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Podcast: Big Tech and Social Disruption with author of Silicon States Lucie Greene

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The promise of Silicon Valley is bold, futuristic, and seductive, but at the same time, it is the vision of a group of privileged, white, male 30-somethings with a famously rarified outlook on life.

They’re not so different from the leaders of Washington D.C. Except, this group is not elected. Before the future gets handed to them, it’s important to look at the future they might build. Its benefits, prejudices, and inherent flaws. And ask if, ultimately, we really want it. Before it’s too late. In this episode, we talk to Lucie Greene, Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, JWT’s in-house futures and innovation think tank, and author of a new book ‘Silicon States’ about the Valley’s ideological bid to ‘disrupt’ the world - unchecked, now largely unparalleled in power and moving into areas traditionally the remit of the state.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Anna:               Hello and welcome to the everywoman podcast. I'm Anna, editor of everywoman and every month, we'll be bringing you the stories, insights and opinions of inspiring women in business on a wide range of topics. Asking the questions you want the answers to and doubtless prompting some more in the process. Today, we're taking on technology, specifically, the power and politics of Big Tech and what it means for our future and we're doing that with Lucie Greene, whose new book on the subject, Silicon States, is out in August. As worldwide director of innovation group J. Walter Thompson's trend forecasting consultancy and innovation unit, Lucie is used to looking into the future. So we are excited and possibly a little scared to have her in the studio today to discuss her new book, Silicon States.

Lucie Greene:       Thanks for having me. 

Anna:               So, I just wanted to read a little bit from the book to set the context before we start to discuss it further. "Silicon Valley is imperialising the planet," you say, " ... with nearly bottomless supplies of cash and boundless ambition, a small group of companies have been gradually seizing symbolic and practically civic leadership in America and around the world, with big plans to fundamentally alter sectors such as healthcare, space exploration and transportation. Everything is 'broken' and they must reinvent it and they are doing so largely unchecked." So, if you're not a libertarian, that's quite sobering stuff. Let's start by asking, why did you write the book? What was the biggest question that you wanted to explore?

Lucie Greene:       I actually came up with the idea for the book around 2014. In my job at J. Walter Thompson, a lot of my role is looking not only towards the future, but looking at cultural shifts, looking at the future of different sectors, but always through the lens of the consumer and so, I'd always looked at this group from the point of view of what new consumer products, or consumer platforms, that they were introducing and of course, they, in recent years, have come to pretty much own all consumer behaviour and the thing that struck me ... It was actually at the web summit in 2014, where I saw Peter Thiel speaking and he was talking about trying to solve ageing and it was at the same time that we saw Elon Musk's brainchild Hyperloop, trying to talk about a super train that could bend space and time. So there's this notion of bending space and time, cracking humanity, investing in schools-

Anna:               Big questions.

Lucie Greene:       ... right? There was Facebook investments, Zuckerberg investments in schools, and it seemed to me that their ambition had sprawled way beyond something from a product or service, to something much more holistic, almost like the Victorian industrialists. It kind of set me on this path to explore, based on these early case studies, what that future might look like if it did become a sort of replacement for what we have now.

Anna:               I mean, are we talking a linear future, or is it all to play for? How do you see it unfolding because obviously we're in the middle of massive change? What is the biggest possible scenario? 

Lucie Greene:       As much as my book sort of ties it all together, I don't think everything is one concentrated, intentional conspiracy for Silicon Valley to take over the world and I actually don't think they necessarily want responsibilities. We've seen with media, a lot of it is about these companies seeing opportunities that can scale very quickly and a lot of the promises are about marketing spin. A lot of the altruistic messaging is about trying to inspire people with a "Change the world" message as opposed to really taking on something tangible from the state. It kind of varies by case study.

Anna:               So is the idea then, that these big tech behemoths, they are stepping into sectors and areas and spaces that traditionally government has had a monopoly on and the tension there within? Is the tension because of the disruption or because they are unchecked?

