Politech Figures, Social

Noble causes to no-man’s land: Tech’s 2017 month-by-month

2017, tech, review

To take a comb through the tech news at the moment is to read a lot of articles about how shit the tech sector has become.

Not only does the tech sector have a series of failures to answer for this year, but it’s also starting to come to light that the sector may well just be having an all-round negative effect on society. The commentary has gone so far that some original internet leaders have published mea culpa’s, an essay to the world recognising where they went wrong.

But, then, the early-mid months of 2017 seemed to be filled with stories of how tech had become America’s conscience. Off the back of Trump winning the electoral college vote and amid a dash of fake news furore the tech sector rode into 2017 with a strong set of responsibilities. It seemed to be all good for a bit. How did we get here?

January – America’s conscience

The year started strong, with lots of articles about what to expect from 2017. People were buoyed and determined to make a better year of 2017 than 2016 had become. Time to speculate on where to put money, who the big players might be and when they might emerge. But as January closed out Donald Trump reminded everyone that he was a)  still Donald Trump and b) literally The President by signing an executive order which would attempt to ban a selection of Muslim-majority countries.

This is when the tech companies swung their first punch. The majority of Silicon Valley’s Finest made public statements dismissing Trump’s policy as un-American, and pointing out how many of their employees were immigrants. This was a moment which was about to set a trend. That everyone in big tech is a massive lefty is one of Silicon Valley’s worst kept secrets, and under the surface one suspects they were all reeling from Trump’s victory. So here they were, standing out in front of everyone, opposing the President on a social issue which, looking at their diversity stats, only tangentially affects them. Because they just thought it was wrong.

Strap in, I thought, this year will not be dull.

February – Reality bites

February started relatively quite. But then, on the 19th, Susan Fowler published a blog post which would set the tone not only for tech, but for 2017 as a whole.

The story of being demeaned and overlooked, ignored by the HR department, and eventually her departure lit the afterburners on a story which had been bubbling under the surface for some time. As the travel ban saga rolled on, stats suggesting women leave tech at a rate 45% higher than men began to surface. And, one imagines, the CEOs of Silicon Valley’s Finest began to shift uneasily in their seats.

In other news, Tim Cook told the FBI to take a hike, stating in an open letter “it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products.”

March – Great power, great responsibility

Throughout March the pitch of public discourse around tech began to fundamentally shift. Questions started to arise all over the place, on one hand the tech sector’s size started to worry some, being deemed by veteran Silicon Valley journalist Walt Mossberg as a ‘ruling class’, while at the same time others pondered over whether tech’s stature would overtake politics as the new engine of progress.

Meanwhile conversations around tech’s ‘bro culture’ and it’s approach to extremist content were coupled with talk of an imminent bubble burst and which other cities might supersede Silicon Valley as the next tech hub.

All-in-all, tech was beginning to feel the pinch. It was clear, as never before, that it was under a level of scrutiny it hadn’t previously known.

April – The ‘image problem’

This was the month when the headlines and stories became themes and trends. Tech no longer had ‘the Susan Fowler blog’ or ‘a bro culture’, tech began to have the most daunting of PR phrases: An Image Problem. Silicon Valley’s Finest were accused of treating women as tokens, widespread racism, sexism and bullying, and incapable of fixing the problems before them.

Meanwhile it started to become clear how bored Millennials were becoming of living in expensive cities they’d helped to gentrify. As the generation strode into it’s marriage-and-kids stage, the finger was pointed at tech for creating wealthy enclaves and making cities too expensive.

Amidst it all the tech companies took aim at Trump once again around his travel ban, and sought clarity over the H-1B visa situation. But however valiant or distracting they might have hoped their efforts to be, by the end of the month even the Pope was telling tech to do better.

May – Size matters

Diversity, Trump and responsibility stories kept themselves alive during May, but this was the month when tech company valuations went ballistic. Amazon reach $1,000 a share which seemed like a pointlessly large amount to pay for a bit of a company. The tech sector growth was, in general, being driven by the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). And as sure as stocks go up, punditry says they’ll go down.

Despite the trauma of previous months tech stocks had only risen. The sector’s rise looked impenetrable, yet their deep issues remained, making their rise less palatable.

June – Everything and nothing

At the start of June tech stocks started to dip which had everyone smug and worried, until no one was worried. People seemed to be frustrated with the tech sector and needed it to change, but no one really wanted it to fail, and there seemed to be an assumption they were smart enough to keep their head above water.

Meanwhile some of Silicon Valley’s Finest met with Trump, to discuss a broad range of US government ineptitude when it comes to technology. The President was starting to look like a day-one lame duck, the tech companies had big changes like driverless cars on their way and the stuff Trump wanted to fix genuinely needed fixing. All told, no one really knew why anyone was attending that meeting or what would come of it. And in the end… it was nothing.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a terrorist attack in London had renewed pressure on the tech companies to do something about extremist content. The EU ramped up their role as the only organisation in the world willing to stand up to big tech, and Silicon Valley’s Finest got together to set up The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.

