Paul Roberts: “The Impulse Society” | Talks at Google


HOST: Good afternoon. Welcome to Talks at
Google in Cambridge. Today it’s my great pleasure
to introduce Paul Roberts, who is the author of “The
Impulse Society.” He is also the author
of “The End of Oil,” and “The End of Food.” As a journalist, his writing
has appeared in the “Los Angeles Times,” the “Washington Post,”
“The New Republic,” “Newsweek,” “Rolling Stone,” and elsewhere. He was a finalist for
the National Magazine Award in 1999, and for the
New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award in 2005. In “The Impulse
Society,” he talks about how the urge for instant
self gratification has permeated every aspect of
our culture, why that’s bad, and how we can
find a way forward. Please join me in
welcoming Paul Roberts. [APPLAUSE] -Hello, Cambridge. Can everyone hear
me, who wants to? Good. Right on. So thank you for the kind
introduction, Jonathan. And thank you all
for coming out. Especially to hear someone
who writes books with titles like, “The End of Oil,”
and “The End of Food.” Because you know it’s probably
not going to be super cheery. So yeah. I’ve just published a book
called “The Impulse Society.” There are some
copies over there. We’re going to be
discussing some of the ideas and
arguments in there. But before I get
to that, I wanted to preface that with a few
remarks about publishing, generally. Because as you guys
know, publishing is sort of being transformed
by the nanosecond. I mean, the business is going
through some great changes. And the act of publishing is
just– I mean, for someone in the middle of
it, it’s bizarre. You know, if you publish a book,
you’re expected to promote it, which means writing,
among other things, writing op eds and articles,
and then publishing them. Because they’re being
published online, it means sooner or later you’re
going to be confronting who? The troll, right? And you all know the troll. They operate in the
comments section. And you know,
they’re pretty nasty. But when is it’s at you,
or something you’ve done, it’s like getting
punched in the nose. It’s amazing. These guys are just brutal. And I’m reading these
comments last week, and it just– oh, you’re
just going smack, smack. And my reaction
isn’t to get angry. I’m like, ugh, the guy
just doesn’t understand me. We need to straighten this out. Like, if you just text me–
text me your number, dude, and we’ll like, hang out. My editor’s saying,
don’t read the comments. And don’t treat these
people like people. Because they’re not. By the time they’re
trolling, they’re not people. He’s being really
protective and fierce. But there’s some truth in that. Right, because the
circumstances of trolling are pretty dehumanizing. I mean for the troll. If you think about,
it’s like we give them this technology, and
this sort of culture that rises around that
technology that allows them to sort of disengage
from a lot of the social rules and norms that would
ordinarily prohibit that kind of nastiness. Now think about it. They’re sitting there in
near-total social isolation. You know, their
parents’ basement. And they’ve got
this technology that allows them to just sort
of gratify any thought. The nastiest thought,
instantly and without fear of consequences. They’re operating
totally anonymously. And I think as
importantly, they’re not there when their
comments are read. So they don’t see
me burst into tears. So they don’t have to
bear witness and feel that social pressure that again,
would ordinarily sort of keep that kind of nasty
impulse in check. And you realize that when you
give people the capability to disengage from
these social norms, and to pursue immediate,
narrow self interest, the temptation to do just
that is really strong. And I’m talking about
trolls, of course. But it does raise the
question, at least in my mind. What would happen if you ran
a whole society like that? I mean, what would it look
like if it was, hypothetically, this socioeconomic system
that one of its functions was to provide individuals and
institutions with a huge amount of capability– some of which
could be used to disengage from restrictions, including
social restrictions. You know, norms. What would that
society look like? And if you look at
the title of my book, you know that I think we
know what it looks like. I think we live in
a society like that. Or we live in a society
that’s becoming like that. Now, we’re not all
trolls in basements. At least, I really
hope you guys aren’t. But we do live in this
socioeconomic system whose function is to
provide a lot of capability. The capability to sort of order
your life the way you want. And part of that reordering
is to engage and disengage from the social
structures at will. And as you’re able
to do that, you’re able to do a lot of things. But one of those things is to
pursue narrow, immediate self interest. And I think that’s
what we’re doing. It’s not happening all at once. We’re not always
doing it all the time. I mean, you all
managed to get here to work without
running over people. I’m assuming. And shouting invective
out the window. But incrementally, I think
we are becoming a society– that because we have
this capability, we’re focused more and more
on immediate, narrow self interest. And you can see it everywhere. I mean, you can see it in
the way individual struggle to sort of manage
all this power. But you can see it
institutionally. And importantly, you can
see it in institutions that, traditionally, we relied
on to sort of help individuals manage all that capability. So obviously, the
political sphere and the financial sphere. Now we’ve seen individuals
and institutions in the financial sphere gain
a huge amount of capability to sort of pursue immediate,
narrow self interest. And they have. And the effects
haven’t been all great. So it turns out–
I’d argue that you can’t run a society like that. You need to have
a society that’s more focused– at least some of
the time– on some of what I’d call more traditional values,
including patience, and self discipline, and a belief in
something larger than the self. At least some of the time. Because if you don’t have that,
society can’t sustain itself. And it seems to me
that figuring out how to restore some
of those values in a socioeconomic system
that’s busy giving us all this capability,
somehow finding a way to balance all that is one
of the top questions we need confront. So that’s sort of
what we’re going to be talking about today. And there will be, obviously,
an opportunity for questions. And you can throw things,
and things like that. So, I started looking
into this a few years ago. I was doing this book on food. And initially, my interest was
understanding the economics of the food industrial complex. But I got into it, and
it didn’t take too long to realize that the more
interesting narrative, at least to me, was the way the food
industry has sort of dissolved the social bonds that were
once associated with food. Because if you think about
it, food traditionally has been this intensely
social affair. You couldn’t consume
a single calorie without engaging in one
social hierarchy or another. And that’s been that way for–
since the beginning, really. And what the food industry
has done is changed all that. And I mean, think about
