the space of public critique is captured and controlled by those who remain loyal to Silicon Valley’s underlying faith in itself.
While part of the tech sector’s response to the “techlash” has been to express indignation towards the ungrateful peons, its more nuanced (and successful) response has been to ensure that the role of critic gets filled by those who have learned how to voice the tech company talking points while sounding vaguely remorseful.
The “techlash” could just as easily be called the “Facebooklash”
Though the “techlash” is ostensibly a reaction directed at “tech” more generally, few companies are as central to the “techlash” as Facebook. And by extension, few executives are as closely bound up with the “techlash” as Mark Zuckerberg. Certainly, there are comments and concerns and frustrations about what Amazon and Alphabet (Google) and Twitter have been doing—but when talking about the “techlash” over and over it seems that the focus is largely, and consistently, on Facebook. Of course, this makes a certain kind of sense, considering the extent to which the “techlash” was largely triggered in response to the tech companies’ actions around the 2016 US election (in which Facebook was enmeshed in the Cambridge Analytica affair), and Facebook’s woes only deepened with the publication of the Facebook Papers. And Zuckerberg’s responses have provided little in the way of reassurance. In the early days of Facebook, Zuckerberg was often treated as a committed visionary with a boyish smile, but now he is largely loathed and distrusted—but he is still the figure most closely associated with Facebook.
Granted, to speak of Zuckerberg and Facebook is tricky these days. For Facebook is now just one of the platform’s that falls under the umbrella of Meta, and Zuckerberg has handed the reins of Facebook over to someone else while he runs Meta. Indeed, Zuckerberg seems to have moved on from Facebook and is instead now fully committed to bringing Meta’s metaverse to life. An effort which, as ample recent reporting has noted, really isn’t going so well. While there are many arguments that can be made to explain the tribulations of the metaverse, it is hard to ignore the fact that Zuckerberg (and various metaverse avatars of Zuckerberg) is the face of Meta’s metaverse. And frankly, it is not a face (animated or otherwise) that many people seem particularly keen on trusting these days.
Facebook appeared in the excited early days of the techno-optimism that surrounded Web 2.0, and Facebook was certainly one of the dominant Web 2.0 companies. Furthermore, Facebook was able to use its commanding position to further entrench its dominance of the Web 2.0 space by buying up potential competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. Yet the “techlash” may well signal the end of the period of techno-optimism for Web 2.0, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Facebook has been so desperate to reinvent itself as the harbinger of Web3 by transforming into Meta. Facebook is experiencing some real problems these days, while Instagram is battling it out with TikTok, and the pivot to Meta is an attempt to shed some of the problems of the past in order to create something new and forge a new corporate identity (while giving Zuckerberg a chance to salvage his reputation). Sure, those Facebook Files look bad, but that’s in the past! And besides, they’re “Facebook Files” and all of the talk now is about Meta.
Unfortunately for Zuckerberg, it seems like the “techlash” has followed him to Meta. Starting a new company is one thing, but Zuckerberg is still closely associated with Facebook, and the unpopularity of Facebook is still the albatross around Zuckerberg’s neck. Certainly, the “techlash” has involved frustration at a variety of different tech companies, but the foul smelling fog of distrust has clung much more strongly to Facebook than it has to any of the other big tech companies. Amidst the hype and hope surrounding Web3, there are plenty of arguments about augmented reality and virtual reality, with many puzzling over the actual uses and what it will take for it to truly catch on. And while these debates are certainly relevant to Meta’s current struggles, an easier explanation for many of Meta’s problems is simply that Zuckerberg is the face of Meta, and that Zuckerberg is the hubristic face of the “techlash.”
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Meta (and Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp), but to the extent that Zuckerberg is the “techlash” personified his every appearance just serves to remind people that those whose actions caused the “techlash” are still running things. Now when people look at Zuckerberg they don’t fantasize about him leading us into a high-tech utopia, rather they are delighted to see him running his companies into the ground.
By being about everything, the “techlash” winds up being about nothing
There are a lot of things to critique about technology, about tech, and about the tech sector. Indeed, sometimes it feels as if the quantity is overwhelming, and this often presents a challenge for tech critics who may fear that in directing so much attention to surveillance that they are not directing sufficient attention to issues around racism or misogyny or ableism or algorithmic bias or labor or materiality or [the list goes on]. Considering this, it might be tempting to have some kind of umbrella term that expresses an overarching concern or critique that encompasses a range of disparate but interconnected issues—some have tried to use “the critique of technology” as this umbrella, others have sought to embrace the term “Luddism” for these purposes. There might truly be a desire for such a term, but “techlash” isn’t it.
Rather than highlight the many problems created and exacerbated by tech (and technology), the term “techlash” just provides a flattened out grouping which lumps all of the responses and concerns together and frames them as little more than reaction and backlash. It is a fundamentally dismissive way to engage with critiques, one that avoids having to genuinely engage with the concerns or ethical stances undergirding the critiques to instead just treat them all as part of some amorphous “techlash.” Thus, justified anger and concern over how algorithms reinforce inequality, the destructive materiality of digital devices, the intrusion of surveillance into ever more corners of daily life, the exploitation of often unseen workers—all of these things (and many, many more) simply get grouped together, and dismissed of, as part of the “techlash.” Instead of treating these as serious issues that need to be addressed, they can be framed as fleeting concerns being elevated by this momentary “techlash” which will promptly fade away once people can be suitably bribed with some shiny new gadgets and platforms.
