The Art of A Good Unicorn | Startups, is Big Tech now coming after your mind?

ByShrija Agrawal
May 10, 2023 04:40 PM IST

When people often jump from one new tech to the next at incredible pace, there is a growing realisation that Silicon Valley is exploiting people’s mindsets.

Every now and then, Silicon Valley stands behind something that leads to the worrisome B-word: “bubble”. But, in effect, that’s what happens when there’s a herd mentality and a hype cycle & there’s a large number of VCs, who start going behind the space, so much so, that they start inflating the valuations of companies in those spaces to ridiculously high prices. And that creates the bubble.

Big Tech has been generating a lot of chatter with the advent of social media in the attention economy, determining what we watch, how much we watch and how much more we can watch. (Shutterstock)

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Big Tech has been generating a lot of chatter with the advent of social media in the attention economy, determining what we watch, how much we watch and how much more we can watch. (Shutterstock)

And then, those very same VCs may also try to create a narrative to justify that bubble. Bubbles are nothing new, but the collection of bubbles at a given point in time could be growing now. Across LinkedIn posts, Telegram groups, YouTube videos and financial hot takes across social media and TV channels, one keeps hearing the phrase: “This is the next big thing”. And that sows the seeds in people’s minds which germinate into actions that could hurt them later on.

What, really, is a bubble or a hype cycle? If it could be looked at mathematically, it could be seen as validation of the power of two; the compounding power of validation that keeps on snowballing and getting bigger, manifesting itself as a hype cycle, until it hits the ground and crashes. And because there’s so much capital going into creating this house of cards, there forms a perfectly crafted, nurtured and polished narrative that gets disseminated out to the masses to engineer the thought, “If I’m not a part of this, I’m missing out; I’d be a fool to stay away from something that’s going to become very big”. People change their thought processes to fit this warped rhetoric because the network effect is playing in the background of their minds very loudly and yet, very subtly.

The narratives driving people’s actions have to be accurate and useful. The premise has to be properly understood. Look at the Metaverse, for example. People kept talking about how the Metaverse was the next big thing, how it was the next iteration of the Internet and how it would change and revolutionize how we play, interact and work. If you don’t hop on this bandwagon, the Internet you know and love is going to be so yesterday. People were so excited. Facebook changed its name inspired by the Metaverse and even banks wanted a way to integrate the Metaverse into their product offering. And as of April 2023, it doesn’t seem that the Metaverse is being adopted by enough users and companies seem to be abandoning the Metaverse for newer pastures, such as AI, which, by the way, people seem to be saying, “This is the next big thing that’s going to change everything”.

Silicon Valley seems to have a very important relationship with the people. This entire narrative building is all about whispering ideas in people’s ears, pulling the strings and, then, making money out of it. It’s a solidified and cemented relationship and irrespective of the many bubbles that have come and gone, the relationship seems to stay indomitable. And with this new wave of AI sending companies scrambling to integrate AI to seem forward-thinking, now’s a good time to ask: why does this keep happening? Why can the Valley get away with cannonballing ideas into people’s heads?

Maybe, it’s because the Valley is seeing how fickle the user mindset can be, ‘sleepjumping’ from one thing to another, just based on how shiny it is. People go from one iPhone to the newer one, which is one of many examples of an existing pattern. Keeping that in mind, seeing this cohort go from one alluring thing to another, Silicon Valley seems to endorse a tech that they think would get big and get others to turn that rhetoric into a tangible reality.

Big Tech has been generating a lot of chatter with the advent of social media in the attention economy, determining what we watch, how much we watch and how much more we can watch. With that, it has made fat stacks of cash off our eyeballs. There’s a growing realization that it is also making money off by crafting people’s thinking and capitalizing on their fragile mindset. OpenAI’s ChatGPT has been seen as everyone’s new favourite tech. It can drive people’s thinking so much that people can put in prompts, so AI could transition from spreading facts to telling them what to think. It may go from one additional voice on people’s shoulders to the dominant voice in their heads, going beyond giving folks their line of thinking. And since it’s AI, people would defer to them, because, “Hey, it’s smarter, right?” It’s developing so much that tech visionaries, professors and executives are calling for a temporary pause in AI’s development, questioning the ethics of it all. It seems to keep happening: people get enamoured by something and once they’re trapped, folks notice the ethical nuances of it all.

One has got to understand that if people outsource their minds to technology, then surely they’re giving technology all the power to shape the future of humanity and wield change. Narratives have a network effect and maybe, the way it’s going, the reality would be AI-driven than human-driven. Is that what people really want?

Startups, there are going to be bad actors in every field. People who abuse, misuse and exploit. People who use their unearned charm and confidence to hook people in with enough audacity. Others would be clamouring to be part of the next revolution without truly understanding the premise, the potential, the mechanics and the downside. Maybe, there’s an argument to be made for you to promulgate the premise of the tech you’re integrating, the use cases, the risk and what happens next. There could be an advantage to having smarter users.

This is the time to snap out of it and end the hypnosis. This is the correct occasion to burst the bubble.

Shrija Agrawal is a business journalist who has covered startups and private capital markets before it was considered cool in India

The views expressed are personal

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