Seattle Week in Review: No Easy Answers in Summer of Turmoil
How many people 402 days ago expected to wake up to Donald J. Trump as the Republican nominee for president of the United States? Here we are.
Rubbing my eyes, reaching for a second cup of coffee—maybe something stronger—and looking for ways to interpret the week’s events.
One good one is a media startup based in Seattle called Scout. Meanwhile, Starbucks had an off quarter, and anxiety in the U.S. was in part to blame, according to CEO Howard Schultz. Kieran Snyder of Seattle-based Textio has a good take on why the so-called pipeline problem is actually an investment problem on the part of tech companies unwilling to take necessary steps to improve diversity. Finally, some Hamiltonian antics from Seattle’s Tune.
—If you haven’t checked out Scout yet, this is the weekend to do it. This Seattle-based media startup—co-founded by wife-and-husband team Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath, and boosted by a successful Kickstarter campaign last month—is blending reporting and topical, original science fiction to provide a new take on the intersections of technology and society in this daunting age. Their provocative question this week: Will Silicon Valley Stop Trump?
They explore the question through Anderson’s reported piece—How Two Facebook Developers Could Decide the Election, which, citing anonymous former Facebook developers, posits that Facebook’s hacker culture could enable a pair of rogue coders to manipulate the news feed in swing states to increase voter turnout for specific constituencies. Indeed, there are already real examples of the company’s experiments in this vein, as well as allegations that Facebook’s trending topics had been tweaked to show less conservative news. Anderson’s point is that something like this could happen without anyone really knowing. Facebook did not provide Scout with a comment.
The bigger question, as Anderson writes, is “What it meant that a company with a demonstrated willingness to psychographically manipulate its users also has a hacker culture that allows small groups of individuals to ship code that affects the minds of billions.”
Building on that is a work of “speculative fiction,” under Horvath’s byline: three vignettes imagining a world of companies wielding that kind of power, which really isn’t such a stretch. The stories go so far as to put words into real people’s mouths:
“If we start this process, when or how do we stop it?” Sheryl [Sandberg] asked. “Thought guidance and nuclear weapons are like toothpaste—once you squeeze it out, it’s really hard to put it back in the tube…”
“Sheryl, none of us want to be here,” Sergey [Brin] interrupted. “This isn’t why I built Google, but I also never thought American democracy would be inches away from electing a deranged sociopath to the nuclear throne. My family left Russia so we’d never have to deal with rulers like Trump. I won’t let it happen here.”
We can save for another time the conversation about packaging fiction and reportage so closely together. In any case, Scout makes for very scary, thought-provoking reading. It is perhaps the perfect media product from a literate, sci-fi loving, technopolis such as Seattle.
Anderson is the daughter of Mark Anderson, a San Juan Island, WA-based technologist, futurist, author, and publisher, whose Strategic News Service counts among its members the likes of Gates, Musk, and Dell. Before launching Scout, Berit Anderson spent 15 years working in the family business, helping run the Future in Review conferences for tech elites.
Scout was recently accepted into the Matter VC media accelerator program in New York City.
—So how are businesses reacting to this summer of discontent? Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz blamed “a confluence of political and social turmoil at home, weakening consumer confidence, increasing global uncertainty” and other factors for lower-than-expected sales growth at existing stores, particularly in the U.S.
In these high-anxiety times, maybe the Seattle-based coffee giant should further expand its alcohol sales.
—In the context of yet another black man shot by police—Charles Kinsey had his hands up, was unarmed, and was going to the aid of an unarmed autistic man in his care—it feels wholly inadequate to be talking about diversity in tech. With that said, that conversation is evolving.
The so-called pipeline problem—the idea that there are not enough qualified candidates from under-represented groups for tech companies to hire—is coming under increasing scrutiny. Last week, Facebook’s head of diversity said diversity in the industry depends on “more people having the opportunity to gain necessary skills through the public education system.” Many people quickly pointed out the disparity between the number of diverse computer science and engineering college graduates and their representation among the ranks of the world’s tech giants.
Kieran Snyder is CEO of Seattle-based Textio, which helps recruiters improve the language in job listings and other communications to attract better and more diverse applicants. She writes on Medium that Facebook said publicly “what I’ve heard privately from at least 10 other prominent talent and diversity leaders just this month. All at large tech companies.”
The problem many companies and recruiters have, she writes, is that they’re not willing to invest in the real change required to connect with the diverse talent that’s out there.
“If you’re looking in the same places, sourcing and talking to candidates the same way year after year, and not getting the results you want, it doesn’t mean that there’s a pipeline problem. However, it does unequivocally mean that your particular approach has roundly failed at tapping into whatever pipeline exists.
“The fact is that changing hiring outcomes is not easy. It is not free. It takes time and effort and commitment. It takes innovation. It also takes money. Something that routinely surprises me is when a talent leader shares their confusion and frustration over the status quo, but then expresses genuine surprise that change takes even minor sustained investment.
“In a nutshell, it’s the narcissism of technology: we create revolutionary new things that we expect to disrupt the world. But when it comes to our own decisions, we want things to magically adapt to the practices that we already find comfortable, rather than making uncomfortable changes in our own processes and tools to actually achieve the outcomes we seek.”
Read Snyder’s whole piece.
—Finally, Tune, the Seattle mobile marketing company, held a customer conference in Seattle this week. The company welcomed its audience in an unusual way. If your CEO has a music degree and the surname Hamilton, you pretty much have to do something like this:
Thanks for something to smile about.