It’s been more than three years since I moved to Silicon Valley, and so far everything they say is true: it’s a place driven by optimism, hope, and high-priced electric vehicles. It’s a place where innovation thrives, and where failure is not only forgiven, but sometimes even lauded as part of a larger narrative. Those are the upsides.
The downsides can be less obvious, but 2016 brought them to light in cruel and unusual ways, as Fortune writer Erin Griffith points out in a recent article. The tech industry often operates under the belief that the world’s ails can be cured or at the very least sanitized with just the right kind of tech, from inconsequential things (can’t find a date? Just swipe) to matters of convenience (a drone will deliver that for you) to the literal difference between life and death (don’t worry, big data will help you live to 120). These are all human problems. And yet 2016 was the year tech seemed to forget about the humans: the way we work, what makes us tick, and that we’re all, actually, fragile and complex beings.
Theranos is the biggest offender. The company was exposed in a series of Wall Street Journal articles to be one with insufficient regard for the actual health of the blood-sampling customers it was selling to, in its quest to change the world.
But Theranos is not the only tech company that seems to have forgotten that its customers are human beings. Samsung, which is based in South Korea but has offices in Silicon Valley, shipped phones with defective and potentially dangerous batteries this year and then bungled the recall completely. Tesla responded to a fatal car crash in one of its semi-autonomous vehicles with a lengthy defense of its Autopilot technology, adding its “deepest sympathies” almost as an afterthought.
Uber launched its self-driving car pilot much in the same way that Amazon announced plans for its futuristic, cashier-less grocery store: the future is here, everybody, and we are on it. Neither company revealed its grand plan for restoring the jobs of its vehicle drivers and shelf stackers that could be imminently replaced. Facebook fired its human news editors, and then was caught flat-footed after its algorithms served up a series of fake news articles to humans who were preparing to vote in a monumental election.
It’s a theme that even trickled down to our everyday gadgets. Apple took popular ports out of its new laptops and the iPhone 7 and called it “courage,” ignoring that a lot of people really really like their wired headphones. And then there are companies like GoPro, which seem to have overestimated how many human beings actually go base jumping, river rafting, and lion cuddling on a regular basis.
It’s as though some ideas and products are developed (and crises are handled) in an abstract concept zone, one in which money flows freely and techno-optimism can overcome any problem. But that’s not reality.
To be sure, tech companies are businesses trying to make a profit, not humanitarian agencies or social science think tanks. They make the things they do because they think those things will sell. Some technologists have a very real desire to change the world for the better. And to some extent there may always be tension between the rapid pace of changing technology and the human beings who are resistant to change.
This innate resistance to change is something I think about a lot in my tech-centric interactions, whether it’s someone debating the merits of self-driving cars versus human-driven ones, a co-worker railing against the removal of a headphone jack, or a family member complaining to me, “I’m paying for seven different ‘clouds’ right now and I’m not sure I even know what the ‘cloud’ is.” Still, saying that humans are slow to adapt to change is no excuse for leaving the most human elements out of the tech equation.
As 2017 kicks off, the tech industry may be faced with a new set of challenges, from a new US government administration. Tech leaders and innovators will, for sure, have their hands full. But as they’re building products and platforms and services for the future, they’d be wise not to forget about the people — real, live, unpredictable beings — they’re building cool stuff for. Human beings don’t operate on LIDAR sensors.