We are in for an odd moment in technology. Can you feel it? The powerful forces of unstoppable change and tech wealth are rolling along, but mixed in there is a shred of something else: doubt.
Some of the digital age’s titans, including Netflix and Facebook, are simultaneously ubiquitous, caring for disruptive digital supernovas and tarnished stars in existential growth challenges.
In the war in Ukraine, governments’ efforts to restrain rising consumer prices and the unsettled economic and social effects of the pandemic have put a pause on some digital advertising and tech purchases. Money pros who bet on the promise of young tech companies are losing some faith.
In a sign of concern from investors, a half dozen tech giants – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix – have collectively lost $ 1.3 trillion of market value this year. (Facebook’s soaring stock price on Thursday had crawled back just a little from its epic 2022 meltdown.)
The past decade has been an almost uninterrupted party for technology as we digitize our lives. And while there have been periodic tech panics before, including briefly as the coronavirus began to spread in early 2020, it feels tougher than it has been in the years of the fate of tech and the industry’s leading companies.
Heedless optimism is out and realism is in. It’s so very un-tech.
Perhaps this nervous period is simply a lull and the near future will resemble something like that from the years since 2010, during which technology grew significantly, tech companies generated bonkers dollars and tech investors wallowed in the wall. Or maybe we’re on the cusp of something else – not a collapse, but perhaps a sadder phase for tech.
Right now, plenty is still rosy in techland. We need technology in our personal and professional lives, and many of those makers are still unimaginably rich. Backers of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, were relieved on Wednesday when the company, which lost users at the tail end of 2021, reported that more people were choosing to re-use Facebook or the company’s Messenger app. Facebook stock is climbing 15 percent on Thursday.
But many of Tech’s leaders are having trouble repeating past successes. Netflix lost its first quarter this year for its first time in a decade. Facebook predicted its quarterly revenue might decline sooner than with 2021. It’s not shocking because last year was a weird one for Facebook, but a tech company’s revenue is not supposed to shrink.
We’ll get more data points later today from Amazon and Apple, which will report their earnings for the first three months of 2022. Young tech companies, including the stock-trading app Robinhood this week, have announced layoffs as their investors want them. hunker down.
There has also been a more nuanced reassessment of the belief that the pandemic will have turbocharge technology. Lots of retail sales shift back to physical stores from the online shopping mania of 2020. It turns out that not everyone wants to Zoom all the time, or ride Peloton bikes in their dining rooms. Businesses that panic-bought work-from-home technology in 2020 might not need any more for awhile.
Twitter is emblematic of this period of unsteady ground. Maybe Elon Musk, who agreed to buy the company this week for $ 44 billion, will help Twitter fulfill a potential that has always seemed just out of reach. Or maybe he’ll drive the company into the ground.
And if there is a US recession, as some economic watchers are contemplating, all bets are off. The last time there was a prolonged global recession – putting aside a brief pandemic-related US downturn in early 2020 – technology was relative to a pipsqueak today. Many tech companies basking in success now have never lived through lean times.
In a recent conversation with an experienced tech investor, who didn’t want to be named so he could speak more freely, he sketched out what a dark-tech phase might look like, especially for companies that sell technology to businesses.
Businesses for the past decade have been pouring money into buying technology, with few financial constraints. But if there is a recession, he imagined that executives would take a hard look at budgets and pare back unnecessary technology. If that happens, tech companies that have assumed they’d keep growing fast for a long time will be awakening in this investor, this investor 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 modernize ahead of rivals, and investors have found few places to make better money than tech.
But another foundation was the belief that the tech sector would continue to see uninterrupted expansion. Once that feeling wanes a little, it’s not always easy to get it back.
Before we go…
Elon Musk is difficult to like, but he is too helped improve the condition of humanity, wrote Farhad Manjoo for The New York Times Opinion section. “I, for one, am excited to see what he comes up with,” wrote Twitter’s next owner, Farhad.
More in social media: New European regulations can improve social media sites without impeding free expression, and the US can’t do the same, writes Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who has published documents on her insights about the harms.
And my colleague Brian X. Chen was underwhelmed with his experience on Truth Social, the social media app backed by former President Donald J. Trump.
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