Technology is Not Values Neutral: Ending the Reign of Nihilistic Design
We fail to take tech seriously when we do not grasp its full impact on humans | Jun 26, 2022 | 25 Min Read
The information technology revolution has changed the structure of our economy, as well as the structure of our daily lives. With this change has come a new ideology. Springing up on the West Coast of the United States and spreading throughout the developed world, we might call this ideology “technocapitalism.” Over the last two decades, technocapitalism has attracted trillions of dollars of capital, animated by a fervent belief in inevitable progress driven by information technology. Business leaders, investors, and government policymakers are increasingly influenced by the fundamental ideas of this ideology, shaping the structure of our economy. But for all the hype and optimism about the future that technocapitalism has generated, history shows us that more technology is not always the solution to technological problems, nor are market forces always the best way to address deeper societal crises. Society will need to impose some direction.
Though technological progress provides industrialized nations with near-universal increases in standards of living, it also brings side effects such as labor shortages, increasing wealth inequality, and artificial scarcity.
A central premise of technocapitalism is that technological innovation is the fundamental driver of history. Adherents of this ideology believe, consciously or not, that it is technology that determines the shape of social life and the fate of civilizations—rather than the actions of individual humans, coordinated groups, cultural trends, or structural forces. Furthermore, they believe that technological innovation is necessarily created by private enterprise, and in particular through the institution of the startup, funded by private venture capital funds. This worldview has found no greater proponent in recent years than the investor Marc Andreessen, who, for example, wrote an essay crediting the technology industry with “saving the world” during the COVID-19 pandemic, going so far as to predict that the introduction of remote work through Zoom, Slack, and other apps was “a permanent civilizational shift.”
This ideology is unsurprisingly most common among those who work in the technology and venture capital industries, particularly in Silicon Valley but also in secondary tech hubs like Seattle or Austin. To explain their beliefs, technocapitalists will often point to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on a microchip should double every two years. This idea is often generalized to mean that technological advancement occurs at an exponential rate, with accompanying exponential decreases in costs. Many commercial technologies have indeed followed this pattern of improvement but technocapitalists extrapolate this process of exponential, technology-driven progress further to encompass all parts of society, not just technological progress. This view does not fully capture the complex and highly evolved relationship between technology, society, and economics. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the increasing complexity driven by globalization, bureaucracy, and automation has given rise to an economic system in which theories such as Moore’s Law no longer scale. Though technological progress provides industrialized nations with near-universal increases in standards of living, it also brings side effects such as labor shortages, increasing wealth inequality, and artificial scarcity.
Global wealth is increasingly concentrated, with 1% of the world’s population controlling approximately 46% of all wealth. This wealth gap persists both despite and because of technological progress: economic surplus driven by increased technological capabilities concentrates wealth at the top rungs of society. This is because owners of large fortunes and creators of intellectual property reap the largest financial returns, even as new technology increases standards of living. Yet many technologies can be radical social equalizers despite their effect on wealth concentration, due to their accessibility and wide adoption. A study of 120 countries between 1980 and 2006 found that a 10% increase in access to broadband could increase GDP by up to 1.3%, and these technologies are ever-easier to employ and distribute. Similarly, it is possible that technological solutions could mitigate catastrophic risks such as climate change, which would have a profound impact upon future global standards of living.
Though technology is a powerful equalizing force, if money is involved, someone always stands to profit.
Technocapitalists believe that innovative technology can be used to bypass restrictive socioeconomic conditions. In this view, intellectual property (in the form of patents or inventions) is the backbone of social progress. Intellectual property (IP) is commoditized and distributed via corporations, but in a manner that appears to upend the stakeholders-first corporate ethos.
Technocapitalism is the “innovation economy”: the ecosystem of entrepreneurial organizations, startup accelerators, and grant funders, all of which provide the infrastructure for quasi-utopian social hacking experiments. In response to global crises, the technocapitalist economy acts as a benevolent experimental force, generating solutions from corporate money but often taking revenue from traditional corporate stakeholders, such as department stores and newspapers. Because the driving force of wealth and progress is a matter of information and social systems rather than physical infrastructure and material goods—as seen most clearly in “platform” companies like Uber or Airbnb—many otherwise intractable problems are overlooked. Despite these pro-social aims, technocapitalism is potentially too tied to the capitalist model to fully deliver on them. Throughout history, free market capitalism has led to the social issues that technocapitalism now seeks to address. Technocapitalist interventions may prove little different, allowing corporations to participate in a superficial charade of social change rather than addressing the root problems. Though technology is a powerful equalizing force, if money is involved, someone always stands to profit. Exactly who, in this case, is a matter of debate.
