Silicon Valley Needs To Get Schooled

By Christian Madsbjerg

Silicon Valley is getting antsy. It’s been awhile since we were collectively wowed by the next big thing. The iPhone is ten years old. Uber is eight. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas. As engineers keep breaking new ground, it seems like anything will be possible soon. Why aren’t more of these technologies breaking through to our everyday lives?
What Silicon Valley is missing is an understanding of people—what is meaningful to them, the way they live their day to day lives, what would make a difference for them on an ordinary Tuesday in Phoenix or Shanghai. There is a dearth of deep, nuanced cultural knowledge in tech. Luckily, there is an app for that: reading.

Want to create the next iPhone or Uber? Start reading great literature

In a 2014 blog post the prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen declared “for people who aren’t deep into math and science and technology, it is going to get far harder to understand the world going forward.” According to Andreessen, if you can’t code, you’re basically useless nowadays. In a similar vein, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, casting aside generations of academia, stated that his company’s algorithmic search mechanism will produce “the clearest model of everything there is to know in the world.” These statements both encapsulate a misguided notion that pervades Silicon alley: that the world can be broken down into 1s and 0s—that “everything there is to know” is something you can put in a formula.

From my experience working with major corporations, I would say that technological advancements are only half of the picture. Knowing how to build things is great, but if you have no idea for whom you’re building them—how these inventions will connect with people’s aspirations and challenges—you will fail, no matter how many coding geniuses and data scientists you employ.

If you, like me, are a reader of great novels, you know that almost visceral sensation when you come to understand the world of someone else - the suffering of an Afghan woman, enduring abuse and horrendous conditions to spare her loved ones, or the drab misery of life as an IRS clerk in middle America, someone who had always imagined his life would turn out differently. Literatures—like in-depth journalism, plays, music, art, and even activities like cooking—can put you in the shoes of people unlike you in profound, empathetic way. But the importance of these activities is under attack from the big data-mindset that has invaded both Silicon Valley and many of the world’s biggest corporations.

The ability to truly understand someone other than you is not something that can be broken down into 1s and 0s. We shouldn’t ask people to forgo books and great art in order to code. In an increasingly technologically-driven society, we should do the opposite: cherish it, respect the human abilities it fosters, and applaud our kids for wanting to spend time with great stories. You don’t need to do it because it’s nice, but because it’s smart business.

Empathy is not a soft sentiment, but a hard skill that must be cultivated and practiced. And it’s a crucial one for business. Imagine you are trying to launch a new beverage in the Chinese market. Understanding your new market requires a critical and methodical approach to their world. If you succeed, you may learn that tea in China is more akin to how the French relationship with wine than how Americans guzzle bottled iced tea. Those distinctions matter for businesses.

The Silicon Valley state of mind exhorts that an idea or product—whether it is Uber, Snapchat or the Google search engine—will supplant what came before in the linear and rational march of history. Disrupt at all costs, they tell us. The ideology assumes that idea generation is a zero-sum game: the winners move forward and the losers die in a graveyard of insignificance.
Spend a few days immersed in a great novel by Tolstoy or with the work of Greek scientist and poet Ptolemy and one is forced to acknowledge that nothing is ever entirely disrupted nor is anything ever completely new. Learning does not function independently of what has come before, but rather in dialogue with it. If executives at Google had taken some time to contemplate this fact, they might have avoided the disastrous rollout to their Google Glass product in 2014. The technology itself functioned just fine. In a narrow Silicon Valley perspective, Google Glass might be considered a successful technology. But when does a piece of technology ever exist independent of a world, a societal structure and culture? Yes, the glasses “worked” but did they belong? Google Glass wearers were dubbed “Glassholes” and people shunned Google Glass wearers at social events. Silicon Valley may have new technology, but in this instance it failed at the much larger challenge of understanding how people relate to one another.

To those of you with a liberal arts degree, I say this: your skills are essential in today’s world, and more companies need to recognize that.

When we use a skillset based in the humanities to understand the world, we gain insight into these deeper issues. And these are the factors that actually drive business forward. Let’s return to China: one by one, the world’s biggest and most cutting edge Silicon Valley companies—Yahoo, eBay, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, and, finally Google—have attempted to develop a meaningful market there. They have come armed with all of the best technical knowledge along with plenty of cash and intellectual property. And yet, today, Internet market leaders in China are still local: Alibaba, Baidu and TenCent.

Technical superiority is a very small part of this story. Limited by their “Silicon Valley” state of mind, American companies simply had no feel for the nuances that made the Chinese marketplace different. With a deeper immersion into the lives of Chinese consumers as well as into their literature, history and religion, technologists might have grasped the more subtle differences between professional and personal network building in Chinese society. Maybe they could have designed a user experience that accounted for the dance of negotiation every business does with the Chinese governmental regulatory body. And they might have better grasped what network building means to Chinese families already in urban areas as well to those in the midst of migration in an upwardly mobile society.

When we stop valuing culture, we become blind to the very opportunities that drive “world changing” technology to mass adoption. The greatest challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century are cultural, not algorithmic. And the greatest tools for the study and understanding of culture exist within the wealth of theories and methodologies that make up the humanities.

To those of you with a liberal arts degree, I say this: your skills are essential in today’s world, and more companies need to recognize that. To those of you with a STEM degree (or who never bothered with college in the first place), I would say: pick up a book or two every month. Go to plays. Travel and immerse yourself in a culture unlike your own.
Without a deep, empathetic understanding of other people, turning that good idea into the next big thing may prove elusive.

Christian Madsbjerg is the author of SENSEMAKING: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm and a founder of ReD Associates and the Director of its New York office. ReD is a strategy consulting company based in the human sciences and employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers. Christian studied philosophy and political science in Copenhagen and London. He lives in New York City.

This piece was first published on LinkedIn as their Weekend Essay.


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