The top line: About half of them expect tech to “weaken democracy between now and 2030.”
“Digital media overwhelm people with a sense of the complexity of the world and undermine trust in institutions, governments and leaders. Many people seize simplistic unworkable solutions offered by actual and wannabe tyrants,” wrote Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft. “Add to this the ease of spreading false information and the difficulty of formulating effective regulations for a global system and it is difficult even to envision a positive outcome, much less take steps to realize it.”
Gina Neff, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, put it a little more bluntly. “There is simply no reason to believe that technology can strengthen democracy,” she wrote in her response. “Western democracies are grappling with the power from the increased concentration of financial capital and its response in the form of the rise of populism.”
Like Neff, many respondents noted the way that democracy, technology, and capitalism have become braided together, as algorithms built on data structure more and more of modern life. Pew summarized their concerns in a handful of common themes, and they will not be surprising: Technology empowers the already powerful; technology “diminishes” the governed; information technology is easily weaponized; digital illiteracy and the collapse of journalism create an ill-informed public.
Add it up and not only do many tech experts see that their industry has created massive problems, but—unlike fossil fuels, say—they don’t have a set of technologies they could work on to remedy the social problems that the ubiquitous deployment of network technologies created. The tech world has no solar power to look forward to.
Read: The billion-dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president
Most technologists are builders. They want to make stuff. But the stuff they made in the era of phones and social media, all the way down to its bones, has had negative effects that many of them can see with their own eyes. It’s become harder to say ‘We’ll just build this other thing and that’ll fix it.’ That way of thinking was termed solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, and it’s arguably the very thing that got tech companies into this mess.
That’s taken some of the purpose out of the technology industry. For some, it clearly doesn’t matter. The intrinsic pleasures of coding or wealth are enough. But for hundreds of respondents to the Pew survey, the shift is downright depressing.
The people who work in Silicon Valley once thought they were doing something more meaningful than building profit-making machines. That’s where the midlife crisis lies: What is tech, as an industry, all about anymore? In the past, I’ve described how tech’s powerful mythology fell apart, and its excuses were exposed, but I hadn’t considered how confusing that would be for the people inside the industry.