If you wanted to see two completely divergent narratives around tech, this week was the time to do it. On one hand, we had CES, a wan, digital version of the giant consumer technology trade show held every January. And on the other hand, we saw how social media, monolithic technology platforms such as AWS, and social algorithms were harnessed to fuel an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
Thanks to technology (namely smartphones and cloud services), citizens of the U.S. and of the world were able to watch everything unfold live and debate every aspect of the insurrection on the same social media platforms that were accused of enabling it. Also thanks to technology (specifically facial recognition software and digital forensics), law enforcement was able to track down some of those involved and arrest them. In the meantime, as the tech reckoning was taking place in the real world, the digital version of the trade show was showing off futuristic robots, curved screens, and $3,000 dog doors. And yet, even at CES a reckoning was taking place.
Microsoft President Brad Smith kicked things off with a keynote focused on the role we want technology to play in the world. He addressed its gigantic consumption of energy (it takes the same amount of energy to operate a data center for a year as it does to power 8,000 homes, for example) and talked about Microsoft’s efforts to mitigate the effects of that consumption by moving from fossil fuels to renewables. He then talked about the need for technologists to think about what technology can do and how it might be used against others. Smith also called for guardrails on the tech industry around artificial intelligence, noting how technologies like facial recognition can be used for both good and bad. He also brought up the possible repercussions of algorithmic bias.
It was an incredibly surprising speech for a technology event. Technology has been associated with optimism and exceptionalism for so long that for it to even recognize that it has both beneficial and detrimental effects on both individual people and the world at large felt like introspection.
It was not, of course. And yet the spectacle of an entire industry waking up to the implications of what it builds was everywhere at the show. Related was the idea that if technology really is now part of everything, then what responsibilities does the tech world need to consider?
We saw the CEOs of Best Buy and Walmart address the killing of George Floyd, which sparked the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer. And thanks to the pandemic we saw hundreds of ways companies are trying to use technology to address the age-old human enemy — disease. And we saw several companies and executives address sustainability in ways that were more than just a veneer over a product.
Executives from Bosch, for example, showed off a highly produced marketing video featuring a little Black girl with a British accent rapping about climate change. But they also laid out a plan for making a portion of Bosch’s supply chain carbon-neutral by 2030. And Schneider Electric spent time discussing its vision for a sustainable home, although it was mostly focused on electrification (this makes sense given Schneider Electric’s product lines).
While normally Kevin and I would have been uninspired by such a lackluster CES, we both walked away feeling like the companies were taking a moment. As Kevin wrote, “It may sound like I’m down on the smart home. I’m not. Instead, this year’s CES event gave me time to take a step back to see how we got here, if ‘here’ is where we want to be, and where we might be going.”
It’s not only folks in the smart home taking that pause. It’s an entire industry of people who have long let their optimism keep them from self-reflection realizing that tech isn’t the panacea they thought. And not a moment too soon, because with the internet of things, technology is being called to solve ever-more-complex problems, from boosting productivity in manufacturing to helping monitor people’s health virtually.
So maybe a global pandemic and an insurrection will do what years of nagging by activists have not: force the tech industry to grow up, humble itself, and recognize that it is a provider of tools, not miracles.