[YS Learn] It’s time for Big Tech to rediscover its morality and fix empathy deficit

In Trampled by Unicorns, tech veteran and investor Maëlle Gavet outlines why tech giants need to rebuild their sense of empathy and morality, the need for decisive leadership, and how COVID-19 can be the tipping point.
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“People will try to convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise,” said Apple CEO and philanthropist Tim Cook at the 2017 MIT commencement address. 

Technology may have revolutionised the world – and continues to do so – but its progress combined with the tech industry’s empathy deficit has led to “digital era's equivalent of feudalism”.

Maëlle Gavet, a leading Silicon Valley executive, entrepreneur, and investor, in her first book, Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech's Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, explores what is wrong with tech giants, the need for decisive leadership to prevent social media platforms from destroying society, and what Big Tech can do to self-regulate and make things right. 

“As I write, with COVID-19 plunging much of the planet into lockdown, and America named one of the world’s coronavirus epicentres, the best and worst of tech is on display,” she writes on why tech giants need to rebuild their sense of empathy and morality. 

Maelle says her 15 years in the tech world have taught her one thing. “The more a company relies on tech, the more it needs people who are curious about the world. People who have studied the past to try not to repeat it. People who understand how others will feel and react to a set of circumstances and change.” 

Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, one of the Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company, Maelle has been the CEO of OZON.ru, Russia’s largest ecommerce website, VP of Priceline Group, and has worked with the likes of OpenTable, Booking.com, and Kayak

In Trampled by Unicorns, Maelle explains that while tech companies have transformed the everyday lives of many, they have “smashed open a Pandora’s box of devastating side effects, too: disinformation, hate and harassment, catastrophic privacy breaches, disruptions unleashed by the gig economy, monopolistic bulling, and more”. 

The framework that can help 

In this situation, Maelle explains that it is vital for tech giants to relook at their strategy and put the spotlight on empathy and morality. 

She says:

  1. Tech giants must accept their extraordinary power and the responsibility that comes with it. It is rather hypocritical for technologists to tout the massive changes they can bring to the world, but then downplay or hide from their influence when some of those changes go awry. Tech executives and lobbyists are quick to decry the so-called unintended consequences of potential regulation or laws. The same concern should be applied to their products and services 
  2. Top executives must get serious about grounding their aims in view of empathy and humanity. If they don’t know how, they need to learn, not leave it to underlings
  3. Those values must be injected into every corner of an organisation and its processes. Not once, via mottos or memos, but operationally and continuously. 
  4. The way decisions are often made needs to change, as does who makes them. Even if it means having to rethink pat of the business model. 
  5. Innovation can be applied in changing culture as well as in creating products. Isn’t it time, for example, that we disrupt the HR department? 
She writes: “The sense of urgency has been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis placing the global economy on the critical list, with the livelihoods and living standards of many hundreds of millions under threat. But in turbulent times there also is an opportunity.” 

Focus on tech as a driver of progress 

The impact of digital technologies is evident across the board.  

“From software that puts data analysis on steroids to robots that make and package products, dramatic efficiencies have made businesses more competitive and profitable,” Maelle says. 

So, why are we questioning tech? Maelle says it is because never before has tech been so deeply ingrained in our everyday lives. She adds that tech companies influence everything - from the nature of our work to our privacy, to the contours of our cities, and even the health of our democracies. 

“Not only do technologies of the future make society more efficient and productive; they transform its structure.” 

Maelle says the problem is the “attention economy” that tech has created. Many things compete for our attention and when we are trained to expect and demand instant gratification, it is hard to focus on the bigger picture. 

What is the perk and culture bubble? 

Maelle goes on to explain the different perks companies have created inside organisations. “There is a bubble that surrounds them [tech giants], cutting off the culture inside from the rest of the world.” 

She says she doesn’t have a problem with any of the perks, adding that she herself “supported a lot of these at Compass” where she was the CEO. “However, those who devised the benefits bonanza would have anticipated some of the more exotic examples we see today.” 

She explains that perks were primarily designed to get more people on board. 

Richard Walker, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and a veteran Valley watcher, says the reason for all these “goodies in the workplace” was to keep everyone in office. 

“If you don’t have to run errands, and you can even get babycare, then it keeps you working all those extra hours, which has been the work culture anyway for a very long time. So this is also surveillance in a way, because they can keep track of you every minute of the day,” she writes.

Maelle asks another interesting question: “What do engineers know about the world?” Citing her own experience, which is backed by academic research, she says many engineers are introverts who because of their narrow training and early experiences often “have difficulties in seeing the world from others’ perspectives and the unintended consequences and side effects of technology on society”. 

High price to pay for progress

Quoting a study, the personality types of software engineering Maelle, she says when software engineers discuss how a task needs to be accomplished, the majority tend to be poor at verbalising how the task affects the people involved.

“In fact, the greatest difference between software engineers and the general population is the percentage that takes action based on what they think rather than on what somebody else feels. That does not help bring the software engineers close to the user,” she writes. 

Maelle says that over the years she has concluded that tech leaders all too often overvalue analytical, technical, and IQ-based skills rather than the social, EQ variety. 

“We tend to ignore what history has taught us, look down on “soft skills” and subjects like philosophy, sociology, and literature because of their lack of a solution-oriented approach—in our eyes, at least—and yes, sometimes chase money over humanity’s advancement. We often accept the idea that damage to human lives caused by our innovations is a price to pay for progress, rather than think long and hard about how to steer clear of these negative effects in the first place. 

“That unwavering faith in technology, that blindness toward human cost in the name of a “vision,” and that greed has led many of our companies to build technology that exploits our weaknesses and makes humanity subservient to tech—which is the opposite of what most of us intended,” Maelle writes. 

It is high time we changed status quo. 

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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