Could technology help achieve a synthesis between the individual and the system?

Revolutions have the funny habit of announcing themselves with almost imperceptible warning signs: names, concepts and tools that resonate and repeat themselves until they form patterns. And in my last...

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January 2, 2020

Last month, it flowed through the ‘Work in Progress Tour’ presentations of Adam Gazalley (Akili), Brian Rivera (AGLX), April Rinne, Carl Edward Sanders (Adeption) and Max Shkud (Microsoft). And last year, when I visited Shenzen, Shanghai and Hanghzou, it was manifest in the entire culture as well as the approaches of the companies I saw .

And it makes perfect sense. Remember when we used to be ecstatic about how the internet would empower everyone and create this completely new form of democracy? But we never thought about the fact that interconnecting the entire world, would also interconnect its dark side. And that our joint problems - climate change, poverty, migration, healthcare, … - would grow bigger and more complex than ever.

And if it’s one thing that we have seen over the years is that we cannot solve complexity with linear simplicity. So why are we not acting upon this knowledge?

Happiness as a moral purpose

We like to believe that history works according to Hegel’s holy triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis but to me it often looks more like a pendulum of thesis and antithesis. Often, very little synthesis seems to be involved.

Just to give an example: the extreme individualism (or personalization as we like to call it today) of the past few years was actually triggered in Silicon Valley’s tech industry through Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism which advocated "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". Rand was born in Russia and was twelve at the time of the February Revolution of 1917, which disrupted her previously comfortable life: her father's business was confiscated, and her family faced desperate conditions, on occasion nearly starving. It would seem quite logical, then, that she would not be a fan of the collectivistic ideas of communism and decided to be look out for number one.

So Rand basically told people to do everything in their power to keep themselves happy and she was very influential at the time. She still is, in fact. Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick (Uber) and even the late Steve Jobs all paid homage to her. It should not come as a surprise that this “pursuit of one’s own happiness”-driven community would end up making tools that would drive extreme personalization.

Back to the system

And now the pendulum seems to be swinging back. Back to the system and the relationships between the parts rather than the parts themselves. But this time around, there’s a huge tension between the system and the parts. Where ideologies like communism left no place for the needs and cravings of the individual, today’s citizens, consumers and employees are highly empowered and will not be content to swap their needs for the greater good. Some of us believe that millennials are a lot more ‘greater good’-oriented than the generations before them but I don’t see them function well in a communal system either.

Many of us are starting (well, many Asian countries have always thought in this manner but it’s telling that systems-driven cultures such as theirs are so successful today) to see that we need to think of ourselves, our governments and companies as merely parts of a bigger whole if we do not want to experience a collapse of society and its environment (both of which are obviously interlinked): every node, individual, country, government and company has an impact on the next.

Like I said, a lot of organizations and influencers in San Francisco were talking about it, too. But there seems to be more theory and vision over there than practice and some of it departs from very bold and highly idealistic premises. One of the speakers claimed that “the quality of selfless caring is universal, and represents what most of us point to as the highest expression of human life”. I’m too cynical to believe that that is true (I’m not saying I’m right, in fact I would love to be wrong on this but I have seen very little proof of this the past few years) and I think that this is a flawed starting point.

Humans don’t function at scale

But I do believe in systems thinking, and even more in systems acting. And that we will not be able to improve our companies and our planet’s future without it. But it seems to be very difficult for humans to function in the immense human structures that we have quite recently installed. We’ve only just created a world at this huge scale but we’re not yet wired to thrive in it.

The good news is that there is such a thing as “the wisdom of the crowds”, if we can believe James Surowiecki: large groups of people make better decisions than well-informed or very experienced experts. An example is how a large crowd of non-experts were able to guess the weight of an ox or even how many jelly beans were in a jar:

The important part of the ox and jelly bean experiment was not that the biggest group of people guessed the right weight, No, the right answer surfaced when all the answers were added up and the average was taken. Yet, most human systems don’t function like that: decisions are made by the loud majority or by those with the most power (a power which is often granted by the majority by means of elections). We never let the averages decide. Could this be the reason that democracy does not seem to be working? Because we let the majority decide who will be able to make the best decisions? I’ll just leave that question open.

