December 13, 2019

Peter Rex: Big Tech Needs to Believe in People

By Peter Rex

It’s time to bet on humanity—before things get worse.

Technology is one of the greatest boons to mankind, and in recent years it has undoubtedly left nearly everyone materially better off.

The innovations of the 21st century have vastly expanded our access to information and services with amazing creations, but overall they have not yet significantly amplified most people’s potential. More people have more products, but only a few people are more productive. Tech leaders are building tools, products, and platforms that empower themselves while infantilizing, controlling, and replacing most everyone else—people they cannot imagine as much more than dumping grounds for universal basic incomes.

“Leaders” like this simply don’t believe in people.

Instead, all too often, they exploit them.

Many of the biggest and best-known tech companies make their money—millions, billions, and now trillions of dollars—by distracting, directing, damaging, and generally dehumanizing people. Social-media and entertainment giants act like drug dealers, keeping their users on a drip “feed” of content. Gig economy juggernauts treat workers as pawns, intending to sacrifice them eventually in favor of software and artificial intelligence. From start-ups to well-established household names, most tech is like a parasite, sucking the life out of its hosts. Silicon Valley’s short-term approach is leading us all toward a long-term disaster.

Certain tech leaders see themselves as ubermensch. If they don’t consciously believe that common people are a lower breed, they act as if they are, and execute accordingly. As someone who has worked in and around the tech industry for years, I can safely say that the general sense in Silicon Valley’s upper echelons is that people are little more than the means to an end—sources of profit, with little potential of their own. For this reason, they extract greater efficiency and material gain from the masses—rather than creating or sharing—literally enriching themselves at others’ expense.

They are pursuing a future out of hubris where tech gradually replaces rather than enhances human judgment, where apps decide rather than suggest what music to enjoy, what meals to eat, and even who we should date. Instead of leveraging human output, as tech has always done in the past, they see software replacing humans. New tech is like the car, the human like the horse—no longer so useful.

This isn’t to downplay technology’s benefits. But the low and ugly view of human potential among too many technologists now threatens America’s unity and its future.

Definite Optimism, Real People

It’s because they don’t believe in people that their creations don’t meaningfully benefit people.

Tech has created vast improvements in material wealth, yet massive portions of the workforce aren’t seeing it. As the scholar Oren Cass has noted, while the nation’s GDP increased threefold from 1975 to 2015—driven largely by Silicon Valley—these decades brought most workers “stagnant wages, a labor-force exodus, too many unstable families, and crumbling communities.”

The recent wave of populism in American politics reflects this growing sense of economic and sociopolitical exclusion. It was a major factor in President Donald Trump’s election. The populist wave is still gaining, not losing, strength.

Technology leadership is clearly tearing America apart. Yet as strange as it may seem, technology can also help bind us back together.

The effects of tech aren’t pre-determined; they’re influenced by the views of those who wield it.

Peter Thiel highlighted this reality in Zero to One, identifying various attitudes and how they influence investment and innovation. The “definite optimist” has a concrete plan for the future and strongly believes in that future being better than the present. (Think of NASA putting a man on the moon only twelve years after identifying that goal.) On the other hand, Silicon Valley today is largely led by “indefinite optimists”—people who foresee a bright future but have few strong beliefs about what it will look like or how to get there.

This latter approach tends to bias most technologists toward shorter-term decisions that produce quick results—incremental enhancements and iterations on a theme. These are frequently social and consumer products that capture a share of known spending by identifiable customers, rather than the inherently less certain bet on the potential new wealth creation a product could catalyze. By not believing in people, Silicon Valley fails to pursue ideas and innovations that could be even more lucrative, beneficial, and transformative.

Instead of innovators who don’t believe in people, we need a new generation of tech entrepreneurs who see people’s potential and work to unleash it.

Tech has the power to free people from drudgery, allowing us to leverage our distinctive creative abilities. In a very real sense, tech can amplify our humanity. Instead of creating addicts, it could spur positive and productive action. Instead of pushing people toward obsolescence, it could unlock opportunity. Instead of consumerizing us, tech could elevate us.

All we need are innovators who see empowerment as a worthy and achievable goal.

Tapping Potential

Creating tech that empowers requires a radical mental shift.

The true determinant of long-term prosperity, according to Cass, is a labor market that enables workers to create and support strong families and communities, which are the basic units of a thriving society. The twentieth century economist E.F. Schumacher suggested technology can be built to accomplish this goal. In his book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, he called for the development of “intermediate” or “appropriate” technologies within a system of “people-centered economics” to strengthen the most fundamental units of society. He advocated the development of tech tools that recognize the dignity of workers and improve their quality of life, rather than treat them as mere users, as much of Silicon Valley usually does today.

Historically, many of the great software companies followed this approach, creating general purpose applications for a broad user base, like Microsoft’s Office Suite. Steve Jobs famously wanted to build products so simple a child could intuitively use them, and as a result developed some of the finest hardware and software products in the world. Yet the development mindset of major technology companies has shifted palpably inwards in recent years.

