Big Tech Trades Splashy Conference Demos for Introspection

The tech industry is booming. Its biggest companies are minting money. Their influence and reach into media, telecommunications, retail—everything really—is so great that once-dominant firms in those industries are desperately seeking merger partners to keep up. Some venture capitalists say the market for new companies and the talent to staff them hasn’t been this overheated since the great internet bubble of 2000.

And yet at the Code Conference this week, where guests pay $7,000 apiece to attend, you’d think the industry had hit the skids. For 15 years, the stage and hallways at Code and its predecessor have been a glitzy science fair of innovators promising to change the world, to disrupt, to move fast and break things. It’s where Steve Jobs sparred with Bill Gates, where a young Mark Zuckerberg got a little sweaty on stage, where a not-yet-known startup called Sonos launched, and where Elon Musk elaborated on his vision for the hyperloop.

This year the big tech CEOs expounding as celebrity oracles of the future were absent. And the science fair portion of the program was sparse. There was a 10-minute drone light show at the end of day two, an outfit doing airport biometric authentication demos using fingerprints and iris scanning, and a virtual-reality device designed to make you feel like a bird. But if you were looking for a ride in a self-driving car, or a new gadget that will change the world, this was not the place.

Instead, speakers played defense, tackling topics like regulation, antitrust, diversity, and security. “Responsibility” and “fix” were the buzzwords, not “creativity” or “innovate.” It was sober and desperately needed in an industry whose public image has shifted in in two years from the innovation engine of the global economy to a scourge of civilized society—like Wall Street bankers during the 1980s.

Evan Spiegel, Snap’s founder and CEO, tried to use the words as a cudgel. Asked how it felt to have Facebook copy his company’s innovations, he said, “We would really appreciate it if they copied our data practices, also.”

It’s become something of a sport to pile on Facebook in the past six months, and a lot of the heat the company is getting is deserved. But it’s not the only company in Silicon Valley deserving of scrutiny, and every executive on stage took pains to make that point clear. Brian Chesky, the cofounder and CEO of Airbnb, remarked how a few years ago, boardroom conversations focused exclusively on making investors happy. “It turns out that companies have more stakeholders than just investors,” Chesky said. “Society expects more of us. ”

The shift has made Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, something of a sage. Twenty years and 13 days ago, the US government launched what’s still its largest antitrust suit against the company. Microsoft was, the government said, a rapacious, unrepentant monopolist whose hardball tactics undermined competition and innovation.

Few think of Microsoft that way anymore. It is recovering after missing almost every major tech trend of the last 15 years. And that experience has given Smith a unique perspective on what to do and what not to do when a startup moves from a garage to one of the most powerful companies in the world. It’s a perspective that relatively young companies like Google and Facebook are just learning.

Both Google and Facebook have beefed up their Washington operations in recent years. But Smith, who was the first speaker of the conference, stressed that there’s more to being a big and powerful company than that. “If you create technology that changes the world, the world is going to want to govern you,” Smith said, in a remark that’s likely to resonate beyond the conference. “It’s going to want, in some measure, to regulate you. And you have to come to terms with that and figure out how you’re going to navigate that. And step up to the responsibilities that the world wants you to assume.”

Smith also urged more self-awareness, and self-critiques. “You have to develop the ability to look in the mirror and see yourself, not the way you see yourself, but the way other people see you,” he said. “And guess what? They don’t think you’re quite as good looking as you thought you were. “

Another sign of how deeply tech is entrenched in policy issues: a prime speaking spot for Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Warner told the tech elite that their willingness to engage and compromise with Washington will be critical to the industry’s success. "If we have some major event where markets are rocked because of misinformation or disinformation you will have Congress overreact," Warner said. "It’s why I’ve been reaching out to the platform companies to say 'Work with us on the front end because if you leave it to Congress, we’ll screw it up.'"

Warner praised Facebook for moving to improve disclosures around political advertising, mimicking a bill Warner has cosponsored. But Warner said the company has to work harder at controlling misinformation.

What might that mean? Warner said he’s just beginning to formulate ideas to start a conversation. But he wondered aloud about potentially changing a bedrock internet law that shields website operators from liability for content posted by others. He continued with other questions:

Do you have the right to know if you are dealing with a bot or a human? What about requiring geotags on all posts? Should platforms have a fiduciary duty over their data the way banks have a fiduciary duty over their customers money? Should there be true data portability like telephone number portability? If you own your data, should platforms compensate you?

Those are all important questions, and Warner said government will want a say in the answers. “Self regulation isn’t going to cut it,” he said. For an industry that has always sneered at government, and its slow, inefficient and luddite tendencies, that’s a change that is going to take a while to get used to.


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