Lucie Greene:       There's a couple of things. The state is. particularly in countries like the US, is shrinking and under pressure and simultaneously, you are having this group seeing not only an opportunity financially to disrupt these spaces, a bit like they've disrupted entertainment and all these other places, but reinvent the model using things like algorithms and artificial intelligence to reduce costs. Some of that is really admirable but it's also, because they have the majority, they're a huge wealth centre now, they have more money to put into innovation, they're actually leading all innovation in a way that governments might have done previously but because of that, they're also defining what innovation looks like. What problems get solved, what space looks like, where NASA might have defined that before.

Lucie Greene:       Life sciences and exploration of pushing the boundaries of scientific reinvention and discovery, which might have been led by something, I guess, a bit more ethical or cerebral, is now being led by quite ego driven, problem/solution oriented, big feet that have a big PR engine and a narrative associated with it. It's quite a distorted focus and the one that is different to the way maybe the state might have approached things before.

Anna:               Also, we at the everywoman in Tech forum recently, there was a lot of chat about how AI, for example, is also influenced by this very male dominated culture, which Silicon Valley is and how unconscious bias is being coded into AI because there aren't enough women, basically, in the industry. 

Lucie Greene:       Right.

Anna:               That as well, I suppose, can play out as quite a negative influence in terms of what we're talking about.

Lucie Greene:       Right, and in very distinct but also subtle ways, as we're seeing even tangental but relevant comparison is in something like Wonderwoman, which was directed by a woman and to all intents and purposes, it's like an amazing superhero movie but because there's a woman behind the lens, it manifests in a very different way that resonated in a much more powerful way with not just women, but all audiences. I think the same thing could be said of when you look at the way that environments are designed, the way systems are designed, I make the comparison in my book between Silicon Valley leaders and their current town building and train building and educational views, with actually Robert Moses, the famous town planner of the post-war era in the US. 

Lucie Greene:       For those who don't know about Robert Moses, he was responsible for really some of the biggest urban renewal projects in the US in the post-war era, when there was this huge boom, a huge enthusiasm for the future, the automobile, it was a time when the future was closely aligned with private industry, it was Ford, it was the World Fair outside New York but it really saw big urban centres being completely altered by a small group of suited white men who had this theoretical idea about what the city should look like and what should be done to improve it and it was unproven. 

Lucie Greene:       What was shown, and I have a lot sympathy with Jane Jacobs, who was the big sort of anti Robert Moses figure, she was a journalist, and she talked about the degree to which he didn't understand the complexity and the nuances of environments and cities. I see really a lot of that in Silicon Valley now, the way they're trying to very much think on a bigger systemic level about what cities and what our lives should look like, but again, it's all from a very, very narrow perspective and point of view which is typified by actually the very rarefied environment in San Francisco and the Bay Area which is very white and-

Anna:               Male?

Lucie Greene:       ... protected and male.

Anna:               Yeah.

Lucie Greene:       Yeah and not diverse.

Anna:               Yes, these theoretical ideas, it leads me onto my question about progress. This is all about the idea of progress, both back in the 19th century but also now. Progress is never a neutral idea though and it seems to be very aligned at the moment, especially in Silicon Valley with the idea of disruption and the idea that all disruption is always progress. How do they view progress and how do they define what that is because a lot of the time ... Especially, you see the ideas of driverless cars but there's no thought about the impact beyond that, whereas in a governmental system, there might be. Talk me through a little bit about that idea of progress in Silicon Valley and how they see it.

Lucie Greene:       That's really interested. Yeah, I think even from Clayton Christiensen onwards, there's been this fetishization of disruption, in the PayPal mafia as well, of sort of disrupting yourself to reinvent yourself and keep yourself relevant, which I think carries a lot of weight actually, within business. So, it's this idea that if you don't disrupt yourself with a cheaper, better, de-centralized or alternative model, then someone else will. That makes a lot of sense in businesses although in a lot of the Silicon Valley cases, it's with companies that aren't actually profitable. So it's an Airbnb disrupting the hotel industry but with a model that is platform based. The thing about that is when it gets applied to something like the state, it becomes a case of ... I think Silicon Valley's view is, "Because you can you should."

Anna:               Yes, I was going to say.

Lucie Greene:       And they sort of talk about government in a very derogatory way, like it's very slow and it's cumbersome and it's holding back this innovation.

Anna:               Out-dated.

