As a species, we’ve always had to evolve our civilization to accommodate new realities. Yet today’s challenges feel a bit more pressing, don’t they? It feels like some of the core pillars holding up our society are growing obsolete.
As we create technologies which grow to single-handedly impact millions of people, simple incentives like growth and profit aren’t scaling nearly as well. We’ve concocted a perfect recipe for unintended consequences: powerful technologies with simple, selfish incentives scaling to global impact.
Take Facebook for example. In 2003, a lonely Harvard student decided to literally engineer his way into having more friends. A decade and a half later, he testified to US Congress because he seems to have accidentally broken democracy. That’s a short timeline.
We call rapid proliferation on the internet “going viral” for a reason: ideas spread online exponentially, like viruses. Except instead of hijacking our biology, they hijack our minds. In both cases, our systems can’t adapt quickly enough. We’re drowning in information. And as Herb Simon predicted, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
It’s no wonder many of today’s major tech companies offer us the service of simplification. Google search feeds our personal information to its sophisticated artificial intelligence to surface the most relevant information for us. Social media quantify human relationships. Modern news media subtract out the nuance and turn every issue black-or-white. We love these services because they address our desperate need to make sense of everything. They simplify our complex world into perfectly rational terms.
Unfortunately, these simplified operating systems are in direct conflict with reality. The first search result is not actually the truth. Ambiguity and uncertainty are a prerequisite for truly satisfying relationships; we lose something important when we only communicate asynchronously through screens. When we scale simplified illusions of reality at breakneck speed, it’s impossible to predict the side effects. They grow so fast that we have no time to course-correct. And even when we do try to course-correct, we’re doing so in a system designed to prioritize growth and profit over everything else. We are simply not in control of our own creations anymore.
The examples are everywhere: climate change, surveillance capitalism, digital propaganda, and the collapse of deep social connection. Our minds are fragmenting, we’re lonelier than ever, mental health issues are skyrocketing, and we’re falling asleep spooning our smartphones. We’re accidentally disrupting core pillars of our democracy and our well-being, and no one really has an incentive to care. At least, not on paper.
There are many questions being raised about all this tech: is it worth it? Are we safer? Healthier? Happier? Are our rights being respected? We don’t have clear answers yet, but we certainly know enough to be concerned.
According to Amber Case, the modern internet and its access points — laptops, smartphones, wearables, smartglasses, VR headsets, etc.— are prosthetics. The tech-enabled human being is a cyborg. We build technology to extend our natural abilities. In some sense, a hammer is a prosthetic arm and the telescope a prosthetic eye. Cars are prosthetic legs and the telephone a prosthetic voice box. If we continue the metaphor, the internet is a prosthetic mind. Social media is a prosthetic for our social capacity, the web a prosthetic for our cognitive function. Pornography a prosthetic for our sex drive and UberEats a prosthetic for our hunting instincts.
The impact of enhancing our cognition, perception, memory, executive function, and social interaction has been nothing short of incredible. But as these mental prosthetics scale, so do their unintended consequences. As we open doors for the mind to extend directly out into the world, we also open the possibility for others to enter our minds through these same doors. Along with climate change, this is perhaps one of the most serious unintended consequences of our industrial, connected world. With a small budget and a rudimentary understanding of marketing, anyone can influence your mind and nudge your behaviour.
The data are young, but scientists are clearly starting to point to some troubling trends. Our virtual world is starting to influence our identities, our worldviews, our politics, our health, and our relationships. But you already knew that. You experience it every day.
How often are you defining and redefining yourself online? When you create profiles and upload pictures of yourself, you’re creating your modern day avatar. That word — ‘avatar’ — might conjure up an older age of technology, but avatars are more relevant now than ever.
Your modern avatar isn’t a cute ICQ pseudonym or a 3D character on Second Life. It’s the sum total of all your online profiles, including social media and the google search results when someone types in your name. This avatar is the first version of you most people will meet, and it’s likely a huge part of how they’ll get to know you, too. In most of the ways that our society assigns value, the sum-total of your online presence is now an avatar more important than your actual face.
