The Myth of Tech Exceptionalism

Essay by Yael Eisenstat and Nils Gilman: “…What has come to be known as “tech” presents a two-faced image. On the one hand, tech represents (and especially presents itself) as all that is good about contemporary capitalism: it produces delightful new products, generates vast new troves of wealth and inspires us quite literally to reach for the heavens. On the other hand, the harms caused by “tech” have become all too familiar: facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifying people of color, Google reinforcing racist stereotypes, Facebook stoking political polarization, AirBnB hollowing out city centers, smartphones harming mental health and on and on. Some go so far as to claim that tech is depriving us of the very essence of our humanity.

Despite these critiques, Silicon Valley in recent decades has managed to build an anti-regulatory fortress around itself by promoting the myth — rarely stated plainly, but widely believed by tech practitioners — that “tech” is somehow fundamentally different from every other industry that has come before. It is different, the myth says, because it is inherently well-intentioned and will produce not just new but previously unthinkable products. Any micro-level harm — whether to an individual, a vulnerable community, even an entire country — is by this logic deemed a worthwhile trade-off for the society-shifting, macro-level “good.”

This argument, properly labelled “tech exceptionalism,” is rooted in tech leaders’ ideological view both of themselves and government. This ideology contributes to the belief that those who choose to classify themselves as “tech companies” deserve a different set of rules and responsibilities than the rest of private industry.

For tech evangelists, “disruption” as such has become a kind of holy grail, with “unintended consequences” treated as an acceptable by-product of innovation. “Move fast and break things” was Facebook’s original motto — and if a little thing like democracy got broken in the process, well, someone could clean that up later. An entire generation of “innovators” has grown up believing that technology is the key to making the world better, that founders’ visions for how to do so are unquestionably true and that government intervention will only stymie this engine of growth and prosperity, or even worse, their aspirational future innovations…(More)”.