Just back from Arizona — where it was rapidly approaching 110 degrees — which is where I was the past several days for Vox’s Code Conference
. The show tends to be one of those interesting zeitgeist-y things in the tech industry in terms of what the high-level conversations are gravitating around. This year, it was hardly a surprise given the news cycles of late: big tech, regulation, harassment, free speech, privacy
— and in some cases, a combination of all of those.
To that end, one of the interviews was with Andy Jassy
, the head of Amazon’s AWS division. At one point, he noted (and I’m paraphrasing) that at the end of the day, consumers have to think about whether or not they trust a company and if they don’t, they shouldn’t use their products. This is, of course, a vastly oversimplified viewpoint. But at a high level, it’s a point I often turn to as well.
The reality is that none of the tech companies we all think about on a daily basis are inherently evil. Deepfakes aside
, they’re not SPECTRE-style James Bond supervillain organizations out to destroy the world. As obvious (and silly) as that sounds, it does sometimes feel like that’s the framing when discussing these companies, these days. And I worry that masks what is actually going on. Which is far more nuanced and actually, far more complicated.
When you take a step back, the reality of the situation seems to be that all companies — even those that set out with the best of intentions — are ultimately a series of choices and tradeoffs. And many of these are actually quite small choices. Because of this, I imagine it can be incredibly hard for a large company to see how such things add together to create an external perception.
On an individual or group level, everyone is trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, and there are different motivations
and rewards in place for each group. When companies get to a certain size, it’s basically impossible for any one person to track all of these groups on a day-to-day basis, and undoubtedly that’s often even true on the project level. And so little decisions are made without much thought to a broader cohesion of a vision for a company. And sometimes the ramifications of such a process means that you don’t know the summation of all the variables until they’re actually added up.
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of why
these companies can’t see
on the inside (where they obviously should have far more clarity into said groups and projects), how things look to the outside. In some ways it is “too far in the forest to see the trees” but it’s also more nuanced than that, I think. It’s more akin to individual groups planting the seeds that will eventually become the trees that will eventually make up the forest. Those planters aren’t in the forest-seeing business, they’re in the planting seeds business. And those you’d think would be in the forest-seeing business have a hard time seeing such things until all those seeds have grown into trees. And that’s often not until the rest of us can see said forest too.