2020年5月1日 星期五

On Tech: Big Tech’s worries should worry you

When the most successful companies are anxious, you know we’re in scary times.

Big Tech’s worries should worry you

The New York Times

America’s technology superpowers are a little nervous. That’s sensible, and also terrifying.

Financial reports filing in from Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and others show the big tech companies are holding up OK — great, even. As expected, so far the big and powerful are growing, hiring and spending as many other businesses fight just to survive a pandemic-driven economic freeze.

But even the tech titans have lots of shrugs and buts. They’re confident about the far-off future, yet cautious about what’s on the horizon. No one wants to be overly optimistic or overextended.

This might be posturing; it’s tacky to gloat when many millions of people have lost their jobs. But the worrying feels genuine. When the most successful companies are anxious, you know we’re in scary times.

As the big tech companies talked about dollars and cents this week, pride was the prevailing mood. The bosses at Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook know we’re leaning hard on their products and services. They believe — correctly — that they’ll benefit if we permanently live, work and shop more online.

But the nerves were there, too. “I remain very concerned that this health emergency and therefore the economic fallout will last longer than people are currently anticipating,” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said.

Both Zuckerberg and Google’s executives said — again correctly — that they’re at the mercy of economic ups and downs. If people aren’t buying new cars, Ford isn’t going to buy as many ads on Facebook, Google or The New York Times.

It’s sensible caution, but it’s unusual for Zuckerberg to stress Facebook’s inherent fragility. He also talked more than I’ve ever heard before about keeping his company’s spending in check so Facebook has a cushion for bad times.

Facebook and Google said that they weren’t hiring as much as expected in some areas and that they planned to spend less than they forecast on new buildings and other big-ticket items. These companies are doing well, and they’re still doing the rich company’s version of pinching pennies.

Apple, Amazon and Google said they couldn’t predict what their numbers would look like in the next few months. Apple hadn’t done that in more than a decade, Bloomberg News reported.

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Even though we’re shopping a ton on Amazon, the company isn’t cashing in. Amazon is barely breaking even on our jars of peanut butter and toilet paper. And the company is spending a fortune to make sure shoppers get what they want and employees are safe — areas where the company has struggled.

The tech companies that now seem unassailable were tiny little things, relatively speaking, the last time there was a recession. Facebook was a toddler, and Amazon was still getting most of its money from books, CDs and DVDs.

People have wondered how these 21st-century titans would fare in the next recession. We’re going to find out. It looks like they’ll be just fine, but even they’re not so sure.

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The homework gap is stark

This pandemic is exposing the divide between the internet haves and have-nots.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, one in five American parents with kids now home said it was somewhat or very likely that their children wouldn’t be able to complete their classwork online.

The reasons they cited included a lack of access to a computer or internet connection at home. And about 30 percent of parents said it’s at least somewhat likely that their children would have to do assignments on a cellphone.

The Pew survey backed what my Times colleagues have written about the struggles of families in rural or low-income households as many school districts moved to online instruction.

Among the parents in the Pew survey with lower incomes, about 40 percent said their kids may have to use Wi-Fi in public places to do schoolwork, because there wasn’t reliable internet at home. The figure was just 6 percent among higher-income survey respondents.

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Before we go …

  • There are so many bogus claims about artificial intelligence: But the Times technology reporter Cade Metz found a genuinely helpful outcome when London researchers used an artificial intelligence tool to scour scientific literature for possible coronavirus treatments. Two days later, it identified an arthritis medication with so much potential that it is being fast-tracked.
  • Employers, WHAT are you doing? Companies are buying software that catalogs everything employees do, say, watch and listen to while working from home, The Washington Post reports. Software can flag, for example, when people are typing words like “job” and “client,” which might signal employees are looking for new jobs. Another option: trusting people to be adults.
  • Is Silicon Valley the next Detroit? Margaret O’Mara, a contributing Opinion writer at The Times, writes that after World War II, American car companies could no longer resist tighter safety and emissions rules and workers’ demands for better pay. She believes today’s tech superpowers may be similarly transformed in coming years by more regulation and employee activism.

Hugs to this

No, I’m not crying. (Sniff.) Volunteer staff members at a Florida pet kennel cheered at the empty cages. All the good doggos had been adopted for the first time ever.

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