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Techno-Optimism and Building a Human Brand (Thinks Out Loud Episode 399)

Woman collaborating with robot at laptop to illustrate techno-optimism combined with building a human brand

What is the point of technology? Does it exist solely for its own sake? Of course not. It’s to make our customers’ lives better. It’s really that simple. Which, happily, also plays a key role in building a brand. More importantly, it’s exactly how we build a human brand: By focusing on our customers.

Internet innovator and technology legend Marc Andreessen seems to have forgotten that fact in his latest piece of writing, "The Techno-Optimism Manifesto." Oh, there’s a lot of great ideas in the piece, and a lot we can learn from. There also are a few concepts that Andreessen gets terribly wrong. And each of those concepts is wrong for the same reason: Total disregard for the needs of people, for the needs of human beings.

How can you balance the potential of technology with the needs of human beings? How can you use technology, especially digital technology, to help customers meet their needs? And how can you align techno-optimism with building a human brand? That’s what this episode of Thinks Out Loud sets out to answer.

Want to learn more? Here are the show notes for you…

Techno-Optimism and Building a Human Brand (Thinks Out Loud Episode 399) Headlines and Show Notes

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You might also enjoy this webinar I recently participated in with Miles Partnership that looked at "The Power of Generative AI and ChatGPT: What It Means for Tourism & Hospitality" here:

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Running time: 22m 53s

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Transcript: Techno-Optimism and Building a Human Brand

Well hello again everyone and welcome back to Thinks Out Loud, your source for all the digital expertise your business needs. My name is Tim Peter. This is episode 399 of The Big Show.

Holy mackerel! How did we get to 399 episodes? Well, the answer is because of you. The answer is because you tune in, you listen, you download, you comment, you share. So, right out of the gate, thank you so much for that. I really appreciate you continuing to listen.

I think we have a really cool show for you today, and I want, to be fair, it’s going to range pretty far afield at points.

The big story this week, at least in the online discourse, is that Marc Andreessen has written this manifesto where he makes the case for techno optimism. Marc Andreessen, you probably know, is the guy who founded Netscape. He built Netscape Navigator. He then founded Andreessen Horowitz, which is a very large venture capital fund. And he’s a big deal. He’s one of the people who can reasonably claim to have invented the internet as we know it today.

I’m not going to do a point by point takedown of Andreessen’s manifesto. You should absolutely read it. What I will say is that he makes the case for techno-optimism and that technology will make our lives endlessly better. He also outlines the enemies to that endlessly better future, which include things like "existential risk," and "sustainability," and "social responsibility," and "risk management," and "tech ethics."

And if I sound a little skeeved by some of those, that’s intentional. Because, holy crap man, really? Hang with me for a second. I am a techno optimist too. I agree with Andreessen on many of the points in his manifesto. I love what technology offers us. And I’m going to come back to that in a minute. I want to point out that his manifesto provoked reactions from people as diverse as economist Noah Smith, Daniel Drezner, who’s a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Dave Karpf, who is a professor of media studies at George Washington University and an internet activist.

And their reviews sort of range all along the spectrum from "there’s good here" to "there’s total lunacy here." You should read all of them. I will link to them in the show notes.

I want to make a very specific point though. My core problem with Andreessen’s manifesto and with some of the things that he lists as enemies is that what we do, what we do in digital, what we do in business is not about technology for its own sake. It’s about technology for the benefit of people.

I’ve been doing this a while and this comes around again and again. Periodically, we can easily lose sight of why we do what we do. You know, right now people are talking about the alignment problem with artificial intelligence. They’re afraid of machines that will kill all of humanity. That seems like a reasonable concern to me, you know? I think AI is pretty cool, I think we’re going to do some neat stuff with it. And also, if there’s concern that it’s going to kill all of humanity, it doesn’t mean we should stop using AI. It doesn’t mean we should pull the plug. It does mean we maybe should have a conversation about it. How do we prevent that from happening? Are there things that we should be considering that prevent that from happening?

I have talked multiple times about Facebook’s many errors over the years — and happily, they haven’t had one in a while — but where they did things because they were cool. And didn’t consider the people implications. And took a beating for it, sometimes in the press, sometimes with regulators, sometimes in the stock market, and many times with customers.

Because we need to be thinking about how what we do affects people’s lives. The question I’ve asked more than once on this show is why are we more afraid of the machines than we are of the people who run them? And when somebody says, you know, we should get rid of things like "risk management" or "tech ethics" or not be worried about "existential risk," the machine isn’t the thing that scares me. We’ve got some real problems we should be talking about there.

