Silicon Valley doesn’t solve problems it creates them
I used to believe the geeks should inherit the earth…now I’m not so sure
I am a nerd at heart and very proud to have been associated with some of the leading and most innovative companies in the technology industry. As such I have long held the belief that “the geeks will inherit the earth.” It felt as though technology was breaking down barriers, offering opportunities to improve lives and spread prosperity in ways that existing economic and business structures could not.
However, observing the industry more recently and the increasing criticism I am not so sure. I am concerned that some elements in Silicon Valley are failing to understand their core purpose and value to society. Indeed it feels as though some are losing their grip on reality. For example, Peter Thiel, a highly successful technology entrepreneur, argues in the Financial Times that robots and technology should not be seen as our enemy, rather as an improving force for productivity and efficiency. He suggests that it is humans not the machines who are “our own greatest enemies.”
Thiel wants us to stop worrying that machines will make our jobs redundant. Yet when he cites examples of the benefits of technology he fails to reference industries such as car manufacturing, which in the 1980s brought in robots to automate production. Yes it led to the efficient car production we enjoy today, but it also cost thousands of jobs in the UK in areas which some would argue still have not recovered today.
I was prompted to write this post by a speaker at an event, who talked about the ‘traditional’ mindset of Silicon Valley being – roughly speaking – one of finding problems and solving them. However in recent times – especially the era of web-bassed innovation – it feels as though Silicon Valley is creating problems simply to have a reason to ‘solve’ them. Often the ‘problems’ they are identifying are basic human interactions, which may be inefficient, but actually are reasonably fundamental to our way of being.
I would contend that history shows us using IT to automate processes to drive efficiency and productivity has consequences, which are not all good. Unless Governments, society and more importantly the technology industry are prepared to address them there will be increasing disquiet at the increasing influence of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. In turn this could have a wider impact on the positive relationship between technology and society.
Consequently I would suggest the technology industry is in danger losing its sense of purpose, particularly the Silicon Valley set focused on the world of ‘big data’ and web-based innovations.
Let me illustrate this with one perspective on the “language” of Silicon Valley. There has been a narrative for some time about ‘frictionless’ and how technology can reduce the bureaucracy and inefficiency of some processes. Companies like Amazon and eBay have done this extremely well in retail, offering great value to consumers and opening up new markets to smaller enterprises. However when I heard the word ‘frictionless’ used in a discussion of the future of money it raised alarm bells. I interpreted the comments as suggesting that money was an inefficient process that we should no longer have to use.
My concern - if we automate money to the point where everything is ‘swipe to pay’ - will we lose our grasp of its value, its power and its dangers?
While I appreciate I’m starting to sound like “The Daily Hate” I am concerned that technologists have been drinking their Koolaid too much. Another example struck me recently. Two executives from Google wrote about branding in the digital age for the Wharton Business School and offered a cogent argument about brand engagement in the digital era. Yet when you explore what they say (which seems to hint heavily that Google technology is key to future success) it reveals worrying flaws. For example they talk about the huge impressions the Jean Claude van Damme Volvo Trucks advert got on YouTube (75m views) yet it goes on to admit that many of those viewing the video were general consumers doubtful to ever buy a Volvo truck. The client wanted this broader awareness, but The Wall Street Journalclearly states that Volvo Trucks could not create any direct correlation between the success of the advert and a 30% increase in sales…something the Wharton article fails to clarify.
Impressions and likes do not equate to sales, particularly in the B2B world. There is no way Volvo Trucks would have relied solely on a glossy advertising campaign to launch a new range of vehicles. Indeed they would have had a good idea of sales before they launched the new truck, because the sales cycle is so long.
Peter Thiel, summed up the issue:
“It’s about European decline. There is a sense in Silicon Valley that it is on the right side of history, and Europe is on the wrong side of history.”
To me nothing epitomises this clash more than Uber’s rampage across Europe challenging the accepted norms of the taxi. As Travis Kalanick, CEO and co-founder, puts it “We’re in this political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.” Whether you call this overbearing self-confidence or downright arrogance Uber’s ability to continue challenging the taxi establishment across the region suggests it has some merit in its beliefs.
But has Silicon Valley gone too far? Has it lost sight of its core value in its obsession to fulfil Marc Andressen’s prophecy that software is eating the world?” Indeed the disruption mantra that has been key to Silicon Valley’s approach has itself come in for heavy criticism. It does feel that technologists are perhaps too focused on disrupting, automating and streamlining, while not considering all of the consequences. Uber may be creating market competition, which could potentially offer more choice to consumers, but it could also lead to unemployment as traditional taxi services are forced to cut costs. While the Amazons of this world see it as their mission to democratise industries such as publishing there are question marks over the long term impact on the availability of literature to audiences and whether authors will be able to sustain a living in a digital world where competition is greater.
