Discussing Tristan's Op-Ed: Our Brains Are No Match for Our Technology

Tristan just published an op-ed on the New York Times.

Thoughts on this?

Readup link / Direct link

I commented on Readup:

“With our Paleolithic instincts, we’re simply unable to resist technology’s gifts.”

Not true. I love my Paleolithic instincts and I know, from personal experience, that we’re capable of being bigger than our prehistoric impulses, and keeping them in check.

“That’s because our Paleolithic brains aren’t built for omniscient awareness of the world’s suffering.”

Also not true, or at least I want more proof. I wasn’t born knowing that humans are going extinct, but it’s beside the point anyway. Humans since the dawn of time have witnessed suffering unlike anything I can imagine in my most hellish nightmares.

“Our online news feeds aggregate all of the world’s pain and cruelty, dragging our brains into a kind of learned helplessness. Technology that provides us with near-complete knowledge without a commensurate level of agency isn’t humane.”

We’re better than this. The problem isn’t de-sensitization. We don’t need to soften reality. We need more brave souls to dive into the wreck, to make sense of things, and steer us forward. We aren’t helpless!

“Our Paleolithic brains also aren’t wired for truth-seeking.”

Where is Tristan coming up with this?

“Simply put, technology has outmatched our brains, diminishing our capacity to address the world’s most pressing challenges.”

Aiight, bro. You’re free to believe that, but I’m still on team human. We’re bigger and better than this, by a longshot.

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Nice article and thanks for opening this thread, @loundy!

First of all - as a privacy-minded citizen myself - I like the arguments of Tristan that solving the privacy and personal data crisis will not solve the problems we face with social media. I think the article makes clear that these are only preconditions and the problems he addresses are bigger than the privacy debate.

I think you and Tristan are still on similar paths and yes, both very much in team human. Tristan also acknowledges that we are ‘bigger and better than this’ in his quote of Edward O. Wilson on whether we can solve the crisis that confronts us, where the stated answer is “Yes, if we are honest and smart,” and later on before he dives into the solution space when he mentions “we have the power to reverse these trends”.

I personally think the narrative of ‘Paleolithic instincts and brains’ sounds a bit too abstract and theoretical and can easily detract from the message. You have to realize he is generalising, encompassing the whole of humanity, but that you, me, Tristan, all HTC members and many others are already outliers, who through their awareness and critical thinking skills are fighting these instincts and the negative pull of technology.

In general, is humanity currently able to resist technology’s gifts? I don’t think so. Tech is outpacing us fast. Can we change that? We could.

With regards to our ability to deal with “omniscient awareness of the world’s suffering [because] our online news feeds aggregate all of the world’s pain and cruelty”. Any negative news or experiences sell best on the internet, so we get way more of it than we used to encounter. Humanity has indeed witnessed incomprehensive suffering, but more of it stayed hidden, was more localised, first-hand and therefore necessarily dealt with.

With the flood that reaches us now, and with most of it beyond our control to direct action (other than responding online), this leads to both de-sensitization and apathy. These are real problems as people come to see this as the new normal, and they are reinforcing the phenomenon by sharing it further. As a result the world may seem more rotten than it may actualy be, and we feel helpless in the face of it. A distorted reality is created. Tuning things down (by regulating tech) is therefore not a softening of reality, but rather more of a scaling back to factual reality.

As said before, I think that Tristan very much agrees we need more brave souls and that we are far from helpless.

Re: Our brains aren’t wired for truth-seeking and “Where is Tristan coming up with this?”. He answers this, though briefly: “Information that confirms our beliefs makes us feel good; information that challenges our beliefs doesn’t.”. We are all biased and social media play into that by having us placed into all kinds of filter bubbles very effectively. People rarely go out of their comfort zones, and inform themselves objectively of the opposite tribes. I think the tremendous and rapid rise of divisiveness and partisanship we see in e.g. the US and UK can largely be blamed on the power of social media to influence us. The truth is the victim and a post-truth society dawns if we don’t act decisively and quickly.


—> And I think I also agree that this is really hard, as for most people their ‘Paleolithic’ brains are in the way of becoming part of the solution. There is a very small (but luckily steadily growing) amount of people who are involved in turning the tide.

Hot damn, that’s so true!! I always appreciate your words of wisdom, @aschrijver. And you’re totally right about Tristan’s overall optimism (with respect to the EO Wilson quote and “we have the power.”)

Humanity has indeed witnessed incomprehensive suffering, but more of it stayed hidden, was more localised, first-hand and therefore necessarily dealt with.

Very true.

I enjoy hearing your perspective. I usually end up feel bad about bad thoughts, and negativity in general, but I can’t help the fact that when I read “Our brains aren’t wired for truth-seeking” I think: No! My brain is totally wired for truth-seeking! After all, it’s what makes me human. I try to do it all day every day - seek truth, create truth. It’s almost as foundational as breathing.

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This is a very interesting point.

I tend to think that I am the same as you in this regard. However, - knowing that in all that happens in our world an objective truth exists - the real question is to what extent we are able to perceive this truth without adding our own biases to it?

