Detail from the cover of Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Everyone in tech loves Yuval Noah Harari. This is cause for concern.
A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”
Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”
The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.
Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lotofcompany).
To fix our society, we have to reimagine the role of government in our lives.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? We’re in the midst of the most significant shift in our society since at least the Gilded Age – a tectonic reshaping of economic systems, social mores, and political institutions. Some even argue our current transition to a post-digital world, one in which technology has lapped our own intelligence and automation may displace the majority of our workforce within our lifetimes, is the most dramatic change to ever occur in recorded history. And that’s before we tackle a few other existential threats, including global warming – which is inarguably devastating our environment and driving massive immigration, drought, and famine – or income inequality, which has already fomented historic levels of political turmoil.
Any way you look at it, we’ve got a lot of difficult intellectual, social, and policy work to do, and we’ve got to do it quickly. Lucky for us, two major political events loom before us: The midterm elections this November, and a presidential election two years after that. Will we use these milestones to effect real change?
Given our current political atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that we will. I fervently hope that the midterms will provide an overdue check on the insane clown show that the White House has delivered to us so far, but I’ve little faith that the build up to the 2020 Presidential election will be much more than an ongoing circus of divisive theatrics. Will there be room for serious debate about reshaping our fundamental relationship to government? If we are truly in an unprecedented period of social change, shouldn’t we be talking about how we’re going to manage it?
If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
Seven or so years ago, a famous VC penned a manifesto of sorts. Writing at a time the world was still skeptical of the dominance to which his industry has now ascended (to think, such a time existed, and so few years ago!), Marc Andreessen had a message for the doubters, the naysayers, and the Wall St. analysts who were (credibly!) claiming that his investments amounted to not much more than a bubble:
Seven years later, no one can dispute Andreessen’s prescience. The man was right: If you had purchased a basket of his favorite stocks back then – he name-checked Apple, Amazon, and Facebook directly – you’d be up at least 10X, if not more. Software, it seems, has indeed eaten the world, and those smart (and rich) enough to put money into technology, as Andreessen has been, have done very, very well for themselves.
Why would a god descend from the heavens to participate in the turmoil of politics? It wasn’t to ‘stand for something’ as a brand, it’s because large scale attention can no longer be bought.
Technology has made our attention discretionary and the world skippable. Brands can no longer just buy the massive amounts of cheap, forced attention they are used to. The effectiveness of controversy in gaining attention has changed the outcome of elections and it’s starting to change the nature of marketing too.
This is not how brands behave.
The Kaepernick campaign has been hailed as brave and a smart bet. The scale of their wager should not be underestimated. Doubling down on a growing customer segment while openly turning your back on less appealing one — is not just brave, it goes against the nature of brand building.
Brand building has its moments of bravery but much to the frustration of ad agencies everywhere, it’s largely about risk aversion and playing the long game. It’s Roger Federer not Colin Kaepernick.
Brands constantly have to balance growth and remaining relevant with protecting the $28 billion value of their brand. Brand managers lean to Warren Buffet’s advice, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” They are careful and calculated.
Nike has done such a great job of this over the decades that they have what most other brands can only dream of. They transcend politics and petty factions. They are for everyone. To be for everyone while managing to be cool is the unicorn status of brands.
Perhaps backing Kaepernick’s bold protest could have slid by in the past, but by taking a side in today’s toxic political climate, they have done what mega brands don’t do — they have said “we’re not for you” to a large portion of society. More people identify as conservative in the USA than any other political view. Nike has chosen to distance themselves to some degree from 100 million of the most valuable consumers in the world, Americans, and wagered their ‘for everyone’ status.
Nike’s own mission statement declares that they are for everyone: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
What could be worth taking such a risk? Attention is the lifeblood of brands, and the traditional ways of getting it are in decline.
Earned attention is becoming the only attention and everything else is becoming wallpaper, thanks to a number of compounding factors.
The gearing of sharing
Social media loves to magnify what’s being magnified. This leaves less room for things that are not viral or at least topical. Winners win big and losers don’t even exist. Attention has transitioned from a sliding scale to being virtually binary.
The power of sharing is twofold. Firstly, it increases reach. This is the quantitative side of the equation. Secondly, it’s an endorsement. This is the qualitative and vastly overlooked side of the equation.
Sharing something online is often more about signaling than anything else. It means I approve of this and I think you should see it. It gives messages instant credibility within social networks, opposed receiving something cold. It’s especially true of controversial subject matter. Donald Trump’s election victory is less confounding when you consider the qualitative side of the massive media he earned.
