What Marty Mcfly Never Expected (or the social side effects of technology)

Category: TED

 

[This is an improved transcript of my TEDx talk at #TEDxAUBG in April 2017]

 

The future… used to look great.

 

Back in 1985 when the movie Back to the Future came out, we were infused, we were excited that we’re going to have hoverboards, we’re going to have amazing technological innovations that we were all going to love – and that was great.

 

I myself was very much into technology (and I even had more hair than today). Apart from coding computers, for some strange reasons, I ended up studying law. Afterwards I worked for different governments, different institutions and [dealt with] politics.

 

These years I’ve observed and worked with hundreds of companies to entice them and look for ways they can be more successful, but more importantly, for ways they can be more strategic.

 

Thinking about technology today, I realized that it’s radically different than that way it was 20 or 30 years ago: I’ll give you 3 reasons why I think technology as such is not what it used to be.

 

 

Why technology is different today?

 

1. Speed of the spread

 

The first one is the speed of the spread of technology. When Walkman came out it in 1985, it took about 15 to 20 years to become a globally successful product. On the other hand, if you take Spotify, which is an amazing music streaming service, it took them about 8 years to get 100 million users across the world.

 

2. Depth

 

The second reason it’s different today is the depth at which technology affects us. According to some statistics, 1 out of 10 American adults is using a smartphone while having sex. Though we know that 85% of statistics are made up, it’s still kind of proves the point that this is a very important, very intimate effect on our everyday lives.

 

3. Ease of use

 

The third factor is the ease-of-use. We have know babies who can use an iPad even before they can talk: technology is so accessible, and so easy to use. It’s a great thing, at the same time, it just lowers the barrier to entry.

 

So for these three reasons, I have come to realize that the side effects of technological innovation are significant and lead to important social side effects.

 

Social side effects

 

We love Airbnb, don’t we? Great company, great service, very interesting what they have to offer – but if you happen to be living in Barcelona, you may have seen news like the one here: protests against the company because it disrupts local communities.

 

 

It has an impact on residents in everyday buildings, so there is a certain effect on the society as a result of technology.

 

If we think about self-driving cars that Google, Uber and many other companies are about to roll out in the next couple of years, it’s amazing that on one hand they’re going to save 30,000 (maybe even more) lives – and it’s fantastic!

 

On the other hand, it’s pretty likely they’re going to induce unemployment for millions of people who are living from driving trucks or cars or other vehicles.

 

So you might be thinking: fine that’s all great,
but it isn’t it the job of government,
regulators, politicians to address this?

 

Shouldn’t they be the ones who come and deal with these side effects whether through laws, taxation or other means?

 

Who should be in charge?

 

I think that it’s actually the companies themselves who have a good reason to address these. You might wondering: yes, sure, but why should a company care about these side effect?

 

I think essentially there are two reasons.

 

One is a moral argument and the other one is a well-understood business argument.

 

Moral argument

 

The moral argument is based on the way we look at ourselves: as good people. We are saving energy, we turn off the tap when we’re brushing our teeth, that we recycle, that we send a card on Mother’s Day.

 

Companies, the value-driven ones, do the same.

 

Look at IKEA, for instance: they would not be sourcing their wood from endangered Brazilian rainforests, or they would engage the local communities when they open a new shop in the outskirts of Sofia.

 

Companies are generally referred to as “good corporate citizens”, when their moral, value-driven judgement is appreciated.

 

Business argument

 

But let’s look at the well-understood business argument.

 

That can be summed up with the phrase that is often quoted in the public affairs and the lobbying world:

 

if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

 

If you’re not engaged in a conversation, if you’re not proactively trying to address an issue, sooner or later it’s going to bite you. Sooner or later there’s going to be some sort of backlash: whether it’s a protest, whether it’s loss, whether it’s taxes, but it’s going to hurt you. You need to proactively engage.

 

When?

 

That’s all fine and good, but what (or rather: when) can a company deal with such an issue?

 

 

If you think about startups, what’s the number one concern of startups? It’s to grow. It’s to get customers, to get funding, to make sure their supply chain works smoothly. It’s not about social concern, at least for most technology-driven startups.

 

So when a bunch of college kids are out there and they are doing an amazing job, it’s not their primary consideration.

 

But when a company, especially a tech company, is scaling up, it’s growing, there is a phase in the growth phase when they have millions of users or customers, they are present in various countries, they are starting to affect people’s lives.

 

That’s probably the point when they need to start considering: fine, what is the impact of what we do? Do we need to address it in one way or another?

 

What should a company do?

 

And if we accept the idea that they should, we need to look at what a company can actually do about it? By and large, there are three things that they can do.

 

Show empathy

 

The first one is to show empathy and name the problem. Simply say “well, we have an issue”.

 

You’re aware of the heat and criticism that Facebook got after 2016’s elections: not only for their platform being used to spread fake news, but also because the platform was used for purposes which it was not meant to be used for.

 

Whether it’s live streaming bullying or even suicide, and various other backlashes – a couple of weeks ago Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg he came out with a 6,000-word-long memo trying to address these issues.

 

Some people criticized him from being too little and too late, but still the idea of saying “hey, we have an issue” (whether it’s about local journalism, whether the negative ways their innovation is being used), “we need to address it in one way or another”. So that’s the first one: showing empathy naming the problem.

 

Compromising on the short term to gain on the long-term

 

The second is compromising on the short-term to gain on the long-term. To have a more strategic mindset.

 

A very simple, perhaps even simplistic, example for that is if we look at Apple and iPhone: how its operating system is being used in cars.

 

When you’re using your phone in a car through the system, it doesn’t allow you to send a text message while you’re driving. Most of you would probably say that’s right.

 

Because your freedom to use the device and the imperative to save your life and keep you safe are connected.

 

You need to be limited for a greater purpose,

 

for a more important value than your freedom to use the gadget at any point in time.

 

A short-term limitation for something more important.

 

Sponsor 3rd party programs

 

The third one is to sponsor “third-party programs”.

 

When self-driving cars are becoming a reality, perhaps helping organizations with educational funds, or other initiatives, to train drivers get into a new job. Not necessarily have the company run those, but support others because of the responsibility we’ve discussed.

 

The future

 

There’s just so much innovation coming out soon. You will be working in companies, and you will be founding companies, maybe robotics, maybe artificial intelligence, maybe biotechnology – and chances are that those companies will have social impacts.

 

 

I urge you, I encourage you to look at those: whether for the moral argument, whether for the business argument. I encourage you to do that because we all would like to be living in a future that Marty McFly want to come back to.

 

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