These are strange times we live in.
Former US President Barack Obama was the star turn at Dreamforce Thursday and came with downbeat warnings about the negative influence of some technologies and media platforms.
Obama was in conversation with Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff, who has spent much of this year arguing about the need to regulate social media providers in the wake of various data abuse scandals and going so far as to claim repeatedly that Facebook is a modern day addiction that’s as harmful as cigarettes.
While the tech boss has continued that meme in TV interviews this week, his Presidential guest didn’t use the F-word, but his comments hit home as he warned that tech has “amplified inequalities” in society:
Right now in our culture, fed in part by social media and technology, we’re chasing the wrong things…So much of the anger and frustration that is taking place right now has to be issues of status and, you know, ‘I wanna be up here, let me put other people down there'.
People remark on the polarization of our politics and rightfully so. People rightfully see challenges like climate change and mass refugees and feel like things are spinning out of control. Behind that, what I see is a sense of anxiety, rootlessness and uncertainty in so many people. Some of that is fed by technology and there’s an anger formed by those technologies.
So much of the political turmoil we're seeing right now has to do with people feeling legitimately and materially insecure because of those disruptions, and we have not adjusted our social institutions to make sure that we benefit from this huge rise in productivity that comes from technology.
In a clear nod to the rise and role of social media platforms, Obama pointed to historical precedents for what his Twitter-ocious successor at the White House has popularised as “Fake News”:
During the rise of a new information age — whether it’s the printing press, radio, TV, and now social media and the internet — it can be a dangerous moment. Part of what happens is that people don’t know what’s true and what’s not, and what to believe and what not to believe...If you watch Fox News, you live in a different reality than if you read the New York Times. If you follow one rabbit hole on YouTube or the internet, then suddenly things look completely different.
That’s part of why we’re having so much trouble in our political culture. But it’s not just affecting politics. We are siloing ourselves off from each other in ways that are dangerous.
I think that right now one of the biggest challenges we face is how do we get a common conversation and a common culture.
Obama did say he thought that the current crisis could be addressed over time, but noted despondently:
I believed, and I still believe the internet can be a powerful tool for us to finally see each other through the bias and unify us, but right now it’s disappointing….it is splintering right now, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fix it.
Obama was not the only ‘guest star’ at Dreamforce this week to wade into the debate triggered by the social media scandals of late. Apple CEO Tim Cook joined Benioff for a ‘fireside chat’ on Wednesday during which he talked about misconceptions that he said his firm and Salesforce have avoided:
So many people confuse innovation with change. We and our companies recognize that innovation is about making things better, not just changing them. That requires a depth of thought beyond change. That's Apple's secret.
In a clear dig at the likes of Facebook and Google and their rapacious appetite for data to inform and enable their platforms, Cook added:
There are lots of false trade-offs out there. Some people think you can’t do great Artificial Intelligence or machine learning unless you have a boatload of data and understand everyone’s personal life. We don’t subscribe to that. We think that’s a false trade-off. There are a lot of these false choices are out there, embedded in people’s minds. We try to systemically reject all of those and turn them on their heads.
A case in point is Apple’s stance on privacy, he suggested:
We care deeply that we embed privacy in all our products. Privacy is very important to us. We view it as a fundamental human right, so we have doubled down on this across the products.
Again without naming names, Cook called out companies that make public protestations about the importance of privacy, but fail to deliver on their claims:
You don't bolt on privacy. You think about it in the development process of products. You can see what happens when companies wake up one day and decide they're going to do something privacy-wise. You just can't do it. You have to design it in.
I overheard one industry analyst at Dreamforce on the phone to someone complaining that this was “the most damn 'woke' conference I’ve ever seen”. It took all my strength not to ask him (a) what had he expected? And (b) what was wrong with that anyway?
This has actually been a very balanced Dreamforce. There have been occasions in the past when the tech angle of this tech conference - and remember, while Dreamforce is many, many other things, at its core it’s an event about using technology - has been lost amid the celebrity cameos and the so-called ‘woke’ elements.
This year’s keynote was a good example of how to strike the right balance. Last year I commented on the fact that Benioff on that occasion spent the first 20 minutes or so in the role of firebrand social activist before handing over the baton to his executive team to run through the various product line announcements and demos. That was in stark contrast to the previous 15 years where Benioff was a near constant presence on stage as a cloudy ringmaster general.
This year it was sort of a back-to-basics approach. Co-CEO Keith Block did the ‘pre-show’ element, talking through the corporate values, the philanthropy angle and so on, before handing over to Benioff who took on the tech run-through. There was even a return to the Benioff/Parker Harris double act routine. (Although Parker’s lack of fancy dress in recent years remains a sad disappointment to this Dreamforce veteran.)
Of the thousands and thousands of sessions on offer across the week, there was plenty of opportunity to drill down into tech-centric product learnings and use case exemplars of best practice across multiple industries. And then there were streams around equality and diversity and philanthropy and ethics and climate change and all the things that a 21st Century business conference ought to be able to accommodate.
And if that’s all too ‘woke’ for you, then maybe Dreamforce isn’t for you - and that’s a great shame on several counts.