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A Deeper Dive Into the Meta Crisis

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Tristan Harris and Daniel Schmatchenberger recently spoke with podcaster Joe Rogan to discuss the compounding factors of the meta crisis. While we’ve spoken about the meta crisis before, this recent, longer format conversation allowed us to dive deeper into our latest thinking on the issue, which includes the rise of decentralized technology-enabled power and the fall of sense-making and problem-solving.

We encourage you to listen to the full episode and share your thoughts with us. Here are some points covered in the episode:

  • What is the meta crisis and how did this come to be?
  • What are the risks of god-like technology (e.g., CRISPR, GPT-3) available in the hands of many? 
  • How does tech propel dangerous feedback loops? 
  • What recent actions has China taken against Big Tech and why?
  • What are some potential solutions? In particular, how is Apple in a unique position to support humane technology?

Society is facing a meta crisis. Our best hope for meeting this challenge starts with understanding it and coming together to work on it collectively.


Tristian, Daniel, and Joe discussed how the meta crisis — the interconnected nature of the many crises we’re facing as a society (climate change, inequality, etc.) — is growing more and more complex each day. Compounding the meta crisis is technology. Technology that makes us more distracted, divided, and confused reduces our ability to react wisely. And technology that gives us god-like powers increases the need to act wisely.

THE META CRISIS & GOD-LIKE POWERS 

The meta crisis is accelerated as technology advances and is distributed, granting more and more people god-like power to impact the world. However, it's challenging to cultivate the wisdom, awareness, and moral guidance necessary to wield technology's power. As long as we have more power than our awareness of technology’s impact, technology can become a decentralized weapon, causing harm.

Here are a few examples of god-like technologies: 

  • Social media platforms, like Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter affect billions faster than their own creators understand the impact of their designs. 
  • CRISPR allows us to rewrite our genes faster than we know what the impacts might be.
  • GPT-3 and deep fake videos use AI to enable the rapid creation of content that can mimic people, genres, and more without us being able to quickly decipher authenticity. A New Way to Visualize The Meta Crisis Challenge

So, how do we create a humane future, where increasing technological powers are in balance with the wisdom to use them well? In some cases, that may require slowing our powers (e.g.,  banning facial recognition, limiting virality). In other cases, societies must be designed to cultivate the wisdom and awareness necessary to wield it. A humane future must balance the power of technology with the awareness and morality to use it wisely.


The underlying question for today’s interwoven challenges — the meta crisis — is whether or not we can problem-solve fast enough to prevent catastrophe. We can think of the meta crisis challenge like a bowling alley. Society is playing the game, and the goal is to bowl down the middle of the lane toward a thriving society whose wellbeing is increased by technology. Yet on each side, there are two gutters:

  1. Centralized Dystopia, where powerful people, governments, or entities use technology to control society and moderate access to the powers of technology. A centralized dystopian society can be a response to the decentralized weapons of technology, as actors aim to correct for the dangers of broadly distributed power.
     
  2. Decentralized Chaos and Catastrophe, where we become even more addicted, polarized, distracted, and confused with the power to wield decentralized weapons of technology — resulting in a chaotic and catastrophic free for all.

Unfortunately, these gutters are already present today and they are widening at a rapid pace. That means our likelihood of ending in a thriving digital society is narrowing, and our capacity to play the game itself is weakening. 

Listen to Tristan explain the gutter metaphor here.

Having a grasp on the magnitude of this challenge is an important starting point. Thank you for granting your ongoing care and attention to this issue.


Published on
December 2, 2021

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