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Why we wrote Monster

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A Tough Love Letter On Taming The Machines That Rule Our Jobs, Lives And Future
W-DROPCAPAsset e — Ben and Paul — have worked in tech most of our professional lives, as IT analysts, management consultants, and technology practitioners, playing a small role in creating and shaping an industry that employs a significant percentage of the world’s working population and is now worth an eye-watering $4 trillion a year. We have unashamedly been technology evangelists. But recently something has changed, and now we’ve become worried. Why? Because we increasingly come across not as tech evangelists but as tech apologists.

“AI is the great story of our time!” we say (on stages around the world).

“Data is the new oil.”

“Everything that can be automated will be automated.”

“Hyper-personalization is key to competitive advantage.”

“Don’t be a bad robot — be a good human being.”

“Contact tracing is key to stopping the coronavirus.”

“Pre-digital dinosaurs roam the earth. Don’t be one.”

People nod, and often applaud, which is nice, but then the real questions start.

“How many jobs will AI destroy?”

“What should my kids study?”

“How can we compete against pure digital companies?”

“What will ordinary, non-tech-savvy people do in a world of brilliant tech superstars?”

“Will we need to sacrifice our freedom for our health?”

“How can I beat the robots?”

“What about Universal Basic Income?”

“Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution lead to a real revolution?”

“What scares you?”

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Typically, we nod, pause, smile, and say, “That’s a very good question.” Then we try our best to convey a message that acknowledges the concern in the questioner’s mind but also provides a positive, hopeful point of view: “If we take the right actions now, things are going to be OK. Better than OK, in fact.”

Lately, though, we’ve started feeling less certain that things are going to be “better than OK.” And it’s in that light that we attempt in this short book to ask and begin to answer perhaps the most important question of our time:

Have we inadvertently built some kind of technology monster that is attacking our society, our economy, and even our individual psychology? If so, what should we do about it?

Central to this darkening mood have been four key trends:

  1. The persistent sense of dread (even in the absence of any real evidence) that brilliant machines will outpace even the most brilliant of minds.
  2. The ubiquity of social media (and growing awareness of its negative impact at a micro and macro level).
  3. The unholy pas de deux between “big money” and “big tech.”
  4. The pervasive feeling that in aggregate, tech is making our jobs, personal lives, and even our societies somehow worse, rather than better.

Combined, these dynamics have soured the perception of technology as a force for good, and left many questioning the core tenets of technology’s role in our lives and societies.

Including, now, us. We love technology, remember? But even we are asking ourselves, “What the hell is going on?” Anyone looking at the daily news — except for the most myopic and naïve — could easily think, “Jeez, we are collectively losing our minds!” Social conventions of privacy and courtesy are melting away. Our democratic institutions — fair elections, civil discourse — seem as quaint and distant as buggies and gas street lamps. Once cool, disruptive tech “rock stars” are being exposed as nothing more than the latest digital robber barons, propped up by easy money that arrives as an “offer you can’t refuse” with few questions attached but in reality is a clear demand to “make me a boatload more money.” Increases in aggression, depression, and self-harm are seen by some as signs that our new machines are melting our brains.

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Minds, money, machines, society — together, these systems weave a complex web of history, economics, sociology, religion, law, and politics. They are all interconnected, and together they are morphing the rules of our jobs, lives, and societies in a way we haven’t seen since the First Industrial Revolution. We can feel it, and you probably can too. While many good things are happening around us, we know we can do better. To improve, though, we must recognize the ground truth about where we are.

It’s in that light that we — Paul, Ben, and the many, many colleagues, journalists, academics, clients, colleagues, pals, and family members with whom we interact — have been discussing: “What is happening? What seems to be going wrong? What should we do about it? What kind of world do we want?”

Our exploration is structured around four key pillars:

  1. Capital. Tech and money are now inextricably interlinked. What has money done to tech, and what is tech doing to money? Is there any way out of a future in which money is the only thing that matters?
  2. Psychology. We are already cyborgs. Our phones are never out of our hands. Soon, they will be in our glasses and inside our heads. What does this mean? Can we ever disconnect, figuratively and/ or literally? What is happening to our minds (the original, organic CPUs)? Is this exciting and good or terrifying and a disaster?
  3. Society. Tech is accelerating the compounding of winners and losers. Live in a Zip code full of code? Life has never been better. Live in an analog town? Protectionism and wall building can seem like the only option. Social media echo chambers have started an uncivil war that is currently virtual and digital but could soon feature real bullets.
  4. The New Machine(s). Artificial intelligence is perhaps one of the most important human inventions. We grant you your cynicism but caution that your raised eyebrows will be your undoing. AI is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen, and we’ve been looking at big things all our working lives. How can it not change every aspect of our world in the coming years and decades? And yet we (the collective we) still have very little grasp of what it is going to do to us.

If they weren’t entirely obvious before the pandemic, the downsides of our “wired” world are on full display now; a global 24/7 news industry (incentivized to dramatize and inflame every tweet and data point); a social media industry incentivized to amplify the “macro” “breaking news” into “micro” “freaking out;” and the unholy alliance between Mainstream Media and Social Media (Zucker and Zuckerberg) that creates a vicious cycle at which Churchill would weep. (Nobody’s keeping calm, and nobody’s carrying on.)

We offer the following in the spirit of honest exploration and genuine humility, and with a sense that without good questions and dialog, we will never find good answers.

This book examines the fundamentals of how the new machines are reshaping our economy, our society, even our own minds and, in doing so, it aims to get to the essence of what we all need to do to move toward a future that may not be a utopia but is far less likely to be monstrous.

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