Restoring Common Sense In An Age Of Experts & Artificial Intelligence

Information, data, and choice continue to expand in exponential ways leading to a constant and never-ending sense of drowning. If there was too much to know yesterday, there’s more today, and tomorrow will have yet more. There is no way to catch up. 

And yet the promise of optimized decision making in the face of this overwhelming choice is as alluring as ever. All indicators suggest the availability of a perfect selection, one that does more than merely providing a good outcome. We live in constant fear of missing out on the ideal choices. But because we cannot optimize every decision, we turn (with high hopes) those who know more than we do about the domains in which we must decide. 

The experts and technologies that offer salvation, however, are fundamentally constrained and in certain circumstances, they may be structurally flawed. The problem stems from the deep and narrow focus that tends to accompany specialized expertise—it inhibits an understanding of the whole situation or the context in which decisions are being made. By turning to experts, technologies, and rules, we end up ceding control of our focus and our thinking to those who are unable to appreciate our decision context. As our self-reliance skills atrophy, we become dependent and blindly follow expert guidance. The result is often sub-optimal outcomes driven by dynamics transpiring in the shadows of an expert’s spotlight. 

To combat this mindless outsourcing of our thinking, we must learn to proactively manage our focus. This begins with awareness of the filters and focus managers that we utilize to help us screen out the supposed noise. Shifting our attention by looking at problems differently (zooming out, investigating lateral dynamics, etc.) is one way to mindfully reclaim control of our focus. We need to question the decision frames set by focus managers. 

And since experts and technologies cannot appreciate the entirety of our decision domain and ultimate objectives, they optimize tasks. They help us win battles. But great tasks and victorious battles are no solace for failed missions or lost wars. We need to remain goal-oriented and not allow advisors to divert us from keeping an eye on the prize we seek. 

The other dynamic that tends to plague our thinking is a devotion to convention and historical precedent. Truly independent thinking is risky and we therefore tend to do less of it, but doing so can both minimize risks and generate opportunities. 

But because each and every perspective (including our own) is biased and incomplete, it makes a great deal of sense to employ multiple perspectives and to triangulate insights through several lenses. We need to empathize with those around us and constantly role-play for different functions over different time frames. Installing a dedicated devil’s advocate, conducting pre-mortem analyses, and flipping perspectives are some strategies to help. 

Ultimately, however, we must restore our autonomy. We need to retake control, which means we must learn to lead. Expert and technological input is essential, even if not sufficient. But we must always keep experts on tap, not on top. We are the artist, with full contextual knowledge, preparing our mosaic. Experts provide tiles. We should utilize these tiles as needed in the process of forming our map of how to proceed. 

It’s time to rethink many of society’s embedded assumptions. We prize depth, perhaps too much so. Might we also value breadth? We revere those with deep expertise. Might we raise the status of those with broad perspective? Further, the nature of omnipresent uncertainty is that we must learn to embrace ambiguity and to learn how to navigate through probabilistic scenarios. We have to think in terms of multiple futures and to nurture the creative imagination that can minimize the negative impact from the inevitable surprises. Fundamentally, we need to (re)learn to think for ourselves. 

The stakes of doing so have never been higher. Consider the following comment from Stephan Paternot, an entrepreneur who founded theglobe.com and has been an astute observer of social technology trends for decades: “There has been the emergence of a very few concentrated players controlling the tech world, which has led to the loss of transparency, the harvesting of data, and the weaponizing of our highly personal information against our own interests.”

And if you think Stephan is a conspiracist, please think about the following. Google has billions of Android users. Each one of those devices constantly sends data back to Google. What kind of data? Well, it turns out that most devices have a barometric pressure sensor, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a magnetic field detector. So, in addition to all the data relating to your use of the device, Google can calculate your heart rate, how fast your moving, and so on. In fact, as noted in a recent New Yorker article, “This constant flow of information allows your phone to track whether you’re sleeping or awake; whether you’re driving, walking, jogging or biking; whether you’re in the Starbucks on the ground floor or the lawyer’s office on the tenth.” 

This is the basis of what Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, in which these big companies use the information they gather about us to determine what we do now, soon, or later. As she explained in an interview with the Guardian, the power these companies wield “usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy.” Fundamentally, big tech appears to be in the game of trying to do your thinking for you, and worse, trying to get you to act on those thoughts. 

Because of the algorithms used, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are de facto able to influence your decisions in ways that may not be obvious. They manage your focus and do your filtering. They set your decision frames. Zuboff describes the problem in more stark terms, highlighting the potential of surveillance capitalism to undermine humanity: “What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will . . . without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgment and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society.” 

We are at a serious inflection point. In an age of experts and artificial intelligence, critical thinking skills and the expression of moral judgments are more important than ever. Thinking for ourselves can inoculate us from many ills and may even help us defend against the influence that big tech is exerting upon our autonomy. 

There’s a scene in the movie The Iron Lady in which an aging Margaret Thatcher is with her doctor, who asks how she is feeling. She responds with “People don’t think anymore; They feel. . . . One of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now thoughts and ideas, that interests me. . . . Ask me what I’m thinking!” 

So the doctor asks, “What are you thinking, Margaret?” 

She responds with what was, in Lady Thatcher’s actual life, one of her most memorable quotes: “Watch your thoughts for they become words; watch your words for they become actions; watch your actions for they become habits; watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.” 

Given the criticality of thinking for ourselves, we need to protect ourselves from the excessive influence experts and technologies. We must manage them. And when thinking about how to manage experts and technologies, it might make sense to think in terms of being an orchestra conductor. In addition to being the subject of executive leadership courses, Wolfgang Heinzel, former conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck (the Merck Orchestra) has decades of experience in bringing together the capabilities of various specialists to successful produce inspired music. He explains that “A maestro cannot play all the instruments,” and therefore needs to rely on his string, woodwind, brass, and percussions performers. But in speaking of his team, Heinzel notes “They know their instruments, they know how to play their parts . . . but now I have to bring it all together.”

If you stop and think about the role of the conductor, I think it really is all about conscientiously leading a group of specialists to integrate the inputs of others into something neither the conductor nor the players could produce on their own. 

Dots are everywhere. The real, sustainable know-how we must all develop is the ability to connect them. To lift our heads up and notice the context. And to constantly question the underlying assumptions that we retain as “true,” thinking for ourselves independently and not blindly relying on the opinions of others. Doing so, in my opinion, is modern day common sense. For as EO Wilson, the legendary biologist has said: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

The future, it seems, belongs to those who think for themselves. 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence by Vikram Mansharamani. Copyright 2020 Vikram Mansharamani. All rights reserved. 

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