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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: A Growing Threat to Sustainability?

Tim Nixon

02 Jul 2018

2 July 2018

Sourced at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival

Our communities are not sustainable if we don’t share a common reality.  If you see a great hero when I see the darkest villain, our community is breaking.  If you see science when I see religion, our community is breaking.  If you seek human connection when I’ve already found it by checking my phone 150 times per day, our community is breaking.

While this might sound like an abstract problem, recent data suggests we ought to be concerned.

A recent Pew research poll found that Americans are more divided than at any other time in their polling history.  Journalist Carl Bernstein, suggested that we’re in a “cold civil war” with people unable to agree even on the basic facts of what’s happening in the country.

According to a recent CDC report, “suicide is a leading cause of death in the US. Suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016.“ There has been a 25% increase in the rate of suicide over the last two decades in the United States. We are currently losing 123 individuals to suicide each day.

One of the key recommendations from the CDC to help address this ongoing tragedy is to “offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone”.

How can we be so fragmented?  We have unprecedented technology to share our lives and worlds?  We should be moving closer together.  Be more connected.  Have many more close relationships we didn’t even know were possible before.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and founder of the Center for Humane Technology, is leading a global effort to help us understand that one of the driving factors may be a massive business model, highly sought by consumers, which is inadvertently fueling fragmentation.

“The biggest super computers in the world right now are inside of Google and Facebook.  They are pointed at 2 billion people’s brains, looking to point you towards the most addictive next link for you, and thereby increase traffic for advertisers.”

Harris clarifies that “Facebook and Google aren’t trying to radicalize us, but the computers have learned that the most addictive thing for human nature is a slightly more radicalized idea or image than what you already believe”.

And the result is that our pathways for discovery and social connection in the world lead us towards ever increasing, addictive versions of reality which are aligned with our prejudices and amplify beliefs which can isolate us from those who think or feel even slightly differently.

And this also plays out in the purely social context, especially with our youngest generations who are the willing subjects of what is essentially a real-time social science experiment.

“Consider that Millennials currently check their phones about 150 times per day.  The first consequence of this public addiction is loneliness, and the more addicted you are, the more you have to keep checking in.”

He summarizes that our human capacity to resist this tendency is limited. “It’s like bringing a knife to a space laser fight.”

Perhaps the most intriguing question for firms like Google and Facebook is what is next?  If you play out this mostly advertising based revenue model, eventually the societies on which you depend for clicks become increasingly unhealthy, fragmented, and angry.  It’s not too hard to imagine this group of loyal consumers eventually recoiling at the very sources of their addiction.  That would likely be bad for business.

So what is next?  Will Google or Facebook or some new internet giant transform into a model which opens us addictingly towards a common, fact-based understanding of the world.  Towards a virtual community where what we have in common is celebrated, and where our differences are explorable in a civil and perhaps even fun manner?

Imagine the potential of the internet to help us understand, build, protect and even predict our world together.  Imagine self-guided, real time exploration underneath our oceans, or as the sun rises in the rain forest.  Imagine being a part of groundbreaking acts of human discovery, innovation, beauty or generosity, all in a manner which brings us together as a common humanity.

And the potential is there.  We still have important sources of common and trustworthy knowledge, based on transparent sets of public principles.  We have the technical tools to unleash new business models of discovery, discourse and knowledge-building around these resources.  In fact, these tools already exist as part of the Google, Facebook and Apple business models, and are likely to increase in power and scope as this type of discussion accelerates into the public square.

Harris concludes, “the biggest problem is not that we are losing our time.  It’s that we are losing control.”  And arguably, it’s losing control in a manner which will eventually implode on itself.  There is an enormous new economic opportunity rooted in authentically increasing our connections as a global community.  Who will be the first Google, Apple or Facebook 2.0?

The answer to that question lies in part in what we are seeing in many parts of the global economy: that the most viable business solutions are those which create economic value while at the same time increase the potential for humanity and our planet to flourish.  This is the “sustainability premium”, and in an ever-smaller and more connected world, it’s becoming the sustainability imperative.


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