Tristan’s observation “Our brains aren’t wired for truth-seeking”, I believe, is spot on.

When reading some information piece - e.g. a very good online article - that truly aligns with our formed opinion and beliefs it is easy to think “Fantastic, I agree! I have to share this with my friends and the wider public”. Yet later on, after doing so, you encounter people that are just as strongly opposed as you are convinced of the truth of the piece. Are they wrong, misinformed? Are they deceived, misled? Or are you missing the mark?

Well, this depends, of course, and ideally both you and your opponent try to come up with convincing arguments to strengthen your case. This is the truth-seeking we all do… to a certain extent. Important is that usually both parties will not be 100% on top of the objective truth. Biases will have crept in.

Objective truth-seeking is what most people do not do. It is exceptionally hard, requires dilligence, perseverance, open-mindedness and a great deal of objectivity. It is a scientific expertise, practiced by e.g. law-enforcement detectives and such. The difficulty can be made more manageable by distributing the effort of objective truth-seeking, by crowdsourcing it (like how Bellingcat is doing it).

But for most people the process stops when either you find an acceptable middle-ground, or you agree to disagree. In other words: Our truth-seeking capabilities are limited.

I think it is fair to say that this limitation derives from our Paleolithic brains. We are not superintelligences with unlimited memory, and in the time available to us we can only approximate the objective truth.

So now let’s bring technology - social media and the internet - into the picture. Tristan says “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.”.

Once again this statement is very accute. The technology - in the way it brings the wealth of humanity’s knowledge and information to our doorsteps - is godlike, as it far exceeds our Paleolithic brain’s capacity to process it. Then our emotions take over: Like when we enthusiastically share the article prematurely, or we get angry with our discussion partner and blurt out something very biased, possibly offensive, cutting off the discussion. None of our institutions have evolved to keep up with rapid technology innovation, and are not capable to correct let alone protect us.

In conclusion: Are we capable of truth-seeking? I’d say yes, … but at Paleolithic levels. So a bit more nuanced phrasing of Tristan’s argument would be: Our brains aren’t wired for truth-seeking [in our modern information age].


Finally I’d like to add a viewpoint of my own, which is not mentioned - possibly intentionally left out of scope - in Tristan’s opinion piece. They concern the true nature and extent of the problem, as I see it.

Tristan - and the CHT - limit their mission primarily to solving big tech - which is wielding godlike technology to harvest our attention - and the urgent need to regulate and change technology. This done both by governments as well as within corporations themselves, helped by public awareness, and with the goal to restrain tech’s power. The resulting solution is then called Humane Technology.

They also have their finger on the most likely outcome if we fail to act: An unraveling of the social fabric of society and collapse of democracy is likely to occur.

We can see this happening already; the evidence is all around us. But I think we - mankind - are, to more or less extent, culprits in aggravating the problem - most often unwittingly - by failing to address root causes and biggest drivers in our problem analysis.

This is where I’d like to extend the discussion to areas where CHT has been, so far, silent. I hereby coin my own term for the rest of this post, and call it ‘dealing with pluto-politics’.

Humanity is in truly turbulent times. We are in a state of transition towards a new paradigm, that will replace the post-war era. After WWII we have risen to unprecedented levels of prosperity driven by a synergetic combination of capitalism and democracy. As capitalism has been transforming while democracy stayed stagnant (and is now eroding) this synergy is now coming to an end.

Most of us take our predominant economic system for granted - a great success - but in fact I think it has been flawed from the very start. Capitalism is based on the presumption of infinite growth (which btw is impossible in nature), and works on the preconditions of continually adding new participants and consuming more resources. It is Ponzi scheme-like, and now that its preconditions - especially resource availability - are failing, the system is straining to maintain itself. Capitalism piggy-backed on top of democracy very well because it facilitated consumerism, but increasing resource scarcity is the party pooper now. As a result democracy becomes less relevant to the survival of capitalism itself.

Left to its own devices, unfettered, capitalism is an inherently predatory system. It abhors regulation and other restraints and, as wealth is flowing to the top, wealth inequality and power imbalance ever increases. A plutocracy is forming.

This is where we find ourselves today. Now let’s again bring technology to the mix.

Technology is a tool. It can be used or abused. Godlike technology is awesome, but its potential for abuse is awful. Technology and its innovation is for the most part owned by the rich and powerful. They get first access, and decide what trickles down to the rest of humanity. In the quest of the plutocrats to maintain their status quo - to keep the system that enriched them in place - they are discovering how to best wield this tool for their purposes. Technology is being weaponised as the enabling force for the next era of humanity.

The rise of the oligarchy. Pluto-politics is at play.

Root cause, biggest driver is capitalist plutocracy. Forget populism, partisan politics, the left vs. right divide or even geopolitics. These are mere strategies to divide, distract, confuse us. To overload our Paleolithic brains, if you will, and have our Paleolithic emotions cloud our vision. The internet and social media allow injection of these strategies and campaigning on them with high effect and efficiency.

