Memoir

Lessons from the Valley

Empathy and innovation in the hub of big tech

THERE’S SOMETHING ENDURINGLY disconcerting about flying into Silicon Valley from Australia, where you arrive before you leave. If Silicon Valley can do time travel as easily as that, what can’t it do?

You take off late in the afternoon, the A380 banking left over the south-east corner of Sydney, and then about lunchtime that same day, you end up funnelled out the other end through the every-city boundaries of immigration, baggage pick-up and customs – in this case, in San Francisco. Blinking, you look for your Uber to deliver you to your Airbnb. Is this a parallel time zone, or a parallel universe?

The Uber driver who picks you up is almost certainly from the working-class East Bay, which sits across the waters from the string of affluent cities and townships that make up the Valley, stretching left out of the airport, jostling cheek-by-jowl. The towns are the meat on the ribs protruding from the backbone of Highway 101, which links the offices of every tech start-up you’ve ever (or never) heard of. Here’s the turn-off to Facebook at Hacker Way; there’s the Google Campus at Mountain View. Turn right onto the Oregon Freeway into Palo Alto, and the road will hurry you up the hill past now-old tech like Hewlett-Packard and notoriously fake tech, the health company Theranos.

Or maybe, due to the usual 101 traffic, your travel app of choice (if you’re in the Valley it will be the more fashionable Waze) will push you straight out of SFO up to hills that overshadow the Valley to the east and the San Andreas faultline to the west. There, you turn south-east along Junipero Serra Highway. Keep going straight and this will lead you to the SETI Institute, undertaking the search for extraterrestrial intelligence since 1984.

But you’re not here for that. You’re here in the heartland of digital disruption to learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk of innovation. You’d be more interested in turning left onto the road that divides Menlo Park from Palo Alto. It’s there that the venture capitalists lurk with nets of gold to lure and trap the unicorns being gently reared in garages and backrooms.

Whether you head along the bay on 101, or come down through the heights of Junipero Serra, you’ll end up at the surprisingly old-fashioned Alpine Inn at Portola, above Palo Alto. Here, among the promotions for an increasingly eclectic range of craft beers, you’ll find the plaque that tells you in all-caps: beginning of the internet age, followed by the words:

On August 27, 1976, scientists from SRI
International celebrated the successful
completion of tests by sending an electronic
message from a computer set up at a picnic table
behind the Alpine Inn. The message was sent via
a radio network to SRI and on through a second
network, the ARPANET, to Boston. This event
marked the beginning of the Internet Age.

August 27 1976: Trove, the National Library’s newspaper archive and Australia’s equivalent of the San Francisco-based Wayback Machine, tells me that was the day the first International Convention on the Photochemical Conversion and Storage of Solar Energy was meeting in London. Australian newspapers were chewing over the disruption of Australia’s commercial shipyards and the continued wash-up of the first Fraser government budget. I was at Malabar Public School down by Sydney’s Long Bay counting down the minutes to the spring school holidays.

Now, half a life later, I’m here at the place where so much disruption began, on my way to Silicon Valley to study as a JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

That plaque at the Alpine Inn sits at internet ground zero. More than ‘sits’, it slides around like soap suds in the bubble that is Silicon Valley. And the place feels like a bubble – although as Gavin Belson grandiloquently brays in the HBO series Silicon Valley, it’s a bubble in the same way that Medici Florence was the bubble of the Renaissance.

Sure, Belson is fictional, and the series is a sitcom, but the people he’s based on and the bubble he’s talking about? Well, what’s documentary, and what’s satire? The Valley’s house journal, WIRED, reckons Belson is a mix of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, with a splash of Steve Jobs too. Sitting in the Stanford lecture rooms, I would hear plenty of guest lecturers who could just as well be him.

Silicon Valley: it’s a bubble. It’s a fantasy. It often felt like the world of that chronicler of the internet’s future past, William Gibson, was unfolding just off to the left from my line of sight – almost observable, but not quite. It’s the world of the privileged few, not the Sprawl. Often I’d hear a pitch for an idea and think, ‘Hang on. Wasn’t that a plot line in Virtual Light?’ This could be because the semiotics of cyber-disruption are shaped by Gibson’s words. In his most recent novel, The Peripheral (Berkley, 2014), he takes the word ‘stub’, used by coders in co-working spaces from Redwood City to San Jose to indicate a stand-in piece of code – something slapdash, transitory, fleeting – and makes it a metaphor for a timeline that has veered off from the main line, perhaps as a result of meddling from the future.

Here’s something I’m not sure about, back now from my time over there. Which one’s the stub? Silicon Valley? Or cynical Sydney?

 

MOST MORNINGS DURING my year in Silicon Valley, I’d cycle through the streets of Palo Alto, past offices of start-ups moving out – not in despair but eagerly moving upwards – and past new start-ups moving in with the sure knowledge that they were the town’s next unicorn.

Mark Zuckerberg lived – lives – a couple of blocks east of my usual route. Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo!, lived a bit further away. Our municipal library has its own plaque that acknowledges the financial contribution of local resident and Google founder Larry Page. Our kids trick-or-treated the houses of the tech tycoons one Halloween.

