Telling Your Story About the Future: The Ethics of Future Narratives


We recently finished reading John Carreyrou’s excellent history of the one-time Silicon Valley unicorn, Theranos, Bad Blood. In addition to covering the unsettling office politics and other foibles of founder Elizabeth Holmes, Bad Blood goes into considerable detail on how Holmes and others managed to sell a particular vision of the future without having an even remotely viable product or business.  Though Silicon Valley puffery is nothing new, Theranos – with an over four-billion-dollar valuation at one point – presents a particularly troubling case as it involved involved medical testing, and potentially peoples lives in a direct way.  

This got us thinking about the ethics of narratives about the future. 

Crafting a strong narrative, and creating buy in for that vision is an impactful tactic for bringing that future into existence (one of several such techniques we discuss in our paper on Anticipating the Future). However, there clearly is a point at which a narrative of the future crosses an ethical line. But where is that line?

In Theranos case, the line was overtly crossed when patient’s lives were put at risk.  The recent history of Silicon Valley, on the other hand, is full of stories involving more ethically grey areas. In Dan Lyons 2016 book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, a retelling of his time at the email marketing company Hubspot, he relates how Hubspot executives utilized what he saw as questionable narratives about their product and company to raise money from investors. While outright false claims may provoke a visit from the SEC, at what point does selling investors a crafted vision of the future become unethical? 

In another important example of narrative and reality clashing, Emily Chang relates in Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, how the lofty narrative of a meritocracy conflicts with the realities of gender inequality. This prompts questions on how the ethics of a particular future narrative can be both inspiring, and discomforting to different groups.    

Besides the many other ethical problems that the tech industry needs to deal with, it is also vital that business is aware of the ethical implications of the future narratives they may be crafting (either consciously or unconsciously).  And not all circumstances will be as black and white as in Theranos' case. 

WHOA incorporates a future-focused point of view, and a culture of inquisitiveness – which combined with high quality data on customers, markets, and cultural forces – can help companies craft narratives that are not only more more accountable and more compelling, but also more likely to result in real world success.

Greg VanderPol