These are some of the PR disasters we can expect for Big Tech in 2020

These are some of the PR disasters we can expect for Big Tech in 2020
[Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash; Patrick Lindenberg/Unsplash; OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay]

PR departments across Big Tech are buckling their seatbelts for negative election-year chatter. “The debate around the role of tech will continue to rise (hopefully not in shrillness) and reach a natural peak in the lead-up to the U.S. election,” says a new report from CB Insights, a firm that provides trend analysis to the tech industry.

The report is a veritable 2020 PR cheatsheet for Big Tech. “We expect there will be at least some ability to focus more pragmatically on specific issues that merit particular attention rather than treating technology as a monolith of good or evil.” Translation: Expect shrill debate around Big Tech as a monolith of evil.

Here are things the industry would like you to say very nice things about:

  • Virtual office tech. Companies such as Magic Leap, Spatial, and Tandem are building really cool collaborative tools with augmented reality and virtual reality! Ignore that the workers populating virtual offices often lack job security and health insurance.
  • The charge into your medical charts. Apple will “double down” on healthcare-related products, according to the report, while Alphabet has invested in “90 deals to nearly 60 portfolio companies focused on digital health.” Privacy? Humph.
  • Senior wellness. Everyone is in on profiting off the Olds through apps with excellent names: Silvernest, Golden, Papa’s.
  • Cradle-to-cradle supply chains. Look! The industry figured out that recycling is a thing! Apparent motive: “There’s a halo effect when a brand or product can boost its sustainability credentials.”

Meanwhile, here’s what the industry would like you to not notice:

  • Slaughterbots. The small drones that could execute targeted assassinations. “Almost anyone could develop it: nonstate groups, terrorists, criminal cartel, mercenary groups.” Shhhh.
  • AI discrimination. Remember when Apple’s credit card gave higher credit limits to men, and Amazon’s recruiting tool penalized résumés with the word “women’s”? Uh-oh. Regulators are gonna get involved! Perhaps a Supreme Court ruling on “companies’ responsibilities to test, identify and correct algorithmic bias.” Tech companies can get a “head start on compliance by implementing bias policies before any legislation is passed.”
  • Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s increasing ownership. Recall that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund invested $3.5 billion in Uber in 2016. Last year, meanwhile, some $2.5 billion in backing emerged from the two countries to fund 370 deals. Expect more of that.
  • Big Tech’s two-decade-late adoption of empathetic design. “We expect empathetic design to continue gaining steam in 2020 as political and social pressure push tech companies to account for humanistic concerns.” The report defines “empathetic design” with a Harvard Business Review article from . . . 1997. Face palm.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Apple’s health records feature. According to Apple’s privacy section, health records data is “downloaded over an encrypted connection” and “does not traverse Apple’s network.”