And to give a very real world scenario that’s happening right now is that there’s an enormous rise of misinformation on Twitter or X or whatever you want to call it that we’ve been seeing through this war in the Middle East. That environment has been entirely enabled by Elon Musk’s decision to replace verified users with paid users.

The folks with the blue check that used to be called verified. Actually they’re still called verified but I have a problem with that. The system that used to exist depended on an actively curated group of people. And you can reasonably and absolutely take issue with how Twitter determined who deserved that blue check or who they chose or whether there was enough transparency and enough diversity within that process. That’s a reasonable criticism. At the same time, it was also absolutely a curated system.

Today, the only verification for people with that blue checkmark is that the people with the blue checks have paid for the privilege. And this is a problem because people with blue checks get their replies boosted. You see their replies to tweets first before any non verified folks. And it only costs people $8 per month to have their messages spread widely.

Now, let’s be clear, it only costs bad actors, as well as good actors, 8 bucks a month to have their messages spread widely.

And we are absolutely seeing, there’s tons of evidence to support this, I will link to this in the show notes, that that system is being manipulated right now. The level of disinformation being shared by blue checks, whether it’s intentional or inadvertent, is adding to the fog of war and creating more problems than it’s solving.

The new blue check system is good for Twitter’s bottom line, but is it good for the general public? Is it good for people? As you can probably gather, I’d argue not so much, not at the moment.

Now, to bring this back to marketing, and to bring this back to something we have to live with every day, you’ve heard me say for years that data is your crown jewels. I talk about this as part of our Royal Court framework where "content is king, and customer experience is queen, and data is your crown jewels."

What does it mean when I say data is your crown jewels?

  • Well, it means that as you collect more data, you know more about your customers.
  • As you collect more data and you know more about your customers, it means that you’re better able to differentiate your products and services to match what your customers need.
  • It means that you’re able to offer better choices for your customers because you know what they want.
  • It means that data drives revenues and profits for your business.

That’s awesome, but notice it starts with understanding what your customers want. It also means that because you’re collecting that data from people, from human beings, it means that you have to protect that data like your business depends upon it. Because it does.

Some of the data and all of the insights that you’re able to extract from that data belong to you. They are a strategic differentiator for your business. But, some of the data belongs to your customers. You don’t own it. You’re just a custodian of that data for whatever period they allow you to have it. Obviously laws like GDPR and the CPRA kind of make that explicit, but we should just kind of know that generally.

We’re custodians of this data. If you think of the actual crown jewels of the United Kingdom, King Charles can’t sell the crown jewels. He’s just taking care of them on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom.

You need to protect customer data as well as you would your own. You don’t own it. You’re just taking care of it for the people who allow you to hold it for a period of time. And if you think of the very many companies who suffered data breaches, or security breaches, or had data stolen, customer data stolen, and both the reputational risk that that has caused them, and the economic risk that that has caused them, that’s kind of a big deal. You don’t want that to happen to you. So, you really, really want to protect this data like it matters, because it does.

You also want to think about it the way a curator would, or the way that a custodian would, when you want to deploy that data, when you want to put it, when you want to put it to work for your business.

We have long promoted a three step process for how you can put data to work safely and securely:

  • The first step comes from Julie Ask, who was then at Forrester Research, who said, "think big mother, not big brother." Think about whether your use of customer data is for the customer’s benefit or if it’s because, ooh, we can. Right? And if you’re doing the lighter one, if you’re like, ooh, look what we can do here. That may not be the best use of the data. Whereas if you’re thinking about how do we make our customers lives better, how do we create a better, richer experience using this data, then you’re probably moving in a more safe direction.
  • The second thing that you can and should do is you should have a devil’s advocate. You should have someone whose job it is to argue against using data however you would like. If everybody in the room’s bonus is tied towards using the data, I bet you I can tell you what you’re going to do. Whereas if you have somebody whose job it is to say, hold on, wait a second, you know, who’s there to passionately and dispassionately argue against using the data or to represent an alternative viewpoint. You’re probably going to be in a slightly safer space. It doesn’t mean that they have to win the argument. Right? It just means that somebody has to represent the alternative viewpoint. And somebody’s job has to be that. Their bonus should be tied to that. Or they should be an attorney who works for you. Or somebody external to the company who can say, Have you thought this through fully? Because when you don’t, that’s when you get in trouble.
  • And then the last thing you should do is you should test. You should start small. What is the smallest possible use we can try here or the smallest group of customers we can try here?

