The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer: Technology report highlights both opportunities and concerns for the technology sector. While tech remains the gold standard for trust as an industry, companies have a short window to address issues before they loom large. “Techlash” is very much alive, and there are significant cracks in the foundation when it comes to trust in tech.
For a sense of how important trust is, the phrase “techlash” was runner-up for Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, defined as the “strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence that large technology companies hold.” 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has called for the break-up of big tech, and business magnate Mark Cuban warned that artificial intelligence could spell the end of humanity.
However, according to this year’s Trust Barometer, we found a modest year-over-year increase in trust in technology, with tech remaining the most-trusted sector overall. So, there’s still time to address some of the challenges that face the sector.
There is a dichotomy between seemingly wall-to-wall coverage of various tech scandals and tech’s still-lofty status. If trust is high, why should technology companies bother to address societal and ethical issues?
Part of the answer lies in the consumer definition of technology as a sector. Consumers are separating social media companies and technology companies in the more traditional sense: hardware companies that make chips, tablets and cellphones. The numbers speak for themselves: Trust in social media among the general population is at 44 percent while trust in tech stands at 78 percent.
But techlash is drawing attention to traditional tech firms as well, with issues concerning power over information, data privacy, growing income inequality and job displacements influencing trust in technology. Also, while trust in tech overall is high, there are significant vulnerabilities that must be addressed.
In developed markets, for example, consumers report high levels of “weak trust,” which means while they remain trusting, they do so with significant misgivings. The Trust Barometer survey revealed 61 percent of people in developed markets, believe technology companies have too much power to determine what news and information we see, and only 39 percent of respondents in developed markets believe tech is putting the welfare of its customers ahead of profits.
The report shows that individuals tend to trust technology as much as they see it personally benefitting them, which highlights the importance of communicating the personal impact of tech products on individuals as well as society.
With emerging technologies like AI, blockchain and self-driving vehicles, we see similarly-concerning consumer sentiments, as people worry about job loss and an inability to adapt to new skillsets and knowledge requirements leading to a fear of being left behind. The benefit of new technologies is becoming tougher to discern; on a global level, 32 percent of people say they’ve personally suffered loss or hardship because of technological innovations, and 47 percent believe technological innovation is happening too quickly.
Emerging technologies hold immense promise moving forward (and are seeing massive investments), but they already hover in the neutral-to-mistrusted category. Only 56 percent of people trust blockchain, 55 percent trust self-driving vehicle technology and 62 percent trust AI.
A Force for Good?
While a majority of both the general population and technology employees still see tech sector as a force for good, both have seen a loss of confidence in that belief over the past year. The drop was seen even among tech employees aged 18 to 34. This is concerning given that this generation is used to disruption and adapting to new technologies but are still questioning the impact of technology. If left to fester, tech companies could potentially lose their biggest advocates.
While trust in tech is not in crisis, it’s clear the sector is at an inflection point, and if left unaddressed, this lack of trust could negatively impact the future of innovation and positive transformations enabled by tech. Companies need to respond proactively today to avoid problems tomorrow.
That means moving to the forefront of societal initiatives to guide people through technological evolution. There is a strong desire to receive guidance through these changes, and companies must take responsibility for the disruption they’re causing, including acknowledging the risks of innovation. According to the study, 77 percent of global respondents believe tech companies need to play a larger role to ensure our education system keeps pace with emerging skills in demand. This implores the need and opportunity to form private-public partnerships.
It also means taking a long-term of the globally rising tide of people who feel profits and the greater good are not mutually exclusive. Technology companies must prioritize making a positive impact in their communities over quarterly revenue and margin metrics in order to raise the tide for all boats.
Lastly, there is clear opportunity to activate employees as community ambassadors and advocates, which requires developing and maintaining an employee-centric culture. Technology employees expect their employer to speak up on issues and act in accordance to its core values. Employee trust is critical in cultivating a loyal, engaged and outspoken workforce.
Personally, I am an eternal optimist and believe in the power of technology to transform lives for the better. However, fears of social isolation, data privacy, job losses and growing income inequality are equally real. The promise of technology is unquestionable – AI, blockchain, IoT, cloud, mobility and others – will continue to create opportunities for all, while digital transformation, created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, will also give rise to new fears. Ultimately, our future will depend on the choices we make as individuals, companies, governments and society. It’s on all of us to do the right thing and ensure benefits of technology are not limited to a few and enjoyed by many. Acting responsibly is a business and moral imperative for sustainable and balanced growth.
Sanjay Nair is global chair, Technology.