Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum

[Note: This item comes from friend Steve Schear. DLH]

Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum
By Om Malik
Nov 28 2016
http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/silicon-valley-has-an-empathy-vacuum

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 on 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 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.

[snip]

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