Lucie Greene:       Right, and Peter Thiel has talked a lot about innovating first and then asking forgiveness later, and that increasingly is just becoming the norm. So, Uber can move into any city whatever and it reaches scale because we're all adopting it and the state is often powerless or struggles with its resources to monitor or regulate or even much less, tax, all these changes before they have a negative impact. I think there's a failure of asking, "But what if?" Because a lot of solutions being devised by this group, although they're offering perhaps more alternative, or faster options, or sustainable in the case of the connected city, a lot of them are geared towards making stuff more affordable to middle classes, or the 80%, not the 100%, which is a government based model. Government is for everybody, it's for the people that can't afford things and a lot of Silicon Valley models are based on making things accessible to the middle of that. 

Lucie Greene:       I think a lot of the reason why they're having so much success is because they've managed to really successfully attach a narrative to what they do. So Elon Musk at South By Southwest, the deitisation of Elon Musk is kind of insane. They've managed to very, very closely associate the future and a passion for the future, and a positivity, and also getting stuff done and financial success ... In a market like the US, financial success is synonymous with being clever and being right. If you're rich, you much be smart and so it's very easy to sort of just assume therefore, because of this lack of really meaningful critique, that what they are doing is self-determining and righteous and not really take a step back and go, "Well hang on a minute, is this actually for the good of everybody?"

Anna:               Is this ... of everyone? Well, I was going to say are a lot of their disruptions really about ego and profit rather than this sense that somehow they're bringing good to the world through technology? I was going to ask, do you think the tech giants basically need to dress up the idea of this self=interest at all costs as a sort of romantic idea of the libertarian, which is a very, very popular way of defining your position in Silicon Valley?

Lucie Greene:       What's really interesting with this group, and in my book I look at mainly post-Apple sort of resurgence, this narrative and the kind of altruism that they've attached to what they do, this sense of wonder that they do, is really closely intertwined with the transition of technology into a consumer technology. So when you think about the way technology was in our lives, even I guess like 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, it was ... first of all it was like government machines, or used in engineering, then it was the desktop computer in the office but we didn't really have a home computer, then we had the home PC and now we have laptops that are interchangeable between our personal lives and our work lives and that's because of this explosion of this explosion of consumer technology. The way that that technology has reached critical mass is that it's been positioned by marketers as something more than technology. 

Lucie Greene:       So, Apple is more than Apple, it defines you as a person, it makes you seem cool, you're a creative person. Google and Facebook, they've both attached massive narratives to what they do, they're not just a search engine, they're not just a social ... they're connecting the world. So as they move into these new spaces, they're having to attach similar narratives to what they do to make it seem like it's part of this bigger mythology that they've created but it is ultimately driven by needs not-

Anna:               Yes, ultimately their profit.

Lucie Greene:       ... their brand. 

Anna:               Philanthropic organisations.

Lucie Greene:       Yeah.

Anna:               I was going to say, what's the role of their philanthropic pursuits to legitimise their activities because I know a lot of them do a lot of outreach as well as part of that brand narrative?

Lucie Greene:       Yeah, exactly, the philanthropy thing is super interesting, especially ... It's slightly different philanthropy in the UK, to the US. In the US, because the welfare state is not nearly so big and far-reaching as it is in markets like Europe and the UK, philanthropy and big philanthropy has traditionally been the supplementary pillar to the state in offering people educational, artistic resources and cultural resources, there's the Carnegie libraries. So there's a big tradition of industrialists making lots of money and then donating that and entering into philanthropy. What's interesting about Silicon Valley individuals is that they're doing this but kind of on steroids, at a much younger age. And as a result of that, or intertwined with that, they're approaching philanthropy with the same business principles that they have their own companies. So they're kind of, "How can we hack philanthropy and make it more ...?"

Anna:               How can we disrupt it?

Lucie Greene:       Right, exactly, so they're sort of doing the same approach, which is to ... So there's a lot of venture capitalists, social good organisations, setting up a private company like an LLC, which is a social good venture, which means that you can be doing social good or solving a problem but also be profitable. One thing that really defines, actually, their approach to philanthropy is this duality between doing good but also being really effective, solving massive problems, and also potentially being profitable as well. They see profit potential in solving world problems. But again, it's quite binary and troubling if it becomes a replacement for what exists as traditional philanthropy in the US because it's very, very much focused on ego, on solving those massive problems, on science and technology. It's looking at things that have a huge PR narrative attached to it, like can we take us to space? Can we crack the code for ageing? Can we solve disease? There's nothing nuanced or subtle and it all presents them as saviours in our lives, as a sort of saviour mentality. 

