While the marvels of technology continue to awe and inspire, high-tech firms are feeling increased public scrutiny when they miss the mark on privacy concerns or public benefit. Nowhere has this been more palpable than during the recent congressional testimony by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg regarding the company’s role in the misuse of user data during the now infamous Cambridge Analytica breach.
What was once considered “cool” for its celebrated innovation, ingenuity and ability to improve lives is experiencing a slow falling out of favor as individuals and regulators seek better balance between the benefits and risks of innovation and technology to humanity as we know it.
In 2016, the Food Foresight trends report — a collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc. and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research at University of California, Davis — examined the push back on biotechnology. At the time of its writing, advances in gene editing and biotechnologies were on warp speed. Today, progress continues, but there is resistance coming from political forces and vocal anti-science voices. The Food Foresight 2018 report looks at pushback on technology from a broader perspective, examining the role of information technology and technology firms. All this is a happening in an environment where regulatory officials are calling for greater accountability, transparency and social responsibility for the products tech firms bring forward, and the companies behind them.
The reasons for further scrutiny are plentiful and growing. The erosion of trust in institutions (especially big business); mounting privacy concerns; and a ubiquitously connected world increasingly driven by data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics are among the factors leading to the current landscape. Combine this with new concerns over the growing political, social and financial power of technology companies, antitrust concerns, the inherent insecurity of the internet, and the proliferation of “fake news” and clickbait and it’s easy to get a sense of why skepticism is growing.
The “Big Five” technology companies — Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — touch almost every aspect of today’s digital economy. This level of proliferation allows them to exercise a vast amount of influence even in sectors that aren’t traditionally affiliated with their tech origins. These kinds of concerns have some stakeholders calling for more regulations and antitrust intervention.
“Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are among the most powerful monopolies in the history of humanity,” says Franklin Foer, author of ‘The World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.’ “They have a tremendous ability to shape the way we think, the way we filter the world, the way we absorb culture ... they play an incredibly vital role in the health of our democracy.”
Of the Big Five, Amazon appears to be the standout company for maintaining a high degree of trust and credibility. So, what does Amazon have that sustains consumer trust and adulation? Food Foresight reports have long suggested the key to earning trust with technology is demonstrating consumer value. Amazon’s value stems from its “consistently high customer service, reliability, wide assortment and speedy delivery,” according to the National Most Trustworthy Brands 2017 Survey.
Why should agriculture care about the fate of these high-tech giants? For one thing, we’ve been down the road of technology pushback before (e.g., GMOs) and, at the very least, we know the benefits must outweigh the consequences if we expect public acceptance.
Second, many of us have bought in “hook, line and sinker” to social media. We depend on it carrying our perspective on products and issues to customers, consumers and other stakeholders. The question: is our marketing too heavily dependent upon tech giants that may be losing credibility? If technology firms, particularly social media companies, continue to lose their place as trusted information sources, new entities may surface as forums for consumers to make connections with each other, companies and the world around them. And lastly, as privacy concerns continue to mount, companies of all stripes — including agri-food companies — may be held to the same public standards of performance with regard to protecting consumer data in order to build trust.
At the crux of all this discussion is the notion of trust, something all businesses are striving to cultivate. In developing strategies to build trust, the pushback on technology companies can spark some interesting questions to consider. Ask yourself, are we listening to the concerns of stakeholders and sharing what we’re doing (not doing and why) to address their concerns while growing food for neighbors, our country and the world? Are we demonstrating the value of agriculture to customers and consumers? Do we have a firm understanding of what benefits resonate with our target audiences? How can we use it to provide more value? Do our stakeholders and consumers trust us? How can we build and maintain that trust? And finally, how are we using data? Would it pass the consumer sniff test?
Our Food Foresight panel has long advocated a strategy of demonstrating how technology benefits customers, consumers and other stakeholders. If agriculture and biotechnology can do a better job of showing value to consumers and the marketplace — taking a page out of the Amazon playbook — might we be more successful? How can agriculture reframe the conversation?
About the Authors: Kerry Tucker is chief strategic counsel at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc. Teresa Siles is managing director at Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc.