How To Be "Savvy" In The Post-Trust Era: A Conversation With Shiv Singh
Shiv’s transition comes at a key moment in time as the way we receive, share and digest information looks completely different than it did just five or ten years ago. It also comes at a time where dynamics such as economic and social populism no longer remain on the fringes and as people are beginning to reevaluate their relationship with technology. On the eve of Shiv’s book launch, we had a moment to catch up on what inspired him to put pen to paper and why being “savvy” just might be one of the most important skills in the 21st century.
Shiv Singh: Well, firstly thank you having me in this interview. Quite simply, I felt that we are in a critical time in history and I wanted to add my voice to the conversation. The same was for Rohini. Savvy was born out of a dinner table conversation one evening last spring. We were lamenting the sad state of affairs in the world around us. From the rise of narrow-minded nationalism, a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction in the public sphere with the political classes, the weaponization of technology by bad actors, the corrupting and withering of an independent media, artificial intelligence solutions spinning out of control and a broader breakdown of trust in society, we felt that the world we knew and valued was becoming unrecognizable. For the first time in our lives, we also worried that the world was moving in a direction that we didn’t want our children to have to inherit. So that got us thinking.
The more we studied what was going on, the more we saw that while there had been immense scientific and technological progress in the last few decades, human beings had developed glitches that were a root cause of some of the issues are facing. These were human glitches that no one was talking about. You just have to look to some recent headlines to see how those human glitches manifest themselves in our world - look at the Michael Cohen, Jussie Smollett and the Robert Kraft episodes for example. Each episode revealed a different kind of fakeness by those involved. Rohini and I also discovered that these human glitches (which we all have) were impacting how we inadvertently furthered fakeness in all walks of life. We wrote the book to understand those human glitches and to provide guidance on each of us can fix them.
Singh: Trust around us has been ebbing for a while. It isn’t a President Trump phenomena or tied to the most recent midterm elections. The signs of it in the U.S. first emerged after the 2009 financial crisis where people were shocked by the limited accountability among political and business leaders. That tension only continued to build in the lead up to the 2016 election by which time large segments of society felt disenfranchised and left behind. Some felt that wealth was being unevenly distributed and that a few billionaires were subverting the democracy. Others were fearful of immigration and how it was changing their communities. Coupled with those feelings, was the sudden weaponization of technology through which misinformation was being spread on dramatic scale stoking fears and creating divisions in society. (These tensions weren’t a U.S. phenomena alone but something that was witnessed in the U.K., Germany, Australia, India, Brazil and elsewhere too.)
When you had people not knowing what the truth was anymore, they retreated to the familiar - what they knew, understood and allowing people to play on their deepest insecurities. What was not familiar to them, they didn’t trust. And with that, we entered the post-trust era where we all prefer to live in our own echo chambers, in the comfort zone of people who look and sound like us and with those people that agree with our pre-existing world views. It’s a sign of a society in decay which the Secretary-General of the United Nations explained eloquently last fall when he said the world is suffering from a trust deficit disorder.
So how we deal with it? The glib answer is to read the book of course. The first step in solving any problem is to recognize that there is a problem. From there you have to dissect why the problem exists and what sustains it. But as we talk about in the book, we also need to understand ourselves better. Whether it starts with understanding the human glitches that exist or in holding each other to higher ethical standards or to re-inventing how companies communicate and behave, there’s a lot we can all do. As marketers, communicators, and innovators our profession has a significant opportunity to do more - both as a service to humankind and to drive better business performance. We not only can strengthen ourselves but we’re a profession that’s built on our ability to influence and educate others. It is our time to step up and do that to help at this time!
Singh: It couldn’t be a more important time for the media. We need an independent, strong, non-partisan and ethical media ecosystem more than ever. When it came to Parkland there were two tragedies that took place. The first was the horrific shooting, the heartbreaking loss of life and the scarring of a community. The second was how America responded to it. Minutes after the news broke on Parkland, the media began generating various narratives about the tragedy with two distinct storylines emerging. On the one side, conspiracy theories surfaced, suggesting that the survivors of the attack were crisis actors. On the other side, people pointed to lax gun laws and the lack of background checks both of which were hyper-partisan narratives.
From the media, to political leaders and companies, we all went into autopilot and reacted in ways that prevented any authentic debate from happening on the subject of child safety and access to guns. This was at a time when meaningful, honest and fact-based conversations around sensible gun-control were needed. As a result of those autopilot responses, we haven’t done enough to prevent another horrific tragedy from occurring again. The media isn’t meant to become the story but they didn’t—furthering the distrust and creating more factionalism around the tragedy. Rather than bringing the country together and focusing on the facts and the human story, the media became part of the event. That is exactly what shouldn’t have happened.
Armano: One of your chapters asserts that “we blindly trust artificial intelligence” and yet most businesses find themselves in a race to automate, improve efficiencies and simply do things smarter with the assistance of AI. How can trust in AI be reconciled with the potential it presents?
Singh: The artificial intelligence question is a difficult one. We have AI technologies that are exponentially smarter than us in ways that we human beings will never become. That’s wonderful news. The technological progress is mind-boggling and it is going to transform society and make government and businesses much more efficient. However, with the technological progress comes a series of ethical and moral questions that we aren’t discussing as yet. And if we don’t have those conversations and build AI solutions with more explicit intention, we will find the AI spinning out of control.
For example, while we may be far from what is considered general artificial intelligence (where the AI spans across domains), we’re seeing early signs of it. With those signs comes the AI solutions making more decisions that appear to be intuition driven. Those decisions are sometimes fraught with bias and prejudice or with power that can become dangerous if left unchecked. Just because it is new technology and it is exciting, we cannot simply trust it. In fact, AI solutions are already being used in parts of the world to negotiate trusted relationships with each other and with our governments too. China’s Social Credit Score is the most recent example where 17.5 million citizens were blocked from buying airplane tickets in 2018 because they had low social credit with the government not trusting them. No one knows exactly how the algorithms and data sets behind those scores worked. But the AI decisions had massive ramifications for those Chinese citizens trying to travel.
Armano: You also explore cautionary tales from companies that have grappled with ethics ranging from the extreme such as Theranos to Uber. When it comes to ethics in business practice—what’s your advice for leaders leading in the post-trust era?
Singh: Yes, we discuss businesses quite a bit and through the book, we have been developing an emerging thesis on what distinguishes a real company from a fake one. While it is easier to talk about fakeness in the extremes, the truth is that the fakeness in most companies aren’t like what we see in a Theranos or an Uber from a few years ago. Fakeness can seep into many different parts of an organization in the context of a team, a function a division or even a working relationship between two people. That fakeness and the human glitches that fuel it can have far-reaching consequences. A single glitch can lead to dramatic falls in market capitalization as we talk about in the book or even the firing of a CEO. On the flip side, companies that are mindful of those glitches and how misinformation can spread within a company just as it does in society will be able to keep the moral fabric of its organization strong and through that maintain much more trusted relationships with its customers too.
Armano: If your book does the job you intended it to—how would you describe the shifts in thought and action from both individuals and organizations alike? In other words, how would you like to see the world impacted as a result of your work with Rohini?
This book is a mission-driven effort for us. We hope it will help in a small way to take us out of the post-trust era and to a normal where we all have more trusted, constructive relationships in all parts of our lives.