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What’s Next?

Inside: how an obscure area of philosophy gives us new directions for technology and politics, and how you can help

Joe Edelman
Sep 6, 2017 · 6 min read

I.

It was 2013, and Tristan Harris and I were worried about perverse incentives in tech and media. We were talking about topics that are now mainstream: fake news, clickbait, internet addiction. Both of us were tech optimists on some level — he’d had positive impact at Apple and Wikia; me with CouchSurfing and in HCI research. We both believed tech could lead to better social relations, a better economy, and better lives. But — because of these perverse incentives — things were going in the opposite direction, and we saw it would get worse.

II.

My projects ran into an interesting and thorny problem. Many talented and brilliant designers found the ideas exciting, but somehow intangible. Our concepts couldn’t find a place in their working minds or in their team discussions.

III.

This question — it turns out — is dear to philosophers concerned with choice and agency. Economist and philosopher Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for pointing out how people’s interests cannot be defined solely by their present goals or preferences. [1]

  • Multiple selves. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, another approach came into vogue. Perhaps the girl’s father had two selves: an instinctual self with one set of preferences, and a reasoning self with another set. Economists and psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Tyler Cowen advanced multiple-selves or multiple-sets-of-preferences models. [3]
  • A process of reflection / discovery / clarification. But by the late 2000s, those concerned with this problem had settled on a new view: the father had simply been wrong about what he wanted. When we choose, we do so based on a rough guess of what our true interests are, and we are always looking to improve that guess by finding better goals and values. [4]

IV.

I believe this idea amounts to a new and transformative view of human nature. If enough people start to see themselves in this way — as participants in a process that updates their goals and preferences — it will transform society.

V.

So, how do we give this new vision of human nature its due?

Notes

  1. Sen’s influential work on the topic was Sen 1977.
  2. See Hirschman 1985 for a tour of the metapreferences literature.
  3. Kahneman 2002 and Cowen 1991 are representative of this approach.
  4. I refer to a particular process-based view, combining three ideas: first, that we don’t tend to act when we have only desires but no reasons; second, that to have a good reason is to have undergone a process of reflection which has succeeded; third, that such success is an endorsement based on our “identity”: our sense of who we believe we are and who we believe in being. By 2002, Sen had switched to this view, but it is already present in Velleman 1985, Korsgaard 1992, and Quinn 1993.

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by…

Joe Edelman

Written by

Stay in touch! human-systems.org

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! tinyletter.com/humsys [emails], twitter.com/humsys [tweets], tiny.cc/onlineClass [face to face]

Joe Edelman

Written by

Stay in touch! human-systems.org

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! tinyletter.com/humsys [emails], twitter.com/humsys [tweets], tiny.cc/onlineClass [face to face]

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