Belson was right: it’s like Medici Florence, where Leonardo draws flying machines on the beer coasters in the downtown bar.

Cycling on, I’d cross the old Spanish northern road into the Stanford arboretum that links the campus of Stanford University (where innovation is incubated) to the township of Palo Alto (where that innovation goes to be commercialised). The arboretum: my secret Australian world of scribbly gums, paperbarks, cider gums, blue gums, fat blackbutts...and if there’d been a bit of rain overnight, the scent of eucalyptus would overwhelm with a nostalgia for home. Because once at Stanford, in the JSK Fellowship program, in the Graduate School of Business or in the d.school – Stanford’s ‘design thinking institute’ – in talks with thinkers and tinkerers, it was a new world, a long way away from suburban Malabar.

The JSK Fellowship is a year-long program that brings around twenty journalists – usually twelve from the US and eight internationals – to Stanford University to focus on the industry’s big problems. Candidates are chosen by competitive ­application, and that year they picked me.

In those schools at Stanford, I learnt new ways of thinking about things – particularly things I, perhaps, already knew. Who knew that my work building two not-for-profits from the ground up made me a ‘social entrepreneur?’ Or that raising money from different sources was really an example of ‘diversified revenue streams’? By letting me put a label on my existing skills, it let me understand them better and, perhaps, value them more than I had. Oddly, the classes that helped me most in the beginning were acting (for non-actors) and hip-hop dance. Yep, these are credit classes at Stanford. Working in these classes with the oh-so-smart undergraduate and graduate students gave me a practical understanding of the openness, the risk-taking and the collaboration on which Silicon Valley innovation is built. It also gave me a confidence I wasn’t sure I had beforehand, confidence to dress up like a zombie in our class’s flash-mob dance of ‘Thriller’. Confidence to believe in the promise of innovation.

And the Graduate School of Business helped me build on those skills, teaching me what I needed to know to launch, monetise and grow new ventures, to coach individuals, teams and start-ups, and to diagnose and address problems in organisational culture to build creative, functioning teams. Most transformative was the d.school – the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, to give it its full name. Often, as journalists, as Australians, we can turn off at the jargon; but to get past that was to realise there was a lot to learn. To be embedded in it was to realise the significance of d.school thinking in innovation, particularly innovation Silicon Valley-style.

Such an approach is about thinking like a designer, with a deep understanding of the challenge at hand, and the human user in the centre of the mind. This human-centred design teaches that the process of understanding through empathy – of seeing, listening and understanding – is the first step to understanding any challenge, to bringing people together and getting them invested in finding solutions. The hard work is not finding the answer, it’s working out what the question is by really finding and understanding the problem. In the model developed and taught at Stanford’s d.school, it’s the first in a five-step approach: understand, define, ideate, prototype, test. It’s a model, not user instructions. Think of it as Lego, if you like. It’s a useful toolbox with a holistic approach to complex problem-solving. It’s not a deeply intellectual philosophy, more a study of doing, a mode of acting, a mindset. To the extent that it has a text behind it, perhaps it is Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), the synthesis of the work of Nobel-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman on systems of thought, heuristics and bias.

What I loved was how different it was from journalism. It centred the human, not the story, in big, open conversations to understand how someone else sees the world, to properly grasp their cares, their dreams, their hopes. Based on an intentional empathy, it’s a conscious decision to feel and understand what is in the head, mind and heart of others. It requires you not to presume, to be humble, and to start with the self-knowledge that you just don’t know. It sometimes means you walk a fine line between what is comfortably shared and what might seem invasive.

But there is a gentleness to humility that is itself compassion and understanding. If you understand you don’t know, these open-minded questions can be the key to the things you didn’t know, to a world seen differently. I was mentored by d.school and IDEO founder David Kelley, who used to say: ‘It’s all simple. But no one does it.’ Simple, yes. But in the Valley, you could see clearly that such simplicity was deliberately engineered.

As Leslie Jamison wrote in ‘The Empathy Exams’, a visceral essay for The Believer on how we feel the pain of others that drew on her experience as a medical actor who performed the symptoms of illness for medical students:

Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.

It surprised me to discover the hundreds – maybe thousands – of corporations, not-for-profits and even government organisations that had set up innovation centres somewhere in or around Silicon Valley, all hoping the magic would rub off on them. Through the d.school, I worked with a Japanese car company who’d set up an innovation team down near San Jose. Their big challenge? How to embed an innovation culture with the design-thinking mindset in a deeply conservative Japanese institution to create and build products of real value to a new generation.

 

IT SEEMED THAT the best way to understand the significance of this sort of d.school design thinking was to see it as the OS, or operating system, for innovation in Silicon Valley. Once I’d worked out how to translate its language, I learned two big lessons: First, innovation builds on listening and drawing insights and then ideas out of deep conversations with the engaged and the interested. Second, don’t over-plan. Fail fast, they say in the Valley. Really what they mean is don’t get too invested in your idea until you’ve tested it. See how things go. Then develop it. Or not.

