Jonathan Hopfner | April 28th, 2021

Along with a few million of my closest friends, I recently watched with a mix of fascination and unease as a monkey used only its brain to play a classic video game – rather adeptly, at that. Depending on where you sit, Neuralink - the Elon Musk-backed venture that made this possible - is either poised to lead a healthcare revolution, or open the gates of hell, when chip-implanted primates grow bored of Pong and set their sights on global domination.

The response to what is (one must admit) a pretty impressive achievement says a lot about views of technology in general, which are polarised even by today’s standards. It seems like every fast-advancing field is framed as the beginning of a brave new world, or the end of one. Connected devices and facial recognition underpin either smart cities, or the surveillance state. The blockchain is blazing a trail to financial freedom or destitution. Artificial intelligence is helping us make better decisions, or reinforcing terrible biases.

Why does technology provoke such strong reactions? Partly of course because the pace of change is accelerating, along with the dislocation it creates. But also, I think, because the lifestyle changes associated with the pandemic have made it official: for many of us, technology is no longer something we ‘use,’ but a default state in which we’re constantly immersed.

We have a number of technology clients. A lot of them have a deep sense of mission, and are rightly convinced what they do is to the world’s benefit. And yet in more candid conversations some have confided they feel like they’re under siege. Between the criticisms levelled at companies like Google; the steady drip-feed of headlines on data privacy breaches, automation-related job losses and IPOs that are grossly overvalued or don’t pan out at all; the way founders from the US to China constantly fall foul of regulators and governments, that’s understandable, and at times hurtful for an industry that, at the most fundamental level, is built on making things better.

Part of this comes down to the media’s harsh lens. But it must also be acknowledged that some of tech’s loudest ambassadors don’t do the industry any favours. The blithe confidence and utopian boosterism exhibited by figures like Musk can seem designed to pre-empt any questions or reflection. Never mind reasons, the associated impacts or petty concerns like financial viability, the implicit message is – look what we can do. It’s telling that in the Neuralink clip, the main reason for this unusual experiment – to open new avenues of movement for the disabled - isn’t mentioned at all until well over two minutes in, at which point (as anyone who’s worked in social media will know) the majority of viewers will have moved on.

Technological progress and the ability to push the envelope should be celebrated. They’re the main reason we enjoy many of the advantages we have today. But we’d respectfully suggest dialling down the triumphalism could go a long way to resolving the industry’s image problem. When we’re discussing the finer points of messaging with our technology clients we often turn to a couple of key principles:

*Emphasise impact, not just effect. There’s a tendency to promote tech products and solutions exclusively in terms of advancements in performance – like making transactions X percent faster, taking images that are ten times sharper, or creating a new bot that can mimic a customer service rep to a certain degree of accuracy. This information is significant, but with a lot of companies speaking in similar terms, the conversation can sound like a constant and largely internal game of one-upmanship. Organisations that make the effort to identify and communicate the broader causes their innovations can serve can immediately cut through a lot of this noise, and win over a wider audience in the process. Examples would be exploring the potential of a new payment platform to enhance financial transparency as well as speed, or supply chain automation to reduce workplace accidents as well as costs.

*Anticipate, and address the downsides. It’s a rare technology solution that comes with no negative effects whatsoever. But whether it’s the strain put on the environment by data centres or the psychological toll exacted by workplace collaboration tools, tech companies often appear reluctant to acknowledge drawbacks until they’re too glaring for anyone (especially the media) to ignore. That contributes to the image of an industry that’s secretive, and often on the defensive. Not all negative impacts can be foreseen, but those that do become evident, even in the design stage, should be frankly discussed and debated. If the company can also develop and present ways to ameliorate these impacts, all the better.

*Downplay the development/growth trajectory. Fairly or not, tech firms have developed a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering (and, sometimes, breaking the backs of their employees in the process). The obsession with developing, releasing and upgrading as quickly as possible inevitably results in the prioritisation of time to market over every other consideration, even when that has disastrous consequences for quality, affordability or customer perceptions.

The end result is an industry that’s sometimes perceived as an engine of hype, where a lot of so-called sea changes generate short-term excitement, but disillusionment over the longer term. On the investment side, the same pattern is evident in the sugar rush and eventual disappointment that surrounds so many would-be unicorns. Being more realistic about release cycles; when a product or innovation will be accessible, affordable, and stable enough to enter the mainstream; or the enterprise’s path to profit is an approach that in the current context is both incredibly distinctive, and massively conducive to credibility.

In the end, what we often counsel – a degree of modesty – can be a tough sell in a sector that’s defined by risk-taking, experimentation and the breaking of moulds. But it might just make some tech giants seem a little more, well, human.

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