Tech CEOs are becoming more like politicians, so they should be judged the same way
April 21, 2017
He grumbled about how a press visit to a Nokia factory had, in his mind, been derailed. Instead of focusing on the company’s plans to build a commercial 5G network, the group of journalists fretted over Nokia’s diversity policy.
Mitzner used the example to support a flimsy thesis that journalists overemphasize “hiring policies and aspects that relate to social justice issues at the expense of judging the technology and its impact on society and economy.”
He failed to realize the reason so many tech journalists focus on social issues is that tech companies themselves have done the same. Tech executives are increasingly wielding power once reserved for elected officials, so tech journalists have begun to scrutinize them in ways they have historically judged administrations.
Tech executives are increasingly wielding power once reserved for elected officials.
Questioning whether a tech company’s staff is inclusive is becoming the same as asking whether a president’s cabinet is.
For more than a decade, corporations like Facebook and Google have not only grown wildly wealthy, but they’ve explicitly claimed they had higher callings beyond bringing in lucrative returns for investors.
They promised that living in a technologically advanced society of their creation would make our lives better, including for historically marginalized groups.
Tech in the age of Trump
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, these companies (and the considerable lobbying power they employ) are finding there’s a newfound pressure on them to deliver on the moral promises they’ve made.
They’ve begun to come out policies put forward by the Trump administration, like the recent travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. On Tuesday, Facebook employees would be free to take time off to protest on International Women’s Day next month.
They’ve also faced post-election backlash on issues like hate speech and fake news, which they’ve finally begun to develop tools to combat. Large tech companies have started to do things that feel like the work of governments.
Deciding whether a user should be banned, for example, looks like a decision lawmakers make about who should be allowed in their country. The way that a corporation like Facebook responds to its users resembles how a congressman might respond to the concerns of her constituents.
In this sense, immensely powerful figures like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Travis Kalanick of Uber, and Brian Chesky of Airbnb have taken on the kind of moral responsibility once reserved for politicians. They view their platforms the same way lawmakers see their policies.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Chesky himself, who recently told Forbes India, “When we design our community, we think like politicians legislating for their constituents.”
Uber that it doesn’t just run a business; it provides a critical public service. By eventually removing large numbers of cars from the road, Uber says, it will help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, lessening the effects of climate change.
Facebook in particular has ramped up its virtue signaling. More than ever, the social network is concerned about how its users perceive it.
As BuzzFeed‘s Nitasha Tiku’s eloquently explained, Zuckerberg has become increasingly interested in ensuring that he is viewed favorably as a leader so much so that journalists have wondered whether he’s seeking election to public office.
“It is our responsibility to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad to continue increasing diversity while strengthening our common understanding so our community can create the greatest positive impact on the world,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his February , which resembled in parts a political platform.
The empire of the Valley
In a page out of science fiction, a number of leaders in tech have reportedly even banded together to form their own constitution. Sam Altman, president of famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, said he’s spoken to a group of tech leaders about creating a set of beliefs they all support.
That makes sense, since tech companies have often found traditional governments to be in the way of their goals. Both and have fought local and federal governments to ensure their businesses remain as unregulated as possible.
Journalists often discover that tech companies fail to practice what they preach.
Tech firms don’t want to avoid government regulation only so they can continue to rake in piles of cash. They also want to bypass regulations so they can be free to create a society the way they envision it.
Ultimately, they want to convince consumers that for-profit companies can be dominant forces for good in the world, perhaps even more so than governments. Naturally, tech journalists have taken to examining the truth behind such an assertion. Journalists often discover that tech companies fail to practice what they preach.
It can seem like tech journalists cover social issues disproportionately. In reality, they’re tasked not just with covering the products that these companies develop, but also how they shape global society.
Technology isn’t neutral. It’s well documented that algorithms and products can carry the same biases that people do.
It’s a journalist’s job to ask whether a product, a platform, or a piece of software really benefits everyone.
We live on these platforms the same way we live in a country. Tech journalists should criticize tech firms, and the people that run them, the same way they criticize governments and politicians.