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The technology sector plummeted from being the most trusted industry sector in 2020 to 9th place in 2021, according to the 21st annual analysis from communications firm Edelman. Lack of accountability and unwillingness to self-govern is eroding the public’s trust in technology.
Trust in technology reached all-time lows in 17 of 27 countries over the past year, Edelman said in its recent 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer: Trust In Technology report. The report is based on a survey of more than 33,000 people from 28 countries, including both general population respondents and what the firm calls “informed public respondents” for a well-rounded picture.
Trust and fear have a reciprocal relationship: The faster one rises, the faster the other drops. Traditionally, the technology sector was something of an expert at managing the two, but that is no longer the case. Edelman found that fear of technology is growing at a faster rate than trust in technology. It will take years for the technology industry to bounce back and regain the public trust.
Tech broke trust
Edelman’s survey results show respondents feel both betrayed by, and fearful of, technology. Job loss is the single greatest driver of societal fears, followed by the loss of civil liberties. There is a 6% drop in the number of people who are willing to share their personal information online. Social media, traditional media, and search engines are also at record low levels of trust.
While the technology industry is full of entrepreneurs who believe in unleashing creativity and innovation and pursuing moonshot ideas, there are also those who monitor customers and invade privacy. The tendency to use technology as an authoritarian tool to monitor dissent is a concern, which explains China’s 16% drop in trust. The sheer drop is ironic, because China is also a global leader in tech R&D, innovation, and tech manufacturing.
Pandemic amplified fears
Edelman recorded one of the steepest declines in trust in the eight months between May 2020 and January 2021, when the public’s trust in technology dropped from 74% to 67%. People were increasingly concerned about AI and robots, and 53% of the respondents in Edelman’s survey worried the pandemic would accelerate the rate at which their employers would replace human workers with AI and robots. Cyberattackers capitalizing on the pandemic didn’t help matters, as 35% of respondents reported being fearful of attackers and breaches.
Edelman’s Trust in Technology study presents a paradox between tech employees and their employers. Employer trust is highest among tech sector employees, with 83% saying they trust their employers, and 62% believing they have the power to make corporations change. Yet the public’s trust in those employers is plummeting. The disconnect comes from the public perception that humans are not controlling technology, but that technology is trying to control them. There is a growing perception that technology — especially social media — is more capable at manipulating people than previously believed.
One way for the industry sector to regain some trust is to re-evaluate how they handle customer data and to be transparent about what they do with the information.
Gain trust by guarding information quality
Businesses as a whole are still trusted in most of the countries surveyed, with 61% of all respondents trusting companies above nonprofit organizations, government, and media. The most effective step businesses can take to increase trust is to guard the quality of information. Additional factors include embracing sustainable practices, implementing a robust COVID-19 health and safety response, driving economic prosperity, and emphasizing long-term thinking over short-term profits.
However, just saying they will protect information isn’t enough. Businesses need to take a data-centric security approach to achieve greater resiliency and cybersecurity. Businesses should also address the concerns employees have over job loss and automation. They should be transparent and honest with their employees if robotics and automation are part of the business plan. Investing in re-skilling employees for new jobs is a great way to transform a business digitally.
In short, senior management teams should remember that lasting transformation starts with employees.
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