Future Tense

Will 2020 Change American Tech?

A Future Tense virtual event recap.

A monitor on a desk says "Do More."
Carl Heyerdahl/Unsplash

This year started off with Democratic nominee candidates centering discussions around breaking up Big Tech—conversations that soon took a back seat due to the pandemic. But we’re reliant on tech now more than ever, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, said during Tuesday’s Future Tense event “Will 2020 Change American Tech?”

The pandemic has us more dependent on large tech companies like Amazon; contact tracing apps could play an important role in helping contain the spread of the coronavirus; a major switch to telework has potentially changed the way many of our jobs function in the long term. The year thus far has been a “roller coaster,” Slaughter said, and it’s only half over.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, a partner at Greylock Partners, and a board member at New America, said the tech industry undoubtedly needs to improve if it is to function as a tool for the betterment of society. But he also thinks that technology can play a role in solving problems like racial injustices, the climate crisis, and other issues. So when the techlash becomes somewhat “anti-technology,” that poses a “serious problem.” Instead of focusing on ways to limit tech companies, he said, people should ask, “How do we make [technology] better for American democracy, American society, American values for the world? And what [are] the ways that we interact in order to make that happen?”

But, Slaughter said, there is no real consensus as to what exactly defines American tech values. China—one of the biggest global tech competitors—has a surveillance-heavy relationship with tech and an almost “authoritarian vision of what the internet is,” she said. The EU distinctly values the protection of privacy online and often errs on the side of caution. Slaughter said the American tech space needs to create “our own distinctive American vision” of what the internet looks like “that builds in privacy, equality, a measure of justice.”

In the tech race with China, perhaps the winning recipe is a multitude of smaller companies thriving rather than a handful of large companies dominating the space, Slaughter suggested. She argued that Zoom’s nearly overnight skyrocket to success amid a workforce going digital illustrates that point—a small company did better even though Google and Microsoft had infinitely more resources.

Those who push for antitrust regulation in tech must embrace two truths about the industry, Hoffman said. First, “this is not an American-run universe anymore.” When having these conversations about Big Tech, it’s crucial to take into account how the other global players handle the same situations. Is China going to break up its largest tech corporations? Probably not, Hoffman said. Second, he said, American tech is heading from five-plus major tech corporations to 10, not down to two or three. The competition between the current companies in Big Tech “creates lots of space—not just in the competition between the large firms themselves—but for startups,” and some of those startups will eventually become tech powerhouses themselves instead of being eaten up by the current players.

The influence of these major tech companies goes far beyond the marketplace of ideas, however, especially in a year experiencing “twin pandemics” of coronavirus and racial injustice, Slaughter said. From algorithmic biases—like in a recent case involving facial recognition software—to a vast disparity between tech jobs depending on race, big tech plays a major role in racial injustice as well. The far-reaching level of influence tech has on day-to-day lives means harmful software can “institutionalize racism across the entire country,” he said. And in the same way, better software could be a critical anti-racist tool in society. “If you want to be deploying software systems that have economic impact or social justice impact, you need to proactively prove that you are good on the civil rights vectors,” Hoffman said. Tech needs to go beyond anti-bias training and diversity hiring, he said. The industry has to check itself in a way that ensures inclusion and is actively anti-racist.

Another impactful way tech companies could work against racial injustice is by distributing financial resources to BIPOC-owned tech operations and individuals in the tech space, Hoffman said. It’s the most American of solutions—ownership of property is a core value. Making people who are disadvantaged in tech literal “co-owners” of society will help close the gap, he said, and prioritizing financial institutions that help the Black community is crucial.

Looking 25 years into the future, the twin pandemics could leave a lasting legacy. America has the ability to become the global tech hub within that time period, Hoffman said—but on one condition. He said if the country continues to systemically prevent immigration, then there’s little hope for a thriving tech community. Immigration is the country’s “superpower,” Hoffman said.  Without it, American tech doesn’t stand a chance.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.