TIME Davos

How Technology Is Making All of Us Less Trusting

A technician checks the light in the Congress Hall before the start of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2014 in Davos Jan. 21, 2014
Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The world's major tech companies better pay attention to the growing backlash — before it's too late

Davos Man, take note: the technology that has enriched you is moving too fast for the average Joe.

That’s the takeaway from the 2015 Trust Barometer survey, released by public relations firm Edelman every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This year’s survey, which came out Wednesday, looks at thousands of consumers in 27 countries to get a sense of public trust in business, government, NGOs and media. This year, it’s falling across the board, with two-thirds of nations’ citizens being more distrustful than ever of all institutions, perhaps no surprise given that neither the private nor the public sector seems to have answers to the big questions of the day — geopolitical conflict, rising inequality, flat wages, market volatility, etc.

What’s interesting is how much people blame technology and the speed of technological change for the feeling of unease in the world today. Two to one, consumers in all the countries surveyed felt that technology was moving too quickly for them to cope with, and that governments and business weren’t doing enough to assess the long-term impact of shifts like GMO foods, fracking, disruptors like Uber or Apple Pay, or any of the myriad other digital services that affect privacy and security of people and companies.

That belies the conventional wisdom among tech gurus like, say, Jeff Bezos, who once said that, “New inventions and things that customers like are usually good for society.” Maybe, but increasingly people aren’t feeling that way. And it could have an impact on the regulatory environment facing tech companies. Expect more pushback on sharing-economy companies that skirt local regulation, a greater focus on the monopoly power of mammoth tech companies, and closer scrutiny of the personal wealth of tech titans themselves.

Two of the most interesting pieces of journalism I have read in recent years look at how the speed of digital change is affecting culture and public sentiment. Kurt Andersen’s wonderful Vanity Fair story from January 2012, posited the idea that culture is stuck in retro mode — think fashion’s obsession with past decades, and the nostalgia that’s rife in TV and film — because technology and globalization are moving so fast that people simply can’t take any more change, cognitively at least. Likewise, Leon Wieseltier’s sharp essay on the cover of the New York Times book review this past Sunday lamented how the fetishization of all things Big Tech has led us to focus on the speed, brevity and monetization of everything, to the detriment of “deep thought” and a broader understanding of the human experience.

I agree on both counts. And I hope that some of the tech luminaries here at Davos, like Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt and Sheryl Sandberg, are paying attention to this potential growing backlash, which I expect will heat up in the coming year.

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