11th September 2018 0 Comments Human Insight

Trust Gone Mad

Photo of a man and woman holding phones on a train platformMore and more purpose-driven companies coming to the fore purporting a better world for everyone. However, when some brands deliver on their brand promise, they do so at the expense of their perceived ‘goodness’. It’s easy to be taken in by modern brands, but as consumers and certainly as citizens, we still need to keep them in check.

It’s hard to do this though, when the giant behemoths of the tech world, seemingly angelic in their purpose, are becoming sanctimonious. Big bad companies are easy to point fingers at. But when tech giants are so deeply ingrained in our lives and in our psyches our rational selves disappear. Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business beautifully articulates how this happens in his talk at TEDxNYC at the end of last year.

“I do not believe you can build a multibillion-dollar organization unless you are clear on which instinct or organ you are targeting.” So begins Galloway’s unwavering position on how Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google ‘manipulate our emotions’.

God, Love, Sex and Food

Galloway goes on to liken Google to the instinctive desire for an omniscient being. “Google is our modern man’s God,” says Galloway “Imagine your face and your name above everything you’ve put into that box, and you’re going to realize you trust Google more than any entity in your history.” Facebook targets the heart  “because we not only need to be loved, but we need to love others.” Amazon targets our “consumptive gut” because it knows exactly what we want to buy and when. Finally, Apple rules our genitals and our need to procreate. Galloway elaborates: “If you mate with me, your children are more likely to survive than if you mate with someone wearing a Swatch watch”.

It’s a rollercoaster ride of a talk, that prompts Chris Anderson, the founder of TED, to come on stage at the end to try and defend the tech giants.

Seduction and power

The heart of Galloway’s argument is that these companies win our affections in our daily lives, but in allowing ourselves to be seduced, we have given them too much power. They aren’t being regulated enough and they are acting irresponsibly.

Galloway cites blatant tax avoidance “Walmart. Since the Great Recession [2008], has paid 64 billion dollars in corporate income tax; Amazon has paid 1.4.”; Then there’s market-crushing dominance; facebook’s refusal to see itself as a ‘media company’ and therefore be legislated as such; Apple’s refusal to help the FBI by not unlocking a the iPhone of a terrorist gunman who opened fire on a room full of state officials in California. And all this before the Cambridge Analytica story broke earlier this year.

“Whose fault is it? It’s our fault.” Galloway attributes our lack of strong regulators and our deification of these brands and the individuals within them as the reason why they are getting away with it. And he is right. So why do we do let them?

Thinking fast, thinking slow

Daniel Kahneman behavioural economist and author of the seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow, outlines two processes in the brain: the fast part – that essentially deals with reading information quickly and making seemingly instinctive judgments.  And the slow part – which takes more effort, pawing over facts, details, and information before coming to a conclusion. The issue with the slow part of the brain is that it thinks it is in control. It isn’t. The fast part of the brain nearly always wins.

And so when looking at these tech giants and the people who run them we are making decisions on how we ‘feel’ about them and how they want to be perceived rather than the facts. Entrepreneurs are the rockstars of our age – unlimited money and fame for what they offer us as consumers. Does the narrative of the regular guy who makes it big against the odds outweigh scrutiny of how tech giants behave now that they’ve made it? “We have become totally out of control with the gross idolatry of innovation and of youth,” says Galloway. “We no longer worship at the altar of character, of kindness, but of innovation and people who create shareholder value.”

And this is the next key point of Galloway’s talk — that creating shareholder value is the driving facet for these businesses, to the sacrifice of all else. Short-term thinking, maximum amount of reward in the minimum amount of time. And they aren’t alone.

It’s not all a dystopic nightmare. There are businesses trying to make a difference to the world, to go that bit further to benefit humanity and the environment.

Again, the evolution of consumer behaviour and how we interact with companies is not entirely the fault of the tech giants. For all the talk of ‘higher purpose’ in business these days, the vast majority have been set up to make a profit. It’s how we judge whether a company and the people who run those companies are successful. As Galloway puts it “They’re for-profit companies. They’re not concerned with the condition of our souls. They’re not going to take care of us when we get older.” And we need to stop treating these brands as if they are.

It’s not all a dystopic nightmare. There are businesses trying to make a difference to the world, to go that bit further to benefit humanity and the environment. But governments and regulation have to play their part and hold them to account.  And as the consumers and citizens of the world, we have the power to make it happen. If we can only stop and think slowly about whether these businesses are being responsible. To ask ourselves what the dangers are of them being out of control, rather than just being slaves to the ‘fast’ part of our brains.