The stopping power of controversy
What stops people from scrolling past? Mild issues aren’t particularly arresting. Traditional ads with memorable mnemonics and polite payoff lines are too easy to skip. They don’t work at scale on skippable media and the environment where they do work, linear tv, is losing its potency and cost effectiveness.
Two days ago the world marathon record was not just broken but smashed by Eliud Kipchoge. He’s a Nike sponsored Athlete and they are all over this.
Nike should take some of the credit for the record time too. Their Breaking2project set out to break the sub 2 hour marathon barrier, that many said is beyond what’s physically possible.
The huge margin Eliud shaved off the world record (1m17s) makes one feel that it is only a matter of time until the 2 hour barrier is broken. What could be more aligned to the essence of Nike than this belief? They developed a shoe specifically to achieve this feat. They have assembled the best experts to plan and coach the athletes. This is the perfect intersection of innovation and athletic performance. This is the god of victory.
On the other hand Colin Kaepernick is a good athlete but not the best. He’s definitely got an iron will but this is the muddy water of politics, not the god of victory.
Kipchoge’s world record is a feat so great, it deserves the world’s attention and should echo for years to come, yet it is overshadowed by the tail end of Nike’s Kaepernick campaign:
Similarly, Serena Williams’ controversy at the US open final will likely be a bigger media event than when she finally gets that 24th grand slam victory:
The interconnectedness and immediacy of technology has magnified our collective attention. It’s not just controversy that has become more captivating though.
Strong emotions, by definition, trump mild ones but the gearing of technology has exacerbated this to the point that mild emotions don’t get their fair share of attention, even if you pay for it.
This is why, through the lens of social media, the world appears to be constantly melting down and why issues are becoming so polarized.
Perhaps it’s because fear and anger are such visceral emotions that social media is better suited to politics than selling boxes of cereal.
Brands are slowly being suffocating by the new economics of media
The long term outlook for brands that rely on mild manners and traditional advertising is grim.
Firstly, attention is a zero sum game. People only have 24 hours a day. The three-plus hours of attention people give to their phones comes with a withdrawal from other areas where brands have traditionally bought media.
Secondly, even the media you buy now guarantees little. Skippable videos only work if they hook users from the outset. Fewer eyeballs are watching linear TV as viewing behavior shifts toward platforms like Netflix. The quality of attention TV ads get is also declining as viewers reach for their phones during ad breaks. While the quality of TV viewing is decreasing the price of TV ad real estate is increasing as desperate media owners try make their numbers with fewer buyers… in a kind of death roll.
The world has become skippable but most brands were brought up to be polite, and still make traditional ads that assume captive audiences. The entire advertising industry is wrestling with this change.
Nike wins this race.
To be swept up in the shared media psyche is to captivate the world’s imagination. While Nike is basking in a torrent of global attention, we have forgotten their competitors.
What prize could be worth a god’s fall from grace? When Nike tied themselves to the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick they got the biggest hit of attention they have had since Google has been recording (2004), by a huge margin and possibly the biggest spotlight they have ever had:
There can be no bigger prize.
Nike are boldly blazing a trail that others will follow. Just as Donald Trump has shown how the momentum of controversy can steamroll the mildness of logic in politics today, Nike has shown how controversy can fuel brands.
The recent spike in online sales and the sneaker burning protests will probably cool off but a shift to bolder, more controversial brands and advertising is just beginning.
It’s the business model, folks. If we’re going to “fix” anything, we have to start there.
“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”
That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”
Ben points out that during yesterday’s hearings, Dorsey was willing to tie the problems of public discourse on Twitter directly to the company’s core business model, that of advertising. Sandberg? She ducked the issue and failed to make the link.
Next week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, will testify in front of Congress. They must take this opportunity to directly and vigorously defend the role that real journalism plays not only on their platforms, but also in our society at large. They must declare that truth exists, that facts matter, and that while reasonable people can and certainly should disagree about how to respond to those facts, civil society depends on rational discourse driven by an informed electorate.
Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of….
….results on “Trump News” are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!
The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.
We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.
I’ve been covering Google’s rather tortured relationship with China for more than 15 years now. The company’s off again, on again approach to the Internet’s largest “untapped” market has proven vexing, but as today’s Intercept scoop informs us, it looks like Google has yielded to its own growth imperative, and will once again stand up its search services for the Chinese market. To wit:
GOOGLE IS PLANNING to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, The Intercept can reveal.