Lucie Greene:       There's also massive socioeconomic and ethnic bias in how they're approaching problems. They're not looking at the homeless issue in San Francisco famously, it's the biggest criticism levelled at them, but the opiod crisis in the US is a massive national epidemic and not looking at that. Also, having spoken to a lot of philanthropy experts in the US, not looking at the even more subtle problems, there's nothing like soft benefits, or alleviating, that's just not dramatic enough, it needs to be self-contained and conclusive and fast and if it's not that then they're kind of not interested. Which all again, as I said, is fine until it becomes a replacement for what has existed before.

Anna:               It's interesting, the world solve. Solving disease is a very interesting way of putting it and as you say, they're solving the things that they want to or that they deem interesting, so it's not about society, it's about the organisation. I was going to ask, and perhaps this is an unfair question, but perhaps it isn't. Is this more of a male psychology? Is this coming from the very heavy male-dominated Silicon Valley, and if so, what role does the relative lack of women play in any possible dystopia that's about to play out?

Lucie Greene:       Yeah, I don't want to discredit all the men out there but I do think it is a masculine construct, inherently. Or a certain alpha male construct.

Anna:               Predilection, yeah.

Lucie Greene:       Right, exactly. It's very achievement based, it's very visibility led, it's very ego led and like I said, quite binary and quite telling. There's a chapter in my book, I look at the experience of women in Silicon Valley and their approach is different but it's not just women in Silicon Valley, it's just in general. Major groups of people are underrepresented, so what often doesn't get talked about is it's not only a lack of women and racial diversity, but also socioeconomic diversity. Everyone there is highly educated and usually from quite a privileged background and that really skews not only the kinds of problems that are tackled, or opportunities that are seen, but how they're approached and the tonality with how they're approached. 

Lucie Greene:       You're only beginning to see the fallacy in that ... They were famously late, Apple being one of the main examples, to addressing the idea of women's health for example. They didn't realise in their health suite that they should probably have a menstrual tracker, for example. But what's really exciting to me now is that for the first time, at CES and a number of the tech shows, you're seeing more and more now female-founded consumer tech products aimed at more female-centric concerns. Health concerns, wellbeing concerns being led and architected by ... not to steal the word from Ivanka Trump, but architected by women and designed in a much more empathetic way, executed with nuance and really unlocking this market that has been kind of ignored.

Lucie Greene:       That's the other thing. By ignoring the female voice, among others, they're actually missing massive opportunities and when you see the success of various connected products aimed at women that are doing really well, so Elvie which is a connected Kegel exerciser, guys. Or [Lifecycles 00:20:15] which is a fertility tracker, or Willow, the connected breast pump that was in Times, I think top 10 products for 2017. They're missing a trick by not investing in these types of things.

Anna:               How aware are they of this? How aware of they generally of their power? I've written notes here about, a lot of times, we've seen them playing catch up, these people that are mega brains and solving the world, example Facebook's belated admission that it might have had something to do with the swaying of the Donald Trump election. What is the level of awareness amongst the big guys?

Lucie Greene:       That's really funny. You go to Palo Alto and it really is exactly like the show Silicon Valley, Mike Judge's show. There's a startling lack of self-awareness, or almost like a brazen lack of self-awareness. You have guys walking around in head to toe in Patagonia, with branded merchandise from whatever respective tech company they work for. I don't know how genuine all of that is, it was very interesting to be at another web summit, which was during the US election, on the day that Donald Trump was announced the new President of the US and there was this sort of unfolding, existential crisis on stage amongst all these VCs and tech founders. Sort of going like, "Oh wow, maybe we did have something to do with this." Because they like to think of themselves ... especially because they consider themselves to be consumer brands, very millennial and on the whole, if not progressive then kind of neo-liberal, broadly appealing to audiences. So in this audience at the web summit which is largely millennial and Gen-X tech, quite affluent, cosmopolitan, European entrepreneurs, they were suddenly faced with something that they might have created. 