the last 150 years. The food industry has made
food a heck of a lot cheaper. And it’s made it so much
safer, more convenient, more interesting. It’s allowed us to– we
have so many food options that we can kind of create the
perfect menu for ourselves. And we have total
caloric self expression, if you think about it. I mean, the food industry
has even gone so far as to help us not
even pay attention to the social and political and
environmental realities that go along with food production. We can eat guilt
free, if we want. We’re allowed to do that. And if you consider
what that means, it means we have this freedom. We’re no longer required to
wait on our mom to feed us. Because it used to
be the homemaker controlled food output
in the household. And you ate what she
cooked when she cooked it. And you didn’t complain. And you probably had to
sit through two, maybe even three family meals, and endure
the socialization process that went along with those. And it was pretty restrictive. And now that’s gone. Or it’s disappearing. Right? So we’ve got this incredible
amount of freedom. And that’s the good news. We’ve got all this freedom. But the bad news is, we’ve
got this incredible amount of freedom. And in some cases, we
go too far with it. Sort of a free for all. And I wanted to share this
picture from my favorite news source these days, “The Onion.” This is– true
story, naturally– this is about a new ad
that Arby’s is running. And for $2.99, customers
will be allowed to leap behind the
counter and scoop up big handfuls of roast
beef, right? [LAUGHTER] And to the degree that
you find that funny, the joke is that it’s
not– it’s only like, an angstrom from
being true, right? I mean, you drive by
Arby’s, and if you’re not familiar with the place, you
might look through window and kind of expect
to see this going on. And it’s not just
Arby’s or fast food. It’s the whole food
system, really. We’ve sort of become
this free for all, where we are encouraged
and empowered to dispense with any norms that
would otherwise help us think about
managing our consumption. And it’s not just
the food industry. Anywhere you look– credit,
automotive, personal technology. I mean, the financial
industry, to go back whipping on them–
it kind of reminds you a little bit of what
goes on Wall Street. I think the one guy there–
isn’t that Jamie Dimon? I mean, it sort
of looks like him. OK. So I think we’ve seen enough. We can move on now. But we can go back to that
later for a second look, if we need to. So I’m not suggesting
that we’re all practicing the equivalent
of leaping over the counter and scooping up big
armloads of roast beef. What I’m talking about is much
more of an incremental process. We’ve added,
incrementally, the sorts of capabilities that are
available to individuals and institutions to
pursue self interest. And incrementally, our
behavior has changed. And the way incremental change
works– you don’t notice it, you don’t notice it. And then one day, you
wake up and you go, wow. Things really are different now. I mean, look at social media. It’s cliched to
even bring this up. But I’ll bring it up. We do things now,
routinely, that we would have considered
obscene two decades ago. I mean, for me to do
back in high school what I do routinely today–
and I went to high school in the late ’70s. So a long time ago. What I’d have to do is
get up super early, right, and spend the morning
taking pictures of things, like my face, and my
breakfast, maybe the cat. And then I’d have to go to
school with a stack of pictures and hand them out to people. Saying, with each time
I handed out, hey, like me, like me, like me. Me And the thing is– I don’t
know about your high school, but if I had done that back in
the ’70s, every time I tried, I’d have gotten punched. Because you just didn’t do that. You didn’t self promote. Dude, who the hell
do you think you are? It was just unheard of. And yet now we just
share, we post, we declare the most mundane, or
intimate, or mundane intimate thing. And plus, we expect to
get affirmed for it. We expect to get a reward. We expect that
someone will like it. And admit it, how bummed you
are when you post something and no one likes it right away. I spend the day kind of pouting. It’s like, what did I do wrong? And how come he posted a
picture of the same cat? He got, like, 130 Likes. So if you think about
what’s happened, we’ve incrementally
added this power. And it’s sort of
changed our behavior, such that not only are we
posting all this stuff, but we’ve created this new
system for valuing ourselves. And the provocative
postings get more Likes. So naturally, what happens? The incentive system
changes, so people are more provocative
in their posts. So you have these kids
killing themselves to take these wild selfies. And you know that woman in San
Francisco after the earthquake? So she crosses the
police safety line to stand underneath
this collapsing cornice to get a selfie. And the only reason
she’s not dead is because there was
not an aftershock. And she just couldn’t
see the absurdity of what she was doing. Because she was so
excited– I mean, guessing. I didn’t talk to her. She was so excited
about this thing that she was going
to be able to post. And that really, for me,
underscores the danger of this self-centered
ecosystem that we’re creating. And it’s not just
that we overindulge. And it’s not just that
we bankrupt ourselves. And it’s not just that
we’re having trouble thinking about
long-term challenges. On top of all those
things, it’s the fact that we’re so focused
on self gratification– and by extension, the
self– that the self begins to balloon in our
field of vision. It gets so big we can’t
even see around it. We stop thinking there
are other things. It’s just wow, it’s there. This is me. This is great. And humans have a
finite attention span. It’s a finite resource. And that may change. But right now, we have
a limited bandwidth. And if we’re focused
on self gratification, and by extension itself– in
part because the marketplace keeps delivering all this
capability to allow us to focus on the self, and
self gratification– if we’re doing that,
we have less attention to devote to other
things, including complex, long-term things that
aren’t directly about the self. And I don’t think I
need to tell you guys that this is the wrong
time to be self-absorbed. There’s so many things we need
to be looking at– long term challenges. And one of the reasons I think
we are struggling with that is because the whole
socioeconomic system is reorienting itself
around the self. So what do we do about that? How do we step back from that? As soon as you start
talking about self, and self gratification, and
the power to self gratify, it’s pretty awkward. Especially in this country. Because this culture,
in particular, doesn’t take kindly
to suggestions that we curb the
power of the self. We don’t like curbs
on individual power. It really bugs us. And it has since the beginning. And on top of that, optimizing
or maximizing individual power has been the point
of our economy, for like, what, the
last 10,000 years? I mean, that’s the goal
of economic development– to give individuals the power
to order their lives in ways that suit their preferences. More of what you want, less
