Online giants must accept responsibility for impacts on the physical world

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Despite record profits, these are tough times for Big Tech. In 2017, the industry and society each began to realize the full ambiguity of tech’s transformations of the wider world.

To be sure, many of the era’s disconcerting tech-related mega-trends have tangled origins and predate the current “digitalization of everything” quantified in our recent report. Yet as tech columnist Farhad Manjoo has noted, the rise of the giant tech platforms has now been linked to a long list of troubling developments (along with the creation of much value).
These developments range from such online concerns as fake news, online echo chambers, and addictive product design to broader analog challenges such as the rise of inequality, the hollowing out of the job distribution, and the spread of the gig economy and automation. And no longer is tech’s influence minimized. No one is saying anymore that tech’s role in such trends is a “pretty crazy idea” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially did when asked about his site’s role in tainting the 2016 election. Instead, the talk is moving toward big questions like anti-trust policy and concrete solutions, whether it be greater transparency about online ad purchasers or a vastly expanded earned income tax credit.
Yet the discussion needs to widen even more. While we’re engaging in a new assessment of technology’s transformative impacts, no one should leave aside tech’s most physically enormous influence: its big role in reshaping the nation’s urban geography. Scholars have for years suggested that tech might alter the city hierarchy. Most notably, Beaudry, Doms, and Lewis showed more than a decade ago that the cities that adopted personal computers earliest and fastest saw their relative wages increase the quickest. Yet, there is now strong evidence (including our own work) that digital technologies are contributing heavily to the divergence of metro …

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