David Mattin: We need to talk about optimism

David Mattin opened up NEXT 17 with an attack on the corporate optimism of Silicon Valley and a pleas to replace it with nuanced optimism.

David Mattin is head of trends & insights at Trendwatching

These are live-blogged notes from David’s talk at NEXT17. The full video of the session is embedded below.

No “five trends” for us this year. When they told me the theme I though “Digital sucks? Really?”. There was Uber – and yes, it’s had problems. And yes, Facebook has a little Fake News problem – but that’s not causing any real world problems is it? AirbnB is awesome. Twitter is just full of accurate information, and high standards of debate.

Or not.

Robots will steal our jobs. AI could kill the human race. We have to stop, think and admit there are some problems. The tech platforms are accumulating vast, unaccountable power over our lives. Google knows more about us than our governments. Amazon is becoming anti-competitive.

Ev Williams is the founder of Twitter and Medium. Just a few years ago Twitter was the source of the Arab Spring, and now it helped Donald Trump on his path to the White House. He said this:

I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place. I was wrong about that.

The idea of optimism

Optimism as an idea is deeply embedded into tech culture, into Silicon Valley culture. Mark Zuckerberg calls himself an optimist. Sergei Brin calls himself an optimist. Every single TED speaker calls themselves an optimist. Why is that?

Silicon Valley is a town built on an idea: that things will get better over time. That we can build new technologies that make things better over time. Many of the technologies we have built have done that. But there’s nothing inevitable about optimism as the guiding principle. It could have been utilitarianism, or classical liberalism.

Web culture has it roots in 1960s Californian hippy culture. They were powered by the thought they could come together as a generation, and overturn the way the world was. They were amazing optimists. They inspired amazing thinkers – and they thought that connective technologies would bring people together, and transfer power from the government to the people. Marshall McLuhan’s predictions look pretty prescient now.

You can draw a direct line from that to today’s tech culture. But along the way it was co-opted by the big companies, and transformed into Big Tech Optimism. It goes something like this:

  • All human beings are essentially good people.
  • That means you don’t really need politics, society and social conventions. They’re holding you back.
  • If you look at the tech world’s leaders, they’re a very interesting mix of left and right. They’re suspicious of government – they want small government.
  • All people need is each other connected by us to do amazing things.

This version of optimism has solidified into an ideology. It has been presented as a set of human truths – but it actually allows the tech companies to keep making money out of us. And we seem to be stuck there. That’s how we end up with Twitter amplifying the voices of the already powerful – like Donald Trump – rather than the voices of all of us.

Optimism needs nuance

Tech culture tells us nothing about what a better world might look like. People do all sorts of things; some amazing and beautiful, but some things they do are terrible. The childhoods of the 60s hippies were scarred by World War II and its aftermath. They were born in the 1940s. They had seen the world after it descended into madness. They held this idea of coming together against a different backdrop.

It’s so easy for us – and for the 20-something and 30-something engineers into Silicon Valley – to forget this. To forget that human beings can make the world so much worse. It’s a tiny distinction, but at the same time, it’s huge. It’s a very different way of looking at human affairs, at human progress. That spirit is a very useful, productive thing for us to try to capture.

That quote from Eve Williams above? That looks a lot like him adopting a more nuanced view of optimism. Try getting Mark Zuckerberg to admit that his mission to get the world more open and connected is not always a good thing. Are we allowed to say that sometimes Google makes the world worse? People sometimes do terrible things with the information it provides.

The sharing economy isn’t about sharing; it’s just handing more power over to the asset owners. We need to start having these conversations.

We need double-sided optimism. Are our actions making the world better, or are they making it worse?

What can we do?

Here’s four things you can do:

1. Be a glass box

Be totally transparent within your organisation. It forces you to behave in certain ways – ways that are good, and that will make you do better things. It will force you to be more diverse: in terms of races, gender and age. If you’re more diverse, it will give you a more nuanced vision of human progress. It will help you see the unintended consequences of what you put out there. Older people are better at doing that.

You need to listen to your own people. If you let people talk, and you listen to them, you will correct issues early, and you won’t end up in an Uber situation. Every department is the marketing department. It is every person in your compony’s job To tell its story: about the products you are building, about the problems you are having.

2. Leverage what you have

How can you tweak what you do so that it provides more value to others? The Donotpay chatbot lawyer allowed people to avoid paying their parking tickets in London, if that was possible. It overturned over 160,000 parking tickets. And then its creator leveraged it to turn it into a chatbot to fight wrongful evictions in London. Now, he’s using it against Equifax, which has just compromised the data of millions of Americans.

How can you leverage what you do like that?

3. Disrupt the right things

How can we turn the power of technology to make the world better? It’s sad that so many of the best minds of our generation are sitting working out how to overlay a dog on your face in your phone camera. Bodega did not disrupt the right things. By calling themselves “bodega” they made it clear that wanted to kill corner shops, a useful part of society. By contrast Bazaar are actually helping bodegas work better.

Alcoholics Anonymous in Brazil are using an AI-fuelled chatbot to help support people with drinking addictions, based on thousands of hours of counselling sessions. Joonko is using AI to examine your workforce, and spot unseen manager bias. It’ll tell you if teams are getting ignored – or men are getting promoted faster than women. Factmata is using AI to build a wiki that tags fake news.

Local Roots is using shipping containers and turning them into the equivalent of 5 acres of farmland – and growing food with 97% less water. Their mission is to feed 1 billion people in the next 10 years – and then grow food on Mars. Think they’re mad? They’re partnering with Space X.

4. Ask big questions

Improbable are making a platform that can be used to build massive virtual worlds. This is not just about gaming, but about exploring the consequences of political or social decisions – and then bringing the learning back into our own world.

Are we too small as a company to make a difference? No. Small innovations cause new expectations – and they spread. And that spread can force big companies to change. Apple is pushing encryption and sustainability – an expectation smaller companies started to create. Juno is challenging Uber with a more ethical approach to taxis. Veja make shoes out of ocean plastic – and Adidas are following them.

Maybe you will be the next unicorn – but even if you aren’t you can make a difference. Embrace double-sided optimism, and come with a new mindfulness. Make sure you’re not making the world a worse place with what you do.

Innovation is still the answer. The power is with innovators. The world is yours – but it’s all about how you use it.

The Video