of what you don’t want. And that’s what
technology is about. I mean, if you take
technology as a subset of economic development. Technology allows us
to do those things. And allows us to
do great things. I mean, again, I don’t
need to remind you the cusp, the edge of the
thing we’re on right now, about to embark on this
entirely new way of being, is being driven by
data technology. And the power
that’s going to give the individual and
institutions to focus on, among other things,
self interest. And so we really need to
understand this power. Not just the double
edged nature of it, but how do we manage this? How do institutions
and individuals manage the pursuit
of self interest in ways that don’t completely
wipe out the rest of us? And again, without imposing some
top down solution that A, never works, and B, will be
resisted ferociously? And for me, really the only
way to even talk about this without getting stoned– I mean
having rocks thrown at you– is to approach it by discussing
the nature of the power itself. Understanding the nature
of the power itself. This capability
that the marketplace is producing so much. Because I think when
we would do that, people can begin to
at least consider how useful it is to use it. And how they’re using it. And whether they want to keep
using it in the same way. When we look at, say, the nature
of a lot of the power that comes out of the
digital realm, we see that there are a
lot of risks involved. I mean, clearly data
breach is just one example. And it’s forcing people
to recognize that wow, on the one hand I’m
getting all this power. On the other hand,
I’m exposing myself to all these risks
that are unprecedented. We don’t even know how
to catalog them all. And so that points up one
of the risks of the power. And you can go through and
can help people understand that all this power comes
with all these caveats. And more and more caveats. And some of those caveats we’re
still sort of figuring out. So that’s one angle. I think more fundamentally, what
I think is critical for people to understand is that the power
the marketplace is ladling out at such copious volumes
doesn’t really have anything to do with us, with the
recipients, in many respects. It’s not our power. We didn’t make it. In many cases, it’s produced by
a producer thousands of miles away. An automaker, Google– you’re
creating all this power. And your agenda
may not be the same as the agenda of the people
who are using the power. You might not even care. And I’m not saying
you, as in Google. I’m saying you, as in producers. And companies are producing
all this power for consumers. Not because they care
about those consumers, but because it’s the
most efficient way to meet their revenue targets. And that’s how
business works, right? But in the context
of this concern that we might have about a
socioeconomic system that’s becoming more and
more self-absorbed, this gap between the agendas of
the producers of all this power and the agendas of
the users– namely, the individuals–
that gap becomes really important in
this consideration of how we’re using this power
and how we might manage it. So one way to
think about this is what I call the Horsepower Race. So this is the huge
competition between automakers during the middle
of the last century. It begins in the
middle last century, to make more and
more powerful cars. And it was discovered by
accident in the late 1940s. Oldsmobile, they come
out with this new car. It’s a midsize car. And they’re about to release
it with a midsize engine. And the one guy says, yo, let’s
put this V8 in it we’ve got. We just invented this V8. So they did. It goes super fast. It wins all these
races at NASCAR. It just sold like potato
chips or whatever. And all of a sudden,
all the automakers realize they’ve got to have
these performance cars. And so, the industry
totally reorients. All these engineers that have
been spending all their time trying to make engines
more fuel efficient are now like, screw that. Every year they’re coming out
with more and more horsepower. So it’s like, turbo chargers,
and then superchargers, then two barrel carburetors,
then four barrels, then six-barrel carburetors. You might as well have,
just, a monkey up there, pouring gasoline
into the engine. And the horsepower
curve is just going up. And we’re sucking it up. We’re loving it, we motorists. And part of that is because cars
were a little bit underpowered. And it was nice to have a
little more go– a little more juice when you were
merging with traffic. But for the most part it
was just– we wanted it. We didn’t need it. We just wanted it. And why did we want it? Well, Detroit was super
interested in this. This was the beginning of the
psychological era of marketing. And they put teams
of psychologists on. There’s a lot of Freudians. They’re surveying
their consumers. And they’re finding
out, the top reason was we just like to go fast. We just like it. It’s fun to accelerate. I mean, for the same reason
you like a roller coaster. But there was all the
psychological reasons, too. We’re using power to
compensate for a feeling of a lack of power in
other parts of our lives. So lack of power at work,
maybe, or in our suburban lives, our marriages, or whatever. And of course, these
are all Freudian, right? So of course they’re
going to say that. But the story is–
it makes sense. And so, Detroit’s loving this. Because, like all
industrial sectors, they built these
huge plants that were necessary to get
the scale, in order to bring the price
of cars down so that everyone could afford one. But once you have
that scale, you’ve got to keep the throughput–
the volume going. Or you can’t pay for it. And you can’t run volume
on a needs based economy. So you need to focus on wants. I mean, this is all old news. But the way they were
focusing was horsepower. So, that’s all
great for Detroit. But of course, the
problem is consumers are using all this power. And the way you use the power–
get value out of the power– is you go faster. And they tripled the
horsepower– more than tripled, between 1940 and the early ’60s. And the top speed went from
85 miles an hour to 145. And we weren’t all going 145. But our speed is up
high enough that we were getting in these
horrific accidents. The rate of fatal
crashes is pretty much paralleling the
horsepower curve. And the carnage
is just piling up. And you think about
what’s going on. It’s like, we’re taking
all this power that Detroit is giving us, because
it sort of has to. And we are using it to
project our inner turmoil on our neighbors, with
sometimes lethal effect. Right, we’re sort
of using the power to rebalance our internal
imbalances, which is kind of nutty, if
you think about it. And what’s, I think,
the important thing is the decision about whether
we’re going to do that. Use all this power to
project our idiosyncrasies and insecurities
onto our neighbors, with sometimes lethal results. That decision is– think
where that’s being made. It’s not just being
made in our own heads. It’s being made throughout
this whole system. It’s being made in part by
the designers and financiers in Detroit who are deciding
how much horsepower they have to offer each year. New horsepower
they have to offer, to meet their own targets. And this isn’t to let the
