“Progress or Collective Insanity?”

©Hazel Henderson 2021


Today, we are enslaving ourselves in efforts to keep up with ever-faster screen-based digitization of our societies, 5G speed, AI, IoT, cryptos, NFTs and virtual reality still boosted by illusions in venture capitalists’ dreams. As we know, all our global media have become humanity’s external nervous system, but these media are far from mature, still driven by our earlier tribal fears, cognitive biases and limitations, lacking wider awareness of our true situation in today’s planetary reality.

We humans are all desperately trying to keep up with today’s frantic speeds in digitizing all aspects of our economies and societies, as I described in Steering Our Powers of Persuasion Toward Human Goals. We try to re-train ourselves, coach our managers to connect all the dots ever faster and understand our politics in today’s Mediocracies and their Attention Economies, I first described in 1996 in my Building A Win-Win World (e-book,2004). Alvin and Heidi Toffler sounded their alarm in Future Shock (1970) now celebrated by futurists in After Shock(2020). We wonder why, after the Covid lockdown, people are taking stock of their lives, the value of their time and whether to stay in this unwinnable rat race.

I noticed this fatal mismatch in stock markets in my paper Perspectives on Reforming Electronic Markets and Trading for the UN Inquiry on Sustainable Finance in 2013, when I looked at the frantic contest for speed, dubbed “latency” in high-frequency trading on Wall Street, where firms were trying to shave off nanoseconds to get their orders ahead of others. All this speed was to make money faster and more “efficiently”, all according to earlier economic textbook rules developed in slower centuries, now still encoded in trading algorithms. This crazy speedup of day-trading, with asset managers glued to their screens with buckets handy, so they avoid trips to the bathroom. Trading had already become an addiction, like gambling, along with excessive advertising, as I outlined in Market’s Problem Twins: Trading and Advertising, where I review Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, Dark Pools by Scott Patterson and The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (2021) by John Coates, describing the disturbed psychologies of traders in London’s stock markets. Their desperate efforts to keep up with information flows, these traders and asset managers try to manage trillions of pensions for beneficiaries hoping to retire someday!

So, are we humans going to continue to enslave ourselves to all this rapid information-based digitization and monetization of nature, land, ecosystems and our personal information? Even as it causes even more drastic disruptions to our lives our mental and physical health and wellbeing? So far, the planet’s real processes are teaching us directly on our devastation’s effects, while the Silicon Valley for-profit goals of our social media external nervous system are still controlling our societies and democracies, as well as our finance and geopolitics.

Let’s remember our physics classes: Information travels at the speed of light, while natural processes are bound by physics of the real planet and the laws of thermodynamics. Silicon Valley and Wall Street continue their profit-driven goals of greater speed in making money now beyond the bounds of human processes. Our hearts can only beat so fast, our legs can carry us only so far, all animals have their own pace of birth, maturation and death. Planet Earth still takes 365 days to travel around our mother star, the Sun.

While thoughtful scientists including the late Stephen Hawking have been predicting that we must take charge of all human-trained machine-learning of software and retain control of the so-called “artificial intelligence” which may dominate us if not guided by humanistic common goals. Even Elon Musk now fears advancing AI more than nuclear power! So far, my reviews of all these thoughtful books (Books & Reviews) have not sounded sufficient alarm, as I describe in Let’s Train Humans Before We Train Machines.

Now geostrategists Henry Kissinger and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in The Age of AI (2021), assess these dangers if we lose control in global information cyber wars, since the new “battlefield” is the very networked platforms that have become the foundation upon which wired societies function. They add, as reported by Nathan Gardels in Noema, “The human mind has never functioned in a manner in which the internet era demands”. Global agreements are needed to ensure that “decisions that may be irrevocable are made at a pace conducive to thought and deliberation—and survival”.

At last humanity is waking up and mounting a defense against this assault on our health, mental and emotional wellbeing. In my Steering Social Media Toward Sanity, I outlined five step that can begin re-taking our lives, time and mutually-caring communities that are based on the age-old traditions of the Golden Rule, the earlier principles of our mutual respecting interdependence (see Wikipedia for this Do As You Would Be Done By rule in all languages, promoted by Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed and philosophers for centuries.). These steps are now leading to actions in many countries.

