Across the Pond

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How we can help fix tech's personality problem, by Jim de Zoete, Executive Creative Director at Across the Pond

11 June 2019 13:37pm

Tech has a personality problem.

Machines, robots, data, AI - they feel inhuman, scary, alien. The tech industry needs to be more human if it wants to earn our trust. And it’s on us; the creators and communicators, to help build that trust.

This week is 'London Tech Week’. A five day celebration and investigation of all things tech.

There’s the Createch event - like Adtech or Fintech - for businesses blending creativity and technology to create new products, services and experiences. Supported by the Government, the event is showcasing British visionaries to the world, including our very own CEO Julie Cohen who’ll be talking about using creativity to humanise tech.

Along the road in King’s Cross is CogX, the festival of AI and Emerging Technology. There, luminaries in their tech fields such as ‘Captain of Moonshots’ Astro Teller from X will be talking. Not to mention Richard Curtis, attempting to persuade the entire industry to get behind the UN Sustainable Development Goals. So all the major players, and smaller start-ups, will be in town.

Now is a difficult time for the industry.

The ‘tech backlash’ is well underway and only increasing. There is huge concern among the public about social media regarding data privacy, unregulated political advertising, and its impact on mental health. There’s even greater concern over the rise of AI, it’s taking of jobs and it’s potential to fall into the wrong hands in both private and state sectors. Rightly, many people feel we stand at a crossroad of human development.

But there can be a different narrative. There is so much that the tech industry - an absurdly wide term - does, that it is for the benefit of all humankind. The problem is it’s an industry that’s not good at telling its own stories. This only adds to people’s worries about what tech companies are up to and the climate of fear and mystery.

At Across the Pond, we know a bit about this. We were born out of Google 11 years ago and continue to tell their stories and those of other major tech brands including Youtube, DeepMind, Lyft and Xiaomi.

So here’s a few things we’ve learnt about how tech brands can improve the way they talk about themselves:

1. Be Human

For most people the tech, the science, the data, the machines are unknowable. So far out of their sphere of life as to be terrifying. What people relate to is people. How you present is important - it’s vital to look, act and talk like a human. This shows an understanding of your audience and will enable people to relate to you. This often starts with a human insight. Here are some examples we like:

Apple at work - The Underdogs

Uber Boxes - Let’s Unlock Cities

2. Choose the narrative

Don’t talk about how the tech works, but highlight the positive impact it has on people. There are so many stories to tell, but many tech brands are not trying to tell them. Think about the positive impact you make and start there. Here are some examples of our work that tell these kinds of stories for Google:

Aum’s Reunion

Rolling Study Halls

Inovar Para Mim

3. Rethink the visual language

As an industry, we need to think hard about the visual and written language we use to describe and represent technology. Lisa Talia Moretti, a digital sociologist and lecturer, who studies what emerges at the interface of media, social life and technology, recently came to talk at the agency. She pointed out that if you search for ‘Artificial Intelligence’ online you are bombarded with images of white shiny robots, blue brains, nodes and wires. Cold and inhuman. We need to be mindful about the kind of imagery we use as this contributes to educating the public about AI and long-term, this might impact on trust. She has been working on a project with art consultant Anne Rogers and collaborating with artists Pauline Batista, Jake Messing, Kysa Johnson and Helen Dennis to reimagine how AI and machine learning can be represented differently. It’s a fascinating alternative that could inspire all of us to rethink how we express our work in imagery. See their work here.

4. Let people in

If we really want people to trust us more we need to be more open about what we’re doing. And that means literally opening our doors and showcasing our people. Take DeepMind - an organisation set up in 2010 and now a world leader in artificial intelligence research and its application for positive impact. They have let people in to what they’re doing through a long form documentary AlphaGo and through short films, we’re lucky enough to have worked recently on, including AlphaZero and AlphaStar. Because when you meet this extraordinary group of people you can’t help but like and trust them. Take Demis Hassabis, the founder. His Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 was one of the best.

If we can do these simple human things then tech industry will have a shot at being better understood. This in turn reduces fear and mystery, creates trust and will lead to a proper open debate. So that we can all, the public and the private, use tech to create a better world together.

Across the Pond is a creative agency based in London, San Francisco and Singapore.

Image credit: Future Postcards 2 by Pauline Batista, 2018.

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