Time for technologists to ask “why”

I read and watched two interesting, complementary blobs of media this morning — a TED talk by Simon Sinek about how people buy why you do something not what you do (28m views and counting), and an article in last week’s Economist about tech giants waking up to political activism.

The TED talk was recorded in 2009, but Sinek says he developed his ideas in 2006. Ten years later the Economist calls out Microsoft and Salesforce’s political awakening, as Microsoft launches its book, “A Cloud for Global Good”, and Salesforce partners with The Global Fund and (RED) to create an AIDS-free generation by 2020. Could this be the emergence of a public face that has been developing for the best part of a decade?

Tech people and the companies they create have always been stereotyped as emotionally sterile, with notable exceptions such as Apple highlighted for their unusual empathy and emotionally driven marketing. Apple is used by Sinek as an example of a company that has a clear purpose — a “why”. Apple challenges the status quo and, conveniently for its bank balance, happens to make excellent computers. And mp3 players. And DVR boxes. And now watches. And so on. The Apple described by Sinek is immediately recognisable as the Apple of today.

I often think when I read or hear about the tech industry “waking up” to something new — customer service, human-centred design, politics — that this is like the adage that every generation thinks it invented sex. Luxury hotels have used perfectly refined customer service to help the rich out of their money since Tremont House opened its doors in Boston in 1829. Coca-Cola has been selling happiness in a bottle for more than a hundred years. Henry Ford, George Cadbury and others felt sufficiently motivated by a sense of social purpose to build company towns for their workers. But if modern technologists are dispensing with the stereotype and emerging as a politically and socially minded group, then I’m happy to say better late than never, and I don’t mind telling you why.

Technological advancement is the most powerful tool we have for bringing into being a future where humanity’s basic needs are met at a cost everyone on the planet can afford. Even if modern technologists have a history of avoiding politics, technology is a hugely politicised area, simultaneously demonised for its eating of jobs and increasing of inequality, yet lauded for its potential to change the world. Technology is the crystallisation of knowledge — it is a cold, synthetic thing by itself, but provides human beings with capabilities that they can choose to use for whatever purpose comes to mind. People choose how to deploy technology in the products they make, how to wrap them up in marketing messaging, what use cases to design for. The result can be almost anything. Snapchat or self-driving cars. Dropbox or designer drugs.

I think it’s exciting to see Microsoft and Salesforce recognisably making their social purpose — their “why” — visible to the world. It’s not just good business, it’s the moral obligation of those who are able to command technology. In a world where poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, disease, obesity, mental health issues, oppression and violence still plague human society, technologists are right to take a careful look at their own contribution and ask “why”.