In the 20th century, politicians’ views of human nature shaped societies. But now, creators of new technologies increasingly drive societal change. Their view of human nature may shape the 21st century. We must know what technologists see in humanity’s heart.
The economist Thomas Sowell proposed two visions of human nature. The utopian vision sees people as naturally good. The world corrupts us, but the wise can perfect us.
The tragic vision sees us as inherently flawed. Our sickness is selfishness. We cannot be trusted with power over others. There are no perfect solutions, only imperfect trade-offs.
Yet when Americans founded online social networks, the tragic vision was forgotten. Founders were trusted to juggle their self-interest and the public interest when designing these networks and gaining vast data troves.
Bill Gates leans to the tragic and tries to create a better world within humanity’s constraints. Gates recognises our self-interest and supports market-based rewards to help us behave better. Yet he believes “creative capitalism” can tie self-interest to our inbuilt desire to help others, benefiting all.
Technologists who see evil risk creating coercive solutions. Those who believe in evil are less likely to think deeply about why people act as they do. They are also less likely to see how situations influence people’s actions.
Two years after 9/11, Peter Thiel founded Palantir. This company creates software to analyse big data sets, helping businesses fight fraud and the US government combat crime.
Thiel is a Republican-supporting libertarian. Yet, he appointed a Democrat-supporting neo-Marxist, Alex Karp, as Palantir’s CEO. Beneath their differences lies a shared belief in the inherent dangerousness of humans. Karp’s PhD thesis argued that we have a fundamental aggressive drive towards death and destruction.
Yet, Thiel cites philosopher Leo Strauss’ suggestion that America partly owes her greatness “to her occasional deviation” from principles of freedom and justice. Strauss recommended hiding such deviations under a veil.
Thiel introduces the Straussian argument that only “the secret coordination of the world’s intelligence services” can support a US-led international peace. This recalls Colonel Jessop in the film, A Few Good Men, who felt he should deal with dangerous truths in darkness.
Utopian visions ignore the dangers within. Technology that only changes the world is insufficient to save us from our selfishness and, as I argue in a forthcoming book, our spite.
Technology must change the world working within the constraints of human nature. Crucially, as Karp notes, democratic institutions, not technologists, must ultimately decide society’s shape. Technology’s outputs must be democracy’s inputs.
This may involve us acknowledging hard truths about our nature. But what if society does not wish to face these? Those who cannot handle truth make others fear to speak it.
Straussian technologists, who believe but dare not speak dangerous truths, may feel compelled to protect society in undemocratic darkness. They overstep, yet are encouraged to by those who see more harm in speech than its suppression.
We have shredded this contract. We must renew it. Armed with the truth, the Greeks felt they could take care of themselves and others. Armed with both truth and technology we can move closer to fulfilling this promise.