consumer off the hook. Ultimately, the motorist
has to make the decision. But if you think about it, that
decision has been outsourced. And what’s happened is,
what would have been, I think traditionally much
more of a moral decision. Or at least, considered
in a moral framework. Do I want to take my, say,
anger or my insecurity, and take it out on my neighbor? That question, which
would have been discussed in human moral terms– that’s
been left to the marketplace. And the marketplace is all about
yes, yeah, of course you would. The marketplace just says, yeah. We’re going to put out more
power because we need to. And so we’ve effectively
embraced, and absorbed, and internalized the
values of the marketplace, without really discussing it. I mean, there was no
referendum held in the mid ’50s– should we be doing this? It was just sort of
done, incrementally. And that became the model. And there was no debate over it. And it’s not just
obviously in Detroit. It’s everywhere you look. It’s pretty much
every consumer sector where power is being handed out. And that became the model. And there were people
concerned about it. But at the time– this
is the Mad Men era– there’s still a
lot of safeguards. Namely, there’s a regulatory
state that’s so powerful, it’s not afraid to get in
there and regulate the hell out of business, and
penalize, and intervene in all these different ways. And business is much more
cowable– more easily cowed. And we kept things in line. But all that goes out the
window in the ’70s and ’80s. When we have these– how many
people here are like, super familiar with economic
history of the ’70s? None. OK, so I’ll keep it super brief. But I mean, basically we
had these two huge shocks to the system. And the first was the
computer revolution, which among many other
things allows business to accelerate, and
intensify, and render more efficient this process of
creating capability and selling it. So there’s that going on. And then, at the
same time, there’s this ideological slash financial
revolution, which we sometimes call the shareholder
revolution, when we’re feeling like
having a sense of humor. And what happens
there is that we have this massive recession
in the early ’70s. Oil prices, foreign
competition, the bottom falls out of the market. The postwar economic
miracle that America had been so proud
of just evaporates. And everyone is hurting, right? But the people that
complained the loudest were the shareholders. And they basically told
corporate America– they said, if you ever let
share prices fall as far as they have– and the stock market lost
half its value– if you ever do that again, here’s
what’s going to happen. We’re going to take
over your companies. We’re going to fire your asses. And we’re going to break the
companies up and sell them. And they did that. They demonstrated
they could do that. And corporate America
was like, whoa. That’s some serious business. So they completely
reoriented their strategy. And they began to focus
primarily on share price. And on the things that
contribute most readily to share price,
which is generally next quarter’s earnings. Lot of debate about this, about
what actually is share price. But really, what it comes down
to is next quarter’s earnings. And that became the thing
that you would fight for. That became the thing you would
do pretty much anything for. And to make sure that corporate
management got this lesson– to embed this idea,
this ideology, deeply and permanently in
corporate management, we change the
incentive structure. So no longer would
you be compensated with mainly salary and bonus. You would be compensated
increasingly with what? AUDIENCE MEMBER:
Stock incentives. -Yes, that’s right. And so think what happens now. The manager, sort of
overnight, relatively speaking, goes from being a
manager to an investor. And suddenly
realigns, to a degree that was unprecedented,
with the stock market. Now this is a– from a
historical standpoint, this marks a radical,
fundamental break with what had been going
on in corporate America for most of the postwar period. For as much as we
like to– “We.” Some of us– like to poke the
corporate world in the eye today, corporate America
had been the sensible parent of the economy in
the postwar era. In the sense that
these companies were the ones who made
the long term decisions and had the discipline. They made huge, long term
investments in new plants, opening new markets,
developing new products. Huge investments
in R&D. The money that was put into
basic research– the kind of research
that you don’t even know if it’s going to come up
with anything for 20 years– a lot of that was coming
from private industry. And investments they
made in their workers. It was constant training. Because you had to
keep your workers up to speed with all
this technology that was being developed. Now all these companies
had internal universities. So there were these constant,
long term investments. And they weren’t doing
this because they loved us. They were doing it
because this seemed to be the most practical
way to sustain prosperity. And at the same time,
government was leaning on them, because government was
willing to do that. And labor was much stronger. But there was also
a sense that this was the way to long
term prosperity. So all of a sudden, that’s
pretty much out the window. There’s this much more intense
focus on near term results. Lots of ramifications of
that–and I’ll just limit it to a few. One is that companies
are much more willing to do whatever it
takes to get those earnings. And so we see, not
coincidentally, the rise of the accounting
fraud scandals. So you go from companies– there
would be, like, six earning restatements a month,
back in the ’80s, to like– or six earnings
restatements a year to like, 20 a month. An earning restatement, for
the few of you who don’t know, is basically where
you say, we lied. We made a huge mistake in our
earnings, and for some reason they’re not as
high as we thought. So you have that going on. You know, the Enron scandal is
a great, sort of extreme example of that. And then you have the
focus on cost cutting. Because one of the quickest
ways to raise earnings is to cut costs. Even though it can be hugely
problematic down the line. So all of sudden,
downsizing– it it goes from being an
emergency measure, which is what it had been during the
post-war period, to something that’s almost routine, with
all sorts of effects on the job market. So we not only
lay off routinely, but we’ve cut so much
on employee training. It’s just unbelievable. We’ve left employee
advancement to employees. You’re sort of on
your own, dude. And we’ve taken up
all these gimmicks. I mean, the share buyback
is a classic example. You basically– companies
are spending billions, I mean, trillions of
dollars collectively, buying not new products,
new technology, certainly not hiring new people. But they’re buying
their own shares. Because you take shares off the
market– the remaining shares, the price goes up. Makes the company look great. But you haven’t really
done anything, right? You haven’t expanded business. And you sure as heck
haven’t hired anyone new. And that’s become so routine. So in the two years before
the financial meltdown, the 500 companies