At the end of each day, cycling back home through the gum trees, these ideas turned over and over in my mind and I thought about my greater challenge. It was one thing to understand these ideas, even to fall a little bit in love with them, in the heart of the place from which they sprang. But how would they work in a media industry – a creative craft – that feels so under siege? And how would they work back home, in that parallel universe that is Australia?

Being away, I missed Malcolm Turnbull’s arrival as Liberal leader, and prime minister, in September 2015. I missed his pivot to an agile use of everyday Valley speak that became a subject of ridicule: had there been any among the #auspol Twitterati who hadn’t sneered at ‘the most exciting time to be alive’ meme? Or a crusty MSM commentator who hadn’t tut-tutted at a failure to understand the agonies of the technologically disadvantaged? I missed the 2016 federal election, too, but I was home for the post-hoc analysis. Right or wrong, it seemed Australia was somewhere I wasn’t.  Did I just have to wait until it caught up, or had it veered off into a dead-end stub?

Being home, I missed the 2016 election in the US as well. And I watched from afar the betrayal of the Silicon Valley promise in the surging tides of fake news, Uber’s arrogance towards its drivers, Russian hacking and Cambridge Analytica. I knew that this betrayal indicated something profound: those early start-ups that had been launched with a spirit of (admittedly capitalistic) idealism, based on the empathy OS, had morphed into the giant corporatised platforms with the glorious acronym of FAANG – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google. Google’s founding commandment, ‘Don’t be evil!’, had morphed into the Facebook plaint: ‘We did nothing wrong!’

I don’t claim to have predicted – or even expected – Trump to win. But any Australian who’s lived through the decades-long ‘Stop the boats!’ hysteria understands the power of ‘Build the wall!’. And any woman who has occupied any position of influence – and seen the prime ministership of Julia Gillard – knows the enduring power of misogyny. Coming from a working-class background with that humble brag of ‘the first in my family with a university degree’, I understand the yearning for a magical past of security and stability. Trump was a shock. But not a surprise.

Still, I was shaken by Trumpism and shaken to find in Australia the same lack of confidence in the future, a spirit of looking back with longing, not forward with hope. Shaken, but not stirred from my confidence in the ideas I’d learnt from Silicon Valley.

My first idea, in the job I’d returned to as CEO of the Walkley Foundation, was to build our Media Incubator and Innovation Fund. My idea, to return to William Gibson, was pretty simple. As Gibson puts it, the future has already arrived, it just isn’t evenly distributed. If the future has already happened, how could I help it become more evenly distributed? How could I help the creative craft I love – and the media industry I value – make themselves future-ready?

 

DISRUPTION AND INNOVATION aren’t new to journalism or to any of the creative arts. If anything, they’re both parent and child of what we do. But right now, deep inside the media, a necessary confidence in the future – a confidence that we can find the answers to the disruption that has roiled the industry for over a decade – is particularly unevenly distributed. New York University’s writer-in-residence Clay Shirky spelt this out in his blog post ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’. Published a decade ago, it remains one of the freshest commentaries on the challenges of innovation in the media.

It is simple, Shirky says, to understand the world immediately before a revolution or indeed to understand it once the revolution has played itself out. But living inside that moment of revolutionary time is almost incomprehensible as we try to grasp the new world with the tools and understandings of the old. To give an example: we thought that the advertising that propped up twentieth-century media would transition to prop us up in the twenty-first. Turns out, probably not.

From my experience, just about everyone who is trying to manage themselves, their career or their media through this revolution understands almost instinctively the scale of the challenge, as it affects them personally and as it affects the institution in which they work. There’s enormous experimentation and innovation going on, both in traditional media and in the start-up world. New ways of writing, from long-form to the 280-characters of Twitter; new platforms to tell stories, from podcasts to blogging; new audiences, from around the corner to around the world. But lots of things are failing: remember when iPads were going to save newspapers? Or Facebook distribution through likes and shares? Or podcasts?

Journalism, says Shirky, demands this experimentation because this experimentation will produce the stepping stones that, looking back from the future, will be seen to have become the path through this revolution. ‘We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is,’ he writes – Manutius being the inventor of the ‘book’ as we know it:

It could be some 19-year-old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognise as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real…

This kind of experimentation confronts plenty of magical thinking. There are plenty of people in every industry who say if we assert that nothing has changed, allege that any challenges derive simply from the actions of bad-faith actors who can be pushed aside, then everything will be okay.

But revolutions, as Shirky says, ‘create a curious inversion of perception… Pragmatists [who] were…simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario…were treated as if they were barking mad.’

The goals of the Walkley Foundation’s incubator and innovation fund were simple: create networks and collaborations; support good ideas through training, mentoring and, if appropriate, funding; and broaden an understanding of the importance of innovation to the survival of journalism. It was a fun experiment. I met plenty of exciting and imaginative people embedding the principles of journalism – truth and the public’s right to know – in the virtual infrastructure of the future Australia. After I left the Foundation, the fund was wound up as the organisation went back to basics. I’ve gone on to looking for other experiments, other ideas.

When, sometime in the future, we look back into the mists of the past, back to the moment we call ‘today’, some of the craziest of ideas – mine, yours, some nineteen-year-old kid’s – will stand as solid pointers to the future we then occupy.

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