The Doubt Club, Social Media and Catastrophic Risk
Have we run ourselves into an inescapable trap?
We only have eight years before we are cast into a course that will be hard to claw back from. — Kim Stanley Robinson, Your Undivided Attention podcast, February 10, 2022
In 2007, when Tristan Harris was 22 and a Stanford undergrad, he founded a startup called Apture which made it easier for people to drill down on some subject without leaving the website they were on. His startup (and himself) were later acquired by Google but back when Apture was still struggling, Harris founded the Doubt Club. He gathered a group of startup founders together once a month to vet concerns about what they were inventing out of the earshot of funders. Doubt Club took its inspiration from physicist Richard Feynman, who said, “It is our capacity to doubt that will determine the future of civilization.” Harris left Google in December 2015 to focus less on web tools and more on doubt. He co-founded Time Well Spent, now called the Center for Humane Technology.
The Amazon is burning and could, by itself, tip Earth into a new hothouse stasis that would end not just the human experiment, but most terrestrial life for millions of years. That burning traces to the Facebook-engineered election that catapulted right-wing Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil and the false imprisonment of his predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula had an 87% approval rating but was jailed in Operation Car Wash on charges of embezzlement after he stayed at the beachfront home of a supporter. The 2018 election, won with a minority of votes, was only one of many that year to amplify misinformation by social media. Fortunately for Brazil, although too late for the Amazon rainforest, Lula’s false conviction has been expunged and he now leads in polls to unseat Bolsonaro in the 2022 election.
Are we already in World War III? Not between NATO and Russia but rather between weaponized social media and a habitable planet? If so, what can be done to restore peace? The Center for Humane Technology offers a three-step program:
- Shifting Understanding
- Changing Behavior
- Building Community
Shifting understanding is about education — about how we got where we are, how serious it is, and why it has to change. An impossible future cannot happen. Continuing to imagine and plan as though we will inhabit such a world is delusional. Part of our understanding needs to include that we do not, and likely will never, understand everything, and most notably the consequences of our own acts. We have to rely instead on external, system wisdom and try as best we can to limit the damage we, as tiny parts of the larger system, do. Donella Meadows, one of the co-authors of the 1972 Club of Rome Report on Limits to Growth, said:
The world is a complex interconnected, finite, ecological, social, physiological economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple and infinite. Our persistent intractable global problems arise directly from this mismatch.
Abstraction allows extraction, which, by failing to account for the other benefits of a holistic system, leads to depletion and pollution.
Tristan Harris extends that conceptualization from seeing a forest as merely a bunch of trees — extractable two-by-four boards or heating pellets — to monetizing the measurable slices of time you spend hovering or scrolling with your finger — “one second of attention, two seconds of attention.” Our attention is being commodified into marketable blocks and sold. Outrage-generating content — a pedophile QAnon elite is running the world from the basement of a pizza parlor — outsells, stimulating engagement but producing negative societal fallout, including sedition, mayhem and mass murder. For cheap near-term benefits, the purchaser of ad-views externalizes massive social costs in the long-term. And in technological exponentiation the long term shrinks to months, weeks, days and then seconds.
Daniel Schmachtenberger has reasoned,
Every new type of tech that has emerged has created an arms race we haven’t been able to prevent. Major tragedy of the commons issues like climate change and overfishing and dead zones in the oceans and microplastics in the oceans and biodiversity loss we haven’t been able to solve. So rather than just think about this as like an overwhelming number of totally separate issues, [we should ask] the question of what are the patterns of human behavior as we increase our total technological capacity? Why are they increasing catastrophic risk and why are we not solving them well? Are there underlying patterns that we could think of — catastrophic risk generator functions — that if we were to identify those and work at that level we could solve all of the expressions or symptoms and if we don’t work at that level we might not be able to solve any of them?
