I have been in the Bay Area for the past two days, the last stop on my 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer tour. Silicon Valley is a fitting endpoint because no industry has a more important role in the restoration of trust in institutions. Technology has always been the highest-ranked sector in our study, based on the belief that innovation enables improvement in lifestyle, plus affords job opportunity for a person of any nationality with top-class brains and a strong work ethic. Now there are cracks in the edifice, related to fears of job loss due to automation and the pace of change. Here are some of the key findings:
- Technology Loses Its Trust Advantage—Tech is no longer the most-trusted sector in one-third of the countries we surveyed. There has been a gradual erosion in Western democracies from a high point in 2012. This year saw a substantial drop of 10 points in France, eight points in Canada, Italy, Russia and Singapore, plus seven points in the U.S. Technology is still highly trusted in Asia and Latin America.
- Worry That Technology Is Out of Control—Sixty-one percent of respondents told us that the pace of change in technology is too fast. That same percentage of respondents said that government does not understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them efficiently.
- Technology Has Compromised the Quality of Information—Two-thirds of respondents said that they believe technology makes it impossible to know what people are seeing or hearing is real. Three-quarters worry that fake news or false information is being used as a weapon, up 8 points over last year. Trust in social media is at an all-time low: 29 percent in both North America and Europe, down four points from last year.
- Deep Concern About the Future of Work—Eighty-three percent of respondents worry about losing their job because of the gig economy, automation, and outsourcing. Technology enables all of those changes. There is fear about lack of training and job skills necessary to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
- Tech Innovation Is Suspect—There are significant gaps between trust in the technology sector and innovations such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and driverless cars: 30 points in North America and EU, 15 points in Asia and Latin America. There is little improvement year-to-year on trust in these innovations. Sixty percent of those who distrust the innovations want tougher regulation.
Tech CEOs were early in speaking up on issues of the day, with Apple’s Tim Cook, PayPal’s Dan Schulman and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff taking principled stands on diversity and inclusion beginning five years ago. This has continued in recent days, with Microsoft’s Brad Smith announcing a carbon-negative goal by 2030 and Google Sundar Pichai committing $1 billion to job training and community development. All of this is good, but there is more to be done.
It is not what the tech companies do for themselves but what they enable their customers to do. I have heard consumer products companies talk about 50 percent reductions in headcount through process automation or delivery companies acknowledging that they will be running trucks like trains with a single engineer and many tractor-trailers due to autonomous driving technology. Tech companies need to take the lead on re-training and upskilling of workers, improving community colleges and enabling on-line training, helping their clients to get ahead of the problem before the inevitable recession crimps the ability to invest. The tech sector needs also to take a different approach to government, making public services more transparent on performance while welcoming constructive regulation of data privacy or artificial intelligence. In short, the tech CEOs have done the easy part, fixing their own businesses. Now it is onto the next challenge: improving society through partnership with regulators and their clients.
Richard Edelman is CEO.