> > http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/silicon-valley-has-an-empathy-vacuum > > <http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/silicon-valley-has-an-empathy-vacuum> > > Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum > Om Malik <http://www.newyorker.com/contributors/om-malik>•November 28, 2016 > > <http://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Malik-SiliconValleyHasanEmpathyVacuum2-1200.jpg> > 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. 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 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 > <http://om.co/2014/07/08/with-big-data-comes-big-responsibility/>, “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 > <https://theintercept.com/2016/11/09/democrats-trump-and-the-ongoing-dangerous-refusal-to-learn-the-lesson-of-brexit/> > for The Intercept, and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore > <http://michaelmoore.com/trumpwillwin/> 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 > <https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/21e6>., telling the Wall Street > Journal columnist Christopher Mims > <http://www.wsj.com/articles/new-populism-and-silicon-valley-on-a-collision-course-1478814305> > 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 > <https://www.wired.com/2016/10/ubers-self-driving-truck-makes-first-delivery-50000-beers/> > 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 > <https://www.technologyreview.com/s/515926/how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/?utm_campaign=socialflow&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post>, > “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 over 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 > <http://om.co/2014/12/26/empathy-is-not-a-corporate-slogan/>, “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—a > particularly likely possibility when a company is focussed on engagement and > growth. The lack of empathy in technology design doesn’t exist 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.
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