How A Half-Educated Tech Elite Delivered Us Into This Chaos

Authored by John Naughton, op-ed via The Guardian,

If our supersmart tech leaders knew a bit more about history or philosophy we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now...

One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But he’s not alone. In fact I’d say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of “OMG, what have we done?” angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters.

Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines – intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history – or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

We are now beginning to see the consequences of the dominance of this half-educated elite. As one perceptive observer Bob O’Donnell puts it:

“a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognise much sooner the potential for the ‘tyranny of the majority’ or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of today’s social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

All of which brings to mind CP Snow’s famous Two Cultures lecture, delivered in Cambridge in 1959, in which he lamented the fact that the intellectual life of the whole of western society was scarred by the gap between the opposing cultures of science and engineering on the one hand, and the humanities on the other – with the latter holding the upper hand among contemporary ruling elites.

Snow thought that this perverse dominance would deprive Britain of the intellectual capacity to thrive in the postwar world and he clearly longed to reverse it.

Snow passed away in 1980, but one wonders what he would have made of the new masters of our universe. One hopes that he might see it as a reminder of the old adage: be careful what you wish for – you might just get it.


Future Jim Shemp 4 Victory Sun, 11/19/2017 - 22:03 Permalink

I call bullshit on the claims of the players.State of America—Trump, Year One One year ago, the players were above the law, and they continue to be above the law today. One year ago, less people knew that the media are on the same side, and that the alternative media are controlled opposition. Two years ago, the players launched a campaign to intensify conflict between the so-called left and the so-called right, and that campaign is ongoing. Attempts to generate zealotry on the right however, have begun to peter out. Likewise, attempts to sell Trump as anti-establishment have also largely petered out. An increasing number on all sides are figuring out that Trump is controlled opposition. Two years ago, the players also launched a related and more successful campaign to incite the right by using the controlled alternative media to inform them about the atrocities perpetrated against them and their country. Such atrocities are being sold by the controlled alternative media as the work of the left because they ostensibly benefit those on the left, but the average person on the left was almost as ignorant of these atrocities as were those on the right. These atrocities have been ongoing for decades, but they continue to be sold by the controlled alternative media as something new so that the right will not ask why they are just now hearing about it when it is too late to do anything about it. Likewise, the right has not yet noticed that the controlled alternative media have given them mostly ineffective and demoralizing counter-arguments and solutions. Over two centuries ago the players launched a campaign to bypass the Constitution, which is ongoing, and for all practical purposes, complete. Two millennia ago, the players launched a campaign to neutralize any grass roots resistance, and that campaign is more effective than ever. The eternal war of makers vs. takers … also ongoing. If you are on the left, the government and the media continue to have your back. The followers on all sides continue to be fundamentally the same as each other in most ways. The leadership of all sides continue to be on the same side themselves; whereas, the followers on different sides continue to be different from each other in some fundamental ways because different strategies work on different kinds of people. For example, if you were the kind of person whose fears compelled him to conform, and who insisted that others conform, then you would naturally find yourself on the side where the government and the media have your back, and thus you would find yourself on the left. Whereas, if you were not afraid of peer pressure, not interested in virtue signaling, and not so quick to write off friends and family who fail to conform, then you would instead be played with false flags and exaggerated news about common-sense types of fears, such as criminals, freeloaders, drug addicts, foreign enemies, and terrorists.

In reply to by Shemp 4 Victory

Future Jim Shemp 4 Victory Sun, 11/19/2017 - 22:05 Permalink

I call bullshit on the innocence of the players.What's stopping the players (e.g. the CIA) from perpetrating any conceivable crime, assassination, spying, psyop, or false flag?The players are above the law—globally, control the global media, and have nearly limitless means, so when they have a motive, what could be stopping them?The players are psychopaths, who thus have no conscience, so that's not a reason that any rational and well-informed person would assume is stopping them.The only reason to ever assume the players have not perpetrated any conceivable crime, assassination, spying, psyop, or false flag ... is if it would threaten the illusion of legitimacy. Without the illusion of legitimacy, the whole system that empowers them would collapse.The illusion of legitimacy is the belief that the government has a right to do whatever it is doing because it represents the will of the people, and that the will of the people is sufficient to make it legitimate. Of course, the will of the people is not sufficient to make government legitimate (democracy is not legitimate) so it is also necessary for the players to maintain the illusion that democracy is legitimate, and it is also necessary for them to maintain the illusion that democracy is indeed how the system works and that it is not just some facade masking how the system really works.In other words, the only reason any rational and well-informed person would ever assume the players have not perpetrated any conceivable crime, assassination, spying, psyop, or false flag ... for which they have motive ... is if it might cause the people to conclude that the system doesn't work like they think it does. As long as the players can make the results of their actions look natural to a majority, or look like the work of some scapegoat, then there is really nothing stopping them.

