We are in an odd moment for technology. The powerful forces of unstoppable change and tech wealth are rolling along, but mixed in there is a shred of something else: doubt.
In one sign of worry from investors, a half dozen tech giants — Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix — have collectively lost $2.2 trillion of market value this year.
While there have been tech panics before, it feels tougher than it has been in years to predict the fate of tech and leading companies. Perhaps this nervous period is merely a lull and the near future will resemble something like the years since 2010, during which technology grew in importance, companies generated bonkers dollars and investors wallowed in riches. Or maybe we’re on the cusp of something else — not a collapse, but perhaps a sadder phase.
Many of tech’s leaders are having trouble repeating past successes. Netflix in the first quarter of this year lost subscribers for the first time in a decade. Facebook predicted that its quarterly revenue might decline soon.
There has also been a more nuanced reassessment of the belief that the pandemic would turbocharge technology. Lots of retail sales shifted back to physical stores from the online shopping mania of 2020. Businesses that panic-bought work-from-home technology in 2020 might not need any more for awhile.
If there is a US recession, all bets are off. The last time there was a prolonged global recession, technology was a pipsqueak relative to today. Many tech companies basking in success now have never lived through lean times.
An experienced tech investor sketched out what a dark-tech phase might look like, particularly for the companies that sell technology to businesses.
Businesses for the past decade have been pouring money into buying technology. But if there is a recession, executives would take a hard look at budgets and pare back unnecessary technology. If that happens, tech companies will be in for a rude awakening, he cautioned.
We’re not there yet. But the fact that investors are imagining nasty scenarios highlights a mood shift. The boom times in technology have been largely based on hard facts — more people have come online, more businesses have been desperate to modernise, and investors have found few places other than tech to make good money.
But another foundation was the faith that the tech sector would continue to see uninterrupted expansion. Once that feeling wanes a little, it isn’t easy to get it back.