And if you do those things, "Think Big Mother, Not Big Brother," "Think Devil’s Advocate," and "Test," you’re probably not going to get yourself in trouble with your customers or, I don’t know, the law… or anybody like that if you learn, "Oh, this didn’t work the way we expected it to."

I will tell you, I’ve done marketing for a very, very long time. You really don’t want your CEO or, you know, some major person at your company having to talk to the news and say, "Well, technically it wasn’t illegal." Like, that’s not a winning argument. You’re gonna sound like you’re terrible people. And you’re probably not.

So put some guardrails in place that make it make sense. Because it’s great for your business when you do that. Oh, and also, because people come first.

Now if what I’m saying sounds hopelessly naïve to you, remember that Big Tech reached the heights that they have reached first by focusing on customers. Google had the best search results. Amazon offered everything you could want to buy for a reasonable price and they could get it to you quickly. Facebook connected you with friends and family you may have lost touch with.

And at least for a time, we all thought this was great, more or less. So we gave them our attention, we gave them our business, we gave them our money, and we gave them our data.

Now? They’re facing antitrust suits and increased competition and backlash from regulators and customers because they’ve squandered that trust. They started acting more in their interests, in the interest of quarterly earning calls and, you know, shareholder reports, than they acted on behalf of their customers.

How many innovations can you point to in recent years that truly were for the benefit of customers? Go ahead, I’ll wait. I’m half kidding, I’m sure there are some, but the reason that they’re facing the troubles they are is because they’ve kind of lost sight of that.

You will never lose in the long run by focusing on customers, by taking care of people, by, as we talked about last week, being human. Digital allows customers to connect with any company, anywhere in the world, at any time. It empowers them and gives them a choice. Yes, a lot of people simply choose the defaults, they just go to Google, or they just go to Amazon.

But many, many, many people look for something better, continually. There’s something like 4.3 billion people in the world who now have access to the internet via smartphones or computers, and even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that number is a large market. A million people is 2 percent of 1 percent of the people with internet access. 100,000 people is 0.2 percent of 1 percent of the people with internet access.

Could you live with 100,000 customers? Lots of businesses can.

And it all starts with focusing on the people. Focusing on what it is we’re trying to accomplish.

You’re probably familiar with the Simon Sinek book "Start With Why." What is our why? Why do we do what we do? Why does it matter? Think about his "golden circle" of "why, how, and what." It’s not about changing what you do necessarily, it’s changing how you do it to focus on people. Who are we trying to serve? Who are we here to help?

When I talk about customer experience is queen, it’s because it’s how you get customers to want to come back to you again and again and again.

Yes, we’re in business. Yes, we’re capitalists. Yes, we love technology. And that demands that we remain focused on driving our business forward. But, for the sake of humanity, and I mean our own as well as humanity at large, we should be thinking about why are we doing this and who are we doing this for? Are we treating people like people? Are we thinking about why we care about technology or why we care about business and why it matters in the lives of people?

So, you know, read Marc Andreessen’s manifesto and read it with a critical eye because he’s right that we should be optimistic about how technology can make lives better. But the point we should be thinking about is not the technology, but the lives. We shouldn’t just be thinking about the tech, we should be thinking about the people whose lives could be endlessly better, and how we actually work to make that a reality.

When we focus on that, when we put people at the center, then yeah, I’m super optimistic about the future. And I just can’t wait to see what you do with it.

Show Wrap-Up and Credits

Now, looking at the clock on the wall, we are out of time for this week. I want to remind you that you can find the show notes for today’s episode, as well as an archive of all past episodes, by going to Again, that’s Just look for episode 399.

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Show Outro

Finally, since I’ve talked so much about people in this episode and about being human, I want to say to you, as a person, as an individual, I very much appreciate the fact that you listen to the show. I would not do this without you. It’s that simple.

Your support, your listenership, your comments, your conversation, the community you are helping us build here means so very much to me.

So please, keep your tweets coming, keep your messages coming on LinkedIn, keep your emails coming. I love getting the chance to chat with you and hear what’s going on in your world and learn how we can do a better job building the kinds of content and insights and information and community that works for you and benefits you.

With all of that said, I hope you have a fantastic rest of the week. I hope you have a wonderful weekend, and I will look forward to speaking with you here on Thinks Out Loud next time. Until then, please be well, be safe, and as always, take care everybody.

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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