What Next for Big Tech?

March 16, 2020

An electric vehicle glides silently up the drive of an elegant suburban home. A man steps out wearing a white suit and removes three glass receptacles from a stack of cases in the back. They are each filled with a white liquid. He places them next to the front door, removes three identical, empty vessels, returns to the vehicle and slips away. He was known as the milkman.

Nobody used to talk about sustainability

Way back in the 1960s, resources weren’t squandered because they simply didn’t exist. Britain had only recently shut down its rationing programme. So, why would anyone contemplate packaging a staple food in throw away containers when you could use the same one, time after time?

TV once provided a mass market monopoly

Terrestrial TV advertising used to be incredibly powerful. Like Facebook is now. If you bought the right ad spot, you could reach 30% of the UK. Like glass milk bottles, advertising made sense. There was virtually no waste. Today, there is unending TV content that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. The choice is daunting. Yet, on the majority of these networks, viewers are still being irritated, distracted and subverted by advertising. Which may explain why more than half of U.S. households subscribe to ad-free Netflix. 

Advertising funded the media industry

There was a simple contract between the consumer and the media owner that said, ‘You will have free entertainment in return for our ability to interrupt your viewing pleasure’. Way back when, that bargain seemed fair. Today, in a plentiful media landscape, it seems like an appalling waste of time. The killer blow is that most ads don’t work. They really don’t. And they’re seldom even entertaining. People find them annoying. If they didn’t, why would 38% of U.S. online adults be using ad blocking tools. The ad industry is also contributing to an epidemic of ADHD by interrupting and overwhelming us with competing bids for our attention. The hopelessly inadequate technology of programmatic ad serving is beating us up with misguided messaging from misguided brands. Our entertainment is being tainted. Our minds twisted and polluted by irrelevant bullshit. It’s time to make a stand. 

Why Big Brands continue to irritate us

Some of the smartest companies in the world are addicted to creating advertising because the revenues are huge. Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have sizeable ad revenues but at Google and Facebook, the numbers are simply massive. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, Google made $79.4 billion last year by interrupting search results. Facebook made $26.9 billion in ad revenue by interrupting social interactions. Despite these vast revenues, advertising is clearly a dead man walking. Momentum and money will keep it on life support for many years yet but it’s an industry running out of oxygen. So big tech has to change.

The true value of search

Any search on Google produces the results that advertisers want - not users. Just, for a moment, imagine you could pay a subscription to Google that would allow you to access unsullied, non-manipulated search results. The experience of search would be transformed from a giant time suck into a pleasurable glide through the world’s store of knowledge. It wouldn’t need to be so bounded by national borders and language as operating country’s P&Ls were cast aside.

Facebook could charge too. In return for an annual subscription, you could be excluded from fake news, cat videos and a sense of constant, creepy investigation by bots that track every relationship you might have - on or off the platform.  

Divorce is not the answer

The decline in trust is a big threat to big tech. To survive, users need to be treated like they matter, not like a set of marketing data points. The plundering of behavioural data, the spying with so-called speakers, the slowing down of last year’s models - all this needs to end. It’s time for the tech industry to look beyond profits. 

Tech needs to wake up and take responsibility what it’s doing to our world. Take responsibility for the porn and brutality it shows our children. For the violence it encourages. For the jobs it’s destroying. It needs to build a more joyful society with the wealth that it’s hoarding. 

Tech needs to dream a new dream

The world needs something much more positive than the throwback theses of Trump and Brexit. Tech has the power and influence to draft a new agenda. It can build better tools for government and stop empowering the angry. It can search for things that bind, not divide us. Tech can educate faster than schools can learn to teach. Most importantly, tech leaders can envision a better society where caring and kindness are much more highly regarded. 

This magical industry can be a global force for good and the encouragement of joy. Tech can always find the answers. Our role in society is to clarify where tech needs to focus. 

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