Can Technology Make The World Great Again?

Published in Online Spin, April 14th, 2017.

We’ve all heard the promises: Technology is going to give us a better world. It will allow us to feed the masses, democratize education, enjoy unfettered free speech. Healthcare, energy and transport will all be revolutionized and demonetized. We’re heading for a brave new world.
And -- despite what you may see on the news -- there’s lots of evidence that life is getting better for humanity as a whole. Last June, Peter Diamandis compiled 10 charts demonstrating this progress: dramatic decreases in absolute poverty, child labor, percent of income spent on food, the under-five mortality rate, the teen birth rate, the homicide rate… even a random one about guinea worm infections.

In many ways things are indeed looking up. Some of these changes are due to technological advances, some to increased levels of education, and some to long-term cultural shifts. But every statistic has multiple interpretations, and every simplistic narrative conceals important nuance.

Take, for example, the idea that, thanks to the Internet, communication has been democratized, everyone can share their thoughts freely, we’re no longer beholden to the gatekeepers of publishing, and we’re heading toward a more informed, thoughtful world.

While in theory that’s possible, in reality communication on the Internet is concentrated on Facebook, with 1.2 billion monthly active users on Messenger. So while the communication is democratized, the platform is monopolistic.

And while everyone can share their thoughts freely, Facebook’s algorithms are such that we’re likely to be less informed rather than more so -- only receiving information that reinforces our existing biases, making us more certain than ever, and therefore less thoughtful than ever.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is well aware of this, as indicated by his recent manifesto about how Facebook can do a better job at making the world a better place.

But there’s an inherent tension between what’s best for humanity and what’s best for Facebook the company. As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times, "You cannot unite humanity by selling advertisements. Suppose a Facebook engineer invents a new tool that causes people to spend less time buying stuff online and more time in meaningful offline activities with friends. Will Facebook adopt or suppress such a tool? Will Facebook take a true leap of faith, and privilege social concerns over its financial interests? If it does so -- and manages to avoid bankruptcy -- that will be a momentous revolution.”

The two sides of the technology coin -- challenge and opportunity -- are not just about Facebook, although in many ways Facebook is emblematic of the larger landscape. They are about the fact that both the market dynamics and the social mindset drive a winner-take-all environment, and that a winner-take-all environment is inherently unequal.

I recently attended a workshop about the difference between finite games and infinite games. Finite games are played with the goal of winning; infinite games are played with the goal of continuing the game. The ambition to solve for poverty, for hunger, for education, to benefit all of humanity so that we may evolve into better versions of ourselves: This is part of an infinite game. But the environment in which companies like Facebook and Uber operate is finite: You either win or lose, depending on investment and revenue and profits and market share.

Can technology make the world a better place? Absolutely. Should it? Definitely. Will it? It depends -- on us, on our mindset, and on our true goal.

We can’t unite humanity by selling advertisements. It’s time to find a new way of measuring success.

Kaila Colbin