Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody – Bob Dylan
There was enough of a groundswell over last week’s post – Living in the Light – that I think it’s worth going a level deeper on the concept. While last week I focused on the shape and demands on us as companies and individuals in current age of reckoning on privacy, fairness and data security, this week i want to get specific.
As I write this I’m at Terry Kawaja’s LUMA Digital Media Summit listening to an interview with author Andrew Keen (How to Fix the Future, The Internet is Not the Answer) on the very reckoning – social, political and commercial – that I called out last week. One line from Keen is ringing in my ears right now:
Computers can’t have goals. Algorithms can never have agency.
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Over the past two decades we’ve allowed the capacity of technology to define its morality and mission. Because it can, therefore it may, therefore it must. We’ve used this libertarian formula to encourage ad tech for the sake of ad tech, data for the sake of data. What has been largely missing from the discussion is human agency: people following purpose; individuals setting goals; all of us making values-based decisions about what we should do, why, and for whom.
You gotta serve somebody. Perhaps the most important leadership question in any organization is simply Who do we serve? Or maybe that only sounds like a simple question. I think at this point the vague platitudes of Google (Don’t be Evil) and Facebook (Bring the World Closer Together) have not been particularly helpful or instructive. Instead, they (and we) should decisively make a call about who the ultimate customer is. If there’s a jump-ball or a conflict of agendas, who do we side with?
Is it the consumer? If so, we make very different decisions about privacy and value that we have over the past 20 years. Is it the marketer? If so, then we treat their money like it is our own and become advocates for creating ever more value for their investments with us. Is it the shareholders? The Venture Capitalists? The Bankers? Well, OK, but if you are making your decisions for them, then you are by default saying it’s not really about the marketer or the consumer at all.
Human agency is a tricky business. It takes thought, consideration and values. It takes discipline. But agency is a quality that can only devolve to us humans. We are the only ones who can choose. And it’s the choices we make as leaders – not the power of the technology – that will create the world we’ll leave to our children.