The death of the term ‘tech industry’
If we told you that a business was part of the tech industry, would you be able to explain what products or services that business offers?
You might be tempted to suggest computers, robots, or software. But what about medical tech, financial tech, food production, taxi companies, streaming services, and the vast plethora of modern apps and offerings that technology makes possible?
The fact is, the tech industry has sprawled to become a label that’s no longer useful. The idea of a solid, uniform tech industry is now a myth, and the term doesn’t tell us anything useful. So, what happened to the ‘tech industry’, and why is the label meeting its death?
Nowadays, every new company relies on technology to varying degrees. It could be using customer-facing technology like an app, a chatbot, or an online self-service platform. It could be office computers, or specialised hardware or machinery.
No matter the business model, reliance on modern tech means that every start-up could now claim that they’re entering the market as part of the ‘tech industry’. These start-ups could be providing anything from digital loan services to drone building.
‘Tech’ simply isn’t an all-encompassing box that we can put all the world’s solutions and services coherently inside. Calling a new company a ‘tech start-up’ has about as much point as an unsharpened pencil. It tells us nothing about what the company actually does or provides.
The tech industry has come to relate to such a wide range of offerings that it’s lost all meaning. The days of tech companies pertaining chiefly to computing titans like Microsoft and Intel are long gone. Today, a tech company could be almost anything, and simply being part of the tech industry in no way alludes to what the business does.
An industry is a group of businesses, categorised together in relation to their similar main activities. For example, businesses in the health industry will all deal with healthcare, medicine and so on. These labels give us some broad, overarching idea of what the company does.
Yet currently the tech industry could refer to people selling orange wellies, or bottling ketchup, or dispatching taxis – even though none of them would have their main activity in common. The only thing connecting these activities is the fact that somewhere, software engineers are employed to code clever programs keeping the services running. So, the ‘tech’ industry is no longer working by definition.
Why does it matter?
Most obviously, the lost meaning of the ‘tech industry’ is problematic because the industry category of a business is, well, useful. These categories tell us the main activity of a business, and successful businesses show the industries that are performing well in the market. Industries are a valuable tool for investors.
Less obviously, but more importantly, industry category can also inform specific regulations placed on businesses. The widespread use of the tech industry label is damaging to social challenges. Some companies potentially manage to evade industry-specific regulations by hiding behind their tech industry status. ‘That sanitation law doesn’t apply – we’re a tech company, not a food company’, for example.
Slapping a reductive name on a highly complex industry can provide a smokescreen for businesses to hide poor practices behind. Typically, established industries develop their own finely-tuned laws, regulations, best practices, frameworks and trading standards. But the tech industry as it currently stands is decidedly lacking in this area – creating a hotbed for unethical processes and unregulated actions.
The death of the tech industry doesn’t mean the death of technology and innovation. Instead, we just need to forget the term ‘tech industry’. Today almost every company uses tech to provide their service, and the industry labels we use need to be descriptive enough to tell us what the company offers or deals in.
On a practical level, a company that sells your daily lunch would be in the food or hospitality industries. The company building robots would be in a hardware or robotics industry, and the company supplying you with the software you use daily is in the computing or software industry.
In short, we need to practice getting precise with our language. For example, a social network is more than simply a ‘tech’ company. We could better define it as an information broker, or perhaps even a data surveillance agent. It’s all about using descriptions that better assign accountability and context to a company’s dealings – not just slapping a brand under an ambiguous ‘tech’ label.
Tech is ubiquitous
The death of the tech industry term comes from the widespread use of technology we enjoy today. This deep into the twenty-first century, a company using tech in some way is a given. It should not be the defining aspect of their business.
If everyone is part of the tech industry, it becomes ubiquitous. The term can’t be used to identify any one set of businesses and generally conveys no meaning anymore. As technology evolves, so too should our discussions around it. Re-assessing the language we use, and the impact it has, is as good a place to start as any.