Though the mercantilist era is often described as the ‘Age of Discovery,’ it would be more accurate to describe it as the age of trade.
To understand the economic landscape that made technocapitalism possible, it is important to begin with the historical movements that gave rise to capitalism in the first place. The Enlightenment of 18th-century Europe was the critical period in which the power of capital began to take hold. Prior to this point, the West was largely agrarian, with estates sustained by the labor of the serf class. The Enlightenment brought about a redefinition of societal power structures. During this period, figures such as Rousseau and Locke invented social contract theory, which stated that individuals freely consent to organize into states, voluntarily sacrificing certain rights in exchange for the protection of others under the law and ultimately the persistence of the social order. At the same time, the emergence of mercantilism—the economic policy of maximizing a nation’s exports while minimizing imports—began to increase global connections, tying the social order and its products directly to national power. Ocean voyages for the purposes of trade increased, and international commerce agreements were established by the growing merchant classes. Though the mercantilist era is often described as the ‘Age of Discovery,’ it would be more accurate to describe it as the age of trade. This trade was often the first step on the path to conquest and colonial subjugation.
In a profound change from agrarian economies, the primary source of value under mercantilism was not basic subsistence, but production. Instead of economies centered on farming, mercantile commerce generated value by serving as an intermediary, with natural resources processed and refined for export in for-profit enterprises. By maximizing exports and minimizing imports, a state could reduce its deficits via tariffs, and in the process promote colonial expansion and enforce imperial hegemony. Mercantilism’s success as a protectionist doctrine was based upon a large, employed population that contributed to the nation’s system of trade, as participation in labor was tied directly to the persistence of the state.
Under mercantilism, the foundations for capitalist ideologies began to form. Competition was the driving force of a mercantilist economy, with governments safeguarding proprietary tools and equipment against export, using their role as the sole possessors or producers of these goods as a means of capital exclusivity. The foremost aim of trade during this period was the accumulation of gold and silver, as there could only be a fixed amount in circulation. The movement of valuable resources through global economies was almost a direct stand-in for conquest. A country drained of value was unlikely to wage war, whereas a country flush with it could ensure its own supremacy. The total wealth of the world was considered stable; it could only be tugged in various directions by enterprising states.
The work of Adam Smith was central to the establishment of the era of free trade. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith refuted the idea that a nation’s security was tied directly to the size of its treasury, and that total extant wealth was fixed. Instead, Smith argued that free trade benefited all parties more than the hoarding of resources, and that protectionist policies should decrease in developed economies. Complex systems of manufacturing and commerce introduced interdependency to the market, distributing ownership and allowing for greater efficiency. These changes led to the interconnectedness of global supply chains today, as demonstrated by current international reliance on China and India for raw materials processing.
A natural result of this system is that profits are concentrated amongst industries experiencing high demand…
The movement of wealth under this system is varied, with inequality decreasing in certain parts of society and increasing in others. Participation in sequential industrial production increases wealth among poorer countries, though this process does not necessarily determine the distribution of wealth between richer countries. In this manner, the advancement of industry determines where wealth is concentrated. Smith urged the decoupling of government and industry to facilitate this process of wealth distribution. The free market described by Smith self-regulates when functioning properly, with industries growing and shrinking based on demand. A natural result of this system is that profits are concentrated amongst industries experiencing high demand, but this is viewed as an expected byproduct of market efficiency: the population freely chooses where to spend, and this freedom of choice concentrates wealth in corresponding sectors of the economy.
Smith did not only view the function of a free market as a demonstration of individual wills; he also considered it to be demonstratively moral in nature. His theory of the “invisible hand” posits that the individual in a capitalist system will instinctively make choices for the greater good. Smith believed these decisions to be a matter of divine providence, but the theory still works with religious motivations removed: individuals acting in their own self-interest will facilitate social benefits, because everyone wants to live well, and in this way the will of the individual is a reflection of the will of a society. This isn’t far from social contract theory, in that it frames the individual as opting into a social code to improve their quality of life in balance with the rest of society. This idea was extrapolated by figures such as Kant and Montesquieu into the concept of doux commerce, or ‘capitalist peace’ which stipulates that as commerce becomes the dominant philosophy of developed nations, war becomes undesirable or simply unprofitable. Further development of this theory holds that economically inter-reliant states are unwilling to court conflict at the risk of alienating foreign investors. As Steven Pinker observes: “when it’s cheaper to buy things than to steal them, people don’t steal them. Also, if other people are more valuable to you alive than dead, you’re less likely to kill them. You don’t kill your customers or your lenders, so the arrival of the infrastructure of trade and commerce reduces some of the sheer exploitative incentives of conquest.”
