In tech we (still) trust

In tech we (still) trust
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The tech industry spends a lot of time thinking about trust — how to get it, how to grow it and, most importantly, the consequences of losing it. Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm, released research last week revealing that only 30 percent of Americans trust social media platforms, down from 35 percent in 2015. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you won’t be surprised why: fake news, cyberbullying, and privacy breaches dominate headlines week after week, declaring that trust in tech is dead.

But is it?

In order to evaluate the truth in that statement, first we have to decide what is “tech”? Is it the social media platform where you post your kids’ pics and share the details of your life? Is it the search tool that answers your personal and professional queries? Is it the smartphone in your hand, or the laptop you use for work?  The awe-inspiring light displays in Vegas? The cutting-edge tools used by doctors, or scientists in the laboratory?

 

In fact, tech is all of those things and much more. We tend to hear references to the “tech industry” as if it’s one monolithic entity, when in fact technology is one of the largest and most diverse industries in the world.

Consumers get it. In fact, a nationwide poll that we just conducted found that, although  Americans do have very real concerns about privacy with social media companies, it actually has very little impact on their overall trust in the technology industry. To the contrary, most Americans say they are proud of the tech industry and the role that it plays in our economy. Computer and device manufacturers and technology service providers, in particular, earned strong marks for trust, outperforming local, state and national government leaders as well as energy companies, financial companies and social media companies.

The nuance that consumers take for granted — that all tech companies are not created equally  — is easy for media and policymakers to overlook. It’s tempting to buy into the “techlash” narrative. But in focus groups that we’ve conducted around the country, we heard a different story. Only social media was associated with the downside of tech — described as kids staring at their phones, or online squabbles with relatives. Participants told us that, overall, the tech sector has changed their lives for the better.

Similarly, in our survey, “the tech industry” is popular (40 percent favorable, 22 percent unfavorable), while “social media companies” are the reverse (22 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable).

And there are consequences to painting this diverse industry with the same brush. The United States long has enjoyed its position as a global leader in technology, but we can’t take that position for granted. Competition from international markets, especially China, continues to increase, often supported by investments and aggressive policies from their governments. U.S. policymakers likewise should look for ways to support sectors of the tech industry that continue to drive enormous value into society and the U.S. economy.

GBA Strategies’ polling data show that Americans overwhelmingly favor government efforts to protect and grow the tech sector, especially those that support new jobs such as tax incentives, community grants to improve and modernize local infrastructure, job retraining programs, modernizing government technology, immigration policies to attract more scientists and engineers, and trade deals that help U.S. companies compete for foreign customers.

At a time of diminished trust in institutions nationwide, it’s clear that the tech industry overall continues to be a bright spot in the American business landscape. While there are indeed pieces of the tech industry that are still finding their way, we need to differentiate our thinking and our policymaking in order to support the U.S. tech industry and the jobs and value that it creates.

Margie Omero, founder of “The Pollsters” podcast, is a principal at GBA Strategies, which produces survey research and performs strategic consulting in corporate communications, branding strategy, international relations and political campaigns.

Bruce Mehlman is the executive director of the Technology CEO Council, a public policy advocacy group made up of the leading IT companies in the United States.