Forget The Tech: It Comes Down To People

Published in Online Spin, May 24th, 2019

I’ve spent the past four years helping people better understand the nature of exponentially accelerating technologies: technologies where the price-performance is doubling on a consistent basis. (Here’s a 4-minute primer if you want one.)

I brought Singularity University first to New Zealand, and then to Australia. I’ve presented to thousands upon thousands, explaining Moore’s Law, Stevenson’s Law, the Law of Accelerating Returns. I’ve hosted speakers on biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and more.

And at the end, the Q&A: How can I get my company to understand this stuff so we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs? How can I stay relevant at work? Do you think we’ll live forever?

The questions are almost never about technology. They don’t ask, “What are your thoughts on generative versus discriminative algorithms?” They ask, “What should my kid study?”

This is because we typically care about technology, or politics, or climate change only to the degree it affects us.

It also means that if you want to understand the impact technology will have, you need to understand human behavior more than you need to understand technology.

If you understand human behavior, it becomes inevitable that certain rich old men will see immortality as the most exciting application we can think of. When all your earthly needs are met, why wouldn’t you want to live forever?

If you understand human behavior, social networks become inevitable. We are hard-wired to connect.

If you understand human behavior, it becomes inevitable that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make ourselves look good on our feeds, while scrutinizing how good everyone else looks. We’re hard-wired to compete for mates.

If you understand human behavior, it becomes inevitable that people will use social media platforms to abuse others. Anonymity plus social proof plus lack of repercussions equals behavior that your mom would never tolerate.

Some of the most successful people in history understood us better than we understand ourselves. Henry Ford said if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. Steve Jobs said people didn’t know what they wanted until he showed it to them.

The people who are manipulating social media platforms to undermine democracy right now understand us better than we understand ourselves.

WIRED this week reported on the disinformation being spread ahead of the European Union parliamentary elections: “In Italy, the perpetrators spread a movie clip of a car being destroyed and pretended it was news footage of migrants wrecking a police vehicle. In Poland, they disseminated a fake news story about migrant taxi drivers raping European women. In Spain, they shared lies about Catalan separatists shutting down a child cancer center. In the UK, they shared a blog post with a beheading photo and a sensationalist headline, claiming ‘A Billion Muslims Want Sharia Law.’

…”According to a new report by online activist group Avaaz, networks of fake accounts, pages, and groups have been spreading divisive, white-nationalist, anti-immigrant content throughout Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Poland, and Spain. In some cases, they posed as politicians themselves. In others, they created fan pages for political parties or alternative media organizations. Together, they amassed followings several times larger than the actual far-right groups operating within these countries.”

If you understand human behavior, this becomes inevitable. It becomes inevitable that we click on those stories. Inevitable that we’re shocked by them. Inevitable that we share them, so that others may be equally shocked. And inevitable that subsequent retractions have almost no impact whatsoever.

We can have all the technology in the world. But if we don’t understand ourselves, we’re lost.

Kaila Colbin