The tech businesses of Silicon Valley are hiding behind Big Data and as a result, have become disconnected from the lives of real people, says Gareth Kay. Could marketers be the key to help them reconnect with everyday folk?
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the best part of the past decade living in San Francisco. It’s a city with a rich cultural history. It’s also 30 miles away from Silicon Valley, where legend has it the future is being created now. You can literally smell optimism and opportunity in the air. But for all the opportunity that exists and the change that has been created, I have an increasing sense that the Valley is becoming increasingly disconnected from the vast majority of people.
Let’s start by looking first at what’s being made through the lens of some new products that failed at launch (something the scene that likes to celebrate itself rarely wants to do). In recent years, we’ve seen high-profile, highly funded businesses like Color (‘a new type of elastic network built around photos’), Shuddle (‘Uber for kids’) and Homejoy (a platform connecting cleaners and home owners) crash and burn.
The most recent poster child of these was Juicero, a $700 juicing machine that wasn’t actually needed to squeeze its $8 prepared bags of fresh fruit and vegetables that somehow attracted $120 million in funding before its collapse. Undoubtedly, there were significant product issues, but it’s clear there was a far bigger issue that is, I fear, increasingly symptomatic of the Valley as a whole.
When talking about Juicero, the CEO Jeff Dunn said, “The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more. The value is in how easy it is for a frazzled dad to do something good for himself while getting the kids ready for school, without having to prep ingredients and clean a juicer. It’s in how the busy professional who needs more greens in her life gets app reminders to press Produce Packs before they expire, so she doesn’t waste the hard-earned money she spent on them.” They have built their brand on absurdities and false problems that they simply don’t see.
Next, you look at the debate that is raging around some of the unintended consequences of some of the most successful technology innovations. Tristan Harris, a design ethicist and founder of Time Well Spent, has done more than most to raise the issue of how technology can hijack minds. He now works, as he puts it, “to protect minds from nefarious manipulation”. His work has shown some of the ‘dark patterns’ companies use to hook you to their technology, but more importantly he’s shone a light on the realities of what new, mainstream technology is unintentionally doing to us as individuals and society.
In many ways, his crusade is to bring empathy back into mainstream technology companies and help them understand the real human impact of the things they do. This is going to become even more critical as we build machine learning: we have to be prepared for unintended consequences but also need to be aware of the implicit biases we may transfer when building the bots.
In both these extremes, I would argue we see an industry that has lost touch with the people it is designing for. It is hiding behind tons of Big Data – behavioural usage data and large-scale quantitative studies – but is remarkably short of ‘high feel’ data, that real sense of how people live their lives and how you might fit in. At the end of the day, there’s no replacement for actually spending time with people, understanding their lives and seeing how they tick. Silicon Valley should be sending their people out into the world. Think of it as some kind of humanity secondment.
Now, occasionally you see a brand get it right and Google did this again with the work it launched for Google Assistant in the Oscars®. The idea was remarkably humble, showing how Google can do all the things we are not very good at, or interested in, doing. ‘Make Google Do It’ is a simple, provocative and profoundly humble thought. It showed why the Google Assistant might be worth using by illustrating how it solves lots of life’s toothbrush problems (the things you need to do at least twice a day). It started with the magic of human problems rather than technology. It was humble enough to show that the real power of technology isn’t always transformative but rather about removing the little pain points we see in our lives.
And if we are to credibly do that, then we need to stop the growing disconnect between Silicon Valley and the real world. That sounds like a job tailor-made for marketers, and a way to increase their influence in organisations which tend to be born with a natural mistrust for this much-needed skill.