I passionately believe technology does break down barriers, does offer new and exciting opportunities but I am now starting to question whether “the geeks will inherit the world”…or rather “should.” Like Walter Frick I wonder if many of the technologies available today are truly beneficial. It is not enough to say that impressions, click throughs, likes and followers demonstrate a viable business model. It is not even enough to suggest that today’s technologies break down barriers and make services more broadly available to wide audiences, because there are consequences to such democratisation. Indeed I would suggest that the best and most effective technology is that which is invisible. Today it appears as though technology wants to be in the limelight taking all the plaudits.
This is not a plea for protectionism, absolutely not, but as Europe emerges from the battering of the recession it is still very raw from the experience. Governments, business and communities know there’s a lot of work to do to make Europe ready for 21 Century, but if Silicon Valley is to be seen as the real ‘white knight’ then its entrepreneurs and technologists need to show sensitivity towards the local landscape if they are to overcome many of the obstacles that they are currently helping to create.
Money without Borders
What if there were no such thing as national currencies?
I attended an interesting debate last week about the “Future of Money” run by Method, an integrated experience design firm, where guest speakers speculated about our future relationship with currency and debated the challenges that lie ahead.
Among the many ideas it provoked was a thought about the long-term impact of alternative models for banking such as crypto-currencies or time-based banking. It could be said that these borderless means of exchanging goods and services could have the potential to replace existing national currencies. However, as we all know such a concept would meet huge resistance from national Governments, who view the strength or weakness of their currencies as the cornerstone of their overall economies and sovereignty.
But what if these alternative currencies become strong enough that national treasury departments are forced to fight back to restore their influence in both national and international economies? This feels far-fetched today, but if the online world can radically shake up everything from the music business to airline travel why could it not go on to shape up our relationship with money?
It feels as though the future of money could be become a debate about brand and which ‘brand’ communicates its “value” more effectively, whether that is traditional paper money or the electronic means. To an extent we already have an example of a pan-national currency in the Euro and you could argue that our relationship with it, particularly in the UK, is heavily influenced by perception.
While you could say there is some nationalist baggage attached to the Euro, clearly there are perceptions generated based on our view of its stability, security and association with prosperity. Surely any currency in the future looking to challenge – or maintain the status quo – will have to communicate these values? For example, it is well documented in many parts of the world that the dollar acts as a replacement currency in those countries that lack economic and social stability. Could this be a base from which to establish the dollar as the global currency of choice in the same way English is often the language of choice for international trade?
I appreciate these musings do feel quite exaggerated, because there are so many complexities involved in the use of money, but it does point to – for me – the greatest challenge that alternative currencies will have…even if they resolve questions of regulation and legal acceptance. We continue to have an emotional relationship with money and any alternative must seek to create the same unspoken emotional connection that traditional currencies create. There are clear rational arguments for approaches such as crypto-currencies, but emotionally it is key that such alternatives create a solid bond with users. George Washington on the US Dollar or Her Majesty the Queen on British Sterling have iconic status, because we have grown up with them. Even if Governments were to accept the future of currency is entirely electronic it will be a long road to convince the rest of us that cashless, time banking or crypto-currency has the same value as a ‘green back’ or a ‘tenner.’
Bursting Silicon Valley’s Bubble
The tech industry is in danger of becoming more remote than ever
I’m not quite sure why anyone is surprised at the tone and breadth of criticism outlined in The Financial Times this week. We have been here many times before, whether it is Microsoft’s prolonged battle with the European Commission or simmering complaints about the isolated bubble that is Silicon Valley. In each situation I would argue the industry has done a poor job protecting its brand and communicating its value to stakeholders. There are certainly many examples of great IT companies delivering real benefits to society and enterprise, but post-recession it feels as though industry leaders are out of step with the political, economic and social context. And that disconnect is now is turning an emotive debate into very tangible business and financial threats to the technology industries ‘popstars.’
In Germany Uber, the taxi app, is combating German legislators, who have banned it. In Brussels the ‘right to be forgotten’ legislation has forced the Internet service providers to go on a charm offensive and policy makers have laid down the gauntlet by rejecting proposals for a settlement of its anti-trust investigation into Google. Industry analysts are even suggesting Snowden could have a major impact on the bottom line for enterprise Cloud Computing vendors. According to The Financial Times the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation contends that vendors could lose between $22bn - $45bn over the next three years.