Later in his career, Smith introduced the idea that the value of goods was not fixed but rather was determined at the time of sale. Products were exchanged for more than they had previously been worth due to the value of procuring, transporting, and retailing them. As a result, Smith distinguishes between the value of “productive labor” (material goods) and “unproductive labor” (services) with regard to national economic growth. Productive labor increases net societal wealth, whereas unproductive labor does not. Here, Smith touches on a concept we will revisit: the market for intangibles. The accumulation of excess capital can enable a shift from the production of goods to service industries. This is because services are not effective for rapid capital accumulation, but can generate additional value from capital created by goods production in times of prosperity.
The effects of the Industrial Revolution can be viewed from both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives.
This theory held throughout the Industrial Revolution, which was enabled by technological progress in automation. The Industrial Revolution expanded the role of private industrialists as the primary architects of economic growth and concentration. Surplus became a widely achievable effect of industry, and increased mechanization led to finer divisions of wage labor and an expansion of the working and middle classes. Protectionist economic policies were mostly abandoned in favor of globalization as the value of exchanging goods and services began to outweigh the value of their use. Capital in this period was worth more than labor, which led to an increase in the per capita wealth and a corresponding reduction in wages, with wealth increasingly concentrated in the upper classes. This wealth gap persists today, despite a temporary amelioration between the 1940s through the 1970s. Industrialized countries now lead in economic inequality. 
The effects of the Industrial Revolution can be viewed from both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives. One side argues that increased access to wages in the lower classes raised standards of living by allowing for increased market participation and self-determination. The other side argues that increased access to wages lowered standards of living by making the livelihoods of ordinary people dependent on market dynamics far beyond their control. Admittedly, there have been very few times in history in which some level of economic stratification did not exist; it is a natural second-order effect in economies in which demand exists at all. Yet the rise of surplus capital made wealth increase for the upper classes much faster than it did for the lower classes—and stay that way. Itinerant, generalist laborers did not have many options for social mobility. Though the suffusion of wages into general society did more to distribute wealth than the generational inheritance of property, the benefit for the lower classes was increased mobility within their limited economic bracket. The atomizing force of the free market, which used individuals rather than families or other social groupings as its basic unit of account, also reduced socioeconomic security by replacing careers passed down generation-to-generation with employment dependent on market demand. Though employment data is scant for this period, it has been noted that even among older workers employment tenure drops during periods of high industrialization.
Of course, the free market was never fully uncontrolled. Though relatively low taxation and enforcement helped England industrialize quickly, this did not happen because of the power of unfettered supply and demand—it was planned. The Banking Act of 1826 restricted banks from issuing their own banknotes and encouraged the formation of joint stock companies. Additional lawmaking expanded these companies’ ability to acquire limited liability. This all served to increase access to capital, giving nascent industries a boost. By contrast, after the Great Depression, England left the gold standard and decreased the value of the British pound, forcing an economic stimulus by increasing domestic demand and putting more money into circulation.
In more recent decades, monetarism has been used to control the supply of money in circulation to stabilize the economy. Monetarism is the function by which the economy is now “bailed out” after periods of recession, though such an artificial condition is subject to diminishing returns unless permanent reforms are instituted. This is one of the factors that Smith’s “invisible hand” fails to recognize: it does not account for the externalities of monetary policy. Governance steps in to course-correct the economy after periods of crisis; rarely does the economy course-correct itself. This is close to the rebuttal of the invisible hand popularized by economist Joseph Stiglitz, who argued that some regulation is necessary for the market to function; otherwise it would be overrun by side effects such as runaway environmental pollution, stagnant research environments, or issues of intellectual property. The market innovates around the restrictions of the government and the government enables the market to avoid damaging externalities. Reciprocity is needed for either to function sustainably.
In Adam Smith’s conception, the free market is a liberating force for society. This liberal view holds that the more choice people have in the market, the more they are naturally empowered to do good for the world. Yet free market capitalism has inequalities built into it as a matter of routine. Free trade may allow consumers an unprecedented level of access to consumer goods and the income needed to purchase them, but simultaneously restricts access to the surplus capital that is generated. In this way, the benefits of free market capitalism are heavily subjective.
…innovative information (rather than surplus) could drive improvements in living standards.
Technocapitalism is comparable to the theories of early liberal economics described above. At the core of its ideology is a similar belief that the machinery of wealth—that is, the technological innovation spurred by private enterprise—is what drives social progress. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurial class first began to believe in technology’s potential to catalyze social change in the 1990s. Having witnessed early online communities bring people together in novel ways, this new techno-optimism held that a knowledge-based, technology-driven economy could oust the capitalist mode of production. Instead, it was thought that the course of progress would promote a stateless, collaborative counterculture similar to that of the 1960s, but with a sense of the possibility of the transcendence of humans from the merely physical world to a higher state, enabled by advanced technology. This new line of thinking was perhaps best exemplified by the cyberactivist John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” in which, among other things, he declared that “we will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace.”