Adding these insights to the efforts of the CHT - as far as you agree with this - makes it clear how exceptionally hard the mission to regulate tech and bring about humane technology truly is. Similarly it is understandable if they make no mention of these aspects, as that may be counter-productive (e.g. in lobbying activities). But I think they have to account for it in their strategies.

Yeah, I know. Quite some theory to pose here, so I am curious for your opinions and open to your own insights.

Note: In no way am I suggesting that there is a single one group of people behind these trends, acting in usison and in a concerted effort. No conspiracy thinking. Rather this is a very chaotic new reality that is emerging organically (as with everything in nature and society).


There is another Phrase from the Honorary Professor of Harvard University on biodiversity, from entomologist and biologist Dr. Eduard Osborne Wilson, where he states that: "The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and the reason is only one of its various techniques. "
The truth is that since the Bing Bang 13,800 million years ago today, the Universe is expanding. And in this expansive process, both systems and species develop and disappear. The one of Homo Sapiens enters giving rise to what we all know today as the human being, it is another thread.
Hence, saying that “Our brains are no match for our technology” (Eduard Wilson) is as true as knowing our brain and technology are the perfect complement in human life from early childhood to the stockbroker.
For several years as a researcher, I studied the technological implications in the social order of the human being. And I would say that our brain is like a sensor with self-learning that draws on information through its five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) that processes and results in an exit or response. It is a process called IPO-NET.

Giving the following postulates:

1.-In the expansion of the universe, the entire system that does not adapt and integrate with the environment that houses disappears or dies.

2nd Mankind in its 1998-2036 period runs through the most disruptive process of its entire evolution. With the global interconnection of their brains in a network (Internet of Objects, Artificial Intelligence, Cryptocurrency, etc.), giving rise to a new model of society that we could call the Brains Networked Society. Will we be able to adapt humans in the coming years? This is what our survival is about.

3º In 1997, we designed networks of up to 15,000 point interconnections through Virtual Private Networks. In 1998 with version 4 of the IPv4 Internet protocol up to 4,300 Million and since 2011 in 340 sextillions with IPv6 (something like 670 thousand billion IP addresses per square millimeter of the surface of Planet Earth. Nanotechnology, medicine and Biotechnology will lead this short space-time.

4º The Big Tech (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Windows) are leading the new model from Silicon Valley. This Center for the Development of a Human Technology is called to play a very important role. In a few moments of transcendental survival.

5º It is urgent to create a global state that voluntarily adheres in principles and values ​​to 3/4 of humanity to address the issues so important to overcome in the next two decades.

6º The one that happened until 2036 is going to be explosive and that we inhabit a strongly polarized planet where only 12.3% of the population (EU Japanese EU) create and enjoy almost half of the planet’s GDP. What will happen if we interconnect it?

We are going through a time of uncertainty where the forecast is that of growth exponentially. Urgent ideas and leadership are required on a global scale before reaching the point of no return.**

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Agh, yes TEAM HUMAN.

I have such a soft spot for these Op-Eds by Tristan because his work is part of what finally gave me a language to understand why I felt so drained and exploited by the technologies i used for work & play.

His TedTalk was a big motivator for me to dive deeper into this and talk more about it. Lately, it’s not hitting the same mark for me.

I feel like the issue is informed humane tech-ers like us are not the target audience for this piece. It’s the politicians, regulators, and tech insiders (who think they’re saving the world) who he’s trying to change.

This makes me a bit more empathetic to his arguments, but still a bit like “c’monnnnn I am better than that, humans are better than that”. When you extract to high level observations of a populations behaviors on a tech platform, sure we all look like monkeys who cant resist click bait.

The early adopters of this movement seem to be a bit turned off by his piece because we understand we have agency.

I know myself, I’m more in the Jenny O’Dell camp of active, present resistance. We have agency, and choice.

I can opt out of the distractions, these platforms, and turn off newsfeeds and notifications. Yes, it’s hard because the people who aren’t savvy are left behind wondering where tf we went but…that’s the nature of being early on the adoption curve.

And not having a brain for truth-seeking? I hope thats a typo because curiosity is precisely what let us evolve to the complex tech wielding beings we are today.


I’m with you on this. I think the question “who’s it for” clarifies a lot of my disconnect with this piece. Myself, and the HTC people here are early adopters on the adoption curve of humane tech.

When I read this, I get the impression it is written for people who aren’t on board yet, or who aren’t aware of this kind of thinking. I’d love legislators to read this kind of thinkpiece and seeing it’s posted on NY Times makes me think it could be a strategic positioning for the message. Big readership for an audience that isn’t cued in.

I kind of agree that we are having a hard time resisting technology’s gifts, but I think there is a mindset of “the inevitablility of technology advancing” that lends to this. It’s a BS mindset but it is everywhere in the tech world. Tech advances aren’t inevitable, we’re just acting that way and making it true with our actions.

I think that’s why so many people jump in so fully without thinking, they think its inevitable so they have to get in on it.

This last bit looks like he’s taking confirmation bias and twisting it a bit to work here. Our brains are “lazy” and do actively look for sources that confirm our biases, it’s why it’s so hard to change someone’s mind with facts alone, you need an emotional appeal.

love this

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