Essays on Technology and Culture

Om Malik on Tech’s “Empathy Vacuum”

It’s hard to think about the human consequences of technology as a founder of a startup racing to prove itself or as a chief executive who is worried about achieving the incessant growth that keeps investors happy. Against the immediate numerical pressures of increasing users and sales, and the corporate pressures of hiring the right (but not too expensive) employees to execute your vision, the displacement of people you don’t know can get lost.

However, when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society. We are not just talking about the ability to influence voters with fake news. If you are Amazon, you have to acknowledge that you are slowly corroding the retail sector, which employs many people in this country. If you are Airbnb, no matter how well-meaning your focus on delighting travellers, you are also going to affect hotel-industry employment.

— Om Malik – “Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum”

In the political, sociological, and economic mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, we can’t ignore the role the tech industry plays in it. Facebook can’t court advertisers with one hand and act like its algorithms don’t influence behavior on the other. Tech as an industry is not, and cannot, pretend it is neutral. It can’t pretend that jobs will magically reappear for those it has unemployed. But as long as the impetus is short term growth to satisfy investors first, Valley companies can blind themselves to their impact.