In this experimentalist economy, creativity would replace commodities, and would be distributed through online networks to consumers. In this way, innovative information (rather than surplus) could drive improvements in living standards. This ideology is exemplified by then-contemporary media such as Wired magazine or the anti-consumerist Adbusters, which also drew on the work of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, emphasizing aesthetic and cultural critiques of pop culture as a means of “escaping” from the capitalist mindset. This social movement is often categorized as a libertarian one, but it is ideologically distinct from the more culturally conservative tendency of the Tea Party movement and other right-wing subgroups that emerged during the 2000s.
A critique of this “dotcom neoliberalism” by Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook titled “The Californian Ideology” suggests that the movement is simply technological determinism and cannot be considered radical at all. Since it originated with the technology industry’s elite such as Netscape’s Marc Andreessen or Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and was dependent on their for-profit technology, it could only serve to maintain the class rigidity of capitalism. In effect, these early stages of technocapitalism strengthened the privileged positions of its proponents, ultimately upholding Western capitalist hegemony. Cameron and Barbrook go so far as to say that Silicon Valley technological optimism is a form of reactionary modernism similar to that of Nazi Germany, with its rejection of liberal democratic values in favor of futurist social engineering.
There is a contradictory nature to this claim, in that Silicon Valley’s ideology is closely aligned with Enlightenment conceptions of economics, particularly those of Adam Smith. Both have in common an emphasis on the self-determination of the individual through market participation, as well as the idea that the system can regulate itself into producing social progress by the very nature of its existence. In this way, 1990s technological optimism embraces contrasting left- and right-wing ideas about the nature of progress. It needed capitalism’s mass-market distribution of products to enable the flow of information. Yet it found that same flow of information to be a usefully disruptive force, with the potential power to circumvent the woes of capitalist society. This conflict is still apparent in technocapitalism today.
Technocapitalism exists as a highly competitive marketplace of intangibles.
These intangibles include intellectual property such as software products, or access to proprietary “platforms” like Amazon Marketplace or app stores. Technocapitalist products may be defined typically as “disruptive innovations,” in the words of Clayton Christensen: they are ideas that begin as inferior alternatives to existing offerings, and enter play either at the foot of the market or in a new market altogether. The underlying technology is significant because it can provide cost-effective, novel competition to ideas that are already in production. Research-intensive industries, such as computing and biotechnology, are at the forefront of these efforts. With public funding for scientific research on a steady decline since the latter half of the 20th century, private funding is increasingly needed for viability. In this environment, research must consistently prove its value to funders in order to persist. A well-known example of this, extrapolated from data gathered in the 1990s, is that over 75% of all medical research is privately funded. As a result, rare disease research relies disproportionately on private funding. This effect is mirrored in other fields, and has increased in proportion: between 2012 and 2016, academic-industry collaborations more than doubled globally. The pharmaceutical industry is notoriously fickle about what constitutes marketability and is therefore likely to pass over areas of research that are not clearly profitable.
Private funding can offer flexibility by bypassing public bureaucracy, and technocapitalist campaigns often emerge as efforts to reduce red tape. For example, when the Gates Foundation began funding research into experimental pandemic response efforts, their proposed solution until approximately 2015 was for a NATO-like organization to handle public health policy, and they worked extensively with the WHO and the GAVI vaccine alliance, a public-private enterprise. However, the WHO’s sluggish Ebola response between 2014 and 2016 prompted the Gates Foundation in 2017 to provide backing for CEPI, a vaccine research accelerator, and in 2020, the Gates Foundation’s COVID response efforts largely bypassed intergovernmental organizations, instead utilizing direct, private funding to pivot existing research initiatives into COVID testing trials. These redirections of private research provided data that outstripped the WHO by a critical few months before the FDA halted the program due to regulatory approval issues.
A cause for concern, however, is that private funding has private goals, and that this may impact trustworthiness of private research. Objective empiricism is questionable when it is connected to corporate objectives, and this has the potential to reduce public trust in the research process. Privately funded studies are demonstratively more likely to reach conclusions that favor sponsors’ interests. One analysis of medical industry funding found that privately-funded research is four times more likely to provide a favorable assessment of a drug than publicly-funded research. It also appears that the public is, generally speaking, in on the plot. A meta-analysis of pharmaceutical trials suggests that trials with disclosed financial ties to industry are perceived as “less interesting, important, relevant, valid, and believable” than those without financial disclosures. Though a consistent quantitative effect is difficult to document due a limited sample size, a significant portion of patients and clinicians may feel that disclosed financial ties reduce research quality, and can discourage patients from participating.