While surveys such as the Edelman Trust Barometer have consistently suggested the technology industry is the most trusted of its surveyed sectors I would suggest that the IT community should not be surprised by the stark realities of increasing discontent. Yes Snowden was a huge catalyst, but the tensions have been lurking for some time. For many years enterprise tech vendors have been heavily criticised for their approach to customer service, IT implementations are regularly named and shamed for failing to deliver and costing the tax payer millions. Meanwhile CEOs earn astronomical salaries compared to the rest of us mere mortals and very few of those CEOs happen to be women.
It would be dangerous to suggest the cause of discontent is simply one thing. In Europe criticisms have been raised in equal measure in relation to culture, society and regulation, as well as perceived unfair competitive advantage. It is clear, though, that some commentators are questioning the benefits of technology in society and no longer see equity in the relationship between IT companies and their customers.
For many years technology brands have relied on the suggestion that the disruption they bring to traditional models is all about creating a fairer, more equal and innovative world. Often this disruption has relied on an unspoken bargain, where free services are exchanged in return for unfettered access to personal information. Looking ahead tech giants want to extend that “deal” into areas such as banking, automotive and healthcare. Unless the industry recognises and addresses concerns around the role of technology in society then I believe it is very unlikely politicians, regulators and customers will allow them to extend that reach.
That could be easier said than done. Made up of so many freewheeling entrepreneurs, used to speaking their minds, it may be challenging to convince them to adapt their approach. However, as communicators if they do not learn the lessons of the past and adjust their approach, we are fast reaching the point when tech CEOs will be seeking advice from Michael O’Leary, CEO, Ryanair on ways to perform volte face.
This should not be necessary, but at the moment the great and good are handing ammunition to its critics on a daily basis.
Today we are really excited to announce the launch of Sugrue Communications
Why have we launched our own communications consultancy? It is a hugely exciting time to be working in the world of PR and communications. While there is much talk about the future of our industry we are already seeing great change today. Social media and digital technologies are having a major impact on the way we communicate. Social media has blurred the boundaries between marketing disciplines and digital technologies provide insights into audiences that make it easier for brands to engage with them. But as Scott D. Cook, founder of Intuit, remarked presciently at the beginning of this era there is a significant challenge: “A brand is no longer what we tell consumers it is, it is what consumers tell each other.”
It is enough for PR to educate and inform audiences through traditional means, such as print media coverage. Brands and PR must accept we are no longer in complete control of how a brand is discussed – indeed quite often brands are not even asked their opinion. As a result “communications” (rather than PR) captures the more integral value and purpose of our industry.
Fundamentally our role is to help brands communicate with their audiences. If brands communicate well, using inspiring and compelling stories, they will create an emotional connection - and that is just as important among B2B audiences as B2C. If they communicate badly, they will lose attention. Our task is to help clients be comfortable with dynamic, two-way conversations about what is important to their customers, not want our clients want to tell them. We help clients put the structures, content and campaigns in place to communicate effectively and spark action. We are calling our approach smart communications that deliver meaningful results.
Why do we talk about ‘smart’ communications? In today’s digital era there is no excuse for not using the vast amounts of data available to inform your communications. Do you understand your audience? Where are they gathering on and offline? Who is influencing them? Which issues are they talking about? Being ‘smart’ must also be about careful selection of the tools and channels you use to get your message across and engage your audiences. There are so many options it can be overwhelming and you also have to be careful not to get carried away with the hype...you know us communicators we do like shiny things don’t we?! :-)
This smart approach enables us to translate the value of communications into meaningful results for our clients and their business stakeholders. The universal objective is to spark action - whether that’s driving sales, increasing share of voice versus competitors, building a thought leadership position or engaging employees to improve productivity...we believe we have the approach to help clients achieve the meaningful results they are seeking. We are best-placed to help our clients because we have worked with enough PR and marketing folks to know what really matters when building communications strategies. Thanks to our time at Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Waggener Edstrom and AD Communications, as well as in-house at Oracle Corporation, we have an in-depth understanding of the challenges clients face. And more importantly we love B2B - it’s where we cut our teeth working with some of the world’s leading brands in the enterprise IT, telecoms, mobile and graphic arts sectors.
At Sugrue Communications we want to apply all our experience and knowledge to help our clients navigate the various challenges that lie ahead, because there has never been a more exciting time to be in communications.
We’d love the opportunity to hear about the challenges you face and see if we can apply our skills to help you.
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.