In the world of tech, communication can fall far below innovation or investment. Some of the industry’s leading lights are lousy communicators, and issues that alarm the general public are often met with a smug shrug of the shoulders, or an idiom that implies: “We know best.”
2017 must be known as the year Silicon Valley’s public image reached a nadir. It has been a year beset with scandal, court cases and controversy for the world’s richest tech hub. To convince people it can continue to innovate without causing harm, the Valley’s key players must ready their comms teams for an onslaught.
In truth it began last year, when social media played a game-changing role in American democracy – many say, for the worse. Russian trolls and selective ads on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have strangled dialog and obfuscated truth.
Just this month Facebook’s micro-targeting ad service was found to have ostracized users based on age. Its “move fast and break things” mantra, officially dropped in 2014, has more recently resembled scorched earth. To maintain not just its own market dominance but moral authority, Mark Zuckerberg and co must convince the public their solutions are good for society, and not just their own bottom lines.
Neither does Silicon Valley’s PR disaster fall on the policy of global powerhouses. Individuals must play a role. No more must industry execs laud risible water-only diets or 4am-to-midnight working days. Humblebragging 16-hour sessions while heralding the end of low-paid work isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous.
The gig economy is a byproduct of this elitism. Uber, Deliveroo and others will continue to be dragged through national courts in the new year. They must stop complaining about deregulation and innovation, and do more to look after the people who make their companies tick. History shows us that companies that ignore people will lose. Silicon Valley is no different.
Women are half of those people. Silicon Valley has rightly come under fire for its appalling treatment of women in the workplace. C-suites must be swept of bad actors, and shop floors cleared of cat-callers, ass-grabbers and glass-ceiling reinforcers, for tech to call itself a leading-edge industry. Otherwise, it’s just the Hollywood casting couch with apps.
The increasing monopolization of the tech industry is worrisome on several fronts. First, it will hamper smaller firms from making inroads, and will squash innovation. Second, it will reduce the need for major tech companies to pay attention to the needs and desires of their users. For the results of this, read the previous paragraph.
Emerging markets are one of the few areas of tech that can spin a truly positive story. Take e-commerce in Asia, or blockchain land registries in Africa, or fintech solutions that are transforming unbanked societies worldwide. These are good things being done by tech to help billions out of poverty and unemployment. Silicon Valley must focus harder on these people. To ignore them is to cede power to European, Chinese and other influencers.
It is not too late to change the tide of public opinion. The rare contrition shown by Uber’s new chief Dara Khosrowshahi is a good example of how reputation management can be won from the top down. But more must be done. People don’t trust Silicon Valley any more. In 2018, Silicon Valley must win that trust back.