Do we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?
For quite a while, we took for granted that we, of course, are part of the solution just by being digital, since digital was perceived to be good in itself, and hence digitisation equals progress. In 2018, it should be obvious that this is no longer the case.
There’s a famous quote from American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver:
There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.
I’ve an earnest question for the digital industry: Do we want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? For quite a while, we took for granted that we, of course, are part of the solution just by being digital, since digital was perceived to be good in itself, and hence digitisation equals progress.
In 2018, it should be obvious that this is no longer the case. And probably never was. As long as we continue to pretend it and act as if, we’ll look arrogant and tone-deaf. Today’s worst example is Mark Zuckerberg, who repeatedly appears as if he still doesn’t understand the problem. I suspect he will be forced to understand, or he won’t be CEO for too long.
In hindsight, the Trump election, and to a lesser degree, also the Brexit vote, served as huge wake-up call for our industry. What happend since felt as if reality broke into our neatly sealed off digital world. It is a classic case of systemic shock. Externalities caused by the digital industry have gotten so big and troublesome that they no longer can be ignored. People stand up and voice their concerns.
Let’s for example take disruption, one of the poster-boy brainchilds of Silicon Valley. At first, what gets disrupted are outdated business models and yesteryear’s technologies. Digital improves the customer experience and delivers more value for less money. New jobs are created, and some people lose their jobs, as it’s always the case when new technologies arrive and older ones disappear.
But after a while, disruption enters other areas, like politics, or the physical world. Now it is our political system that gets disrupted, by Brexit or by a president who viciously uses Twitter not only to win the election but also to speak directly to the unwashed masses and to political leaders all over the world. It is a bit surprising that so far only Facebook gets blamed for this, while Twitter seems to get away with it.
In the physical sphere, you see retail space shrinking, cab services and accommodation disrupted, or the entire automotive and transportation industry shaken up. The first serious doubts appear. Is digital really the holy grail? Do we really want everything turned into a digital product? Should the whole world be taken over by nerds, who seem to be drunk on such power?
At this point, disruption turns into a power struggle. Old power fights back. Now there are two options: New power can pick up the gauntlet and start to fight. That’s a war the digital squad will probably lose, with dramatic results and massive losses. But not very unlikely.
Facebook increasingly looks like a battleship on a collision course with a lighthouse, who still tries to persuade the lighthouse to change direction. Not going to happen. Facebook will inevitably crash or change its course. Crash means that Facebook literally gets deleted. The #DeleteFacebook campaign would end up with the deletion of Facebook itself, not only of a few user accounts.
Would you like that outcome? Perhaps one of the most disturbing long-term problems for Facebook is that more and more people seem to like the prospect of deleting Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg might assume his company being too big to fail, but what would society really lose if Facebook went under? Not much, I fear.
Besides fighting a war, the other option is always peace negotiations. That’s more likely to happen than a full-blown war. In this scenario, externalities will somehow be reintegrated into the digital system. Disruption, for example, will be limited, one way or another. Incentives for Facebook or Twitter to further disrupt the political system will be minimised.
Things like that have already occured. Uber lost some ground in Germany as well as other countries, and also in Texas, at least for a while. Airbnb got severely limited in Berlin, with a law that only recently was loosened a bit. The EU General Data Protection Regulation will shake up the digital marketing sphere and adjacent areas.
To fix digital, the industry needs to become aware of its negative side effects and enter into negotiations with the non-digital world about what’s tolerable or even desirable and what’s not. This isn’t going to be easy, and it will probably set some limits for people who don’t like to be limited in their ambitions.
But hey, you can only change the world so far as the world accepts to be changed. If the world considers a problem what you think is a solution, than either convince the world that your solution is not a problem, continue to be part of the problem, or be part of the solution.