on the S&P 500 were spending 70% of their
profits on share buybacks. OK, so think about that. It’s like, well, let’s make
the bubble even higher, so when it crashes, the
damage will be worse. And let’s so deplete
our cash reserves that, when it does
happen, we’ll have to go to the government
for a bailout. I mean, it’s like
a win-win, right? And you’d think they’d learn. Well, no. You probably
wouldn’t think that. But they haven’t. So that last year, we spent
$600 billion in share buybacks. And so, if you think
about what’s happening, it’s almost like
corporate America and the consumer traded places. Corporate America now acts
like a consumer– sort of a youngish consumer. And the consumer is acting
like corporate America. We’re really focused on
quick returns, our self. And you can see
this personalisation of the entire economy. The entire economy
begins to shape itself around this short term agenda. So it’s everything
from the way we invest, the kinds of innovations
we invest in. You look at things like–
Well, so, Amazon Fire. You probably read today they’ve
lowered the price to $0.99. Way to go. But think about what
the Fire is about. I think this is
really fascinating. So the Fire– for the few of you
who don’t know– its killer app is that you can take
pictures of anything, and it will identify it
automatically and then take you to a link on
Amazon where you can buy it. And they act like, no,
it’s sort of a world phone. Like you’re walking along. You see a rock. And you can scan it and
see if Amazon sells it. Of course they do, right? But really, what it’s
about is showrooming. It’s like going to a showroom–
going to Target, or JC Penney, or whatever. The more hapless,
the better, right? And walking in there, and
buying the stuff in there. And of course, the phone comes
with a year of Amazon Prime. So you could buy the thing
while you’re in the store. Then have it delivered
for free two days later. So it’s super. I mean, think about the
individual capability you’ve just been given. It’s great. But now think socially
what’s going on there. So you walk in, and you
ask the sales guy, hey, can you take me to
the big screen TVs? And you’ve got your
phone in your hand. And you do the scanning. And you look at this guy while
you’re one-clicking him out of a job, right? Because that’s what’s happening. So there’s going to have to
be this new social form that will arise, where the facial
expression that you have, and the tone of voice
when you’re one-clicking a person out of their job. It’s sort of like,
hey, sorry man. But you understand, you know. Of course they don’t. But so there’s that. It’s like this
economic violence. I mean, there’s been economic
brutality since the beginning, right? But this is so intimate. It’s right there, you know? And I just think that’s brutal. And on top of that,
it’s so short term. Because if we’re
all showrooming, there can’t be any showrooms. I mean, even if you remove
20% of their business, you’re going to hammer so
many showrooms that there won’t be any left. Why would they fund something
that Amazon or anyone else– So basically, what are you going
to do with your great phone? You’re going to take a selfie in
front of this abandoned store. I mean that’s kind of the–
And so much of our innovation is really so focused on
the near term, without– and it makes it easy not to
think about those long term consequences. And more and more, that’s what
our economy does, you know? And not to take away
from all the stuff that’s completely the opposite. I mean, there’s so
much stuff where the potential for good and
things that build society is out there. I’m not suggesting
that’s not the case. But look at where
our investment flows. And look at where our
attention is directed. Often as not, it’s not at that
those positive developments. And that’s not entirely
the media’s fault. And think about the way that big
data– the potential for that is just massive. Personal medicine
is just one example. But big data also has a lot of
other ways they can be used. I mean, I don’t need
to tell you this. But I will anyway. I mean, think about
the porn industry. How’s that for a
conversation stopper? [LAUGHTER] I’ve done
a lot of research. And, uh– [LAUGHTER] But I mean, the porn
industry is a great example of how technology
has altered behavior. Because up until
the ’70s, porn– it was sequestered away
in these dark places. Because we had a lot of
social rules against it. But we also had no
technological way to liberate everyone’s
porn appetites. So you had to go to
the seamy side of town. Or watch it in your house
with the little 8-millimeter [MOVIE REEL NOISE]. And that was it. And so it was this tiny
little marginal activity. And then video comes along. And all of a sudden, the cost of
making a porn flick just drops. I mean, the cost of
making a color porn flick dropped by a factor of 20. So all of a sudden, you could
just churn these things out. And they just poured
into the marketplace. I mean, the number of titles
released just goes up. It’s more than the
horsepower thing, it’s– And so what happens
is, not only does it become more easy to access–
so there’s freedom there. And people can watch
it if they want. They can watch it in the
privacy of their home. And they don’t have to worry
about what other people say. And that’s their business,
as far as I’m concerned. But consider this. Porn is now so varied. And there’s so many options. And there’s so many genres, and
subgenres, and sub- subgenres. I mean, you have
no idea, the things that you can find
out there, that are sort of designed
specifically for very particular tastes. And so what you
have is this sort of porn world, where people can
watch the bizarrest activities. And they can talk about them
with other people that share that taste, because there’s
a nice little network for it. And so it normalizes it. It becomes this thing
that like, well, doesn’t everyone do this thing? And so when they
attempt– if they ever do– to re-engage with
mainstream society and go on a date, it
can be really tough. Because the real world
doesn’t look a thing like what they’ve
just gotten used to. And OK, it’s sort of amusing. And porn is an extreme example. But we are allowing people
to do that in every realm. It’s not just porn. And so, it raises this
really interesting question. How do we optimize this
capacity for the individual to create these worlds that
are totally personalized, and so give you the freedom
that people deserve to have, and yet at the same time allow
people to have the capacity to re engage socially? How we do that? How do we re-balance that? Re I think that’s just super tough. And I guess more generally,
how do we step back from this impulsive,
self-absorbed society that I’ve been describing? And I’ll tell you. And it’ll sound like I’m just
giving you more bad news. But I’ll tell you the
story about this guy I met when doing the book. His name is Brett. And he was a fellow–
he was an online gamer. And he played World of
Warcraft obsessively. He just had played
it for 4 years. And his online self
was super successful. He was one of the best
players in the world. And he was sought after. And it was like
being a rock star. In his real life, things
were just falling apart. His health was declining. His schoolwork
