Lucie Greene: what Big Tech means for our future

Coin Rivet chats with Lucie Greene, author of the hard-hitting new book, Silicon States

In her first book, Silicon States, Lucie Greene paints a dystopian picture of the future of the world in which we live. It is described as a ”bracing look at how Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and other Silicon Valley power players are using their influence to encroach upon the civil landscape of government, healthcare, transportation and housing.”

The Worldwide Director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson’s in-house futures and innovation think tank, she leads ongoing research into emerging global consumer behaviours, cultural changes and sector innovation.

The book offers a snapshot of how with almost bottomless supplies of cash and ambition, this small (but powerful) group of big tech companies and executives have been gradually seizing symbolic (and practical) civic leadership across the US and worldwide, transcending Government influence and other traditional centres of power.

It examines how these companies – if they can create a social network – might transform our political and healthcare systems and what they might do for space travel, education or the housing market.

The Innovation Group’s work is frequently cited in the New York Times, the UK Times, the Guardian and USA Today, as well as Bloomberg Businessweek. Greene is described as the outward-facing futurist for the organisation and she writes for the FT on futures and has been a speaker at numerous conferences and has been interviewed for major broadcasters including the BBC.

FemTech voices

Greene deliberately and pointedly interviewed key women leaders in tech, government and academia as part of her research while writing the book. She also writes about the lack of women’s voices in tech, which is a perennial top of discussion at Coin Rivet.

“It’s a bit of a cliché,”she says. ”But whenever there is power and wealth it tends to be centred around men. We can see this very clearly now in our patriarchal society.”

She interviewed key players for the book such as Megan Smith who is a former Vice President at Google and a senior former employee of Myspace, Debra Cleaver. “They talk a lot about innovation and power and Silicon Valley used to be a very diverse place but with the explosion of wealth and money, it became a very different place, not diverse and it became quite a hostile environment for those outside the white male demographic.”

Greene says a lot of companies boast women on their boards, but there’s a lack of women CEOs and it’s a difficult working environment for women with children. She also points out that it is often men (not women) writing on this subject, so it’s refreshing to talk to her about this.

I managed to get hold of her as she was boarding a plane in New York on a crackly mobile phone line which she apologised for, although it wasn’t her fault. We had a good chat, despite the reception difficulties.

In general terms, she talks about digital being at a ‘tipping point’ in the sense of its scale and influences which is more powerful than politics and the economy globally and it is ”starting to have an impact on policy” with government having to play ”catch-up.”

She admits her book is more dystopia than utopia and says ”there is a tension that we can’t deny” with these businesses leading innovation and the world being a place where ”all information is available through your phone when it used to require a whole bunch of stuff in your handbag.”

Greene is troubled by the ”lack of transparency and lack of technical literacy at Government level which leads to a lack of control.” The tech industry in America is dominated by white male privileged executives and it never used to be like this, particularly in cryptocurrency.

There is ”excitement about alternative banking products and blockchain technology in the UK.” The banks are becoming more open to innovation and FinTech. When it first emerged, she argues, cryptocurrency had a ”layer of ideology and a libertarian thread running through it that Governments were manipulating banking and they were running outside of Government control. There was a lot of ideology around cryptocurrency and blockchain which is now one step removed.”

It’s exciting that charities are using this technology and major food and drinks companies to ensure quality in the supply chain, especially in the wake of the weedkiller scandal of the last week or so.

The problem with cryptocurrency, she points out, is that ”governments have been really slow to understand and regulate it. This lack of tech literacy can be seen in the Cambridge Analytica story where they were having to explain really basic things to officials. We saw this replicated in the United States when Mark Zuckerberg was being questioned. There’s a lack of foresight from Government, which has implications with revenue and from an ethical respect.”

She says it’s interesting as cryptocurrency is one of the biggest new areas in Silicon Valley. Heavyweights like Amazon, the Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba and Apple are now looking at alternative payment systems which throws up even more problems with data that are ”potentially quite troublesome.”

There’s a risk, she adds, that all the technology will become linked to healthcare and ability to pay which represents a ”great leap” and risks pushing out the vulnerable in society.

Silicon States is also in development for film and television with The Front Media, an award-winning multimedia production company. I get the feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from Lucie Greene.

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