As I Was Saying

Watch the WEF for New Signs of Tech-lash

World Economic Forum comes amid new critiques of over-reliance on high tech 1/23/2018 4:15 PM

Humanizing the avalanche of high-tech capabilities -- including telecommunications -- may become a sub-theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23-26. The high-profile event is taking place in the midst of a growing "tech-lash" -- a term coined five years ago by The Economist to describe the backlash against technology's dominance in our lives.

Although not necessarily a Luddite attitude, the tech-lash skeptics are warning that the increasingly powerful technology industry is likely to be "demonized" in the same way that the finance and energy sectors have been lambasted because of actions that consumers find repulsive.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that customers eschew all tech, but growing evidence suggests they'll adopt it in new ways that don't necessarily follow the growth patterns that providers expect.

Although major U.S. telecom and media operators are not high on the agenda at the four-day extravaganza, dozens of vendors and many content suppliers will speak and/or mingle with the elite crowd, set to include President Donald Trump and several U.S. Cabinet members; heads of state from France, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, India, Israel and a dozen other countries; and CEOs from Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, CBS, BBC and hundreds of other global brands.

Cable, telecom and media companies are well acquainted with consumer dismay; the looming tech-lash may ripple over onto them as allies of so-called Silicon Valley marauders. It is not clear yet how or if antipathy toward tech overload and invasive behaviors will dribble onto telecom providers. But in the fractious confluence of today's media-tech environment, any tech-related company is ripe for public scorn -- or worse.

As The New York Times explained in the Jan. 8 article "Tech Backlash Grows as Investors Press Apple to Act on Children's Use," consumers see technology companies as propagators of countless new problems from "election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction." Its report on an "open letter to Apple" from a potent investment firm generated even more attention to the role of technology companies in children's health and other social ills.

Humanizing the Impact
At the recent CES, a huge poster looming over the main convention center concourse encouraged attendees to join the Consumer Technology Association's "Let's Go Humans" campaign. The CTA called its efforts the "tech industry's rallying cry for supporting and championing the kinds of emerging technology that betters our world -- and its inhabitants" in categories ranging from health and safety to education and the environment.

The World Economic Forum's official theme is "Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World." WEF's underlying momentum, though, comes from sessions on how to tame "the transformational impacts of a succession of shocks, from globalization to the proliferation of social media and ... the Fourth Industrial Revolution." The latter term echoes the just-published "Shaping The Fourth Industrial Revolution" by WEF founder and executive chair Klaus Schwab, a follow-up to Schwab's earlier volume with a similar aspirational title.

In a self-reflective description of its plans, WEF acknowledged that sessions during the conference will address "breakdowns in the social contract as a result of failure to protect societies ... [that] have caused a loss of trust in institutions and damaged the relationship between business and society."

Critics have described the entire WEF program as a global corporate party with decreasing relevance to technology and media realities. Yet the organizers are trying to focus on key factors, with sessions on broad issues such as The Digital Economy, eCommerce and especially cyberspace security, plus deeper dives into "How 5G Will Change the World," "Skilling a U.S. Workforce for a Digital Future" and "A New Era of Data Responsibility."

For example, in a pre-conference presentation, WEF pointed out that only 20% of the world’s data is searchable, "which means 80% of the data out there is sitting on private servers."

"The potential value this data holds is immeasurable," the WEF added. "When unleashed by new technology like artificial intelligence, it is helping businesses develop deeper insights, make exponentially better decisions and engage customers as never before."

Yet such expository bravura leads back to public concerns about how providers use such business intelligence. Hence, it is no coincidence that CNBC and The New York Times co-developed a session called "In Technology We Trust?" -- with an emphasis on the final question mark. "Technology can feed our deepest fears, yet also embodies our greatest hopes," according to the WEF description.

A session on "The Weaponization of Culture" will examine "cultural decline and ethnic supremacy" with an eye toward the spread of culture wars. But perhaps the most anticipated session will be one on "Fake News versus Real Politics" (developed by the BBC) featuring executives from Russia Today and the NYT as well as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. That panel comes right before an address by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and two days prior to a "Special Address" by President Donald J. Trump in a final-day keynote on Friday, Jan. 26.

No matter what (if anything) the high-profile WEF attendees agree upon, the marketplace will still be primed for decisions on how to embrace technology -- or whether the tech-lash is real.

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