wasn’t going so well. Socially, he could hardly
even have a conversation. And he finally reached
the point where he knew that he was
in serious trouble. And he recognized
that this world that kept giving him
more capabilities, keeping him on this
treadmill– but they weren’t real
capabilities at all. He finally had to
go cold turkey. He completely just pushed back. And checked himself
in for treatment. And I’m happy to report that
he’s actually doing great. And there’s a lot of people who
are in the same boat, who’ve had to make that same decision. And you’re thinking, what
does it have to do with me? Because you, or
anybody– the whole world doesn’t spend all its
time battling aliens. But in a sense, the
world that we’re creating– this
hyper digitalized socioeconomic system does give
us– there’s an analogy there. We are being given powers
that are approaching those. And the question is,
where we go from that? And I think that
Brett’s example is a good one for us to consider. He pushes back. And what happens when he
creates space between himself and this market-driven system,
with its market-based values, is he allows his own values
to reassert themselves. And at first, it’s very basic. It’s like, wow, I just needed
to develop some patience. I needed to develop some
hobbies other than this, right? A real life. But he gradually begins
to discipline himself and to reengage with society. And he’s actually finishing
up a degree in sociology. And he wants to
become a counselor. So I mean, that example. So there’s one guy. Great. What does that mean? Well, I think it’s an example
for the rest of society to at least consider
this idea of creating space between ourselves and
the system that we have come up with, and its values. Its market-driven values. And to start asking– and being
much more deliberate about how we use power that’s
coming out of this system. It’s not to suggest that
we’re going to stop using it. I mean, we can’t. That system is going to
keep producing power. And it would be
irresponsible on our part to completely disengage from it. Because someone
will use the power. The question is,
how do we use it? And how deliberate
is our decision, O or are our decisions,
about using it? And I think that’s really where
we need to do a lot of work. And you can see this
happening all across society, sort of informally. Like families who unplug because
they don’t like what they think personal technology is
doing to their kids. It’s people who back away
from Fox News and CNBC. Sort of the echo chambers. Because they don’t like how
that is changing their– is poisoning their
faith in democracy. It’s people who are considering
local production, local food, whatever. I mean, it’s folks who are
at least taking a moment to ask themselves– all
this capability that’s coming to the marketplace. It can do a lot of good. But it won’t be able
to do a lot of good unless we are considered
and deliberate in our application of it. And that’s really
where I’ve come down, after a lot of research and
a lot of talking to folks is, this is happening. This power is coming. And it will come. And it will increase– it
will come increasingly. And the question is,
how do we manage it? And obviously, you guys are
in the driver’s seat there. Because a lot of
that management is going to come from
better understanding. I mean, having better data
tools to ask ourselves, geeze, what will this new increment
of power mean for x? And are there ways to manage it? And what will the
costs and benefits be? So having a better
handle on that, I think, is going to be fantastic. And there’s a lot of apps that
will allow you to do that, sort of in a handheld way. But I think that has to go
hand and hand with a much more personal, individual
approach which is in some ways old fashioned. You can’t outsource
all your decisions. You can’t keep relying on
another sort of data system to tell you how to act. At the end of the
day, you’re going to need to have
some basic patience. Some basic self discipline. And a basic willingness
to look beyond the self to the greater good. So that is my message today. I appreciate the attention. And I look forward
to your questions. Thanks very much. [APPLAUSE] My work is done. Oh– no. AUDIENCE: You were saying
that this social change, this anti-enlightenment,
you could call it, has come little by little. That’s the United States. That’s much of the
developed world. But socially conservative
cultures in other parts of the world– for example,
many Islamic countries. Their elders, their leaders,
see the American entertainment industry, or you could
say industry in general, turning their young
people into this impulse society within
their own country. And that, in my view,
is much of the rage that drives the hatred
from that side. And because it’s such a
stark difference there. Because it isn’t something that
happened gradually with them. It’s a generational skew. It is the parents trying to
keep their households cut off from this. But not being able
to prevent it. That it provides a good
example of the challenges and the remedy
that you suggested. If we all grow up to learn
to become part of the impulse society, we drown in it. And we crawl our way
out, and break free. That doesn’t help
the next generation. That only helps that individual. And then, if those people
start voting in order to try to do something,
society wide, you again get to the
top down approach. It becomes like Prohibition. -Exactly. A reactionary, top
down– Yeah, exactly. AUDIENCE MEMBER:
Thoroughly resisted by everyone who isn’t
already a convert– -Right. And creating all
sorts of new problems. Yeah. Right. So. Did you have a question? That’s a great set
of observations. I could riff on that for a bit. Or you have a question? -I find your recommended
remedy unsatisfying. Because I don’t feel
like it can get traction. And the example of a society
where all of the parents are trying to keep all of
the kids away from this, and failing– well,
failing eventually. Maybe not until the
kids grow up enough that they get on their own. It makes me seriously
doubt that that can make much of a difference. So I’m looking for
another option, which I’m guessing you don’t
have a good answer to, or you would have
already said it. -Well actually, I
wanted to wrap things up so we could start questions. But since you’ve
called me on it, I have no choice but to answer. So, that’s a great
example, because it really shows the paradoxical
nature of this, right? I mean, we want those
repressive societies to face a rebellious
younger generation. Because in many
respects, the traditions that are being held
onto are not the kind that I’m arguing we
need to hold onto. On the other hand, it’s sort
of, you toss out– I mean, it’s very hard to
define. “I want you to keep that old
value, but not that one.” And who are we to
be saying that? And we run into the
same issue here. So it’s a question of, whose
freedom, and toward what end? The idea that this is all
going to happen and be remedied because individuals will
be pushing back– you’re absolutely right. To say that that’s
a piece of it. But that can’t– that simply
just repeats the problem every generation. So we do need a top
down– but I think we have to be careful in
our top down prescriptions. So I would say
