Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. Credit Photograph by Scott Eells / Bloomberg / Getty Silicon Valley seems to have lost a bit of its verve since the Presidential election. The streets of San Francisco—spiritually part of the Valley—feel less crowded. Coffee-shop conversations are hushed. Everything feels a little muted, an eerie quiet broken by chants of protesters. It even seems as if there are more parking spots. Technology leaders, their employees, and those who make up the entire technology ecosystem seem to have been shaken up and shocked by the election of Donald Trump.
One conversation has centered around a rather simplistic narrative of Trump as an enemy of Silicon Valley; this goes along with a self-flagellating regret that the technology industry didn’t do enough to get Hillary Clinton into the White House. Others have decided that the real villains are Silicon Valley giants, especially Twitter, Facebook, and Google, for spreading fake news stories that vilified Clinton and helped elect an unpopular President.
These charges don’t come as a surprise to me. Silicon Valley’s biggest failing is not poor marketing of its products, or follow-through on promises, but, rather, the distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry. Two years ago, on my blog, I wrote , “It is important for us to talk about the societal impact of what Google is doing or what Facebook can do with all the data. If it can influence emotions (for increased engagements), can it compromise the political process?”
Perhaps it is time for those of us who populate the technology sphere to ask ourselves some really hard questions. Let’s start with this: Why did so many people vote for Donald Trump? Glenn Greenwald, the firebrand investigative journalist writing for The Intercept , and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore have listed many reasons why Clinton lost. Like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump has focussed attention on the sense that globalization has eroded the real prospects and hopes of the working class in this country. Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.
My hope is that we in the technology industry will look up from our smartphones and try to understand the impact of whiplashing change on a generation of our fellow-citizens who feel hopeless and left behind. Instead, I read the comments of Balaji Srinivasan, the C.E.O. of the San Francisco-based Bitcoin startup 21 Inc ., telling the Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims that he feels more connected to people in his “Stanford network” around the globe than to those in California’s Central Valley. “There will be a recognition that if we don’t have control of the nation state, we should reduce the nation state’s power over us.”
It’s hard to think about the human consequences of technology as a founder of a startup racing to prove itself or as a chief executive who is worried about achieving the incessant growth that keeps investors happy. Against the immediate numerical pressures of increasing users and sales, and the corporate pressures of hiring the right (but not too expensive) employees to execute your vision, the displacement of people you don’t know can get lost.
However, when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.
Otto, a Bay Area startup that was recently acquired by Uber, wants to automate trucking—and recently wrapped up a hundred-and-twenty-mile driverless delivery of fifty thousand cans of beer between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. From a technological standpoint it was a jaw-dropping achievement, accompanied by predictions of improved highway safety. From the point of view of a truck driver with a mortgage and a kid in college, it was a devastating “oh, shit” moment. That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk. Truck driving is one of the few decent-paying jobs that doesn’t require a college diploma. Eliminating the need for truck drivers doesn’t just affect those millions of drivers; it has a ripple effect on ancillary services like gas stations, motels, and retail outlets; an entire economic ecosystem could break down.
Whether self-driving cars and trucks, drones, privatization of civic services like transportation, or dynamic pricing, all these developments embrace automation and efficiency, and abhor friction and waste. As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management told MIT Technology Review , “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.” It is, he said, “the great paradox of our era.”
We talk about the filter bubbles on social networks—those algorithms that keep us connected to the people we feel comfortable with and the world we want to see—and their negative impacts, but real-world filter bubbles, like the one in Silicon Valley, are perhaps more problematic. People become numbers, algorithms become the rules, and reality becomes what the data says. Facebook as a company makes these bubble blunders again and again. Its response to the ruckus around fake news is a perfect illustration of the missing empathy gene in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the smartest and brightest founders and chief executives of the post-Internet era, initially took a stance that Facebook can’t really play arbiter of what is real and what is fake news. It took a whole week for the company to acknowledge that it can build better tools that help fight the scourge of fake news and yet stay neutral.
It isn’t the first time Facebook has shied away from the reality that it can influence the lives of the billion and a half people connected to it. A perfect example came two years ago when Facebook, in its “Your Year in Review” feed, published the photo of the dead daughter of a user named Eric Meyer, prompting Meyer to write , “Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs.”
It seems possible to model the eventuality of a dead child’s photo showing up on the feed, but the designers didn’t consider it. Perhaps because those who write these algorithms have not experienced such trauma, or perhaps they just weren’t talking about the human feelings in their product meetings—especially when you are a company focussed on engagement and growth. The lack of empathy in technology design isn’t because the people who write algorithms are heartless but perhaps because they lack the texture of reality outside the technology bubble. Facebook’s blunders are a reminder that it is time for the company to think not just about fractional-attention addiction and growth but also to remember that the growth affects real people, for good and bad.
It is not just Facebook. It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced. Let’s start by not raging on our Facebook feeds but, instead, taking a trip to parts of America where five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices are not perks but a reminder of haves and have-nots. Otherwise, come 2020, Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street.