It’s time to reverse this trend. Tech can still radically empower people, giving them tools previously only available to big companies at great cost, and reducing the transaction costs that impede their market participation. For this reason, technologists should build more products that help workers bring traditional labor online. They should establish marketplaces where real economy goods and services can be exchanged, where workers can market their skills, bid for projects, track the execution of their labor and collect an income from the services they provide.

Such products can in turn bring these real economy workers into networks through which they can access a broader array of technology tools and financial services. These are basic requirements to succeed in today’s economy, and appropriate technologies can make them available to anyone, not just to a few tech-centered companies and the small number of people who work for them.

Alibaba shows what’s possible. Jack Ma recognized the potential of millions of small manufacturing entrepreneurs in China and built a platform that enabled them to compete in global markets. Alibaba stands out because it is different in kind from the majority of modern tech.

People Are Good—And Good Enough

Of course, it will be massive pivot to develop and deploy software and tech systems that empower. It takes faith in people to forego the visible benefits of short-term optimization and extraction and bet on the longer-term benefits of human judgment and creativity.

Entrepreneurs and investors are only likely to make this bet if they have a strongly positive view of the human person. The absence of that view in Silicon Valley helps explain why modern tech has become so damaging and dangerous. But that’s not the whole story. On a deeper level, many tech leaders espouse misguided and dangerous beliefs about the human person itself.

Silicon Valley can be aptly described as individualistic. The guiding ethos is that we are all atoms in a void who build our political philosophy upon a Hobbesian state of nature, in which politics and relationships are conventional, unity is fundamentally artificial, and human nature is malleable.

This understanding of the person lends little support to fundamental units of society like the family. It also makes sense of the selfish excesses often found in Silicon Valley culture, from an insatiable desire for material gain to incredible abuses of power by executives exploiting women; and—perhaps most atrocious and unacceptable of all—the  profiteering by exploitation of a most sacred human right, the right to privacy.

At the anthropological level, the tech elite also appears to be strongly influenced by transhumanism. Toward the top of Bill Gates’ reading list last year was Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, which describes how the best humans, driven to achieve immortality by any means, will eventually upgrade themselves through biotechnology to create a super race that will dominate the rest. This view perversely suggests that humans should not be constituted as they are, and that we need to get past the very concept of humanity. It denies the fundamental goodness and identity of the human person and turns technology into our savior, rather than a tool for self-improvement. Tech, like money, is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

Unsurprisingly, this highly individualistic view swiftly leads to a mechanistic and nihilistic approach to work and innovation. It encourages technology leaders to maximize their short-term profits, extracting as much financial gain as possible from the broader population even as they help push many people toward obsolescence. When directed by the hands of an elitist group that views rapid growth or quick material gain as its highest aim, it gradually creates a destabilizing rift between those who benefit most from those gains and those from whom they are extracted. As the last few years prove, that rift now divides American politics and culture.

The Dignity of Work and the Work of Dignity

The preservation of America’s social cohesion requires the development of technologies that will empower workers at all segments of society.

These technologies will enable more Americans to share in this century’s economic opportunity, while adding to it in unexpected and profound ways, even to the point of exponentially increasing society’s progress. Far from damaging communities and individuals, such technology will strengthen them. It will reinforce social unity and unlock our productive and entrepreneurial inclinations. These include some of our most fundamental human traits, such as judgment and creativity.

Only an understanding of mankind that values the human person is likely to produce technology that satisfies man’s deepest needs and helps him achieve his full potential. For the entrepreneur, this means recognizing that all people possess not just innate dignity but also the creative and productive potential that our dignity entails. This contrasts sharply with the expectation, common in Silicon Valley, that people are valuable merely as users or cogs whose very self can be optimally subordinated by technology.

People rightly fear a dystopian future in which economic power and social influence are increasingly concentrated in organizations run by a smug, technological elite whose values largely differ from those of the rest of the population. These elites may have an education deep in STEM, but it is often shallow when it comes to literature, history, the arts, philosophy, or theology.

They have a strong tendency toward what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery—a devaluation of (or even contempt for) long-standing and widely-accepted traditions and values. Yet these are the very values that can turn technology from a social and economic menace into a means of widespread empowerment. They counsel a deep respect for the human person, encouraging entrepreneurs and innovators to bet on people’s inherent potential.

It’s time to bet on humanity.

Technology can’t continue on its present course. Silicon Valley’s dehumanizing view of people will spawn an ever-more dangerous popular reaction—leading to violence and worse—even as it continues to deliver ever-greater material progress.

The better path is to pursue technological innovation in light of the common good and the common man. Not only will this be more profitable in the long-term while empowering more people to productively use their talents and positively contribute to their communities—it will help save our country from social and political chaos and restore the foundations of an economy of the people, by the people, for the people.

Originally appeared on: The American Mind
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