A portmanteau of the words “technology” and “backlash,” the term “techlash” describes a growing discontent against the world’s largest tech companies over blatant malpractice and monopoly.
At the end of 2018, Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar declared that the word “techlash” best summed up the year in retrospect. That was the year Google’s own employees protested plans to develop a censored search engine in China, leading to the project’s cancellation.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019.
Now, a recent report from the New York Times has detailed how techlash is spreading to American campuses, the very training ground for much of Silicon Valley’s workforce today.
Why the techlash?
In 2019, Mark Zuckerberg became the subject of memes after his first appearance in front of the US Congress. Later that year, Facebook was fined nearly US$5 billion for mishandling user data. The Cambridge Analytica scandal – which had been brewing since the US presidential elections in 2016 – became Facebook’s greatest self-sabotage campaign in the public eye.
By May 2019, CNBC found that graduates of top-tier schools were less enthusiastic about scoring a Facebook gig – only 35-55 percent were accepting full-time positions, as opposed to 85 percent merely six months earlier. A decade earlier, at the height of an era of IPO zillionaires and startup valued at several billion dollars, graduates the world over dreamt nothing but for the chance to work with the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon.
According to the New York Times report, more computer science majors are abandoning their rose-tinted glasses for Big Tech in the face of growing injustice. As reports of privacy violations, political bias and abuse of power emerged, these companies earned the reputation of banking bigwigs before them: students and graduates believed they would have to sell their soul and ethical sense to thrive in such environments.
This is so cool! Student group SLAP distributed fliers at the most recent Stanford Computer Forum career fair urging students to "REFUSE to be part of the Stanford -> racist tech pipeline" and turn down jobs with Palantir and other orgs who do business with ICE #TechWontBuildIt pic.twitter.com/V8XWeCyQ0b
— Anna Geiduschek (@ageiduschek) February 27, 2019
Social responsibility a priority
Big Tech’s largest hiring pools come from University of California, Berkeley and Stanford. For many of these students, academic achievement is fortified by social responsibility.
According to a 2017 Universum survey, American graduates increasingly look to contribute to a greater cause through their vocation. They prioritise innovation, ethics, and inspiration in selecting an employer. So if ethics are not a priority at Big Tech companies, graduates will not hesitate to take their talents elsewhere.
The gravity of several moral issues is spreading techlash to the point of campus activism. For example, Stanford group C+SocialGood nurtures the idea of ethical employment by seeking out paid internships for computer science students to work at nonprofits that require their expertise – companies where social responsibility is not only a priority, but a driving force of business. There are now a dozen C+SocialGood chapters across US campuses.
Some prefer to make bolder statements, like Stanford’s Students for the Liberation of All People (SLAP). Besides organising talks, handing out literature, and disrupting a tech-recruiting job fair (where Big Tech companies pay over US$20,000 for a table), SLAP has also visibly protested against Palantir, which is responsible for the software used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
University of California, Berkeley, Brown and Yale all saw similar protests. Student activist groups are sending the message that they will no longer channel their talent to unscrupulous parties, and are encouraging peers to lash out with them.