In reply to by Shemp 4 Victory

Bastiat bunnyswanson Mon, 11/20/2017 - 09:01 Permalink

The humanties historically have produced a deeper appreciation of human nature, but much of it now is marxist theory and criticism as applied to the humanities.  Yes, you can develop a sense of humanity studying literature, history, and philosophy . . . if you are allowed to focus on the material, rather than critical theory

In reply to by bunnyswanson

inhibi Bastiat Mon, 11/20/2017 - 13:29 Permalink

Actually, the mess of American politics encrouching upon civil liberties is due to the fact that the US jails no one with power, no matter how evil they are or how heinous the crime.Knowledge has little to do with anything honestly.America did not punish a president who raped an intern: now they wonder why all the elites are constantly caught raping women like Harvey, Al Franken, etc.America did not punish the banks for providing interest free money with a devils contract that created and burst the housing bubble. America did not punish the CEO's for offshoring large amounts of their workforce overseas, and using PE firms to conduct corporate raids on companies that they bought for cents on the dollar.America allowed for the continual disintegration of individual rights and the strengthening of corporate rights via the Supreme Court, whose decisions have ultimately betrayed the Constitution they are meant to protect.Its sad to say, but as a kid, Enron was the only and last time I EVER saw the heads of an American corporation prosecuted.

In reply to by Bastiat

HedgeJunkie Future Jim Sun, 11/19/2017 - 23:29 Permalink

Since my Facecook inspired FBI visit I just sit back and enjoy the show.Zero Hedge took away my OldPhart moniker when I called them out as a bunch of pusses who won't go out and investigate obvious crimes of Hillary and the democrats back in 2015.Now, I'm Hedgejunkie, life of about two years instead of eight.The agent said he had eight others to visit in my rather small town.  There's hope for us.

In reply to by Future Jim

WernerHeisenberg kochevnik Sun, 11/19/2017 - 23:10 Permalink

And Jonathan Swift knew that Mars had two moons.  And Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for among other things refusing to retract his outrageous assertions that:1) The Earth revolves around the sun2) The stars are distant suns3) Distant suns also have planets4) Some distant planets have life5) Some distant planets are inhabited by intelligent beingsBruno was convinced of all of this 8 years before the invention of the telescopeYes, downvote all you want, there are human beings living in the present who have learned quite a bit in their past lives and can access at least a portion of that knowledge

In reply to by kochevnik

The Ram shovelhead Mon, 11/20/2017 - 06:28 Permalink

Shovelhead - intuitive knowledge is quite real.  That's one of the biggest flaws of the current 'education system' - the belief that knowledge must be 'pumped in' through long and often boring hours in a lecture hall.  When people are encouraged or by just their own inner guidance to use their intuition, they can come up with astonishing things.  Also, we don't know the level of technical prowess here on this planet in civilizations that existed millions of years ago.  The earth is billions of years old and we here at this point are babes.  Unfortunately, the best only live a hundred years or so, so are observations of the planet are extraordinarily limited.  If we were 20,000 years old, it would be hard to fool us.  We would have witnessed most all the the current shannanigans over and over in many ways in many ages.

In reply to by shovelhead

ReturnOfDaMac pitz Sun, 11/19/2017 - 22:08 Permalink

Damn pitz, you do make a good point there pal.  Goobermint goons get taxpayer paid pensions and get to retire at 55 too with NO H1b competition allowed by law.  All in all though, a good STEM education will get you further on average as there are more private sector opportunities than goobermint ones.

In reply to by pitz

pitz ReturnOfDaMac Sun, 11/19/2017 - 22:13 Permalink

"All in all though, a good STEM education will get you further on average as there are more private sector opportunities than goobermint ones" Not seeing that at least in the short term.  In the long term, sure, but in the short term, STEM unemployment is extremely high and very qualified STEM workers have a hard time finding jobs.

In reply to by ReturnOfDaMac

ReturnOfDaMac pitz Sun, 11/19/2017 - 22:29 Permalink

Thats only the case if you're over 40.  It's well known that tech co's don't hire a lot of over 40's.  Have to lay 'em off to make room for the new 20 somethings and since 'muricans don't really do as much STEM they are mostly immigrants.  Have a look at UC or CAL and you can readily see why most of the employees in tech are immigrants.  But if you keep it hard and your powder dry, you can always roll your own and do quite well.  If you're into web s/w your easily start your own thing using Amazon S3, if you are into hardware, top of the line CAD tools are fairly inexpensive, if you're into mechanical design solidworks is reasonable.  It takes a pair to do your own thing but it can be done fairly inexpensively these days and the rewards can be huge.

