Cultural Tension: Command-F Confidence

February 28, 2024

Americans are losing confidence in institutions of all shapes and sizes, with the American Institutional Confidence Poll tracking a steady drop between 2018 and 2021. According to the Brookings Institute, technology companies rank at the top of the list, with the steepest drop in confidence compared to other U.S. institutions examined (including both the Press and Military). 

Recent headline-making events point to the push and pull between technology solutions and society. Around the same time parents filed a lawsuit against Meta citing its negative impact on children’s mental health and concerns over deepfakes ahead of the 2024 election made the news, people lined up to try the Apple Vision Pro virtual reality headset and watched AI video generating tools like OpenAI’s Sora in wonder. More cutting-edge tools are at our fingertips than ever before. But the greater availability of technology hasn’t exactly correlated with how we've received it into our personal lives.

Perceptions of tech are declining fastest in newer generations growing up with these applications: the youngest 20% of the study's sample lost confidence in tech at a much greater rate than any other age group. These younger cohorts are questioning the role of an overtly tech-enabled world, tech’s larger role in society, and what problems the tools are really solving (and creating).

The Ethics Center highlights that the convenience we receive by interacting with technology means we’re likely to engage with it even if there are good reasons not to. We trust in its ability to function and perform as expected, not any proven capability to fulfill our needs. From these misplaced expectations and our wavering trust in technology comes this paradox: even with more tech in our lives, we’re less confident that digital institutions can fulfill our evolving needs as individuals.

At Bullish, we’re constantly examining the dynamic between individuals and institutions (it’s one of the Cultural Themes we’ve identified) and are hunting for investment opportunities in consumer applications that solve cultural tensions and unmet needs. When you assess the digital divide between increasingly available technology and our loss of faith in these institutions, a few categories come to the forefront.

One area in the crosshairs is mental health. We wrote that 2021 saw more than $4.3 billion in venture capital funding go to mental health companies, but the percentage of adults with a mental illness who report unmet need for treatment increased every year since 2011 (despite a 38.8% jump in usage of mental healthcare services among adults with private insurance from 2019-2022).

Another sector core to the digital lives of the youngest generations: dating. The development of algorithm-based match-making and the convenience of swiping has led to less overall satisfaction with dating apps as a way to find love – 88% of adults are disappointed by what they have seen on the apps. The deviation from the initial promise of seamlessly finding your match has actually led to less intimacy, while encouraging reflection on how we depend on it to form real connections.

The service industry has observed a similar anomaly in delivering on the online to offline experience. Digital platforms like Angi’s List and Taskrabbit claiming to connect customers with service providers have often fallen short of delivering real-world satisfaction. Again, the ease and accessibility that technology has brought to marketplaces hasn’t necessarily equated to higher success rates. One indicator: only 39% of homeowners felt satisfied seeing their completed home improvement project. The path from digital convenience to fulfillment isn't always a straight line.

In a tech-dependent world, meaningful, personal experiences stand the test of time and are a consistent conduit to gaining trust. The way forward demands reengineering the role of technology as an institution: It needs to serve as a bridge to fulfilling, direct encounters for us as individuals, rather than a replacement for them. Technology can rebuild trust when it remembers that we’re human. 

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