Trickle-down Silicon Valley

Have you been reading tech news recently? Is it just me, or are tech writers being particularly bullish towards the sci-fi future these days?

What do I mean by this? Take a look —

our Messiah computerizes brains
robots are pwning humans
fear mongering semantics for AI

and so on.

The future described in these articles is a technology-driven, machine-led, automation sans homo-sapiens haven. If you are familiar with the concept of Singularity, you’ll know that it has been well-embedded into the Silicon Valley raison d’être (or a de-facto truth embraced widely).

While there is nothing factually incorrect about this depiction of the not-so-distant future, a particular important observation needs to be pointed out:

The future described by Silicon Valley involves very little of humanity.

Let’s take a step back and define humanity, or what gives us humanness, as defined by Google: “compassionate, sympathetic, or generous behavior or disposition : the quality or state of being humane”.

Synonyms:compassion, fellow feeling, philanthropy, kindness, consideration, understanding, sympathy, tolerance.

Where is the human narrative? By human narrative, I mean the human-centric design approach to why automation will make our lives more efficient and therefore, happier. Separating the technology from the problems its meant to solve is problematic, because it becomes sensationalism without substance.

This isn’t a moral argument- this is shining light on the problems these stories create. The depiction of an automative future creates a disjointed narrative for technology, period. Our future is considered a separate entity that exists in its own vacuum, rather than something that lies on the continuum of the timeline perpetuated by today’s reality.

Why is it problematic? Because a pure technology narrative does not facilitate the adoption of technology in our existing industries. Since I currently help corporations get connected to the frontier of tech, I‘ve thought about this a little bit.

If you observe our current economy, you’ll notice that the present economy is not adopting tools and software that are already widely available. Take a look a this chart that measures the digitization of industries in 2015:

asset heavy industries remain the least digitized — CB Insights

The industries that are embracing digitization are media, finance, professional services and insurance. And those who work in these industries will be surprised to hear that they’re already ahead of the curve. The rest of them, are in the “red”.

In other words:

The present of humanity involves very little of Silicon Valley.

Unpacking this statement a little bit. The present of humanity meaning the society we live in today. The way our industry verticals operate actually involve very little of Silicon Valley. Some examples…

pen and paper construction, most construction sites are still totally offline
retail innovation has been missing in the last 3 decades
whenever I’m on an Amtrak train I literally see seas of screens that look like death.

Ranging from expense software to project management, many hours have been wasted on clunky software designed at least a few decades ago. Does any of this sound familiar?

Our industries are behind in technology adoption. This has nothing to do with technology not being available (take a look at Techstars or YC’s portfolio companies. Software and talent exist a plenty’). Technology has been available. So why are we not embracing it?

Because software alone doesn’t actually solve human problems. Since this is a definition I’m coming up with, let’s take a step back.

Lots of new technology have been created to release humans from the tension they experience with legacy systems. But, that is not a human problem, that’s a system problem. An example we often hear from founders: “The old system sucks! But our brand-new piece of software has a slick, intuitive UI and way easier to use! A 3 year old could figure it out! In essence, the new software is designed for humans.” That’s great, but it’s still only solving a system problem.

A human problem is something like this: “my CTO would kill me if I overhaul the currently system with some new software and fuck everything up.” or “there is literally no “innovation” budget because my CEO doesn’t believe some piece of software is going to drive my bottom-line.”

Human problems are real world frictions that prevent technology adoption, whether it’s on a personal, organizational, or societal level. When you’re designing a piece of software, one would hope that people actually use it. Companies that understand how to solve problems experienced on both a system and people level will push adoption further. Basically, if your company solves both system and human problems, you win.

Since not many tech founders go the extra mile and understand this, see if the original statement now makes sense. The present of humanity involves very little of Silicon Valley.

This is where I’m coining the phenomenon “trickle down Silicon Valley”. Or the concept that traditional industries will follow the footsteps of early adopters of the valley and embrace technology. Adoption would “trickle down” from the small subset of geeky users to the masses. It’s similar to the idea that “if we build it, they will come”.

Why is this a limiting framework? Because the trickle down mentality ignores the human problems of industry. If everything exists in a vacuum, say corporates don’t come with a side of bureaucratic process, or the mental frameworks of society are identical to the early adopters’- then technology is all that matters. Unfortunately, people don’t adopt technology because it’s necessary -people adopt technology because the benefits outweigh the costs. Without assessing the human problems, it’s incredibly difficult for technology adoption to take place on a massive scale.

On another note, since a few companies still control the majority of our world’s wealth, until we figure out a way to create a different dimension of reality, the human problems need to be addressed for technology to be implemented.

Maybe this is why restaurant robots have existed since the 70's or, that home automation has existed for almost a decade, and nothing about the future has actually bled into the mainstream yet. If you build it without the human in mind, no one actually fucking cares.

A future narrative with no human narrative is not based on reality. It’s a problem of trickle down Silicon Valley.

So, to end, I’ll leave you with this:

The present of humanity involves very little of Silicon Valley, and the future described by Silicon Valley involves very little of humanity.

You catchin’ my drift?