Lucie Greene:       Although I ran that theory by Nick Denton, the Gawker founder and he said that he doesn't believe that at all. He's like, "They kind of probably quite like the idea of oh no, we didn't realise how powerful we were." It kind of feeds their ego in a way, so he pours scorn on that. There definitely was a startling sense of surprise and unease amongst this group, they really hadn't thought through the implications of what some of the technologies they're creating, from automating everything from kitchen equipment to shipping processes and retail process, what really the far reaching impact of that will be on a societal level.

Anna:               I mean, they haven't. It's taken them a while for them to even come near admitting accountability for anything really, hasn't it?

Lucie Greene:       Right because accountability means being legislated and controlled.

Anna:               And there we have it.

Lucie Greene:       Basically, yeah.

Anna:               So I think that's a good chance to bring in this last question. I was going to say that your introduction, going to your introduction at the end, ends with the ominous sign-off, "Before it's too late." What I wanted to ask you is it it too late already or can we still redress the balance of unchecked tech power and what does that look like? What are the futures?

Lucie Greene:       Oh wow. That's difficult to say with any concrete certainty, of course. I do believe that the big tech brands have reached the peak of their cultural influence and mystique. They can't any longer go into emerging markets with this sort of plinky-plonky ukulele music and seem like a plucky bootstrapping start-up, right?

Anna:               Yeah.

Lucie Greene:       And then in markets like the US and the UK, where there's this huge wonder attached to their big temples and what they do, that's also coming under fire, although it's not stopping any of us using them and it's become so difficult for us to not use them, that you would have to basically become a sort of societal outcast. I left Facebook but I'm still on Instagram and WhatsApp and I wanted to leave Instagram recently and then I thought, "But if I'm on WhatsApp, really what's the point? I'm still part of the Facebook matrix." I think it'll vary by market. In the UK and Europe where there's more of a pronounced state, or stronger state, you are seeing pushback, particularly the European Union, are really trying to pushback on their control but that isn't stopping them in markets like sub-Saharan Africa, where governments are less able to stop and actually are scant on resources are having to maybe welcome all the internet infrastructure being built by this group in return for some degree of control and flexibility, autonomy I guess, on the behalf of those groups.

Lucie Greene:       One thing that does really excite me though is, I think one of the reasons we have the situation we have now is that the people in government have not been that tech-savvy or up to date with these technologies and really the implications of them on society but also what it might have on their institutions. The difference or the change that I see coming ahead and the reason why I'm quite hopeful, is that you now how older millennials, who are tech-savvy, reaching candidate age. You have Mark Zuckerberg being one but also people like Scooter Braun. You have new political satirists who are very tech-savvy, from Jonathan Pie here to Russell Brand. So a new iteration of political candidate that would consider themselves ethical but also understands what these tech groups are about and what tech transformation is. 

Lucie Greene:       Then you have this new voter base, this really exciting teenage voter base becoming voter age at a rapid rate and actually massive percentages of them, a very high percentage of them, that are eligible to vote actually going out to vote and they have, typically, a very ethical and thus far quite a liberal sensibility it's been shown both in the UK and the US. Again, they're hyper-digital natives, as we saw with Florida, using social channels to effect change. So I'm excited about those two groups bringing in a new era where technology and speed, and let's not forget these efficiencies are in a lot of instances are really great, but does it all need to be led by private corporations? I like the idea of this technology being embraced by government institutions but in a responsible and thoughtful way, that benefits everybody.

Anna:               Absolutely. Well, positive thoughts for the future but interesting to keep our eyes on what is actually going on and if you want to get more of an overview, please do make sure you get a copy of Lucie's book Silicon States, which is out on August 20th. Lucie thank you, it's been a pleasure having you here with us and thank you for talking to us today.

Lucie Greene:       Thank you for having me.

Anna:               And thank you all for joining us as well on this everywoman podcast and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you next time. Don't forget in the meantime, there's a wealth of information, interest, and further talking points on the everywomanNetwork and app if you want to access on the move. So, until we meet again, have a great day and keep on living your best life.

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