that you definitely need a top down in areas
like finance reform. There’s no way that we’re going
to– I mean, why would you convince your kids to follow
these values that I’m espousing if at the same time, Wall
Street can do a pretty much act like five year
olds anytime they want? So it’s not like we’re simply
building role models here. But it’s important. It’s absolutely important
beyond the damage that gets done to our economy and our
individual sense of security. So there are definitely
calls– opportunities– for top down remedies in things
like finance reform, campaign finance reform. Since the entire
political sphere is in the capture of
this same– I mean, there’s so much
money in politics, it’s essentially an arm
of the financial sector. So donors are really
thought of as investors. The amounts of money
they’re investing are so large that they
expect a fast return. And the most efficient way
to deliver a fast return in politics is to go extreme. So you’ve just built
in this little feedback loop that creates
partisan gridlock. Campaign finance reform is
not the entire solution. But it’s a piece of it. But I think that if– and
this is a dream world, if I was put in
charge– I would want to see these top down reforms. But I would also
want to see some way to help articulate and support
a grassroots movement where people individually are
pushing back and sending a message to the
politicians that the status quo doesn’t work anymore. We’re tired of losing
things that matter to us. So that we’re not
having to wait until we go to rehab to
pull ourselves out. And meanwhile, our
kids are totally lost. So it has to be a combination. And I am far from having
it all worked out. Believe me. And I even know that. But I think we need to start
with this idea of pushing back. Creating space. And that space might be
filled from the bottom up. And it also might be
filled from the top down. I was actually looking
at the government shutdown as an opportunity. Because in the
aftermath, you have a lot of political leaders
sort of just going, whoa. You see what just happened? I mean, that was close. And I think it caused
some to be willing to step back, and reconsider
some slightly older political criteria. I mean, they were
just as corrupt. But at least they were able
to get a few things done. And I suspect that there
is a hunger, an appetite, for more of that,
than one might have thought before two years ago. So I remain marginally hopeful. But absolutely we need a
combination of top down and bottom up
approaches to this. So thanks very much. Another question? -So I find it very interesting
that you brought up technological solutions to
some of the questions of power. How do we step back and
look at the implications of using certain kinds of power
the marketplace brings us, after talking about
Amazon Fire phone? Right, so the
interesting question here is, the technological
model today is all driven from the same
marketplace that you are kind of defending
yourself against. And I’m not sure how
to reconcile this. How can we, as
technologists, if we wanted to solve this or make an
incremental amount of progress toward solving this, how can
we– even if we’re meaning, convince the public
that we’re not building another Amazon Fire. That the tool that
we’re trying to provide to make it easier for
people to step back is not, in fact, skewed just
simply in our favor. I mean, this is the crux of
some of the arguments being made in Europe right
now, with respect to a lot of American
technological companies. Is that we don’t respect some
of their traditions in the way. Like, right to be
forgotten, for example. Something that
they traditionally thought of as very important,
that level of privacy. And all of these
American companies coming in and just saying, nah. Doesn’t matter. So do you have any
thoughts on how can we find that balance
slash regain the trust? Because it seems like we lost
it as a sector of the economy, if you will. -Right, and you’re sort of
front and center of that. That’s a really good question. I think part of what’s
going on here is that– and I’ll speak in gross
generalizations here, because it’s a safe
thing to do when you’re at a particular company. But essentially what we’ve
done since the ’80s is we’ve basically said,
if it’s efficient, if it will cut
costs, if it’s legal and it adds to the
bottom line, we’ll do it. And that is going
to be our guideline. And we’ll hem and
haw around the edges with social
responsibility and we’ll plant a tree for every share
we buy back, or whatever. But generally
speaking, we’re going to be pursuing those things. And we’re going to let the
market make the determination. And why wouldn’t we? Because we are responsible
to our shareholders. That’s always a thing. What can we do? And so you have to fiddle a bit
with that nexus, as they like to call it, between–
It’s the agency theorem. It’s like, who’s really
running the show here? I mean, the shareholder
can kind of say, well I bought the shares
but it’s not my fault. It’s not my company. And the company is
saying well, this is all for the shareholders. So I think we need– that’s
where more top down work needs to come in and say,
well, for example. Let’s see if we can reduce the
emphasis on quarterly earnings. So how do we do that? Well maybe we could
reduce– make it more expensive, or more
awkward, to pay in shares. So we can reign
that in somewhat. Let’s maybe make it illegal
again to do share buybacks. I mean, it used to be
recognized for what it is. It’s price manipulation. But we decided in the
’80s that it wasn’t. Or if it was, it
was worth the cost. And parenthetically, there are
times when share buyback is absolutely defensible, I think. When you’re being
threatened with a takeover. Or if there’s
nothing to invest in. You’ve got a pile of
cash, and you simply can’t find something
to invest in. But because we’ve linked share
buybacks with compensation, it’s very difficult
to trust that. You talk about trust. It’s very difficult to
believe that what’s going on is in the actual interest
of the corporation, and not just the interest of
the wallet of the executive making the decision. So there are things
we can do there. But in terms of–
but really, I think it’s a philosophical question. We’re sort of hoping that
someone will come and impose a new algorithm, right? And it’ll be what we used
to rely on the Church for. I mean, the church said, here
was good, and here is bad. And here’s how you conduct
yourselves to get to heaven. And here’s how you conduct
yourselves if you don’t care. And that was pretty
black and white. And we have gotten rid of that. And that has been the
sort of the big struggle of the 20th century. It’s, like, well, we’ll have a
cultural replacement for that, right? And our decision on what that
cultural replacement would look like, at least
from the ’80s on, was obviously the market. Because Adam Smith said. But Adam Smith also
said a few other things about the moral
imperative that had to accompany the free market and
in pursuit of individual self interest, for the
invisible hand to work. And that’s sort
have been forgotten. It comes down to
individual decisions. I think a lot of times,
what individuals want is not to have to
worry about it. To be able to say to themselves,
