Can broader reading habits help us build more empathetic tech?

There’s been a recent trend of marketers sharing their reading lists as some kind of intellectual flex. Look at all these books I’ve read lately. See how well-informed I am.

But think of all the reading lists you see in these tech and marketing circles. New books like Atomic Habits join the marketing classics like Ogilvy on Advertising and Influence: The Art of Persuasion as the must-read books for marketers looking to up their game.

And while many of these books are undisputed marketing ‘classics’ with ideas that have stood the test of time, you see the same books, time after time. To quote one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” 

And the biggest problem with these lists is that there’s always something missing.

Fiction.

Now, you might think that reading fiction is unproductive, a waste of time, or won’t teach you anything. I disagree.

Novels and shorter fiction open doors into new worlds, and allow us to experience feelings and existences and people who are different from ourselves. They show us a world outside of our lived experience, outside of our bubble.

We know tech’s got a diversity problem, and time and again we see products built with massive functionality gaps and blind spots. Think Apple Health, which launched in 2014 without a menstrual tracker, or fitness trackers that fail to register steps when the user is pushing a pram…

These gaps form when you’re building something to serve your own experience, without the vision to understand that other groups of people have different experiences and requirements. When you’re lacking empathy.

This quote from Barack Obama articulates it perfectly: “The most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.”

So next time you’re looking for a book to read, step outside your tech bubble and read something different. You might learn something.