#25: The Fiction Effect

Building empathy

“History tells us that innovation is an outcome of a massive collective effort – not just from a narrow group of young white men in California. If we want to solve the world’s biggest problems, we better understand that.”

Prof. Mariana Mazzucato, Economist

Tech companies lack diversity. So says the research.

I was curious. 

"Is your company diverse?" I asked my friend and employee of a Silicon Valley behemoth. 

"Yes, there are men from all over the world working here" he replied sardonically.

Tech companies take a lot of flak for their overt maleness. 

Add to the mix the fact most organisations emerged out of the coastal bubble of Silicon Valley and you start to see a problem with sameness.

Same Shit, Different Day

So much of the world around us is being built, developed and managed by a narrow and privileged few.

That means too many "solutions" are focused on #firstworldproblems. Like yet another food delivery company contracting gig-economy workers for a pittance, so someone can get a burrito delivered to their office.

The creators of such tech need to expand their horizons, expose themselves to different experiences and lifestyles to their own. Failure to do so risks marginalising "others" (be they poor, elderly, gay, disabled and so on) through their assumptions, while missing opportunities to make important societal changes.

There’s so many deep-seated, societal problems crying out for a technological solution - if only tech leaders would peer out over their trend reports and growth charts once in a while.


Tristan Harris of the Centre for Humane Tech, outlines the unintentional consequences of screen technology, such as “tech addiction, polarisation, outrage-ification of culture.” These are symptoms of a larger disease, namely the race to capture human attention.

So how do we change this?

Tech could start by developing more empathy for its users.

Cross-cultural studies suggest women are more empathetic than men.

If so, seeking gender balance seems a natural starting point. But while industry scrambles to get more girls and women interested in STEM fields, an unlikely solution may be hiding in plain sight - on their bookshelves, in the form of literary fiction.

Fiction Not Fact

Men read mostly non-fiction. Fact.

A glance through Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of books in 2015, or Bill Gates recommended reading lists for the past eight years, reveal a stark omission. Of the 208 books read between them, only 15 are fiction.

It makes me wonder, if tech folk spent less time reading non-fiction and more time trying to understand the perspective of others through the world of make-believe, would more life-enhancing, world-saving platforms emerge?

Science says yes, quite possibly!

Imagining Creates Understanding

The claims for fiction are impressive.

Several studies have proven the link between fiction and empathy. It’s also been credited with everything from an increase in volunteering and charitable giving to the tendency to vote, not to mention the gradual decrease in violence over the centuries.


Put simply, research has shown that because literary fiction leaves more to the imagination, it promotes sensitivity to emotional nuance and complexity. By focusing more on the psychology of characters and their relationships, the genre exposes readers to people whose experiences differ from their own. This disrupts our expectations, while undermining prejudices and stereotypes. It expands our perspective, teaching us new values about social behaviour, including empathy for those who differ from ourselves.

Sorry gents, your Danielle Steele novels won't cut it - we're talking McEwan, Houllebecq, Ferrante to name a few.


Literary fiction also has a knack of making the mundane interesting - like the beautiful description of the fisherman in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, preparing his fishing rod for a day at sea in his humble boat.

In many ways, tech does the very same - making taxis, dinners and activity trackers not just useful, but exciting.

Like gherkins with peanut butter, tech and fiction could make a great pairing, if only we could convince Peter Thiel to get the ball rolling.


Tech folk could do worse than reading a few novels. 

Too often, the inwardly facing campuses of these tech monopolies keep their focus more on the code than the social impact. If they truly want to solve the most challenging problems in the world, they could do worse than "start with a more varied fictional diet". 

Writer Molly Flatt says it best, "fiction unscrews the circuit board of being, so if you want to hack the system, there's no better place to start."

Now, I’m not saying empathy is something that miraculously appears once you’ve read War and Peace. But it might at least make a good starting point.

It can provide what Olivia Laing calls a “route to clarity…a force of repair, providing new registers, new languages in which to think.”

I think she might be right.

Thanks to Tom Carlisle for his help editing this piece.

Until next week,