Let me start with an embarrassing story.
It seemed—to me and to others—that the internet was bringing us a better economy. People were working together, on giant projects like Couchsurfing, Wikipedia, and Linux. I was a true believer in this new economy: Love was the new motivator. Money would fade away.
By 2012, I’d sobered up. By then, Facebook’s News Feed and YouTube had not only replaced TV, but had added hours of screen-time per person per day. The “attention economy”. In alarm, with Tristan Harris and others, I cofounded the Center for Humane Tech.
Actually, it wasn’t called “the Center for Humane Tech” at first— it was called “Time Well Spent”. This was part of my proposal to fix the problem. At CouchSurfing, we tried to maximize the amount of meaningful time our users spent with each other, rather than any measure of transactions. Tristan and I thought that, if more people did this—if they maximized “Time Well Spent” instead of “Time Spent”—it might fix the tech industry.
So, I was pretty naive when I thought flashmobs were the new economy. But I was still naive in 2012.
I was young, and I thought the problems I was seeing around me were, well, technological.
But it goes deeper than that.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that modern society is better at giving people individual experiences, than collective ones.
Now, people do want collective things: they want belonging, connection, community, love, they want adventures together. But if you look at long-term trends, we get less of these things year-by-year.
In most developed countries, people used to hang out on the porch with their neighbors, or in pubs; then they started watching TV as a family; then they switched to multiple TVs, one in each room in the house; finally the TVs got upgraded to smartphones. Each person staring at their own rectangle of glass.
Over the same period, church communities got replaced by individualized yoga classes; dating and friend groups got replaced by swipe-based apps and porn.
I mean, sure, some apps or websites might be good for community for a moment. I guess Couchsurfing was one. If you work on one of those, like I did, you might feel you’re changing the trend. But zoom out again and—no, sorry, the trend’s still there.
And there’s more:
Modern society can address a wide range of tastes—tastes in food, tastes in clothing. There are giant marketplaces. Amazon. The App Stores. Something for everyone.
Or so it seems.
They address a wide range of tastes. But a person isn’t only made of tastes. There’s a kind of difference between people, these marketplaces can’t serve. Everyone has different sources of meaning—you may find it meaningful to be wildly creative; she may find it meaningful to be quietly contemplative; just about everyone finds it meaningful to love and be loved deeply.
But somehow, even “the everything store” can’t connect us with our sources of meaning.
So you might be thinking, perhaps this is okay. Modern society has given us a lot. Maybe the isolation and meaninglessness is worth it, in the end?
It might have been. For a while. But nowadays, well,
- The problem with meaning—I'll show—has been breaking the engines of progress. Breaking things like science and democracy. If our society is to function at all, we need to make social networks more meaningful for creativity and vulnerability; we need to make research labs more meaningful for deep work.
- And togetherness isn’t just for kumbaya-singing hippies. When we don’t get our collective needs met, there’s a breakdown in politics and social trust. The basic cycles of love and dating breakdown. Schools become bureaucratic and cut-throat.
So we should understand this problem with meaning and togetherness, and do something!
In this talk, I’ll lay out a plan.
- In chapter one, I’ll try to explain the problem. You’ve probably heard people try—with terms like “alienation”, “individualism”, “atomization”, “Bowling Alone”, or “the loss of the sacred”. I’ll focus on something different: how we scaled up society, using mechanisms like markets and recommender systems.
The next three chapters show how deep changes in social structures could bring back togetherness and meaning.
- In chapter 2, I start with the problem of measuring meaning. Why’s life more meaningful sometimes than others? How precise can we be about meaning? I'll argue we can be very precise.
- In chapter 3, I’ll build on that. Not only can we be precise about meaning, a kind of entrepreneurship and design can reliably deliver meaning. But, it’s not the kind we're used to. It's not mechanism design, not UX design, not lean startup. These are actually bad for meaning. I’ll demo another kind of design, and use it to redesign twitter, focusing on one kind of meaning.
- Finally, in chapter 4, I’ll talk about changing large-scale structures like recommender systems, markets, and social media. I’ll give an example, by redesigning TikTok, to make it better for meaning and togetherness.