In reply to by pitz

Utopia Planitia ReturnOfDaMac Mon, 11/20/2017 - 00:15 Permalink

There are many USA citizens who are STEM graduates.  Including me.  The problem is that it has become "kool" to hire STEM people from outside the USA.  Because they can then pay them less.  A huge scam has been run on the entire country that "there are no STEM people in the USA".  The reality is the complete opposite, but the propaganda has been broadcast endlessly and the public now simply accepts the lie.I have TAUGHT many foreign STEM students and their general qualifications are far below that of Americans.  Not to mention all the language and culture issues that you have to deal with.The lie about "there are no USA STEM graduates available" has been a self-fullfilling prophesy.  They don't want any USA STEM graduates and hence they actively discourage anybody who is a USA citizen from even trying.My firm has made tons of profit fixing the messes that foreign STEM folks have created for their employers.  It is all kept very hush-hush to continue the propaganda that "there are no USA STEM graduates".  It demonstrates how gullible the public is to the propaganda of the media.  And how vigorous the progs are in creating their perverted world view.

In reply to by ReturnOfDaMac

Lieutenant Logic Utopia Planitia Mon, 11/20/2017 - 13:43 Permalink

Spot on! In fact, many scientists and engineers actually enter the business sector after they earn their degrees (e.g., a friend of mine, a Physics Ph.D. joined a prestigious management consulting firm out of school because STEM wages weren't as attractive due to wage depression by foreign labor.)Stats vary by year, but the trend is clear: More American STEM Ph.D.s than necessary, more STEM bachelor/masters-trained individuals entering outside fields (lack of available jobs plus more competitive wages outside industry), and this is BEFORE you factor in the advent of Artificial Intelligence, which has the potential (according to McKinsey & Co.) to replace a significant portion of tasks currently being performed by STEM individuals (see Technical Potential for Automation document).Lastly, there are a significant number of underemployed college graduates with the technical skills necessary to perform many STEM tasks (data collection and analysis, mathematical computation, constructing models, etc.) 

In reply to by Utopia Planitia

pitz ReturnOfDaMac Mon, 11/20/2017 - 04:04 Permalink

The tech co's don't hire Americans under 40 either.  And most STEM grads are still white US citizens.  Of course this is lost on the tech industry which gravitates towards using foreign nationals in an effort to cut back their compensation expense.Plenty of Americans do STEM.  But their applications are tossed into the garbage by the employers.

In reply to by ReturnOfDaMac

ReturnOfDaMac jbwilson24 Mon, 11/20/2017 - 00:11 Permalink

Wow JB, I think what may be missing is the entreprenurial spirit.  It's hard for me to fathom how one can earn a PhD in CS and not be able to figure out some code you can write to make $$.  I can understand Biology with government involvement regulating every damn thing to insure monopolies stay in charge, but software ?  That is shocking to me.

In reply to by jbwilson24

yvhmer ReturnOfDaMac Mon, 11/20/2017 - 07:29 Permalink

True! thouh it stands to reason that those who know somethins of history, have a better chance of NOT repeating the same shit.I would like to add that this article basically says: these people are uninformed, so they need an education. Thing is, there are many people part of a development. The current celebrated techies have their product developped over the years by numerous people. A swot analysis is always pack and parcel of this. And now this article want to tell us these people NEVER EVER thought of identifying potential clients, whereas they are quite aware of them? And to add further injury, the article wants to convince us of the need for a diversification end this nescience. RIGHT! This is utter bullshit.The only thought this article correctly expouses is that these people simply ignored that part. Reason? Perhaps many more than one: money, prestige, convenience, more money, etc. 

In reply to by ReturnOfDaMac

I Write Code Sun, 11/19/2017 - 21:38 Permalink

Very nice, Mr. Naughton, but be careful what YOU wish for, too.>to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. >Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths.Now, now, every man has his price, and I daresay it's far less than a billion dollars for most.  We've had a preview of this on wall street in 2008. No need to say such nasty things.  A man will be forsworn for a kingdom.For these reasons governments are instituted among men.

Scornd Sun, 11/19/2017 - 21:39 Permalink

yes the garden path is laid with good intentions. they didnt get the memo.

smart. not wize, as another poster put it.

useless idiots, being evil.