Notably, corporations themselves are also experiencing a reduction in internal science funding. The proportion of corporate funding allocated toward the research side of industrial R&D dropped from 28% in 1985 to 20% in 2015. The same review of scientific publications found that the rate of papers being published by corporations dropped significantly between 1980 and 2010, indicating that it is most cost-effective for companies to rely on existing data as opposed to producing new data. This is because market pressures favor applied research in the interest of greenlighting products, not higher-risk investments in foundational science that are likely to pay off at a later date. In the interest of budget conservation, research may be dropped. Patents increase the value of innovations, and in turn stimulate continued R&D in the interest of “inventing around” (i.e. around existing innovations). As a result, there is a disproportionate focus on development rather than research as the most profitable approach for a corporation.
The balance of public relations and institutional respectability is delicate.
If both the public and traditional private sectors are experiencing funding squeezes, the technocapitalist investment sector should be a great source of support for the technological and scientific communities. However, the technocapitalist “disruptor” efforts are subject to the same issues choking industry funding: they favor low-risk research with high payoffs. Research that requires a fifteen-year timeline to produce tangible effects is passed over in favor of disruptive options. These initiatives can have limited shelf lives due to regulatory issues or poor adoption rates.
Optics remain an issue for the technocapitalist sector. Private organizations with enough disposable income to fund grants are backed by the exceedingly wealthy, and as a result these organizations will almost always function in the interest of self-preservation. Those who have accrued excess capital typically make efforts to maintain it. The Gates Foundation, the most robust organization in this field, has a history of furnishing other major corporations with unneeded charitable donations in the interest of obtaining favorable alliances with regard to public policy. Some of the most highly-documented technocapitalist projects have little to no use value. Elon Musk’s Boring Company’s reworked subway system beneath Los Angeles turned out to be a tunnel for Tesla vehicles; Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund spent between $300 and $400 million of its $10 billion total to name an NHL stadium after itself; Singularity University (Raymond Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis’s unaccredited innovations hub) exists mostly as an advocacy group. Both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos recently spent fortunes launching themselves into space for a few minutes.
The balance of public relations and institutional respectability is delicate. It could be argued that technocapitalist projects have inherent value if only because they increase public interest in the sciences. At the center of this argument is an ethical issue: does the effect of private institutions reducing trust in data mean their contributions to their fields are morally suspect, or should they persist because they draw new interest to those fields in a way that may be more effective than traditional institutions?
Left unchecked, the commercialization of the sciences may reduce the overall quality of work available to the public. Academic researchers who receive private funding are more likely to select projects that have a high potential for commercial use, despite an increased association with publication delays and confidentiality restrictions. Since a larger proportion of this work will remain proprietary, this framework essentially withholds information from academic peers, cheapening the epistemic value of scientific research by raising its exchange value.
A potential option, then, is that perhaps technocapitalism shouldn’t remain unchecked. The U.S. Congress has held hearings on limiting tech companies in various ways. Increasingly, public funding apparatuses are taking note of the efficacy of the technocapitalist funding model and are incorporating their structures. The EU’s Horizon Europe program is split into high-value ‘missions’ to prompt research in a manner that bears similarities to the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges framework. The U.S. government has its own startup competition. The incorporation of private funding into public distribution methods, for example through the formation of public-private enterprises, could create environments for innovation that are less susceptible to corporate priorities. It is worth keeping in mind that this has notable downsides, with one of its sole benefits being a bureaucratic structure that is familiar to venture capitalists and civil servants alike. A mixed funding model may ultimately be subject to the same biases and ambiguities as private funding. This conflict is already evident in the function of certain government agencies. The FDA is a prime example: a portion of the FDA’s review budget is furnished by the pharmaceuticals industry, and FDA scientists have self-reported that the agency’s regulatory processes appear vulnerable to industry pressures despite increased transparency efforts. This points to inter-agency mistrust about which standards should be enforced, and which definitions of integrity are considered most valid. Yet unless the dwindling availability of research funding resolves over the next few decades, there appears to be little room for options other than pooling public and private resources. Further clarity on the ownership of research outputs would be necessary for this system to be at all functional.
In the end, the goal for society should be to preserve the use value of science and technology instead of turning them into tradable commodities. The unfortunate reality is that most capital has strings attached. A funding-dependent epistemic sphere free of market forces may be untenable without fundamental changes to our current economic system. Under our current models of public and private power, this goal may be an impossibility. The best we can do—as technologists, financiers, policymakers, and above all citizens—is to find ways to pursue innovation in an experimental and flexible manner, with a conscious focus on improving society as a whole. Without a spirit of collaboration, we may be limited by ideologies like technocapitalism, which promises inevitable progress and epistemic certainty while concentrating economic power, debasing public discourse, and failing to live up to its grand ideals.
