To clear up any doubt from the very start, I love technology.
I love it because of the extraordinary potential it gives each and every one of us to be better at a whole host of things than we’ve ever been before. The tech in our pockets or on our desks gives us an ability to learn, entertain and agitate for change that would have seemed unimaginable 15 years ago.
The problem for techno-optimists like me, though, is the recent evidence that suggests we are losing the argument over technology’s potential to do good.
Take a recent survey by Dentsu Aegis Network. It that found only 37% of the UK population thought digital technology will help solve the world’s most pressing challenges.
That stat may seem unduly negative at first glance, but stop and ask yourself: how many times in the past week have you wondered if the hardware and software that dominate your life are good for you? How many times have you described your social media use as a guilty pleasure, in the same vein as too many glasses of wine or a cheeky fag in the garden while the kids aren’t looking?
The longer-term role for technology doesn’t look overly positive either, with stories emerging daily of insurers and governments lining up to chip and track our homes, cars and bodies, and employers plotting to replace us with willing artificially intelligent robots.
Yes, lots of this is techno panic and frankly bullshit, but the tarnish is coming off big tech’s shiny coating and the effect of this has been felt – and now being communicated by brands.
Sense of doom
Take the new (and, in my opinion, quite brilliant) ad from Three. The pervasive sense of doom around technology is gently ridiculed by showing the positive outcomes a mobile phone might have secured at key moments in history, including a mobile-obsessed Eve rejecting the temptations of the snake. Its arch tone works precisely because lots of us secretly fear that, although useful, entertaining and indispensable, maybe the mobile hasn’t made life better after all.
By adopting the role of playful defenders of tech, though, Three is tacitly admitting that tech needs defending in the first place. And that should prompt senior brand leaders everywhere to ask: how should my brand start talking about and relating to technology?
Some brands might choose the antithesis of Three’s optimism and play the anti-tech card, turning yesterday’s "24/7 UK call centre" ad into tomorrow’s "100% AI-free". However, I think that level of techno rejection will find little mass appeal in the long term. Being anti-tech doesn’t offer any suggestions as to how we live and prosper with technology. We need to learn to thrive alongside tech, not pretend it’s going away.
My hunch is that brands need to take a progressive, optimistic but pro-human view of the future, embracing the power and potential of technology but sticking up for consumers in a way that perhaps governments will be too slow and too stretched to do. Brands that paint a positive picture of how humans relate to and flourish alongside technology and align their products and services will be the most successful in the future.
Here are three things that we like to suggest to our creative leadership clients to help them build a pro-human future.
Confront the ethics of technology
Chasing ever-increasing levels of shareholder-pleasing efficiency has been the story of recent corporate history and the self-optimising potential of AI will only accelerate that trend. Using AI to optimise media performance and supply-chain wastage seems fine, but how about allowing an algorithm to make decisions about who you hire, what products you develop and the fundamental operations of your business? How about letting it do all of that without asking your permission? You need to have clear parameters for making those decisions and understand the impact getting them wrong might have on your brand.
Collaborate to deliver
The worst by-product of process automation is that it allows people to push and pull data without thinking about the wider ramification of their actions. The less we have to interact with each other, the less opportunity there is for us to ask and be asked difficult questions. Mistakes get easier and new thinking gets harder if we hide from each other. Building ways to interact as a team and with your end consumers becomes ever more vital.
Take a stand
If you’ve built a code of ethics and created a way for people to collaborate, you will at some point find something that you can do to be pro-human. This isn’t the dreaded purpose conversation; it’s much more tangible and practical than that. It could be as simple as a piece of communication that celebrates humanity and technology working together or as grand as developing a new set of products and services that help retrain talent displaced by your business decisions. There will be something positive you can do; you just need to identify what that something is.
The power of future technologies excites and terrifies in equal measure, but taking active steps to positively prepare for the future combination of humanity and technology will probably make you a better marketeer anyway. It certainly beats wondering when exactly the robots will come crashing through your window.
Lawrence Weber is a partner at Curve and director at Innovation Social