And your identity isn’t the only thing transforming. Manipulative advertising and manufactured outrage are directly shaping your view of the world. Social platforms are flooding with propaganda and misinformation which are having a direct impact on today’s politics. Our deep social relationships are fading and mental disorders are skyrocketing, especially in young people.
So what do we do?
Well, we have certainly proved our superpower. Our conceptual minds can manifest with incredible force, recreating the world and, in turn, recreating ourselves. We are transformers. Unfortunately, we are mostly transforming ourselves into more insecure, more self-absorbed, and more purposeless creatures. But we could use this same superpower to transform ourselves into mindful, compassionate, generous, and happy people. Not everyone with a superpower is a superhero; it all depends on how you use that power.
It’s not that we’re evil by nature, it’s just that we’re still animals. Our ancient, evolved biological urges are deep-rooted. The internet mirrors this perfectly — remember, it’s mostly porn. We can’t help but follow our animal instincts. Modern businesses need our attention, so they trigger us intentionally. And so we transform into vain avatars lost in digital fictions. It’s the exponential extension of our oldest philosophical and spiritual problem: we don’t know how to be happy, so we fake it.
One of our deepest instincts is self-interest. It’s our survival instinct, but also our Achilles’ heel. We have massive egos. Is it any surprise that we’re using our interconnected global network mostly to pleasure ourselves and gain influence? Is it a surprise that platforms so easily take advantage of us by hijacking our lust for connection, fame, resources, and sex?
Yet in the end, we live in our bodies and can’t escape them. As we virtually stimulate our minds, something’s missing. Our mind and body disconnect and many of us find ourselves drowning in pesky negative emotions. When the screens turn off, we find ourselves still the same lonely creatures we’ve always been: lost in a sea of desire, relentlessly pursuing more. It is in these moments of vulnerability that we may find hope.
Achilles’ heel was a weak point, but the rest of his body held incredible strength. We are the same. Our ability to cooperate and be compassionate is nothing short of awe-inspiring. We work together at massive scale to achieve the impossible. The best of us have taken altruistic actions which can make even the most staunch, self-absorbed person weep. I’m talking about sacrifice. About generosity. About love. Maybe we can make the truly beautiful potential of the human spirit go viral, too.
I have a Silicon Valley skill set. People in my field (‘user experience’ or ‘UX’) are responsible for a lot of the technology shaping our minds these past few decades. Throughout my career, I’ve been constantly declining that lucrative golden treadmill in an attempt to apply my skills to mindfulness, mental health, and well-being.
It hasn’t always panned out. I have been sucked into projects lacking integrity, and I’ve had to veer off course to pay for life in the city. But largely I’ve found myself working side-by-side with an incredible collection of compassionate technologists, executives, clinicians, teachers, politicians, and scientists. People who spend their personal time managing their egos so they can bring a more authentic sense of altruism and purpose to their work.
High-tech mindfulness platforms. Crowd-sourced poverty reduction. Digital tools for spiritual transformation. Scientific theories changing how the world thinks about personal and professional leadership. Connected healthcare. Social justice. Educational programs empowering the next generation. Co-operative efforts to take care of our planet. This is what’s possible when we lean into our basic goodness instead of our basic instincts.
From my experience, projects with integrity come from authentic leaders intentionally bringing their hearts to work. And by “leader,” I don’t necessarily mean a founder, an elected official, or an executive. Leadership doesn't always come from someone with a fancy title. It's not always the loudest or most visible person in the room. Those who bring an authentic reason to care about their work are those who truly inspire others to follow them. They find their natural compass and let it lead them. They make personal sacrifices for a higher purpose. They inspire us to be better.
Our systems aren’t set up to do the right thing. Until we can fix the incentives which drive our organizations, we're going to see a lot more unintended consequences. For now, we have to define our own incentives to rise above and beyond. It’s up to all of us as individuals to find deeper meaning in our work. We all have the potential to inspire our teams to set higher intentions. It’s the only way we’re going to create more intended consequences. It’s the only way we’re going to find balance.