Schmachtenberger gives some examples:
The first underlying driver is a structural perverse incentive built into macroeconomics — that the elephant dead is worth more than the elephant alive, and so is the rhino, and so is … so now you have a situation where that’s the nature of incentive, where you’re incentivizing an activity and then trying to bind it or keep it from happening. And the same would be true with overfishing as long as live fish are worth nothing and dead fish are worth more. When we have war and there’s more military manufacturing GDP goes up, and when there’s more addiction and people are buying to feed their addiction GDP goes up, and when they’re more sick people paying for health care costs GDP goes up. So it’s obviously a perverse kind of metric — that someone can fiscally advantage themselves, or a corporation can, in a way that either directly causes harm or indirectly externalizes harm.
Schmachtenberger goes on in his interview on Harris’s podcast to describe the attention harvesting and directing economy and how it was never Facebook’s or Google’s goal to destabilize elections or foster civil war, but those were unintended externalities of organizing the world’s information and making it freely available to everybody with the advertising model. The nature of the ad model optimizes by “appealing to people’s existing biases rather than correcting their bias, appealing to their tribal in-group identities rather than correcting them and appealing to limbic hijacks rather than helping people transcend them and as a result you end up actually breaking the social solidarity and epistemic capacity necessary for democracy.”
Have we run ourselves into an inescapable trap? Schmachtenberger does not think so.
Going to the level at which the problems interconnect, where that which everybody cares about is being factored, and where you’re not externalizing other problems, while it seems more complex, is actually possible. And possible is easier than impossible. It’s not just that there’s a lot of issues, right? There are a lot of issues and the issues are both more consequential at greater scope and moving faster than previous issues because of the nature of exponentiating technology. It’s not just that the problems are all interconnected, it’s also that they do have underlying drivers that have to be addressed otherwise a symptomatic-only approach doesn’t work.
Changing behavior comes from personal or collective reflection that goes deep enough to reach the metaprogram that drives our most urgent priorities. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the needed change because of how deeply embedded it can be. How many climate vegans keep pets, and cling to them even after being told they are far more destructive of the atmosphere than, say, cows, pigs or chickens? How much of the economy of nations is driven by social marketing and advertising that is, if not outright false, deceptive by glaring omission? Inspiration to change has to be strong or it will falter. Many tries may be required. Meadows, in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, wrote,
Magical leverage points are not easily accessible. Even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it. Whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of not knowing. In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.
In 2017, Daniel Wahl described the evolution of Meadows’ points of intervention in a post for Medium. Wahl, tracking Meadows, synthesized Guidelines for Appropriate Participation in Complex Systems as:
- Listen to the wisdom of the system.
- Expose your mental models to the open air.
- Stay humble. Stay a learner.
- Locate responsibility in the system.
- Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
- Pay attention to what is important, not to what is quantifiable.
- If something is ugly, say so.
- Go for the good of the whole.
- Expand time horizons.
- Expand thought horizons.
- Defy the disciplines.
- Expand the boundary of caring.
- Celebrate Complexity.
- Hold fast to the goal of goodness.
Wahl details each of these in his Medium post. What Meadows was exploring at the time she died (the intervention work was published posthumously in 2001 by the Whole Earth Review under the title ‘Dancing with Systems’) might be called hyperwicked solutioneering. She knew that whole systems defy compartmentalization and trying to solve connected, interlinked problems by taking them apart doesn’t work. Behavior is not a personal problem. To change human behavior in any lasting way one has to address quantum entanglement — nature versus nurture, soil biota and the gut microbiome, heritable prejudices, memes and temes.
Building community is the best strategy both for arresting recidivism and having greater effect on the overall situation. “Community” is loosely defined, from “communities of interest” like virtual gamers, to serious put-your-life-on-the-line ecovillagers traversing the intersections of old and new in real time, with scars to show for it. Humans are tribal animals and this part has a certain kind of predestined inertia to it, in our tropism to survive, although it may also develop opposing communities as it pushes at boundaries for those who would rather not let go and don’t want to look farther down the road.
There is no simple prescription here. Anyone looking for that may be disappointed. The discussion itself is helpful but won’t pull our fat from the fire. The future racing at us like a wildfire glow is not the one marked by multi-thousand year glaciations, axial tilts, pole shifts and orbital variations while we circumnavigate our galactic center. It is one we created, made of wild swings and dead alleys. It is a volatile, unpredictable, unstable mess.
The work to be done is Earth system repair, as rapidly as we can manage that now. There is no app for that.
“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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