Maybe it was fake news, Russian trolls, and Cambridge Analytica. Or Travis Kalanick’s conniption in an Uber. Or the unmasking of Theranos. Or all those Twitter Nazis, and racist Google results, and conspiracy theories on YouTube. Though activists, academics, reporters, and regulators had sent up warning flares for years, it wasn’t until quite recently that the era of enchantment with Silicon Valley ended. The list of scandals—over user privacy and security, over corporate surveillance and data collection, over fraud and foreign propaganda and algorithmic bias, to name a few—was as unending as your Instagram feed. There were hearings, resignations, investigations, major new regulations in Europe, and calls for new laws at home. There was an industry that insisted it now valued privacy and safety but still acted otherwise. There was WeWork, whatever that was.
The tech industry doesn’t intoxicate us like it did just a few years ago. Keeping up with its problems—and its fixes, and its fixes that cause new problems—is dizzying. Separating out the meaningful threats from the noise is hard. Is Facebook really the danger to democracy it looks like? Is Uber really worse than the system it replaced? Isn’t Amazon’s same-day delivery worth it? Which harms are real and which are hypothetical? Has the techlash gotten it right? And which of these companies is really the worst? Which ones might be, well, evil?