GRI.06.01.17
Illustration by Michael George Hadad for Fortune

We Changed the World! …Oops

May 22, 2017

💥A Boom with a View💥 is a column about startups and the technology industry, written by Erin Griffith. Find them all here: fortune.com/boom.

If you pay attention only to statistics, the technology industry is stronger than ever: Profits are surging, tech stocks are up 17.4% this year, and the industry’s products are used by more people than ever to do more things than ever. Self-driving cars! Intelligent assistants! Pizza-delivery drones! These companies are truly changing the world!

But profits and pizza drones are only one piece of the tech industry’s increasing power. With software invading every sector of the global economy, it’s starting to feel like the handful of conglomerates who dominate tech control everything we do. The New York Times even dubbed the industry’s most valuable players—Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, and Microsoft, worth a combined $2.87 trillion—the “Frightful Five.” The newspaper’s point is that their dominance should scare competitors, regulators, incumbents, and most importantly us, the humans whose lives they power.

Silicon Valley’s giants have always paid lip service to these fears, but they know the data tell another story. People will keep using their products, no matter the scandal. Negative headlines rarely stick around for very long. Why fret over this week’s noise when every performance chart points up and to the right?

Consider: Amazon’s sales continued to grow amid reports of brutal treatment of its warehouse workers. Google’s search dominance has never wavered through various privacy outrages and accusations of monopolistic behavior. Airbnb’s home-sharing network doubles every year despite legal roadblocks and tales of racism and home-trashing. Facebook steadily signs up users even as they protest new features or complain about its spreading of fake news. And Uber added customers amid this winter’s #DeleteUber campaign and bonanza of unsettling scandals. (For more, read “Riding Shotgun With Travis Kalanick” by Adam Lashinsky.)

“Silicon Valley has learned to tune out the anecdotal feedback and just look at the numbers,” Uber investor Chris Sacca said at a conference in May. It’s an easy attitude for tech companies to take. Their products are so convenient, so cheap, so ubiquitous, and so addictive that we can’t stop ourselves from using them. (The troves of personal data the companies collect from our behavior only make the products more useful and addictive.)

But, Sacca noted, a success plainly reflected on spreadsheets and charts only reinforces bad behavior. Sacca insists that Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, known for his aggressive, win-at-all-costs attitude, is finally softening his tone and listening to criticism. Such a change might not make a difference to Uber’s finances or market share. But as powerful companies like Uber and the “Frightful Five” worm their way deeper into our lives, it’s more important than ever they pay attention to this intangible, hard-to-measure stuff. You know—the questions, concerns, fears, and feedback from the human beings who use their products and services.

The world’s largest technology companies indisputably have great power. Great responsibility? That’s a work in progress.

A version of this article appears in the June 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.

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