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The noun was coined by the American ecological psychologist James J. Gibson. It was initially used in the study of animal-environment interaction and has also been used in the study of human-technology interaction. An affordance is an available use or purpose of a thing or an entity. For example, a couch affords being sat on, a microwave button affords being pressed, and a social media platform has an affordance of letting users share with each other.
Agent provocateur translates to “inciting incident” in French. It is used to reference individuals who attempt to persuade another individual or group to partake in a crime or rash behavior or to implicate them in such acts. This is done to defame, delegitimize, or criminalize the target. For example, starting a conflict at a peaceful protest or attempting to implicate a political figure in a crime.
Ideological polarization is generated as a side-effect of content recommendation algorithms optimizing for user engagement and advertising revenues. These algorithms will upregulate content that reinforces existing views and filters out countervailing information because this has been proven to drive time on-site. The result is an increasingly polarized perspective founded on a biased information landscape.
To “cherry pick” when making an argument is to selectively present evidence that supports one’s position or desired outcome, while ignoring or omitting any contradicting evidence.
The ethical behavior exhibited by individuals in service of bettering their communities and their state, sometimes foregoing personal gain for the pursuit of a greater good for all. In contrast to other sets of moral virtues, civic virtue refers specifically to standards of behavior in the context of citizens participating in governance or civil society. What constitutes civic virtue has evolved over time and may differ across political philosophies. For example, in modern-day democracies, civic virtue includes values such as guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, and freedom of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity. A shared understanding of civic virtue among the populace is integral to the stability of a just political system, and waning civic virtue may result in disengagement from collective responsibilities, noncompliance with the rule of law, a breakdown in trust between individuals and the state, and degradation of the intergenerational process of passing on civic virtues.
Closed societies restrict the free exchange of information and public discourse, as well as impose top down decisions on their populus. Unlike the open communications and dissenting views that characterize open societies, closed societies promote opaque governance and prevent public opposition that might be found in free and open discourse.
A general term for collective resources in which every participant of the collective has an equal interest. Prominent examples are air, nature, culture and the quality of our shared sensemaking basis or information commons.
A general term for collective resources in which every participant of the collective has an equal interest. Prominent examples are air, nature, culture, and the quality of our shared sensemaking basis or information commons.
The cognitive bias of 1) exclusively seeking or recalling evidence in support of one's current beliefs or values, 2) interpreting ambiguous information in favor of one’s beliefs or values, and 3) ignoring any contrary information. This bias is especially strong when the issues in question are particularly important to one's identity.
In science and history, consilience is the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” on strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence is significantly so on its own.
While “The Enlightenment” was a specific instantiation of cultural enlightenment in 18th-century Europe, cultural enlightenment is a more general process that has occurred multiple times in history, in many different cultures. When a culture goes through a period of increasing reflectivity on itself it is undergoing cultural enlightenment. This period of reflectivity brings about the awareness required for a culture to reimagine its institutions from a new perspective. Similarly, “The Renaissance” refers to a specific period in Europe while the process of a cultural renaissance has occurred elsewhere. A cultural renaissance is more general than (and may precede) an enlightenment, as it describes a period of renewed interest in a particular topic.
A deep fake is a digitally-altered (via AI) recording of a person for the purpose of political propaganda, sexual objectification, defamation, or parody. They are progressively becoming more indistinguishable from reality to an untrained eye.
Empiricism is a philosophical theory that states that knowledge is derived from sensory experiences and relies heavily on scientific evidence to arrive at a body of truth. English philosopher John Locke proposed that rather than being born with innate ideas or principles, man’s life begins as a “blank slate” and only through his senses is he able to develop his mind and understand the world.
It is both the public spaces (e.g., town hall, Twitter) and private spaces where people come together to pursue a mutual understanding of issues critical to their society, and the collection of norms, systems, and institutions underpinning this society-wide process of learning. The epistemic commons is a public resource; these spaces and norms are available to all of us, shaped by all of us, and in turn, also influence the way in which all of us engage in learning with each other. For informed and consensual decision-making, open societies and democratic governance depend upon an epistemic commons in which groups and individuals can collectively reflect and communicate in ways that promote mutual learning.
Inadvertent emotionally or politically -motivated closed-mindedness, manifesting as certainty or overconfidence when dealing with complex indeterminate problems. Epistemic hubris can appear in many forms. For example, it is often demonstrated in the convictions of individuals influenced by highly politicized groups, it shows up in corporate or bureaucratic contexts that err towards certainty through information compression requirements, and it appears in media, where polarized rhetoric is incentivized due to its attention-grabbing effects. Note: for some kinds of problems it may be appropriate or even imperative to have a degree of confidence in one's knowledge—this is not epistemic hubris.
