August 10, 2023

Big Tech Optimizes the Wrong Things

Deanne Gertner, Director of Content Strategy

American sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson said, “The real problem with humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology.” Perhaps nothing encapsulates this theory more than generative AI, a technology likened in power to fire, electricity and the Internet. Yet, for all AI’s promise, it seems the tech giants are determined to, once again, optimize the wrong things.

Dubious Optimization #1: Speedy Communication

It’s tempting to think communication is simple—I mean, two-year-olds can do it—but it’s also insanely complex, especially under challenging circumstances. Getting communication right when so much is a stake is like trying to land a jumbo jet on an islet.  

Our sentences and paragraphs, no matter their length, are icebergs—much of the subtext and context is underwater. Listen to an episode of Esther Perel’s incredible podcast, Where Should We Begin?, and you will, in minutes, understand the value of slowing down and unpacking words and phrases to uncover their hidden meanings.  

We’ve already accelerated communication with the advent of the Internet, social media and mobile technology. We’re never not connected, and yet hate crimes are on the rise and we’re more divided as a country. Generative AI makes it possible to hurl words and images at each other faster than ever before. How is that going to impact our amygdalas?  

What we need instead is to better see, hear and understand each other. That takes more dialogue, more patience and, more than anything, more time. From a marketing perspective, it takes getting to know the deep and complex histories, values and aspirations of our audiences rather than merely chucking the products and services at them we want them to buy. We can’t condescend to them or merely inundate them with more content at ever increasing speeds.  

Dubious Optimization #2: Personalized Echo Chambers

Personalization isn’t a new feature of AI, but the stakes have dramatically increased. AI promises to unlock personalization in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable before, whether that’s translating in real time or creating bespoke content experiences for a single person in seconds.  

Our echo chambers have already been reduced, thanks to algorithms that get better and better at curating our searches and feeds. What happens when the size of that echo chamber gets reduced to one?

Belonging is a fundamental human need. In prehistoric times, getting excommunicated from the tribe meant assured death, which is why we are hard-wired to belong. Even though contemporary society makes living solo easier than ever, we still need community. We are a social species. But technology continues to threaten our pro-social tendencies, keeping us parked at home in front of our screens with a false sense of connection and community.  

As an English major, one of my favorite things about college was the ability to talk to my professors and peers about books and our writing. It turned what were previously solo activities into group activities. Those discussions created a level of depth, excitement and nuance I never could have gotten alone. That’s what Èmile Durkheim called collective effervescence.  

As a society, we are starved for shared joy. That’s one reason Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has been such a box office success. Viewers aren’t just going to the movies, they’re ritualizing a collective experience. Decked out in head-to-toe pink, they create “communal delight and catharsis” as the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg explained.

Marketers should think about how to bring people together to create a shared sense of belonging. We should aim to make the sum of our campaigns greater than the individual parts. We should make work that connects and grows rather than isolates and shrinks.

Dubious Optimization #3: Removing Friction

Most of us—except for Buddhists—see struggle and pain as things we can and should avoid. Many technological advancements are rooted in trying to eradicate friction. Dating apps remove the fear and uncertainty of dating. Amazon makes shopping as simple as “add to cart.” Google Maps makes it possible to never learn your city’s layout.  

But friction is essential to doing our best work, living our most meaningful lives and making the most impact on the world around us. This is what licensed marriage and family therapist and author Vienna Pharaon calls constructive conflict.  

Tension makes things interesting. This is why Kara Swisher’s and Scott Galloway’s hit podcast Pivot works so well. They see things differently, argue and, on occasion, see eye to eye. They challenge each other and within that tension, we as listeners get to make up our own minds. There’s space to hold complexity and contradiction, which allows us to see how two things can be true at the same time. It enables a both/and point of view instead of forcing an either/or binary.

The creative process is historically filled with friction, which means it’s slow and inefficient. Agonizing over concepts and forms and details keep creators up at night or lost in thought in the shower. Generative AI promises to fast track the creative process, but a key question remains: does it? What does creativity without pressure look like?

It’s easy to forget that challenges are often critical to success. Where would Michael Jordan be if he wasn’t considered too short to play for his high school varsity team? What would have happened to Steve Jobs if he hadn’t been forced out of Apple in the mid-1980s? What would Taylor Swift sing about if her relationships were all perfect? Intense heat and pressure create diamonds, literally and figuratively.  

Big tech needs to better embrace friction, and marketers can help lead the way. We can help reframe friction as a positive. We can help big tech be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, grappling with ambiguity in a way that walks the tightrope with grace and humanity to produce better work.  

There’s a Better Way Forward

Big tech should focus on what people can’t do at all or well, especially when it comes to the most pressing issues of our time: climate change, mass extinction, energy scarcity, inequality, preventable death. To be fair, Google’s DeepMind developed AlphaFold, which can accurately predict three-dimensional protein structures. This matters because, as the building blocks of life, the way proteins are structured dictates how they function. Take the coronavirus spike protein, for example. The spikes allow the virus to attach to and then infect other cells. If we can accurately predict the structure of proteins, we can better fight disease and develop new medications more efficiently.  

But that’s just one project even if it is an astonishing one. Maybe the tech companies and governments realize they need to tackle bigger, more pressing issues and be more responsible. The recent voluntary commitments are a start to managing AI risks. Still, we can’t afford to cause more problems than we solve with AI. It’s time big tech takes a moment to reassess what is easy to optimize and, instead, asks what it needs to optimize.  

As marketers, we have an unprecedented opportunity to influence big tech because we’ve been marrying human insight with data for decades. We know how to go beyond the screen to gather qualitative data. We understand what makes people tick and what resonates with them. We know how to craft stories that bring people together. Now more than ever, what we do matters.

#generativeAI #bigtech #optimization #marketing