Comms can help prove Silicon Valley isn't an empathy-free zone

Businesses on the West Coast may lack empathy and have been slow to wake up to their wider social responsibilities, but they are still on the positive side of the balance sheet in terms of value creation.

Mark Zuckerberg reminds Facebook employees of Sun's rise and fall to guard against complacency. Image via Eric Fischer/Flickr/Creative Commons
Mark Zuckerberg reminds Facebook employees of Sun's rise and fall to guard against complacency. Image via Eric Fischer/Flickr/Creative Commons

GigaOm founder and TrueVentures partner Om Malik wrote an interesting piece in The New Yorker this week about the lack of empathy in Silicon Valley toward those whose lives are fundamentally affected by the innovation and disruption unleashed by companies such as Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, and others.

He cited the latest example of Otto, an automated trucking startup recently acquired by Uber that will send large vehicles rolling along our freeways without drivers but that on the other side of the equation has the potential to put nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk.

And, certainly, you only have to walk around the streets of San Francisco for a few minutes and observe the city’s continuing acute homelessness problem to realize the disparity between the haves and have-nots in the area.

I’ve often wondered why America doesn’t shout louder about the incredible innovation that has created some of the most significant global businesses and literally changed people’s lives.

Think of Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Tesla, the aforementioned Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb, and many others that have completely transformed and democratized the world over the past 30 to 40 years.

Amid widespread talk of "making America great again," these existing and impressive business achievements are rarely mentioned as part of the conversation. Maybe the lack of empathy Malik identifies in Silicon Valley has something to do with this.

Because it’s difficult to think of any other part of the world where such groundbreaking enterprises have emerged… China has been the location for amazing technological innovation too - think Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Huawei - but all within the context of a state-run business environment, not a free market.

I spent this week on the West Coast visiting some of these iconic companies, such as Apple, Pinterest, and Microsoft, and Malik’s piece has certainly been a popular topic of conversation. Many in the Valley recognize the sentiments and acknowledge their businesses need to do more to engage on a societal level and look outside the hermetically sealed bubble within which they operate.

One senior communications professional told me he believes some of the best journalism about the tech sector comes from writers based outside the Valley, such as Vanity Fair special correspondent Nick Bilton and The Wall Street Journal’s Chris Mims. He says they benefit from existing outside the bubble and not buying into the "group think" that dominates the Valley.

Having said all that, the prevailing feeling is still one of incredible optimism and bullishness about technology, business, and the future.

There is certainly no let-up in the expansion of businesses in the Valley. Apple is preparing to move into its brand new, spaceship-style offices next year and Facebook is also apparently on the lookout for new space, as it is busting out of its existing location in Menlo Park, the former Sun Microsystems HQ.

By the way, one note of self-awareness and unexpected humbleness was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to simply turn around the old Sun sign and put the Facebook logo on the front of it when the social network moved in back in 2012.

It is a constant reminder to Facebookers not to take their eye off the ball or believe in their own invincibility, with the constant and cautionary reminder that a former powerhouse such as Sun could fade away very quickly, finally being absorbed into Oracle in 2009.

Other truly innovative businesses are also starting to find that the road from disruption to profitability can be long and hard, and that the transition from the excitement of launch to a sustainable long-term enterprise is fraught with pitfalls – even if the service being offered is tremendously popular with users.

On Tuesday, Uber drivers joined a strike by workers campaigning for a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. There are also efforts to unionize the workforce and to bring in a tipping culture. Many workers don’t particularly want to be part of a union – they like the flexibility of working when and where they want, rather than having a normal job just like other folks. They are often supplementing a main income by driving two or three days/nights per week.

And users like the fact they don’t have to bother with the tipping and payment process - it’s all sorted automatically via the app. They also like the lower prices compared to traditional cabs or limos.

But the drivers might reflect that Uber made a loss of $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016 and is effectively subsidizing fares to build market share. That is unlikely to be sustainable as a long-term strategy.

These are all the type of issues that mainstream businesses outside Silicon Valley have learned to deal with as a daily part of life. And lest we forget, for every Facebook or Google there is a Yahoo or AOL that has failed to take its mission to the next level.

Ultimately, however, Pinterest’s head of brand, communications, and community Barry Schnitt – a comms veteran of both Facebook and Google – is probably right when he says the tech industry has provided orders of magnitude more value than it has destroyed, despite the positive perception of disruption in Silicon Valley that might not necessarily be shared by everyone elsewhere.

As he further points out, there is something unique about the business eco-system on the West Coast, where thousands of people are willing to take risks, which he himself did four years ago when he decided to make the jump from a multi-billion dollar public company to a 30-person startup.

My sense is that that this generation of tech CEOs, including visionaries such as Tim Cook at Apple and Satya Nadella at Microsoft, have a more inclusive sense of their businesses’ place in the world than their iconic predecessors, who were principally concerned with invention.

There is still a big focus on product and innovation, but the continuing excitement around technology such as mixed reality is mixed with the awareness that Silicon Valley also has a responsibility to be more open, philanthropic, and values-based.

And one thing is for certain: the communications pros telling these stories are a crucial link in the process of proving the technology bubble is not an empathy-free zone.

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