The idea of the “techlash, has certainly been taken up by some critical scholars, committed activists, and devoted reporters who have seen the “techlash” as an opening up of a critical communicative space. But the “techlash” has also worked as a sort of bracket into which the tech sector and much of the tech adoring press can safely shove a range of criticisms in order to be able to act as though it’s all nothing more than momentary reaction. Though “techlash” isn’t hurled as an epithet in the same way that Luddite is still often deployed, it still carries a heavy dismissiveness to it that counters the genuine concerns by suggesting that they are really just a part of this moment of frustration with the tech sector. As a result, these issues do not become serious problems that the tech companies need to address, they just become topics that the tech companies need to patiently wait out (while perhaps paying lip service to addressing) while they wait for the “techlash” to peter out.
The “techlash” is dead! Long live the “techlash”?
How will we know that the “techlash” is over?
Will it be when everyone gets caught up in the hype and hope around a new device or platform? Will it be when Web3 overcomes its naysayers and becomes dominant? Will it be when Mark Zuckerberg resigns, or when columnists go back to fantasizing about him running for President? Will it be when some fresh-faced, as yet unknown and untarnished, figure emerges to don the mantle of technological-utopianism and promise to lead us into the shiny high-tech future? Did the pandemic wrought elevation of various digital technologies provide an out for the techlash as people suddenly found themselves ever more reliant on the very tech platforms they had previously been critiquing? Will it be when it becomes once more heretical to express even muted criticisms of the tech sector? Will it this? Will it that? Is the idea of the “techlash” just so useful to the tech sector that they’ll happily keep it alive so that they have an easy way of deflecting criticism? Or, has the “techlash” already quietly and undramatically ended?
There probably isn’t an easy answer. After all, as has been argued across these various theses, the very idea of the “techlash” is amorphous, and the term will likely continue to be used so long as this or that group finds it to be a useful term. Nevertheless, to gauge the state of the “techlash” in the fall of 2022 it can be useful to contrast two of the stories that have been dominating much of the tech coverage at the moment: Zuckerberg’s attempt to make the metaverse catch on, and Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter (which may or may not have actually happened by the time you’re reading this).
In the case of Zuckerberg, there is evidence of the persistence of the “techlash,” as Zuckerberg’s efforts get mocked in a way that has more to do with delight at watching Zuckerberg fail than at any kind of real assessment of the metaverse. Yes, there is ample reason to be skeptical of the metaverse, but this skepticism is turbo-charged by the still present anger at Zuckerberg for the things that Facebook has wrought. The reactions to the metaverse have less to do with the actual technology, and more to do with a response to Zuckerberg’s faceplant of an attempt to make that technology seem appealing. Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter, has a different feel to it. To be clear, Musk was never one of the tech executives to be really targeted by the early “techlash,” and when the “techlash” slammed figures like Zuckerberg it was largely Musk who was able to become the leading voice (and hope) of corporate techno-utopianism. Musk avoided responsibility as he was not the owner of one of the social media platforms that received the brunt of the “techalsh.” And while there are certainly plenty of criticisms out there of the various tech companies with which Musk is associated, and Musk certainly has his legions of passionate fans, the criticisms generally directed at Musk have less to do with his “tech” and more to do with people’s perceptions of him. Which brings us back to Twitter. While there were certainly some who rejoiced at the idea of Musk purchasing Twitter, there are also plenty who mourned the idea, vowing that if the purchase went through they would leave the platform. And what is interesting here is that in this discussion, even as Twitter users were vocal about their problems with the platform, what often came out was a certain sense of affection for Twitter (for all of its many shortcomings). There was a real sense of enjoyment of Twitter, and a sense that Musk would ruin it. You could call this a Musklash (and we may be currently seeing a Musklash), but considering how the rejection of Musk was couched not just in a fondness for Twitter it would not seem right to frame this as part of the “techlash.”
Of course, to undermine the points just made in the previous paragraph, it could also be argued that the “techlash” has always been about the market forces dominating the tech sector and therefore the responses to Zuckerberg and Musk are both part of the “techlash.” And yet, even as that may be true, to shift the meaning of “techlash” in that direction is to push it away from how the term has been so often used. Though it would probably get at a more accurate description of the emotions undergirding the “techlash.” At the very least, it would suggest that the “techlash” has a lot less to do with attitudes towards actual technology, and a lot more to do with attitudes towards market forces and executives.
All of which is just another way of saying that when you see the term “techlash” used, it’s worthwhile to pause and think about what the term actually means.
Theses on Technological-Optimism
Theses on Technological-Pessimism
Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – A Review of The Social Dilemma
They Meant Well, or Why It Matters Who Gets to Be Seen as a Critic
Authoritarian versus Democratic Technics, Revisited
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