The times they are a-changing. Just a couple of years ago it would have been unimaginable for a British journalist to attack the titans of Silicon Valley from the main stage of TED, the living room of optimistic, exuberant tech. But that's exactly what happened last week in Vancouver when Carole Cadwalladr, who had long been reporting on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook's role in Brexit, accused the "tech gods" of having "facilitated multiple crimes in the EU referendum." "As things stand," she told a consternated audience, "it isn't possible to have free and fair elections ever again." Liberal democracy was broken, she declared, and they had broken it.
She specifically called out "Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Jack Dorsey, and your employees and your investors, too," and warned they'd be "on the wrong side of history." Brin was in attendance and watching the talk from a simulcast lounge, Facebook was an official partner of TED, and Zuckerberg and Sandberg were absent but surely following the breach of their alleged safe space from afar with some astonishment.
Captain Cool on the Twittanic
Dorsey, Twitter's co-founder and CEO, was on stage the following day, interviewed by NBC journalist Whitney Pennington Rodgers and Chris Anderson, the head of TED. Anderson thanked him for listening and engaging, and after some initial cat-and-mouse exchanges that saw Dorsey unfazed and almost detached, Anderson launched in by conjuring up a poignant image: "We're on the Twittanic, and there are people on board...who are expressing discomfort, and you...are saying, 'Well, tell me, talk to me, listen to me, I want to hear.' And they talk to you, and they say, 'We're worried about the iceberg ahead.' And you go, 'You know, that is a powerful point, and our ship, frankly, hasn't been built properly for steering as well as it might.' And we say, 'Please do something.' And you go to the bridge, and we're waiting, and we look, and then you're showing this extraordinary calm, but we're all standing outside, saying, 'Jack, turn the f... wheel!'
Dorsey, in his response, kept his cool. With his black hoodie and beanie, he exuded the aura of a tech monk (his Vipassana meditation practice clearly paying off) and maintained a monotone, almost robotic voice throughout the session, hitting the same talking points he had delivered a few weeks earlier as guest of Sam Harris' Making Sense podcast, centered on the "health of a conversation" as Twitter's new key metric. "There are a bunch of superficial things we could do," he replied, but "quickness will not get the job done." Instead he promised a thorough examination of Twitter's fundamental design principles and features, for example, the "Like" button.
Everything he said sounded reasonable. And yet something was glaringly missing from the conversation: emotions. I was sitting in the audience and getting more and more agitated with every line of his: Even if quickness is, technically speaking, not the answer, will you still please say it is, Jack? Even if your engineering mindset may permit you from over-simplifying things, can you at least show some basic affection? Instead of a thoughtful answer, give us a soulful answer. Instead of a product manager, be a dramatic character. For God's sake, suffer with us a little, Jack!
We want to see blood, sweat, and tears, but all the tech gods give us is product, process, and policy.
I was not the only one feeling this discontentment. In the backstory article for her bombshell talk, Cadwalladr describes how perplexed she was by Dorsey's apparent lack of emotion.
I don't know Jack Dorsey personally; he's a fascinating, smart man for sure, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten where he is. But in a time that puts a premium on authenticity, leaders must be able to not just walk the talk but feel the feels.
Or from Scott Cleverdon and Assumpta Serna, two former actors who now offer acting classes for business leaders. Cleverdon told me that authenticity is all about actions that feel true, and that when leaders are on a big stage like TED's, they ought to make their emotions bigger, even if that means inflating them through acting.
Cleverdon and Serna often conduct an uncomfortable exercise as part of their workshops. They ask one participant to leave the room and after a few minutes to come back in and walk onto the stage. While the person is out, they instruct the remaining group to show a specific emotional response upon his or her re-appearance. The participant comes back, and the audience responds with, for example, silent hostility, which the person on stage has to endure for a few minutes. They then repeat the exercise with a different reaction, for example, an outpouring of support and warmth. Again, the person on stage has to confront it and respond with their own emotional posture. These exercises, Cleverdon and Serna explain, are designed to help leaders not only express their feelings but also bolster their nonverbal emotional presence.
This kind of emotional presence, the idea of intuiting and embracing a complex emotional situation with every cell of one's body, has been a noticeable problem with big tech's response to the current techlash -- from Sandberg's apology tour to Zuckerberg's efforts to interview media leaders like Matthias Döpfner, CEO of Europe's largest publisher Axel Springer. The public wants to see blood, sweat, and tears, but all the tech gods give is product, process, and policy.
Do we expect too much of business leaders if we ask them to develop this kind of emotional presence? I don't think so. In fact, I wonder what else will constitute their leadership in the future. In a time when many rational decisions can already be automated, emotions are ultimately all that's left. Today's leaders should be even-keeled and level-headed, sure, but they absolutely must be whole-hearted, too -- and show it. We only fall for them if they fall for something themselves.
The problem is that most of them think their job is to fix the product. But we want them to fix the world, we want them to fix us.