Results from the American Institutional Confidence poll's second wave show that the public's confidence in technology, and tech companies, has markedly decreased over the past five years.
Area of Study
This article was originally published at Brookings.
As COVID-19 spread and pushed individuals to reorganize their lives around social distancing and personal safety, many people were forced to rely more on technology. Working from home increased dramatically, and with it the need for steady internet access, virtual private networks (“VPN”s), and new platforms where colleagues, managers, and clients could communicate in lieu of face-to-face meetings. Children who were no longer able to attend school in-person used tablets and computers to learn remotely, and educators relied on novel digital resources to support those education efforts. Millions of Americans ordered their groceries from apps, borrowed e-books from their library, and shared holiday meals with relatives thousands of miles away over streaming video. Technology became a deeper and more integral part of people’s lives.
These deeper ties between individuals and technology generated mixed effects and perhaps even more mixed feelings. Some research suggests that working from home staved off an even more calamitous economic collapse, but also could have slightly hampered productivity in certain cases. Remote learning slowed the spread of the disease but is generally considered to have set students back in their learning curve, particularly students in poorer areas. The realization that you could more easily and regularly see people geographically distant from you was coupled with the realization that these interactions might be far more shallow than traditional face-to-face meetings.
These and other conflicting reactions to the pandemic lead to the question: How has this pandemic-era increase in technological reliance affected people’s view of technology itself? The question is important because public opinion can ultimately sway technology policy, either by increasing demand for new innovations and support of public-private relationships on one hand, or by calling for increased regulation and oversight on the other.
Over the past 5 years, we have conducted a study on public confidence in American institutions in part to answer questions like this. The American Institutional Confidence poll (“AIC”) is a nationally representative panel survey asking respondents about their confidence in different institutions, as well as their general support for democracy and various democratic norms. Over this time, we have had the opportunity to ask individuals how they feel broadly about technology’s role in their life and their confidence in particular tech companies. In doing so, we discovered a marked decrease in the confidence Americans profess for technology and, specifically, tech companies—greater and more widespread than for any other type of institution. In the remainder of this piece, we document this precipitous drop in faith between 2018 and 2021, illustrate where it came from and was most heavily concentrated, and discuss why it matters.
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