Trampled By Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem And How To Fix It by Maëlle Gavet

The Blurb On The Back:

There is no Blurb On The Back.  Instead there are the following quotes:

”Gavet has delivered a very important piece of work which highlights the issues around technology, information, democracy, and the human condition.  Everyone will benefit from reading her analysis.”

ROBERT SIEGEL, Lecturer in Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business

“Gavet proposed a number of remedies – not quick fixes, but fundamental shifts into more equitable, long-term thinking that will actually make everyone much happier without the addictive highs of 100x returns and CEO worship.”

ESTHER DYSON, Founding Chair, ICANN; Executive Founder, Wellville

“Despite being a tech insider, Maëlle Gavet successfully applies outside-in thinking to the tech backlash.  The future of tech depends on it.”

CHRISTA QUARLES, Former CEO, OpenTable; Board Member, Kimberly-Clark and Affirm

“Gavet doesn’t just discuss the current and emerging problems confronting the tech industry and those of us who use their products; she recommends thoughtful and implementable solutions.  This is a book for anyone who cares about the future of technology and the technology industry.”

LARRY IRVING, Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce; Member, Internet Hall of Fame

“Maëlle Gavet has written a book that should be an alert to us all – not by pointing a finger, but through sound diagnosis leading to a credible course of action.  A great contribution to inform a public debate that needs to happen now.”

RICHARD STRAUB, Founder and President, Global Peter Drucker Forum

Trampled By Unicorns is essential reading for anyone who leads or aspires to lead people and companies.”

SHAN-LYN MA, CEO, Zola

You can buy TRAMPLED BY UNICORNS: BIG TECH’S EMPATHY PROBLEM AND HOW TO FIX IT by Maëlle Gavet Stroud from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Maëlle Gavet was CEO of OZON.ru (Russia’s largest e-commerce site) and executive VP of Operations at Priceline Group.  This is a breezy look at the well-documented issues surrounding big tech companies and suggests how to fix it (the most interesting being on taxation and privacy).  Gavet emphasises “empathy” but doesn’t define it and given the demands of venture capital and shareholders, it’s not clear how it’s supposed to work in practice.

The book is divided into two parts.  The first part runs through the problems caused by tech companies: 

– the culture bubble within the companies including lack of diversity among employees and tendency to reward or admire blowhard behaviour; 

– the detrimental effect that tech companies with their subsidised on campus facilities has on local community businesses and property prices;

– impact on labour practices, including the gig economy, lack of benefits and potential impact of tech on reducing jobs in future (although this is noticeably lack of discussion about unionisation in this section);

– the impact of tech in spreading misinformation, racial and social hatred and promoting anti vac and anti science views;

– the adverse impact of venture capital as it seeks high returns at any cost; and

– the focus on psychopathic traits for CEOs, which leads to a lack of accountability, callousness and lack of curiosity about the impact of tech on wider society.

The second part then sets out Gavet’s prescription for how to counter these problems, which covers:

– building a more empathic company via decision-making processes and re-examining business models;

– improving corporate governance through board composition, stock exchange regulation and investment bankers and advisors taking action;

– using competition law to regulate behaviour and potentially break up big tech companies;

– ensuring proper and fair taxation of multinational tech companies; and

– tackling the impact tech has had on news media to ensure fair reporting and paid reporting.

The description of the problems caused by tech companies is nothing new – to be honest if you’ve read a newspaper, seen a news broadcast or have even a passing interest in the subject then you are familiar with the controversies and issues.  Gavet does summarise the issues pretty well although it’s noticeable that neither the chapter on labour practices nor Gavet’s proposed solutions dwell much on trade unions as a way forward.  That’s partly due to the timing of the book’s release, which was before the efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers to unionise in their warehouse or the UK Supreme Court decision against Uber, which gave drivers worker status.  However it is a noticeable and surprising omission given that she takes the time to praise French workers who organised to get themselves PPE when COVID landed – a tactic which worked due to strong French labour laws and heavy union presence.  

This ties in with one of my big issues with the book: at the end of the day, Gavet worked for big tech and prior to that was with Boston Consulting Group so I am a little cynical as to the extent to which she’s ever really going to want to systematically change things rather than fiddle with the periphery.  Certainly the big glaring issue that goes to the heart of why tech companies, financiers et al all act the way they do is that they need to make money and as the pressure goes to make that money, ethics generally go out of the window no matter what industry you’re in – e.g. the UK supermarket wars, which saw some of them stretch suppliers to breaking point.  Gavet doesn’t address that at all.  Indeed, she seems more interested in blaming individuals and stating that culture starts at CEO level while also doing a chapter on psychopaths.  

The psychopaths chapter in particular did not sit right with me because it’s an emotive term to throw around when you don’t have the clinical qualifications to back up the label plus the fact that there are undoubtedly some very unpleasant people in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean they cross over into psychopath territory.  It also reinforced me sense that Gavet is unwilling to tackle the way that behaviour is driven by corporations and the profit motive, which can result in personnel behaviour that lacks empathy (indeed the documentary, THE CORPORATION explores the extent to which companies are driven to behave in a psychopathic way).

In addition, I found it a bit frustrating that as someone who has headed up a large tech company, there isn’t much soul searching on Gavet’s part as to where she participated or promoted bad behaviour (aside from a brief description of having done some things she realised wasn’t demonstrating empathy).  To be honest, I would have bought into this book more had she been honest about mistakes that she made and talked about where she could have improved things now that she has the benefit of hindsight.  Instead, the wishy washy description of what counts as empathy seems more like a set up for her next tech gig (whether in the C-suite or as an advisor) and I have to question the empathy of her approach to personnel management she still promotes rating people on a bell curve, which anyone will tell you in no way recognises or rewards actual performance and just encourages favouritism in the workplace.  I also have to question how much empathy someone has when they talk about the necessity of big tech working for the military – I don’t disagree of the national security tech threat from countries such as China, North Korea and Russia necessitating that the military draw on the expertise of big tech players, but there are ethical concerns there and suggesting that it’s something workers shouldn’t be campaigning too hard against did not sit right. 

Gavet does make some interesting suggestions re tackling taxation of tech and privacy (although there’s nothing terribly new here and some of it involves drawing on existing initiatives).  However there are areas where she could go further, for example using procurement law as a means of controlling tech behaviour given the desire of tech companies to get into government contracts.  Similarly with areas such as taxation, she fails to acknowledge the constant race-to-the-bottom threat between nations (as has happened in the EU), which is strange given her acknowledgement of competition between US states to give Amazon benefits in return for it basing operations there.

All in all I think that some of my issues with this book come from the fact that it’s quite a short read and, as such, cannot go into as much depth of some of these topics as they demand.  However, I am quite cynical about books about the tech industry by people in the tech industry when they talk about the behaviour of others without being up front about their own behaviour and failures.  I also think that this book tries very hard to talk about bad behaviour as being down to individuals when there is wider conversation to be had about the system and unchecked capitalism in general and as such the discussion about empathy seems more like a blatant USP and talking point than as a concrete issue that can be put right.  As such, although I didn’t hate this book, I don’t rate it either.  It’s an interesting starting point if you’re interested in the topic but I would definitely urge you to read more widely around the subject than take this at face value.  

TRAMPLED BY UNICORNS: BIG TECH’S EMPATHY PROBLEM AND HOW TO FIX IT was released in the United Kingdom on 9th October 2020.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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