Ranch Stories Retrospective.
Early this year, in May of 2016, with more than a little trepidation, I presented a newly-written keynote at Bruno Figueiredo’s delightful UX Lisbon conference. The ancient capital city was beguiling, the attendees were bright, the roster of speakers was scintillating, and I had a wonderful time. But until about halfway through my talk, I wasn’t sure whether the audience would even like it, as my theme was ethics in the technology business.
What could have been a career-killing address turned out to be an unqualified success. The talk, called Ranch Stories, intertwines stories about software and ranching, two seemingly unrelated topics, to highlight characteristics of both.
The talk was a huge success. The 500-person audience was spellbound and when it was over, they rose as one and gave me a long standing ovation. It was humbling and deeply gratifying. My keynote was on the first day of the conference, and it became an important topic of conversation for the rest of the conference. Clearly, I had struck a nerve.
Emboldened by that success, I have repeated the performance. I have now presented Ranch Stories four times on three different continents, and at each of these events my talk has been similarly honored with spontaneous standing ovations from the audience. All were plenary keynotes to demanding crowds, including UXWeek in San Francisco, ISA16 in Santiago, Chile, and CanUX in Ottawa, Canada. Several other event venues have requested that I give repeat performances in 2017.
What’s going on here?
When I started my first software company in 1976, I was gripped by a burning desire to make great products. I had been writing software long enough to know how low the standard was, and I wanted to show the world that I could build something better. As a secondary goal, I also wanted to make money. I set my monetary goal at the largest amount of money I could imagine, an annual salary of $50,000. But the money came a distant second after great products.
After forty years of vertiginous growth in the high tech software business, we have turned things upside down. Young people today come to Silicon Valley wanting to make a great fortune. They want to show the world that they can make a better pile of cash than Zuckerberg or Ellison. Oh, and by the way, if on their road to riches they also happen to make good products, well, that would be nice.
I’m pretty disappointed with the transformation of Silicon Valley. It used to be a home for innovators, a place to build exciting products. Now it is a place where people hunt for money. I’m not against money, but some important considerations get lost when money is the primary goal.
As a lifelong entrepreneur and champion of software technology, this insidious inversion bothers me enormously. The desire to make great products has its own governor, keeping the maker on the path to helping people and doing what is generally good for the community. But the desire to get rich lacks such a governor. One can get just as rich tearing down a community as building one. The thousands of newly-built, vacant foreclosed houses, rotting away in abandoned Southern suburbs after the crash of 2008 made billions for unscrupulous bankers.
While it’s hard to make great products and services that are evil, it’s very easy to make fortunes that are evil. All it takes to turn a friend to the dark side is apparently insignificant algorithms added without fanfare. Our once lovable app now exploits our cognitive biases to extract money or information from us. Our once dependable retailer now reaches into our pockets at will. Our innovative new aggregator slowly turns against the best wishes of our urban community.
The dividing line between great products and evil money-making schemes is wide, gray, and blurry. What’s more, both are created by teams of good people doing excellent work. At what point does a new social media program that unites and energizes a community become an adversary? At what point does a dependable on-line marketplace become a globe-girdling destroyer of family businesses? Few people are asking questions like, “Should we be writing this software?” “How can we be focusing our technical expertise more wisely?” and “What unintended consequences will this technology inflict on us?”
Every day at work, more and more interaction designers, software developers, and other digital practitioners are asking themselves uncomfortable questions such as these as they try their best to do their jobs and still be a good citizen.
The software products we create have the power to bring people together for good, but when the driving force behind their creation is primarily money and not the benefit of the entire society, it’s all to easy for those powerful products to slide across the line. They continue to be lionized by the media for making money, but they line their pockets at our expense.
Over the years, our government has erected significant protections for us, but these regulatory constraints are written in the language of the industrial age, and simply don’t apply to the new digital megaliths. What’s more, technology enterprises can innovate their business models faster than the government can understand, author, and enact restraints. The feds are no longer even in the game.
The financiers who underwrite technology companies are disassociated from the actual products and services. They are looking only at the financial statements. The executives who determine the business strategy of our offices are not asking about the bigger issues, the issues that affect all of us. That’s becoming our job. The only ones paying attention are the practitioners making the products.
The statement that resonates most successfully in my Ranch Stories talk is my assertion that, “It’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility.” Our industry is hungry for leadership, hungry for mental models that explain what is going on in our industry, hungry for narratives that show us our role at work, and hungry to know what we can do to create a better world for our selves and our children. This is a design problem, and one worth putting our backs into.
“Ethics” is really boring, and it tends to sound like dieting advice, telling us why we shouldn’t do exactly what it is we want to do. So part of the problem is recasting “ethics” into something fun, attractive, and motivational.
Ranch Stories has attracted people with similar interests to me, and we are beginning to work on this problem. As with all good design problems, it starts out with a seemingly endless list of tough questions, but eventually, as with all good design problems, we will solve each one of them. I encourage you to work on these tough challenges, too.