The tech industry relies, in part, on the hot air pulsating forth from its own grandiose delusions to keep it going. As president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, a powerful industry trade group, Gary Shapiro has an important role in belching out plenty of that hot air—and he recently did just that.
On Tuesday, on the eve of his organization’s famed Consumer Electronics Show, Shapiro published an op-ed on the website of the soon-to-be Megyn Kelly-less Fox News. In it, he is referred to as a “top tech guru,” and argues that the President-elect Trump and Congress can learn a great deal—well, enough to fill up three bullet points, anyway—from the technology industry. Let’s dive in!
1. Technology keeps us safe. As our world becomes more connected than ever before, tech companies are making us safer. From facial recognition and gait and voice analysis to predictive analytics and chemical-sensing devices, the companies and technologies at CES help fight terrorism and crime through innovation.
Setting aside the questionable decision to use “facial recognition and gait and voice analysis” and “predictive analytics” as examples of tech innovations designed to keep us safe, Shapiro’s assertion that technology will protect us ignores the myriad ways in which these safeguards can be abused. He never defines the “us” in this scenario, either—is it people like him? Because he certainly can’t be talking about the country’s prison population, which has been the pointed target of some of these “predictive analytics.” He also can’t be talking about the reported 117 million Americans whose faces are stashed away in FBI databases. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have highlighted the myriad dangers of this practice.
2. Technology and innovation drive the U.S. economy. The tech sector directly and indirectly accounts for 8.4 percent of total U.S. employment and created $3.5 trillion in total economic output, according to the Consumer Technology Association’s U.S. Economic Contribution of the Consumer Technology Sector report. The companies and technologies on display at CES are not only changing our lives for the better, they are driving our economy and strengthening our global leadership.
To fully realize the economic potential of technology, we need effective communication among policymakers, tech developers and entrepreneurs, particularly when it comes to opening up new markets for American exporters.
While it’s somewhat of a stretch to say that technology “drives” the economy, it’s slightly less egregious to argue that innovation plays a key role. Innovation is important! How else are we going to kick every other country’s ass at science fairs, and develop impressive nuclear arsenals for our new Supreme Leader? But this is another one of the industry’s talking points, and it ignores the downsides of chasing innovation above all else—inevitably, certain groups, particularly economically disadvantaged ones, will suffer. Take the industry’s workforce, for example, which is predominantly white, male, straight, and wealthy, and largely leaves out traditionally marginalized groups.
What’s more, the value of several of these “innovative” companies is laughably high—Uber is supposedly worth more than $60 billion, despite its trouble turning a profit. And Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes’ one-time golden child startup, had its value slashed after reports emerged that its blood testing practices were sketchy. Given the bizarre and unpredictable nature of these numbers, Shapiro’s insistence that the technology industry is just plain good without any downsides is naive.
3. Technology is improving the way we live. From smart homes to smart cities, technology is connecting our lives to make us more efficient and save time. Increased mobility options from ride-sharing to self-driving cars are opening up new possibilities in transportation, tourism and many other sectors, while also providing flexible opportunities for Americans to earn a living.
VR allows doctors to develop treatments and has proven to help with conditions as diverse as dementia, paralysis, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Self-driving cars should reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent, solving one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, as well as giving heretofore undreamed-of independence and mobility to seniors and people with vision loss.
Drones have unlimited life-changing potential. From the quick delivery of supplies and medicine to better crop production, drones will bring game-changing innovation to our everyday lives.
Here, Shapiro conveniently leaves out all the ways in which technology is also fucking us over. The massive internet outage in October, for example, was traced back to ‘smart’ home gadgets; drones, while cool for some things, can also kill you if you happen to be on the wrong side of the world; our bodies aren’t yet ready for virtual reality; Soylent products made a lot of people very sick; and self-driving cars are still far from “solving one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.”
Shapiro’s general case isn’t wrong, per se—technology is arguably improving some aspects of some people’s lives—but he happily glosses over most of the industry’s major blemishes. You can’t heap praise on Big Tech without acknowledging that blindly embracing its every facet is dangerous and, frankly, stupid.
Of course, he’s also simultaneously promoting the hell out of his organization’s big annual event, so it’s wholly unsurprising that he’s trotting out the usual talking points. Still, he may want to take a slightly less hot air-infused approach next time.
Correction 1/5/2016: An earlier version of this story used the word “fraudulent” when referring to Theranos’ blood testing practices. While the company is the subject of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, it hasn’t yet been charged with any crimes. We’ve replaced the legally fraught term with the word “sketchy.”