Poachers turned gamekeepers

A colleague & friend wrote to me about the ongoing Silicon Valley contrition exhibition: ‘I feel like I'm seeing more and more of these kinds of mea culpas popping up of late, and am struggling with how to interpret them.’ Struck me that my reply might be worth publishing (lightly edited):

Yeah, I see a lot of these too and share your cynicism. I see it as a way for techies to earn a second bite at the cherry: I built this, we fucked it up, but now I’m sorry, so that’s fine. It’s no accident that Wetherell is ‘cofounder of a yet-unannounced startup’ – that’s why he gave the interview, surely, to build relevance and buzz? Here’s Vice Motherboard’s take on it.

I see this outflanking move most egregiously with the persuasive design crew. For around a decade, people like Nir Eyal have been advising companies on how to manipulate cognitive weakness to sell more product; now, in the backlash era, they’ve pivoted into these awful poacher-turned-gamekeeper roles: “I know all the evil tricks companies use, so hire me to help you do all this *ethically*.” TBH I think the industry should show these people the door; they had their chance, and they blew it. I wouldn’t even complain if someone made that conclusion about me, too.

There is, as you say, a potential upside, namely that these can be positive examples, fables of thoughtless design that come back to bite the companies involved. But I mostly read these sob stories as techdudes attempting to cling to power and relevance, now they see the pitchforks on the horizon.

Cennydd Bowles