It was a month where things happened but nothing really came of any of the things that happened. Except one thing: Travis Kalanick was finally forced to resign from Uber.

Oh, and the EU fined Google €2.4 billion for not playing fair with their search results.

July – Old daemons a’ slayed

July was a true milestone by anyone’s measure. And it will always be a milestone, cemented in the history of the stock market graphs. This was the month when the tech sector surpassed its previous 2000 peak before the dotcom bubble crashed down around everyone’s ears. The new heights fuelled speculation over stability, and another bubble, and concerns arose again over the tech sectors seeming unflappability. The Wall Street Journal ran the headline ‘Can the Tech Giants be Stopped?’ while the question of regulation was brought to the fore.

But Silicon Valley’s Finest took all this on the front foot, they were on familiar ground, fending off government gag orders in favour of consumer rights, and defending the will of the people in favour of net neutrality. At the same time Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg put on a hell of a show with a public spat about whether AI posed an ‘existential threat’ to humanity or not, which ended with Musk tweeting that Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject was ‘limited’.

Meanwhile sexual harassment allegations took their second big scalp: Dave McClure, CEO of 500 Startups.

August – DaMORE daemons arise

Sexual harassment, bully, sexism, diversity… these issues had all received good coverage in previous months. But the new cycle still whirred onward and the various stories were overwritten by new stories. Tech had slumped and flourished. But this month. August. This was the month the tech sector could not escape.

This was the month when the whole sector was irreversibly considered inherently sexist, and no stock price could shift the coverage off the ‘James Damore memo’.

James Damore: the conservative Google engineer who plastered his hurtful, baseless and almost comically out-of-touch opinions on the company intranet.

His hateful screed, which attempted to brand women as incompetent coders, all the while railing against Silicon Valley liberalism, lost him his job. And only succeeded in branding the tech sector so firmly sexist that the media dove into every corner they could. Asking questions of foundational education, all the way to the top execs.

September – Lay low

Try to stay out of site, don’t do anything stupid. Except a couple of entrepreneurs who launched a glorified vending machine called ‘Bodega’ got caught on the wrong side of a Twitter storm – they should have known better – and then everyone could talk about tech’s diversity problems again.

Meanwhile, the UK and EU continued to hold a firm stance against extremist content and taxes, as Google tried in vain to appeal against the €2.4 billion fine the EU had imposed back in June. The fine was always going to go through, but so far the tech companies hadn’t issued much more than a promise on extremist content.

October – From Russia, with love

October gave birth to two themes in tech coverage still going strong, and each with potentially huge implications. One the one hand the discussion around monopolies rose in pitch with Franklin Foer doing lots of articles and interviews about his new book. The tech companies were starting to be seriously considered as too big and too powerful. It was a bubbling story, covered in a lot of places over the course of the year. One which is just short of a ‘Damore moment’ to blow it up and turn the conversation against big tech for good.

The second was The Russia Investigations. Having tried to downplay the whole thing for a while, Facebook finally admitted that Russian interference might have happened and that wasn’t cool. The tech companies were summoned to congress.

November – Trustless

As the end of the year draws closer tech’s status as ‘pioneering’ and ‘cool’ was in tatters, instead Al Franken called on tech to be more transparent. And people like it. With faults finally admitted in the Russia investigations, and sexual harassment allegations having spread across US life, tech was looking as though it ended the year as a harbinger for societies broader woes.

Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s original investors, conducted an interview during which he expresses deep concern over the company he has built, and what harm it might do. And Zuckerberg returns from his national tour not knowing whether he’s dug himself out of. or further into, his company’s existential crisis.

The Guardian runs an Op.Ed: ‘How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into chaos.’

December – Tech’s worst year?

The year ends with tech in a sorry state. Even the high Bitcoin ended on is potentially only a description of the crash to come. The sector more generally has had some high points during the year, mostly in its anti-Trump moments. But their better angels have been continually shouted down by them having overlooked the most simple of things, like a balanced workforce.

Amid it all there has been one big winner: Elon Musk. The man has been out in front, delivering a string of amazing developments on Hyperloop, SolarCity, SpaceX and Tesla. He has ridden above the bullshit masterfully and provided a guiding voice on the most complicated of issues. But he is kind of alone in having had a good year.

It doesn’t feel all bad, this year was, in many ways, the tech industry’s initiation to the top of politics, economics and society. The industry has found itself in a confusing place, having to work out what society wants it to be, and what it can be to society. But without the level of criticism it has been laden with, it would not be taken seriously. The hits are coming in because it’s entered the league of extraordinary players.

 

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Ben Allen is a traveller, a millennial and a Brit. He worked in the London startup world for a while but really prefers commenting on it than working in it. He has huge faith in the tech industry and enjoys talking and writing about the social issues inherent in its development. Find him on Twitter @benjijamesallen

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