  • Require all social media platforms to be responsible for the veracity of their content, just as all other media, by repealing Section 230 of the US FCC Community Decency Act of 1996. This is now being addressed in many countries.
  • Break up these social media monopolies, some, like Facebook, bigger than many nation states, with 3 billion users globally. Anti-trust suits are in progress in the USA to break up Facebook and Google, while China is taking similar steps to curb social media profits and the addiction to screens of its children.
  • Require full transparency on who owns and controls these tech giants and whether they allow anonymous accounts, whether by hate groups threatening violence to politicians or allowing Russian bots, like those who influenced US elections in 2016.
  • Any social media platform claiming to be a neutral “public square”, rather than advertising-driven and financed whose goals are maximizing profits, must decide which approach is its business model. If it claims to be a “public square” then it must be regulated as a public utility, like our other utilities, which have capped returns, overseen by public interest boards and only allowed to run ads that are in the public interest, convenience and necessity, as our US laws state for all media.
  • Pursuant to the settled English law of the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Magna Carta of 1215, every human owns their own body (even though many countries and male citizens do not accept this is also true for women). In our Information Age, we can add that we also own our brains and all the information we create, such as we advocate in our URLs: info-habeascorpus and i-habeascorpus.

Many of these actions are now following the revelations of many whistleblowers from within these social media giants, Facebook, Google, and others, which outline how their business models maximize advertising profits. They are driven by algorithms designed by psychologists to “engage” users, keeping us addicted to screens with content designed to outrage us, elevate our heart rates and blood pressure, or offering to “refer” us to like-minded groups, however misinformed or misguided. All this allows conspiracy theories and misinformation to spread worldwide at the speed of light, which has caused deaths, insurrections, and persecution of minorities in many countries, and is now affecting our physical and mental health. The US-based Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder examines these ever-faster paced effects on our health and dangers to our democracies and maintaining peaceful ways and simpler lifestyles beyond advertising and consumerism. This Commission is also calling on all kinds of professional societies, accrediting lawyers, doctors, scientists, technologists, engineers, architects, etcetera to monitor and police their own memberships’ compliance to their ethical standards.

This capture of mass media, our external nervous system, is an old story. Each new technology was seen as an opportunity to break out of the commercial and government capture of existing media, since powerful elites know that media access is vital to control public perceptions and extend their powers of persuasion.

I remember in the 1960s, as a member of the National Committee on Public Broadcasting, and later, when cable television emerged, I participated in debates on how to keep some television in the public domain, owned by cities, NGO groups or foundations. As cable became captured – reduced to C-SPAN channels “donated” by dominant commercial cable owners – our hopes were dashed, even though US laws recognize that the US public owns our airwaves. Our hopes soon re-focused on the internet and platforms for open civic engagement, free speech and debate. The visions of Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web are still alive, and even more vital now that our global goals of common concern are to protect the planet’s biodiversity, climate and natural ecosystems from commercial capture by profit and power motives.

Earlier warnings were sounded by Stuart Ewen in Captains of Consciousness, (1976): Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, (1957); The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing To Our Lives, (1989) by psychologists Ian Mitroff and Warren Bennis. Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, (1985) picked up the torch, along with Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, (2018); The Hacking of the American Mind; The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of our Bodies and Brains (2017) by public health official Robert Lustig, MD; Jaron Lanier‘s Dawn of the New Everything, critiquing Silicon Valley’s addictive business models and the risks of virtual reality. Overviews by Prof. Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, (2018) and Rana Foroohar’s, Don’t Be Evil, (2019) warned of the overtaking of our decision-making by software, code and algorithms further explored by mathematician Cathy O’Neal in, Weapons of Math Destruction, (2018) and Anya Schiffrin’s Media Capture: How Money, Digital Platforms and Governments Control the News, (2021).

So, we have been warned! Will we continue to enslave ourselves to this dystopian future of information-driven unreality? Or will we reclaim our rights to live in the real, natural world, enjoying our time, relationships, community pursuits at our own pace in smaller towns, off the grids? Can we enjoy humanity’s traditional face-to-face relationships, acknowledging again The Golden Rule of our mutual interdependence and with all other living species? For a glimpse of more positive options, watch the winners of our EthicMark® Awards for Communications Uplifting the Human Spirit in Society. It’s still our choice!