the 3 tech billionaires shaping our world

the 3 tech billionaires shaping our world

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In the 20th century, politicians’ views of human nature shaped societies. But now, creators of new technologies increasingly drive societal change. Their view of human nature may shape the 21st century. We must know what technologists see in humanity’s heart.

The economist Thomas Sowell proposed two visions of human nature. The utopian vision sees people as naturally good. The world corrupts us, but the wise can perfect us.

The tragic vision sees us as inherently flawed. Our sickness is selfishness. We cannot be trusted with power over others. There are no perfect solutions, only imperfect trade-offs.

Science supports the tragic vision. So does history. The French, Russian and Chinese revolutions were utopian visions. They paved their paths to paradise with 50 million dead.

The USA’s founding fathers held the tragic vision. They created checks and balances to constrain political leaders’ worst impulses.

Technologists’ visions

Yet when Americans founded online social networks, the tragic vision was forgotten. Founders were trusted to juggle their self-interest and the public interest when designing these networks and gaining vast data troves.

Users, companies and countries were trusted not to abuse their new social-networked power. Mobs were not constrained. This led to abuse and manipulation.

Belatedly, social networks have adopted tragic visions. Facebook now acknowledges regulation is needed to get the best from social media.

Tech billionaire Elon Musk dabbles in both the tragic and utopian visions. He thinks “most people are actually pretty good”. But he supports market, not government control, wants competition to keep us honest, and sees evil in individuals.

Musk’s tragic vision propels us to Mars in case short-sighted selfishness destroys Earth. Yet his utopian vision assumes people on Mars could be entrusted with the direct democracy that America’s founding fathers feared. His utopian vision also assumes giving us tools to think better won’t simply enhance our Machiavellianism.

Bill Gates leans to the tragic and tries to create a better world within humanity’s constraints. Gates recognises our self-interest and supports market-based rewards to help us behave better. Yet he believes “creative capitalism” can tie self-interest to our inbuilt desire to help others, benefiting all.

Peter Tiel stood in front of screen displaying computer code.