The Danger of Narratives in Tech

on April 4, 2014
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Gerald Ford was clumsy, Jimmy Carter was out of touch, Mitt Romney was a flip-flopper. All these characterizations (and many more) were the result of what have been called political “narratives” – stories the media tell about politicians and candidates to make sense of isolated incidents and create stories they can sell to voters. Like one person stereotypes, these narratives are rarely fair, but often vaguely grounded in some sort of truth. They dominate coverage of politics in the US and elsewhere, to the point where a candidate’s every action starts to be seen through the lens of this narrative. Designed to be helpful – to assist voters to make sense of the news – these narratives more often distort the truth and have sunk the campaigns of many an aspiring politician. But much the same may be said of the narratives we’re beginning to see told in the world of technology.

Like political narratives, the stories the tech media likes to tell are intended to put events in context and to help readers make sense of them, while also making for good copy and lots of clicks. But like political narratives, they’re often misleading and, like most political narratives, these stories are typically negative in nature. Here are some examples:

  • Apple can’t innovate anymore
  • Google is evil
  • Facebook wants to end your privacy
  • Microsoft is irrelevant
  • Amazon isn’t interested in making money
  • Samsung just copies everything Apple does

The problem for companies seeking to dispel these narratives is the same as the problem faced by campaign managers in the political sphere: you can’t simply kill a narrative – you have to replace it with one of your own. People like story lines that provide a golden thread for the disparate events that happen in the life of a company – which helps explain the popularity of the misguided narratives the media provides. So, in order to get people to let go of the narratives they’ve embraced, you have to give them a new story to latch onto.

Perhaps this explains why Microsoft has recently promoted Mark Penn, a former political operative who’s been working his way up the ranks inside the company’s marketing department. He was apparently responsible for the strategy behind Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad this year, which was definitely more about a narrative than a product. When you’re on the receiving end of so many negative narratives, you have to go on the offensive and start telling your own story. That’s what Microsoft now appears to be doing.

Apple of course, is the master of telling its own story. But even with Apple, we’ve seen a real uptick in narrative rather than product-focused advertising over the past year or so. There was the Designed by Apple in California video that debuted at WWDC 2013 and was followed by an ad along similar lines, the 30 years of Mac video and the 1.24.14 film that went with it. People have wondered why Apple was doing this and even criticized them for doing it, but I don’t think Apple has a choice – when the media’s narratives start to trump your own, you have to go out and tell your story more aggressively to regain control.

Google is one of the few companies on my short list which seems to have been able to get the media to adopt its narrative, even without appearing to try to do so explicitly. Its Google[X] organization, and more specifically its self-driving cars, Google Glass and acquisition of various robotics companies all appear designed to create the impression of a company shooting for the moon in pursuit of new and wonderful inventions. If you’re trying to shrug off the dominant narrative of an evil corporation intent on selling you as its product to advertisers, what better way than to wax quixotic and aspirational, and talk about making the world a better place?

Amazon and Facebook have their own stories to tell, too. Interestingly, Amazon both suffers and benefits from the dominant narrative, among different communities. Among investors, of course, its consistent failure to make profits may be seen as a drawback, while of course to ordinary consumers that’s the appeal of Amazon. Jeff Bezos has also used his own personal investments to bolster Amazon’s image, investing in literal moon shots with Blue Origin and saving the newspapers with his purchase of the Washington Post. Facebook, meanwhile, seeks to demonstrate its altruistic side through Internet.org, connecting the world’s unconnected and only incidentally increasing the addressable market for Facebook.

As an analyst, my job is to see through the narratives and to separate the facts from the spin – both the narratives spun by the media and the stories the companies themselves tell. The challenge is the answers are often far less black and white than the narratives – it’s not possible to conclusively quantify Apple’s innovativeness or calculate Google’s evil quotient. But it is possible to understand and describe what’s really going on at these companies, in their financials and in the markets in which they operate. There are still stories to tell my clients, but they’re often more nuanced and less sensational than the narratives fed to us by these companies and the media.