An Undoing Project

October 1st, 2019

by Michael Metzger

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey says if he could go back in time, he’d do some things differently. What does he have in mind?

Dorsey founded Twitter in 2006. But at TED 2019 in Vancouver, Canada, he confessed that he never imagined the series of scandals over its treatment of user data. Dorsey never imagined the hate speech and political campaigning.

He forgot this is the nature of the beast. Innovation is renewal, making things new. Technologies serve as delivery systems. But we tend to “see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.”[1] Dorsey overlooked how innovation is an undoing project.

Example: Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the 12th & 13th centuries. They sought to ensure diligence in their daily periods of devotion and quiet. But they didn’t see what the clock would undo. By the middle of the 14th century, it had moved outside the monastery walls. The clock brought new efficiencies to the workplace. But it began “serving the accumulation of money rather than devotion to God.”[2]

Today’s innovations allow us to wear a clock on our wrist. Or view it on a smartphone. Helpful, but few innovators recognize what’s being undone. Tristan Harris does.

Harris worked as a Google programmer. He signed on to social media’s promise of greater connectivity and an end to loneliness. Then, in 2013, he widened the lens.

Harris knew Google designed codes to be addictive. But in widening the lens, he saw what was being undone. Checking email endlessly. Social isolation. Depression. Rising suicide rates.[3] Harris called on his fellow employees to create better platforms.

Initial enthusiasm yielded little change. Google lacked the infrastructure to “undo” some of its technologies. So Harris went outside the company. He launched a movement—Time Well Spent. But it lacked strong institutional support. So Harris kept innovating.

In 2019, he called for tech companies to launch a new “race to the top.” Harris said they’ve “downgraded” humanity by promoting shortened attention spans, politicized dialogue, narcissism, and a polarized electorate. His latest innovation is about building tools to help people pay attention, find common ground, and strengthen democracy.

But what will “race to the top” undo? We don’t know. That’s the point. Don’t stop innovating. Keep doing it, but recognize that we tend to see only what new innovative technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.

This incapacity is corrected by a particular infrastructure. Michael Lewis describes it in his book, The Undoing Project. It focuses on the lives and work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They discovered we have two interrelated systems running in our heads. “System 1” is fast, automatic, and unconscious. “System 2” is slow and deliberate. System 1 is predictive—for example, what a new technology will do. System 2 is reflective. It’s the “outside view” playing “devils advocate.” System 2 imagines what new technologies undo. It widens the lens.

Kahneman and Tversky called this “adversarial collaboration,” System 1 and 2 challenging one another. Few organizations have this. Most bias System 1, so “we tend to extract more certainty from the data than the data, in fact, contain.”[4] Once we have developed an innovative technology, we grossly exaggerate what it will do, finding it very difficult to see things any other way—to imagine what it will undo.

This has been my experience in the business community. It biases System 1, predicting what new technologies or businesses can and will do. This is left-brained, as the left hemisphere biases can and will. System 2 is right-brained. The right biases ought and is. It reflects on what business ought to be and what a new technology is likely to undo.

This is an opportunity for the faith community. Innovate is Latin for the Greek renew. The church is called to renew all things. She ought to be a resource for sustaining innovation. But she’d have to first get her house in order. How many churches have an infrastructure of adversarial collaboration? How many include the “outside view,” where prophetic voices help us imagine what innovation ought to be? How many heed these voices when they suggest what new technologies are likely to undo?

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (Random House, 1993), 5.

[2] Erel Shalit, The Human Soul (Lost) in Transition At the Dawn of a New Era (Chiron Publications, 2018)

[3] Jean Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017.

[4] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 162.

This article is re-posted with permission of the author, Michael Metzer. The original may be found at The Clapham Commentary where you can also sign up for Mike's weekly thought-provoking articles.

 

Channel(s): Culture and Worldview