Business, Finance and Technology

The impact of digitization on modern society

From Headlines to Fables and Back

There was a time, not too long ago, when Silicon Valley mantras like Google’s “Don’t be Evil” could be quoted without irony, and Elon Musk, the original Rocket Man, was every tech blogger’s favorite visionary. Now, Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to trade his hoodies for a suit to face hostile questioning by American and British lawmakers, Wired magazine is gravely opining (in headlines) that Musk is broken “and we have broken him,” and even Google has removed its famous first commandment from the opening of its code of conduct.

We are witnessing a transformation of the structuring narrative, or dominant fable, of the IT industry. As students of the stories industries tell about themselves, we have been tracking the evolution of the “insanely great” IT fable, with its whiz-kid protagonists, disruptive killer apps, garage-band launches, and IPO happy endings, for some time. It is part of a larger investigation into popular cultural representations of both the public and private sectors. In our just published Negotiating Business Narratives we explore contemporary texts (movies and television, biographies, histories, novels) dealing with information technology, financial trading, and car manufacturing, three key American industries. In the study, we develop a matrix of eight archetypal business fables, and show how each industry populates that matrix in a different way.

From the early days of Steve Jobs’ pirates at Apple busily thinking “different” to the seemingly unstoppable spread of Facebook, we have charted the way the celebratory IT narrative – a variant on an archetypal fable we have named “Corporate Nirvana” – has been circulated and recirculated within popular culture, affecting the ways in which the sector’s activities, practices, and executives have been covered in the press, evaluated by financial markets, and regulated (or not regulated) by legislators. What we are now seeing is the growing realization of how much that narrative omitted or ignored and the extent to which CEOs and tech workers became captive to their industry’s own mythologies.

We know now that social media can be used as effectively to promote conspiracy theories, mobilize lynch mobs, and interfere in elections as for community activism or charitable crowd-sourcing. We have seen the social costs when “disrupters” like Uber and AirBnb move into local economies. And we have become increasingly aware of the harassment and the discriminatory hiring and promotion practices encountered by women and minorities within the IT industry and its venture capital incubators. A new dominant IT narrative is taking shape and it looks increasingly like the fable we have identified as “Corporate Ripoff.”

Our research, which is based on a typology that gauges the alignment, or divergence, of individual protagonist, corporate, and social outcomes, gives us the means to chart these types of cultural shifts. The mutation of the IT fable from nirvana to ripoff is a necessary reminder of how much such cultural narratives can change, and of the skepticism with which we should consume them.

Considering the fables of the financial trading industry, another subject of our analysis, it is no less important to realize that in a different context they may stay the same. The dominant financial trading fable we charted was one of deregulation, recklessness, malfeasance, criminality, and crash. There is an emerging consensus that that story appears poised to repeat itself.

Sandford Borins is Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Beth Herst is a researcher and writer based in Toronto, Canada.

P_Borins_Negotiating Business Narratives