By Wanda Deschamps (November 9, 2020)
Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech's Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, Maelle Gavet, Wiley, October 6, 2020, 224 pp., $29.69
Globalization and proliferation of technology. This is what I grew up hearing my late father talk about. His name is Walter J. Kontak. He was a political science professor at St. Francis Xavier University and a WWII veteran (US Navy).
Dad forecasted that by the time I was middle-aged, globalization and proliferation of technology would combine with an aging population, under-skilled workforce and growing class divide to force a reckoning demanding overall equality – underscored by demands for racial justice and gender equity.
At the same time, he questioned whether principled leadership would develop at the requisite rate to match the growth of worldwide connectivity and digital acceleration.
Would we produce enough individuals – especially leaders - to ensure decisions would be led by principles as opposed to greed in our consumptive world, he wondered?
According to Malle’s Gavet in Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech's Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, the answer is no.
In this, her first book, released in October, she asserts that Big Tech's empathy problem is largely because its leaders are ethically vacuous at a time when setting an example from the top is desperately needed.
Dad forecasted that the forces of social justice would rise between 2010 and 2015. And arrived they have—in the form of #BlackLivesMatter, the demand for Indigenous reconciliation and the #MeToo era.
Throughout this upheaval during a worldwide pandemic we are increasingly looking to the benefits of technology to yield progress towards equity and equality. Fortunately, even though Gavet states her book is, “mainly focused on the problems tech is creating for humanity” she assures the reader at the end of the first chapter entitled Making the World a Better Place that she is “…not arguing that all is lost.”
It can be challenging to keep that sentiment in focus as Gavet deservedly rips apart tech corporations and the people who work for them.
Chapter 2, Culture Bubble, opens with one such example from an exchange with her guide during a tour of a “tech giant in Silicon Valley.” She describes him as a “kombucha-sipping senior engineer; probably making a couple of million bucks a year (including stock-options).”
“As we pass a kitchenette area overflowing with Willy Wonka-style goodies, he declares that the 30-plus varieties of snacks on offer are ‘making him fat.’ Later, as we pass one of several on-campus cafeterias, he tells me, without a hint of self-awareness, that the restaurant-quality chef-cooked meals, served on demand throughout the day, and late into the evening too, ‘can get a little repetitive.’”
This is juxtaposed against the reality “just a few blocks away from people who don’t know if they’re going to eat at all that day, in counties where a staggering 29 percent of the population was categorized in one study as ‘food insecure.’” And so continues Part One.
Just as you are about to lose hope, Part Two is dedicated to Fixing the Chaos Factory with “solutions for each stakeholder, from industry players such as founders and CEOs, to investors, boards, and the public markets, to government and regulators, the media and private individuals.”
If the bad news is that our desire for immediate gratification means we have all played a part in creating the monster, the good news is that we can all contribute to the solution. And Maelle Gavet makes it easy for us to do so. In the final chapter entitled People Power, she offers nine steps “we can all take.” She then concludes with her “Epilogue: A Manifesto for Change” and “five most important actions that Big Tech can take to beat the authorities to the punch.”
I am determined to do my part. It is the right thing to do. I also admire Gavet and wish to stand by her.
As one of tech’s own – a former executive with the likes of Compass and the Priceline Group – she has taken a risk in writing this expose about Big Tech's empathy problem in her early 40s and especially in doing so as a woman in an industry that is still male dominated.
On the other hand, who better to offer such a thorough and revealing account of what is truly happening at Amazon, Google, FaceBook and others? Let’s commit to awakening this industry to develop proper values and thereby truly unleash its full potential in helping to improve the economic, social and health indicators of the future. Gavet’s encouraging and motivating words can help take us there,
“I still passionately believe that properly restructured, refocused, and regulated, the tech giants can be a force for good, for human progress and empathy for years to come.”
And beyond that, let’s urge Big Tech to be part of the movement of sectors, industries and systems historically designed by men - and disproportionately dominated by white men - that are beginning to take note of their exclusive, unfair and unsafe practices. In doing so we will reap the benefits for today and tomorrow and for the next generation.
Trampled By Unicorns may be categorized in Business & Economics or Business Ethics as denoted on its back cover, but everyone can learn from Gavet.
Finally, who did my father predict would be at the centre demanding change for good during the era of globalization and technological acceleration?
Dad would be bursting about the election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. It is what he forecast would happen.
(Wanda Deschamps is founder and principal of Liberty Co, a consultancy working to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce.)
Also reviewed by Wanda Deschamps
The Conscious Creative: Creating your own values-driven practice October 6, 2020
The Power of Disability: A book about life, June 9, 2020