An Unsteady Moment for Tech

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We are in an odd moment for 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, disruptive digital supernovas and tarnished stars careening into existential growth challenges.

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 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, as of the end of the week. (Facebook’s soaring stock price on Thursday had crawled back only a little from its epic 2022 meltdown.)

The past decade has been a nearly uninterrupted party for technology as we digitized our lives. And while there have been periodic tech panics before, including briefly as the coronavirus started to spread in early 2020, it feels tougher than it has been in years to predict 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 merely a lull and the near future will resemble something like the years since 2010, during which technology grew in importance, tech companies generated bonkers dollars and tech investors wallowed in riches. 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 makers of those technologies 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 picked up the habit again of using 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 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 compared with 2021. It’s not shocking partly 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 to hunker down.

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. 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 U.S. recession, as some economic watchers are contemplating, all bets are off. The last time there was a prolonged global recession — putting aside the brief pandemic-related U.S. downturn in early 2020 — technology was a pipsqueak relative to 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, particularly for the companies that sell technology to businesses.

Businesses for the past decade have been pouring money into buying technology, mostly 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 in for a rude awakening, 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 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 always easy to get it back.

  • Elon Musk is difficult to like, but he has also 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,” as Twitter’s next owner, Farhad wrote.

  • More in social media: New European regulations can improve social media sites without impeding on free expression, and the U.S. can do the same, writes Frances Haugen, the former Facebook product manager who disclosed documents on its insights about the harms it caused.

    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.

  • Competitive typing: It’s a thing, and the hobby has found a new life in online communities.

Today in exceptional multitasking: This guy caught a baseball without jostling the baby that he was feeding.

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