"It's all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It's just as Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibility. Turn this on its head and you could say that where there's no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise." - Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the shore
"The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined" - Former Google bro, co-founder of 'Bodega'
Whether we're talking about startups or tech giants and their (ex)employees, a self declared lack of imagination seems to be a common theme in apologies, statements and interviews.
Like how the two former Google employees created a startup called 'Bodega', with the aim of replacing bodega's. They never imagined that their product would be perceived as completely insensitive and would create a giant backlash. But I kinda think they could've though. There's also the case of Juicero, the startup offering a $699,- juicer with proprietary juice packages which could be squeezed by hand just as easily without the $699,- juicer. The Juicero crew never imagined that their company would be the symbol of what's wrong with startup / tech culture. But they should have. Products like these show a lack of imagination, empathy and sensitivity to current times.
The lack of imagination is not limited to startups. Microsoft didn't imagine that their Twitter bot could and would be raised by trolls and Google didn't imagine their photo app would mislabel black people as gorilla's. Yet those two things and countless other 'incidents' totally happened and I can't help it but wonder if they could've spend some more time on imagining what their products would be doing in the wild.
I can imagine that a decade ago Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter never imagined that their products would play a role in US elections or, you know, sparking WW3. Interviews with founders of tech giants always include statements like "We never stood still to think of the repercussions" or "In our wildest dreams we couldn't have imagined..." and so on and so on. Granted, you don't always know what your product will turn into, but these platforms are hardly Pandora's box. These founders didn't splice an atom, introducing the world to a power and dilemma beyond their own control. They created products which grew over time and of which they have been -and still are- largely in control of today. Now, more than ever they should be imagining the possible consequences of what they have created.
The self-proclaimed lack of imagination we read in every tech apology, founder-interview and startup post-mortem is not that cute anymore. Whether they actually lack imagination or they're just hiding behind the lack of it, it doesn't absolve them from their responsibilities.
Even though not all of us are the founder of Facebook or CEO of thenextbigthing™, we're all cogs in a machine somewhere. If we're lucky we have a choice where we work and who we work for and maybe we can imagine the consequences of the products we create. Or not. Enter the two former Facebook employees who worked on the 'like' button and recently spoke about not drinking their own cool-aid. Or as The Guardian eloquently put it: "They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply."
To be fair, I feel like the pandora's box analogy is justified in this case. They created a concept as a cool clean solution to a problem, not to fuck with our minds. They couldn't have imagined which way this concept would go. But maybe they should've imagined what the company they work for would do with it.
You can't always imagine what the product you're working on turns into, that's for sure. But we all have the power to imagine and we should use that power to at least make decisions that are driven by more than just the moment. You don't always have to see for yourself where feeding after midnight leads to, sometimes you can just imagine it.
nb: I actually wrote this whole 'holier than thou' story as an introduction to my own dealings with ethics as a front-end developer, but I seemed to have more on my chest about the subject than I thought. Next post, I promise.