The Most Important Word Silicon Valley Doesn’t Know

Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh on 2019-07-15

Photo Credit: AMDi, https://www.amdi.net/products/aac-devices/tech-speak-12-levels/F

Everyone knows something’s wrong — they just can’t agree on what it is.

If you were looking for a one-sentence summary on the state of the tech giants in 2019 — Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple — you could do far worse than the above.

Everyone knows something’s wrong. Mark Zuckerberg knows. Elizabeth Warren knows. Top GDPR enforcer Margrethe Vestager knows. So do Selena Gomez, Shoshana Zuboff and Roger McNamee.

It would be hard not to notice something’s wrong. In a wide-ranging survey of public attitudes towards the major tech giants by Pew Research Center last year, a supermajority of Americans (72%) stated that they believed the tech companies could be trusted to do the right thing either only “some of the time,” or “hardly ever.” (The number who believed the major tech companies could always be trusted was 3 percent. For reference, the U.S. approval rating of Congress consistently hovers around 18 percent.)

The first step of any recovery program is admitting you have a problem. Silicon Valley would have that licked, if only it would agree on what the problem is.

So what is the problem? Is it that tech giants have just plain gotten too damn big? Is it that tech workers aren’t empowered to whistle-blow and call out problems early? Is it lacking proper ethical education for workers in tech? Is it the lack of an industry-wide solution to privacy lapses? Is it surveillance capitalism?

Yes. And no.

Shifting from Treating Symptoms to Curing Disease

The impact of social technology, known and yet unknown, is a big, complex, multidimensional and intimidating Gordian knot. It is natural to want to break it up into more digestible, addressable chunks. But tackling any given singular issue, however thoroughly, will not solve what is ultimately a systemic problem. Even addressing all the issues simultaneously, but independently, will fall short, like treating a body’s painful symptoms without curing the underlying disease.

Don’t get me wrong — all of the above are on the right track and vital parts of how we’re going to solve this. But they’re not the full picture. That’s because we lack the language for what we’re really seeing in its entirety.

Cognitive linguists call this kind of scenario — where people experience that something is happening, but have no shared language to describe it — hypocognition. Hypocognition can make problem-solving near-impossible — if you don’t have the language to even conceptualize a given problem, you’re much less likely to be able to jointly design a solution. (Imagine trying to negotiate a longstanding conflict without any word for ‘compromise,’ or ‘concession.’)

Silicon Valley suffers from a world-historic case of hypocognition. We have a sense that something has to change, but we simply don’t know any straightforward language to describe it.

The Word We’re Missing

Luckily for us, such language does exist — language that describes a path forward, and a potential solution to what ails the industry.

The word we need exists in a specialized but deeply relevant and thriving corner of academia, and is used all the time by expert analysts to better understand the state of other industries — just not in social tech. It’s time we use it to illuminate the overarching problem for the various shareholders in tech currently stumbling around in the dark.

The word we’re missing? Professionalization.

Professionalization, in industrial sociology, is the step-by-step process by which a trade or vocation — a wild west comprised of freelance practitioners — becomes a profession, with universal enforceable standards and norms.

Professionalization usually starts like this: A trade or vocation grows not just in popularity, but in power and influence. Eventually, the service quality of its practitioners becomes uneven and their impact unwieldy. As a result, the occupation faces a crisis of trust that threatens its integrity and challenges its independence.

Sound familiar?

Here’s what typically happens next: A cadre of practitioners elevates the trade (from a loose group of practitioners, leaning on an informal body of knowledge, and using disparate standards with virtually no controls) into a profession: a unified community of professionals utilizing formalized knowledge under universal standards that are enforceable.

It’s a historical process, that happens over time. But the pressure on a trade that’s harming people without internal or external accountability can’t last long before something’s gotta give.

Thankfully, professionalization isn’t just a word — it’s an entire discipline, filled with insights we can apply now to fixing the industry. We can start with these recognizable, high-level milestones, each applicable to social tech in the 21st century:

  1. We Need To Unify: develop a shared vision for the industry, expressed as an oath or manifesto underpinned by a code of ethics worthy of the public’s trust. Think the Hippocratic oath.
  2. We Need To Codify: outline a universal set of standards, including minimum standards of professional competency and rules of professional conduct. Think the Engineer’s Code.
  3. We Need To Certify: educate and train practitioners in accordance with these standards and provide them a way to stay up to date on them. Think mandatory continuing legal and ethical education for attorneys.
  4. We Need To Apply: protect the public interest by enforcing standards and imposing disciplinary action when necessary. Think the disciplinary sanctions for chartered financial professionals.

Professionalization, historically, is a long process, with peaks and valleys — and if professionalization is going to proceed as smoothly as possible, the titans of Silicon Valley are going to have to let go of some of their most cherished myths.

The vast majority of tech workers themselves, as evidenced by efforts like Tech Worker Collective, have a clear-eyed view of how Silicon Valley actually works. But too many in top-tier management still cling to the decades-deep mythology of hoodie-clad amateurs in a garage, sleep-deprived, growing operations fast by moving fast and breaking things, eventually stunning the bureaucrats and suits with their sheer, messy, uncontainable brilliance.

Let’s build an alternative vision: people acting more like responsible engineers than aspiring wizards — professionals cognizant of their power, and appreciative of the opportunity and obligations that come with that power.

This won’t be the first time humans reclaimed an unruly trade that was harming people, and tamed it for the sake of humanity. Medicine was once a wild west. (Think whiskey-swilling docs on Deadwood or in old John Wayne movies.) It’s now a profession. (Think the work you put in to be recognized as a proper doctor in 2019 — some of it governmental, some of it peer validation, but none of it skippable.) Engineering underwent a similar revolution to self-regulate in the 20th century.

Interestingly, doctors and engineers helped lead the change in their respective trades. Because they knew they had to protect not only the people who came in contact with the scalpel the surgeon holds, or the bridge the engineer built, but also to protect the surgeons and the engineers themselves, from the constant, relentless demands to outperform.

Now it’s the social technologists’ turn to protect themselves, their communities and society at large. Just like accountants did before them. And financial planners. And librarians, veterinarians, nurses, architects, lawyers, teachers, social workers, surveyors and psychologists — because any trade that influences massive groups of people also makes it all too easy (and tempting) for its practitioners to get carried away, go off course, take questionable risks and, in doing so, harm people.

This is, without a doubt, an ambitious undertaking.

But it is also necessary. Critical, when you consider how the actions of a single technologist affect the lives of thousands more people than any doctor or engineer ever could.

Professionalization is going to come. End users — and eventually tech workers themselves — will simply demand it. The sooner it comes, the sooner we’ll have a roadmap out of the ditch Silicon Valley has found itself in.

We have precedents to lean on and experts to learn from. Let’s get this transformation going. It’s time for Silicon Valley to pivot for humanity.