An ethos of learning that involves a healthy balance between confidence and openness to new ideas. It is neither hubristic, meaning overly confident or arrogant, nor nihilistic, meaning believing that nothing can be known for certain. Instead, it is a subtle orientation that seeks new learning, recognizes the limitations of one's own knowledge, and avoids absolutisms or fundamentalisms—which are rigid and unyielding beliefs that refuse to consider alternative viewpoints. Those that demonstrate epistemic humility will embrace truths where these are possible to attain but are generally inclined to continuously upgrade their beliefs with new information.
This form of nihilism is a diffuse and usually subconscious feeling that it is impossible to really know anything, because, for example, “the science is too complex” or “there is fake news everywhere.” Without a shared ability to make sense of the world as a means to inform our choices, we are left with only the game of power. Claims of “truth” are seen as unwarranted or intentional manipulations, as weaponized or not earnestly believed in.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowing and the nature of knowledge. It deals with questions such as “how does one know?” and “what is knowing, known, and knowledge?”. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy, along with ethics, logic, and metaphysics.
Derived from a Greek word meaning custom, habit, or character; The set of ideals or customs which lay the foundations around which a group of people coheres. This includes the set of values upon which a culture derives its ethical principles.
The ability of an individual or group to shape the perception of an issue or topic by setting the narrative and determining the context for the debate. A “frame” is the way in which an issue is presented or “framed”, including the language, images, assumptions, and perspectives used to describe it. Controlling the frame can give immense social and political power to the actor who uses it because the narratives created or distorted by frame control are often covertly beneficial to the specific interests of the individual or group that has established the frame. As an example, politicians advocating for tax cuts or pro-business policies may use the phrase "job creators" when referring to wealthy corporations in order to suggest their focus is on improving livelihoods, potentially influencing public perception in favor of the politician's interests.
Discourse oriented towards mutual understanding and coordinated action, with the result of increasing the faith that participants have in the value of communicating. The goal of good faith communication is not to reach a consensus, but to make it possible for all parties to change positions, learn, and continue productive, ongoing interaction.
Processes that occupy vast expanses of both time and space, defying the more traditional sense of an "object" as a thing that can be singled out. The concept, introduced by Timothy Morton, invites us to conceive of processes that are difficult to measure, always around us, globally distributed and only observed in pieces. Examples include climate change, ocean pollution, the Internet, and global nuclear armaments and related risks.
Information warfare is a primary aspect of fourth- and fifth-generation warfare. It can be thought of as war with bits and memes instead of guns and bombs. Examples of information warfare include psychological operations like disinformation, propaganda, or manufactured media, or non-kinetic interference in an enemy's communication capacity or quality.
Refers to the foundational process of education which underlies and enables societal and cultural cohesion across generations by passing down values, capacities, knowledge, and personality types.
The phenomenon of having your attention captured by emotionally triggering stimuli. These stimuli strategically target the brain center that we share with other mammals that is responsible for emotional processing and arousal—the limbic system. This strategy of activating the limbic system is deliberately exploited by online algorithmic content recommendations to stimulate increased user engagement. Two effective stimuli for achieving this effect are those that can induce disgust or rage, as these sentiments naturally produce highly salient responses in people.
An online advertising strategy in which companies create personal profiles about individual users from vast quantities of trace data left behind from their online activity. According to these psychometric profiles, companies display content that matches each user's specific interests at moments when they are most likely to be impacted by it. While traditional advertising appeals to its audience's demographics, microtargeting curates advertising for individuals and becomes increasingly personalized by analyzing new data.
False or misleading information, irrespective of the intent to mislead. Within the category of misinformation, disinformation is a term used to refer to misinformation with intent. In news media, the public generally expects a higher standard for journalistic integrity and editorial safeguards against misinformation; in this context, misinformation is often referred to as “fake news”.
A prevailing school of economic thought that emphasizes the government's role in controlling the supply of money circulating in an economy as the primary determinant of economic growth. This involves central banks using various methods of increasing or decreasing the money supply of their currency (e.g., altering interest rates).
A form of rivalry between nation-states or conflicting groups, by which tactical aims are realized through means other than direct physical violence. Examples include election meddling, blackmailing politicians, or information warfare.
Open societies promote the free exchange of information and public discourse, as well as democratic governance based on the participation of the people in shared choices about their social futures. Unlike the tight control over communications and suppression of dissenting views that characterize closed societies, open societies promote transparent governance and embrace good-faith public scrutiny.
