the famine of big thinking

Illustration of city with a street light

I am sure you’ve all heard the old joke about the drunk man staggering around under a streetlight. After a while another guy comes along and asks what the drunk is looking for. “My keys!” says the drunk, and they both start looking under the streetlight together. “Is this where you lost them?”, the other guy asks casually. “No, I lost them over there,” responds the drunk guy, pointing into the darkness, “but the light is better here.”

I used to think this was a fun joke. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s an accurate depiction of modern society. The keys illustrate something of immense potential value to society, humanity, and the world. The drunk guy represents the technology companies looking for solutions, mostly under the streetlight of profit and funding. His actions represent creating technologies that are within easy reach.

What I want to say is this: We are building tools that do what technology companies, investors, and tech-savvy people want, but not what humans and society need.

A more accurate analogy is between education and business. There is a tendency in business to say that the customer is always right, and we cater to what people want — or at least what they think they want. But in education we give “customers” what they need — which is not always what they want.

What happens when you have entire industries focusing only on what people want? All the ideas, tools, and technologies that are already around just get picked over. These are resources made by previous generations through inventions, cooperation, and co-creation, and they have to be maintained and renewed.

It’s easy to make fun of startups creating apps or products that nobody needs. But even real innovation can be trivialized to meet the expectations of investors, and to make a quick profit.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab, paints a disturbing picture of the path we’re on now, stating:

Thirty years from now people will look back at the beginning of our century and wonder what we were doing and thinking about big, hard, long-term problems, particularly those of basic research. They will read books and articles written by us in which we congratulate ourselves about being innovative. The self-portraits we paint today show a disruptive and creative society, characterized by entrepreneurship, start-ups and big company research advertised as moonshots. Our great-grandchildren are certain to read about our accomplishments, all the companies started, and all the money made. At the same time, they will experience the unfortunate knock-on effects of an historical famine of big thinking.

We live in a dog-eat-dog society that emphasizes short-term competition over long-term collaboration. We think in terms of winning, not in terms of what might be beneficial for society. Kids aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg, not Alan Turing.

There are vast incentives for cutting down the forest, while planting seeds has become an impossible nightmare. Worst of all, many people don’t realize that trees grow from seeds in the first place. We continue to spend millions of dollars researching newer, faster tools, but little research is being done on the most strategic investments that will provide the highest payoffs for augmenting human thinking — this is the famine of big thinking.

This is perhaps the greatest danger in the near future. It’s vital we think about the big visions that amplify humans at the same time as creating wealth in our society, rather than putting profit first.

If you only think about what you can take for yourself, without giving anything back, you’re part of the problem. In fact, you’re part of the same tired, antiquated, and selfish system that created the dynamic you’re caught up in. This is the rotten core technology is built upon, and it’s time we stopped it from spreading.

We’re living in a time where it’s crucial to focus on long-lasting, sustainable change that fundamentally amplifies our human capabilities and raises our collective intelligence over many generations.

The future of computing must not be defined by quick money. It shouldn’t be defined by what Big Tech, investors, or shareholders want. We have to contemplate what we need. We have to focus on how to improve ourselves and our society.

We’ve forgotten that the computer was meant to make our lives better, not transform us into cogs in a machine powered by pure profit.

A cog doesn’t control the machine — it is subject to the will of the machine.

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