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Viewpoint: Technology isn't always the answer

Tim Maytom

Tim Maytom ponders the kind of thinking that leads to Elon Musk's useless submarine, and whether it is indicative of wider problems in the industry.

Last week, aid and rescue workers were operating round-the-clock in an effort to free 12 boys and their football coach who had become trapped in a cave system in Thailand. Meanwhile, half way around the world, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk was wondering what soothing music to play in the submersible he had built to free the boys – one that would quickly be revealed as entirely unsuited to the task at hand.

I’m not going to begrudge Elon Musk for wanting to help, although it’s certainly easy to read his actions as somewhat self-serving – the Tesla owner has reportedly never spent any money on marketing, preferring the free press that comes from extravagant stunts – and with an estimated net worth of $20bn (£15.2bn), one can’t help but feel his money might have been more useful than his impractical submarine. I’m more interested in the approach that Musk, a supposed engineering genius, took to the problem, and the sort of mindset it betrays.

The tech industry has a long history of solutionism, seeking out complex answers to problems that have already been solved, or that don’t even exist. The typical response to this is that tech is seeking for ways to make these solutions more efficient, or more elegant, but the “move fast, break things” approach of Silicon Valley often fails to account for real world issues, whether it’s the complex web of existing industries and political institutions that shape everyday life, or a series of sharp bends in a cave tunnel.

We constantly push for a world that is faster and more convenient, but the truth is that most advancements come in tiny, incremental steps, and attempting to hurry the process along can cause damage further down the line. It’s easy to point at (for example) the bloated bureaucracy that often slows down governments, but those checks and balances aim to ensure that every consequence is thought through.

We can see the same rush for innovation in the push towards the Internet of Things. I’m sure that everyone reading this can think of a half dozen examples of needlessly connected devices that serve little practical purpose beyond adding another app onto your phone. That’s not to say that the connected home, workplace and world are bad ideas; it's just that the rush to be first, to plant a flag in the brave new frontier of technology, can often lead to ridiculous, pointless products and services that only serve to muddy the waters, concealing what is truly useful about this technology.

What’s more, the push to be the first person to fix any given problem, while admirable, often means that the root causes of these issues are left unaddressed. We’ve seen a Cold War develop between ad blockers and publishers over the past five years, as developers create ways to filter out advertising, then publishers find ways to beat those filters, and so developers innovate again, and round and round we go. Neither of these parties seem interested in addressing the root problems at the base of this issue – the spread of intrusive advertising that is unfriendly to consumers, and the need for publishers to bring in revenue to support online content in a world that increasingly wants everything for free.

From big data to header bidding to AI, we are constantly being sold the next solve to all our problems, but as with most solutions, these are simply small steps, tip-toeing towards greater efficiency. The hard work and graft of building a good product, identifying the audience for it and reaching them with an engaging message remains the same as it always has. It’s unlikely to be radically altered, no matter how many tech firms show up trumpeting a “transformative, disruptive solution”. Technology makes things easier, but it cannot be a substitute for effort. It is a tool in our attempt to connect with audiences, not the aim in and of itself.

The promise of digital advertising is that it will ‘close the loop’, enabling marketers to finally gain a full understanding of just what advertising and branding impacts consumers when they undergo their customer journey. And the digital ad space has made huge leaps and bounds in this regard, constantly improving measurement and targeting. But the truth is, marketers will never be able to account for every single step along the customer journey, because so much of it takes place inside the consumers’ heads. The search for that closed loop is folly, and chasing after it wastes as much time and resources as building an iPod-equipped submarine.