By Karyn Barr
Apple and Google announced a game-changing partnership on April 10, and the world took notice. The long-time rivals became allies in the fight against COVID-19, seemingly putting down their gloves to build large-scale contact tracing using their smartphone networks. Words like “bold,” “innovative” and “unprecedented” dominated the related headlines. Inc. magazine even went as far as hailing the tech giants for “building the only realistic way to get out of this shutdown.”
It seems – at least in the immediate wake of the announcement – the partnership is a glimmer of hope emerging in the tech world. Not just in the sense that Apple and Google have provided a potential solution to flatten the curve, but also in the sense that collaboration itself may counteract some of the negativity that plagued large tech companies for much of the past two years.
Could COVID-19 be the unexpected antidote to “techlash”?
Two years ago, the word “techlash” was born, marring reputations within Silicon Valley and beyond. Big Tech’s integrity was called into question as scrutiny over companies’ ethics, social responsibility and intent skyrocketed toward an all-time high. A wave of negative reactions to tech’s power and influence dominated headlines. And the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google were pushed into the government spotlight with calls for regulation, data responsibility, privacy and so much more.
As we headed into 2020, America’s trust and patience had begun to disappear. The one-time tech darlings were well on their way to becoming Public Enemy No. 1. come the November election.
Then COVID-19 hit, changing everything we once knew and forcing us to adjust personally and professionally to a new norm. Technology – whether we consciously think about it – has made all our adjusted lives more palatable. We’ve connected with colleagues, teachers, friends and family on a variety of platforms like never before. We’ve relied on fixed and mobile networks to maintain business continuity, tested bandwidth boundaries and proved a work-from-home life, while not desirable for some, is actually feasible and efficient. And we’ve relied on delivery services, telehealth and social networks to provide creature comforts when we’re all on edge.
We cannot deny technology has become our connective tissue. But great power begs for great responsibility. COVID-19 hasn’t changed that.
Apple and Google took an admirable first step with their collaboration. And, yes, it’s initially helping big tech emerge from the shadows of techlash. However, we must see how the partnership plays out. Promising “privacy, transparency and consent are of utmost importance” was appreciated as both companies look to stop the spread of coronavirus. But maintaining that public, socially responsible commitment well-beyond this critical time is where the rubber will meet the road.
After all, this pandemic has potentially permanently changed the way we live. As a result, we now have even higher expectations of technology, its reliability and security, and its impact at a global scale.
COVID-19 hasn’t cured the fundamentals of why techlash emerged in the first place. Techlash was never just about a company being “bad” or “capitalistic.” Instead, it was centered on the actual business decisions tech companies made – decisions that called into question and sometimes egregiously compromised our privacy and security. Even after this pandemic, consumers, governments and businesses will still demand transparency and consent, while debates around greater, more serious regulation will continue.
But what COVID-19 has done – and will continue to do – is trigger tech to be accountable. Thus far, tech companies of all sizes have responded. The glimmers of hope are there. Security measures have tightened. “Tech for good” partnerships have emerged. And some techlash-ed reputations have started to mend.
So maybe, just maybe, the tech world gained a little more perspective – a game-changing perspective that will help define how every company needs to operate to regain brand trust today and well into tomorrow.
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Karyn Barr is Head of B2B Technology at Allison+Partners and primarily counseling clients inside and outside of Silicon Valley on global growth strategies, brand positioning and C-Suite thought leadership programs. A long-time agency veteran, she had led award-winning work across numerous industries, including artificial intelligence, data analytics, additive manufacturing, cybersecurity and more. Karyn resides in the Bay Area where she and her family are rehabbing their 110-year-old home.