Q&A with Techonomy's David Kirkpatrick: Reshaping the conversation

Blurring lines between industries, the realities of privacy, and Facebook's continuing impact were among talking points as PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid spoke with David Kirkpatrick, founder and CEO of Techonomy, prior to the Airfoil-hosted Technology Roundtable.

Gideon Fidelzeid: How would David Kirkpatrick define "technology"?

David Kirkpatrick: Technology is embedded in the essence of what it is to be a person. It is just the set of means by which human society evolves. It might have been more unexpected to talk about technology being essential and intrinsic to being human 20 or 30 years ago, but today it’s routine. Moreover, it’s something we’ll never get away from. Technology is the way we serve ourselves and advance as a species.

Fidelzeid: If every company is a tech company, which is a central theme of our roundtable, that makes competitors out of brands that likely never viewed themselves as such before. How does this affect the way traditional tech companies must communicate?

Kirkpatrick: Leaders of these companies need to more self-consciously recognize they are technologists. Many still don’t get that. They remain reactive to all the changes transforming the planet, as opposed to being proactive. The companies more willing to engage with that reality are doing dramatically better.

It’s interesting that many of the brands doing the best at recognizing they are tech companies are the oldest and biggest companies in the world, such as P&G, GE, Unilever, a lot of the oil companies. Their longevity has been helped because they view themselves as adaptive tech-centric organizations that will embrace the new. I don’t even like talking about industries anymore.

The many startups and entrepreneurial organizations emerging across the planet are proving that if you wed yourself too closely to the idea of being in the airline, waste management, mail delivery or whatever business, you will get blindsided by somebody with a larger concept of what is possible.

Fidelzeid: What impact does this have on media coverage of the sector?

Kirkpatrick: Business itself is experiencing a disruption that is driven by technology. Our very concept of what business is must be rethought, especially from a media viewpoint.

Having spent 25 years at Fortune, I’m a professional technology business journalist. The way we think about business journalism is fundamentally wrong on balance because the presumption we bring to business journalism is that it’s about money, markets, and the returns to investors. That is not the main reason people go into business. It’s not the main reason people love creating companies. It’s not the most useful lens to understanding the role of business in the world. It is an important lens for a relatively small community that ends up, because of their economic power, defining the entire dialogue about business, which is financially oriented, markets-driven business journalism. I’m not even saying we don’t need that to some substantial degree.

However, if you’re thinking about how business media or communicators can be more effective at a macro level, focus more on the consequences of the business’ behavior, not on the results for investors. A key reason I feel so strongly about this is because the young people going into business today almost universally would agree with that. They are the ones defining the future of all the worlds in which we live. Especially among the smartest and most ambitious young people today, there is a very profound awareness of the challenges the world faces and the need to harness business to meet them. 

Fidelzeid: The impact of communications is often measured by numbers of people who share a message. Online privacy is a factor that could impact that greatly. Please share your views on privacy and how it has evolved.

Kirkpatrick: You have to show respect for privacy in everything you do or you’ll get bitten with a counter reaction. Bigger picture, though, privacy is fundamentally under threat in the world we live in now – and technology’s progress is highly implicated. I don’t see a big opportunity to retrieve privacy of the type we have historically believed in.

In the history of the world, privacy really didn’t exist. It isn’t shocking privacy is relatively hard to achieve because it really never existed until people moved to cities and we more or less became much more atomized in our little cocoons of city life.

In 2009, for the first time, the majority of mankind lived in cities. That was also the year Facebook was taking off. In retrospect, I realized how apt it was that at the exact moment more people lived in cities than did not, the most popular communication system that has ever existed was one that self-consciously and deliberately tried to recreate the intimacy of the small town.

On a day-to-day basis, we all must be acutely aware that people are super freaked out by the awareness their privacy is in jeopardy or they have none. In general they’re overreacting, but that doesn’t mean as communicators or as businesspeople we have the luxury of disregarding their opinions.

Fidelzeid: How do you hope Techonomy impacts the broader conversations people have about the tech sector?

Kirkpatrick: We want to help people think more clearly about how all the transformative changes are forcing them to work differently in their companies and even live differently in their personal lives.

At our conferences, we could talk about the future of management or the global water shortage. One of the most popular sessions we ever did featured Harvard professor David Keith, an expert in geoengineering. The conversation turned to a discussion about the geopolitical implications of that.

Generally, the conversations at our sessions are deep discussions about practical day-to-day issues. There was even a case last year where because of a comment by MIT’s Tom Malone, who was in the audience, we changed our program mid-stream. He discovered through research that in any kind of group focused on problem-solving or innovating, the more women in the group, the more effective it is.

The key point: all of these discussions took place at a tech-focused event – and it is fully indicative of the way technology has permeated every aspect of society.

Fidelzeid: What lessons can communicators in the tech space glean from all this? More than that, how can the PR community best work with Techonomy?

Kirkpatrick: The one thing we try very hard not to do is spend much time, if any, talking about what the next iPhone is going to be. We don’t talk about the stock performance of any of these companies, except to the degree that it might facilitate the emergence of new technologies. And today, we aren’t even really looking at competition issues inside the industry. We’re looking at competition issues where the tech industry is competing with other sectors.

We still get pigeonholed as a technology conference, but that is not the way we think of ourselves. We are all about how technology transforms everything else. To fulfill that vision, we seek senior leaders from business, so we’re open to the many top individuals represented at the companies for whom you work. 

Fidelzeid: Having written one of the pre-eminent books on Facebook, The Facebook Effect, you are in a unique position to speak about the company’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s true impact on society. Please share some insights.

Kirkpatrick: I’ve had the privilege of knowing Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Andrew Grove, and many impactful leaders. Zuckerberg immediately reminded me of them from my first exposure to him. He continues to have extremely good values in his leadership of his company. In fact, if he has one problem, it’s that he is so completely in control. Of course, if he weren’t, Facebook would not be the global colossus it is. It’s a dichotomy few truly ever face.

Facebook remains a fundamentally positive institution in global society. And despite all the issues it has faced, it remains a beloved institutional tool for more people than any communication service ever.

At the end of the day, if you focus on one thing Facebook has done, it has given people communications power they never had before. It was true when it launched. It’s true today. And that isn’t even factoring how it has become so central to the economies and the social life of all these countries. Facebook is about empowerment. It enables anyone to become a broadcaster. And while so many other systems have emerged with similar impact, Facebook was and remains a driving force of it all. It changed the world – and it still is.

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