I’ve already written about the fact that technology lies at the root of some mighty wicked problems and how we could address these last month. But could technology also provide a better answer to many problems and maybe finally deliver a balanced synthesis between systems-thinking and extreme individualism?

Personalized Communism

If some of the current evolutions stick through, it could. A first sign is that of the sharing economy: for instance, personal ownership of modes of transportation seems less and less necessary. A lot of people still own cars, and bikes and scooters, but if the system will be perfected (and self-driving will be added into the mix), this might even become a thing of the past. But a far more intriguing direction is the one I heard in nexxworks Partner Steven Van Belleghem’s podcast interview with Tien Tzuo of Zuora (listen to it here) in which the latter stated that ‘fulfilment of needs’ will always trump ‘buying intent’ and that the subscription economy (where people have a subscription to milk, toilet paper and clothes instead of making conscious buying decisions about them) will only enlarge this:

“Even now that products are connected to the Internet, we’re still stuck into thinking “Will I receive my product on time?” But this connectedness will really flip our way of thinking upside down. From “will I get my pizza delivered on time” to “am I going to have a selection of food ready that I want to eat?” or “Am I going to have everything that I need for clean clothes?” There’s going to be system that takes care of these things at a higher level, even though there certainly will still be physical products in that system. We’re creating this much richer environment that just didn’t exist before.”

Could this evolution announce the birth of some type of “Personalized Communism”: with very little ownership and better distribution of wealth because we’ll only receive what we need – and that’s the Big difference with former ideologies like socialsm or communism – in a personalized manner? Everyone could have access to a lot of things (without owning them) – cars, bikes, drills, movies, music, … - and possess only the bare minimum.

One of the many big flaws of communism was that it treated everyone the same. But in an AI & IoT driven world of automated buying with sensors offering personal and contextual data about the subscriber (preferences in taste or food allergies for food, biometric data (are we stressed, emotional, angry…) or preferences in color, fabric and style for clothing) the product and services decisions that are made for us (instead of a conscious buying decision) could perfectly be tailored to match the individual. We could evolve towards a society where buying and overconsumption will start to fade, because the conscious buying decision will become less and less needed and taken.

But it could also turn very dark: if the subscription systems not only cater to our needs but instead, would recognize and even feed our cravings: knowing for instance that George likes to drink wine when he is stressed and automatically delivering it each time they measure heightened stress levels through his Apple watch. Steven Van Belleghem calls this effect the "Temptation Island" of marketing experts. The Utopian type of 'personalized communism' would obviously only work if it’s ethically installed.

Another possibility might lie in the CRISPRCas9 gene editing trend. We could design individuals so that they were highly community-driven, altruistic and greater good oriented, instead on focused on personal needs. Here again, ethics would play an enormous role, obviously.

Not the majority, but averages

But the ‘how’ of this change is less important for now (the future almost always turns out differently than we imagine it anyhow). I really do believe that we will need to reimagine our human systems in such a manner that the system becomes just as important and even more so than its parts: a system where averages are more important than power or even large numbers. One in which the comfortable majority will unfortunately need to give up things, which will make a lot of people extremely angry.

Maybe we don’t need to worry. Maybe we have arrived at the point where technology will help us find a synthesis between the greater good and that of our own. Then again, we have thought something very similar before - with the only difference that the ‘Randian’ heroic individual would keep on playing a central role in the system - which did not exactly pan out as planned:

But the interesting thing in the video above - describing how a crowd was able to play a game of Pong together without any explanation or leadership - remains that technology was indeed able to extract a subconscious consensus from the crowd. And that the average of a crowd tends to be smarter than the most experience expert. So maybe we’ve just not find the right way to merge human and technological systems into one overarching whole that is able to handle the complex huge-scale environment we’ve created for ourselves.

Whatever the case, we all do know that something needs to change.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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January 2, 2020