The Tech Bubble Conversation Is Dead
By Erin Griffith for Fortune
When we started this column in late 2015, the technology boom felt like it was in danger of collapse. Mutual funds and institutional investors had created the so-called Age of Unicorns by pouring money into large, highly valued private startups; suddenly investors were in retreat, burned by bad bets. Talk of valuation markdowns, missed revenue targets, cash crunches, and failed acquisitions threw cold water onto a blistering business. Everyone stopped asking the question investors had been debating and fretting over for the past few years: “Are we in a tech bubble?” Nothing had really burst, but it no longer felt bubbly.
Nearly three years and 27 columns later, the tech bubble question is beside the point. Inside boom-land, there’s a bigger set of issues to fret over. A toxic culture of sexism and sexual harassment has moved front and center, thanks to a growing group of whistleblowers. High-profile instances of shady startup behavior have caused the industry to question its “fake it till you make it” philosophy of hustling your way to success. Uber, the most valuable venture-backed startup in the world, continues to be a shining example of dysfunction as its board of directors, cofounders, and investors snipe at each other in the press and through lawsuits over who controls the company. In 2017, the startup industry is experiencing the fallout from years of prioritizing growth at any cost.
Not every startup is unethical, overvalued, toxic, or dysfunctional. But the tech world’s success stories are now overshadowed by big, vexing issues that make the “Are we in a bubble?” question look pathetically myopic. Outsiders are asking things like, Are tech platforms responsible for spreading hatred and misinformation in America? Are Facebook, Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon too powerful? Will technology eliminate our jobs? A few years ago, we wondered if the tech party was coming to an end. Today we ponder if its hosts are fundamentally misanthropic.
How did we get here? In part because the technology industry injected itself into the world beyond its bubble. Software is, as the saying goes, “eating” everything from transportation to hospitality, retail to automotive, health care to education. In the process, the tech industry inherits the world’s problems. Outrage over mutual funds marking down Uber’s valuation feels beside the point when you consider that as many as 5 million professional drivers in the U.S. could lose their jobs to autonomous vehicles. Boom, meet doom.
While not particularly satisfying, it feels fitting to end this column’s run on a gloomy note. The “boom” in its name nods to tech industry growth; the “view” signals an air of skepticism. Never has the world been more dubious of startups and the technology industry than it is today. The tech community could choose to interpret that stance as an attack. I’d rather it do what it’s known for—turning problems into opportunities—and fix some of the messes it has made. It’s a chance to actually, maybe, seriously, no joke, make the world a better place.
Find previous editions of ?A Boom With a View? at fortune.com/boom.
A version of this article appears in the Sept. 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “From Boom to Doom.”