The modern use of the term 'paradigm' was introduced by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his work "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". Kuhn's idea is that a paradigm is the set of concepts and practices that define a scientific discipline at any particular period of time. A good example of a paradigm is behaviorism – a paradigm under which studying externally observable behavior was viewed as the only scientifically legitimate form of psychology. Kuhn also argued that science progresses by the way of "paradigm shifts," when a leading paradigm transforms into another through advances in understanding and methodology; for example, when the leading paradigm in psychology transformed from behaviorism to cognitivism, which looked at the human mind from an information processing perspective.
The theory and practice of teaching and learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political, and psychological development of learners.
The ability of an individual or institutional entity to deny knowing about unethical or illegal activities because there is no evidence to the contrary or no such information has been provided.
First coined by philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the term refers to the collective common spaces where people come together to publicly articulate matters of mutual interest for members of society. By extension, the related theory suggests that impartial, representative governance relies on the capacity of the public sphere to facilitate healthy debate.
The word itself is French for rebirth, and this meaning is maintained across its many purposes. The term is commonly used with reference to the European Renaissance, a period of European cultural, artistic, political, and economic renewal following the middle ages. The term can refer to other periods of great social change, such as the Bengal Renaissance (beginning in late 18th century India).
A term proposed by sociologists to characterize emergent properties of social systems after the Second World War. Risk societies are increasingly preoccupied with securing the future against widespread and unpredictable risks. Grappling with these risks differentiate risk societies from modern societies, given these risks are the byproduct of modernity’s scientific, industrial, and economic advances. This preoccupation with risk is stimulating a feedback loop and a series of changes in political, cultural, and technological aspects of society.
Sensationalism is a tactic often used in mass media and journalism in which news stories are explicitly chosen and worded to excite the greatest number of readers or viewers, typically at the expense of accuracy. This may be achieved by exaggeration, omission of facts and information, and/or deliberate obstruction of the truth to spark controversy.
A process by which people interpret information and experiences, and structure their understanding of a given domain of knowledge. It is the basis of decision-making: our interpretation of events will inform the rationale for what we do next. As we make sense of the world and accordingly act within it, we also gather feedback that allows us to improve our sensemaking and our capacity to learn. Sensemaking can occur at an individual level through interaction with one’s environment, collectively among groups engaged in discussion, or through socially-distributed reasoning in public discourse.
A theory stating that individuals are willing to sacrifice some of their freedom and agree to state authority under certain legal rules, in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights, provided the rest of society adheres to the same rules of engagement. This model of political philosophy originated during the Age of Enlightenment from theorists including, but not limited to John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was revived in the 20th century by John Rawls and is used as the basis for modern democratic theory.
Autopoiesis from the Greek αὐτo- (auto-) 'self', and ποίησις (poiesis) 'creation, production'—is a term coined in biology that refers to a system’s capability for reproducing and maintaining itself by metabolizing energy to create its own parts, and eventually new emergent components. All living systems are autopoietic. Societal Autopoiesis is an extension of the biological term, making reference to the process by which a society maintains its capacity to perpetuate and adapt while experiencing relative continuity of shared identity.
A fake online persona, crafted to manipulate public opinion without implicating the account creator—the puppeteer. These fabricated identities can be wielded by anyone, from independent citizens to political organizations and information warfare operatives, with the aim of advancing their chosen agenda. Sock puppet personas can embody any identity their puppeteers want, and a single individual can create and operate numerous accounts. Combined with computational technology such as AI-generated text or automation scripts, propagandists can mimic multiple seemingly legitimate voices to create the illusion of organic popular trends within the public discourse.
Presenting the argument of disagreeable others in their weakest forms, and after dismissing those, claiming to have discredited their position as a whole.
A worldview that holds technology, specifically developed by private corporations, as the primary driver of civilizational progress. For evidence of its success, adherents point to the consistent global progress in reducing metrics like child mortality and poverty while capitalism has been the dominant economic paradigm. However, the market incentives driving this progress have also resulted in new, sometimes greater, societal problems as externalities.
Used as part of propaganda or advertising campaigns, these are brief, highly-reductive, and definitive-sounding phrases that stop further questioning of ideas. Often used in contexts in which social approval requires unreflective use of the cliché, which can result in confusion at the individual and collective level. Examples include all advertising jingles and catchphrases, and certain political slogans.
A proposition or a state of affairs is impossible to be verified, or proven to be true. A further distinction is that a state of affairs can be unverifiable at this time, for example, due to constraints in our technical capacity, or a state of affairs can be unverifiable in principle, which means that there is no possible way to verify the claim.
Creating the image of an anti-hero who epitomizes the worst of the disagreeable group, and contrasts with the best qualities of one's own, then characterizing all members of the other group as if they were identical to that image.
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