if that button is there, I’m going to click it. And if it’s there, it’s fine. And that’s really the extent
of my decision making. If I’ve got 450 horsepower under
the hood of my Dodge Viper– and if anyone has one, I’m
sorry, because they’re cool– I’m going to use it. I was out in Las Vegas
doing some deep research for this story. And there’s a
place where you can go rent pretty much anything
out there, to try it out for the weekend. And the Dodge Viper
is super popular. Like, half the cars get
wrecked in the parking lot, because the guy’s like
[VROOM NOISE] you know, just– anyway. Just put that in your
pipe and smoke it. But it comes down
to individuals. And individuals make
decisions based on the culture that they’re raised in. And I think we have to go back
to imposing a moral framework. And then the question is,
well, whose moral framework? But that’s a debate
we don’t want to have. We thought we’d eliminated
the need for that debate. Because we’re going to
have the market handle it. And it turns out, no. It’s a moral discussion
we need to have. And that’s sort of what we’re
on the cusp of, as well. And isn’t necessarily
something that technology will help us in. But it’s also
something technology doesn’t need to
hinder us in, either. But it’s still a
discussion we need to have. So I know that’s an
unsatisfactory answer. But it’s what I’ve got today. But thanks for the question. AUDIENCE: Hi. It seems like we’re
on the brink of having the capability for people
to design and have things fabricated to their
own specifications. And I’d just like to
hear your thoughts on how that’s going to play out. PAUL ROBERTS: So
do you mean, like, 3D printing, as an example? AUDIENCE: Exactly. PAUL ROBERTS: I mean,
this is a great example of the double-edged
nature of technology. I mean, the ability
to make what you need and not have to go somewhere
and waste all these resources. And to only make one
of them, as opposed to buying a three
pack at Costco. And maybe the extra
labor and thought that goes into making it at
home, even though it’s supposed to be super easy, will
kind of reimpose this sense of deliberation on the decision. You know, now if you just
go in, and think well, jeez, I need a disposable razor. Oh look, there’s a pack of 100. I’ll get those. If you had to make each
razor, it’s like, wow. I guess I can grow
a beard, you know. But I think that by bringing
back the act of production into individual life,
I think that can only have positive effects. Because we’ve really lost the
whole notion of production. That’s why we call
ourselves consumers. We used to make a living. And now we just buy it. And by bringing that back in,
I think that could be great. I mean, clearly, if what
we’re making is Uzis, then there’s a problem. And that concerns me. But I don’t think it’s that. I think that issue will
have to be addressed along with the issue of other
potential abuses of all this technological capability
we’re putting out there. So I’m actually pretty hopeful
specifically for this notion of bringing the
act of production back into the lives
of individuals. Thanks. AUDIENCE: If the
human conscience fails to counteract
the selfishness and the overwhelming ability
that it is not balanced out by responsibility, what does the
Orwellian nightmare look like? PAUL ROBERTS: Well,
I think it looks more like what we’re
living in right now. I mean, it’s definitely more
inequality because– I mean, I want to blame
everything on Wall Street, but why not, you know? No. There’s so much
capability in that sector. And it’s being used in ways that
are not entirely pro-social. I think what we’ll
end up looking at is a more in-egalitarian
society– one that has a smaller and
smaller middle class. Because all the ways we sort
of propped up the middle class, and the circumstances that
allowed the middle class to flow, we’re not
interested in restoring, in a society that’s
solely interested in instant gratification. You know, Tyler Cowen, his
book “The End of Average”– I think he paints a pretty
plausible picture for what such a society would look like. And then once you’ve split
a society so effectively between those in the top, the
expert class, and everyone else, then democracy
becomes, in fact, a joke. Because why would
you politically buy into a situation like that? And once democracy is a
joke– or I should say, more of a joke than it already
is– then everything sort of falls apart. And because we’ve
developed this capacity for incremental change,
and change that’s so massive and yet so
hard to detect sometimes, all this could have happened,
like, last year, already. I mean, I might
not even be here. It’s just one of those things
where you realize– seriously– that so much of this stuff
is already under way. And I think when I’m
being really paranoid– and I come from Washington
state, where pot is now legal. When I’m being
really paranoid, I sort of think that we’re
past the point where we can make a difference. And in part, we’re
past the point because we’re so accustomed
to having what we want now that the idea of systematically
delaying gratification is beyond our capacity. Now, it may be done for us,
when systems break down. But maybe the worst nightmare is
that we sort of continue along well enough to sort of keep
the cloak in front of our eyes. So that’s, you know,
when I’m feeling super paranoid and pessimistic. On the other hand, when I see
people in my own community who are stepping back and like,
quitting a high-powered Wall Street job to become a teacher. I love these stories. I mean, I’m reading
them on the internet. And actually, I cry every time. Because it’s corny. But I mean, the idea
that someone says, ugh, this thing
isn’t working for me, even though I’m
making a lot of money. It’s stressful and
it feels wrong. And then they end up teaching
math in an inner city. And you know, maybe it
doesn’t last forever. But I mean, that
potential is there. That sort of
individual capability and individual willingness
to think beyond the self is still there. And I guess that’s
what gives me hope. So, yeah, thanks. AUDIENCE: A lot of
what you describe is just technological
progress to me. You know, if showrooming
eliminates showrooms, I guess it’s just like
trains eliminated coaches. And maybe cars
diminished the role of trains in individual
transportation. That’s [INAUDIBLE] of
many examples out there. So I’m not so concerned. I mean, maybe concerned
about, you know, that’s just the way
things have been. What about– but there’s
something bigger, I think– and that’s– you and me simply
had some conversation over lunch– what about
optimization of jobs? That robots not only replace
many manufacturing jobs, but many other jobs–
white collar jobs. The biggest social question I
see, and I kind of worry– I don’t know if it’s the question
of next five years or maybe next 20 years. But I think it’s
a question we have to face soon is there will
be no jobs for people. And we’re done. What are your thoughts? PAUL ROBERTS: Well,
that’s all the time we’ve got for questions
today. (LAUGHS) [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of
the 64 trillion question, right? It’s like, well, so this
automation has kind of gone past the assembly line. It’s now moving into
the white collar. Half the sports stories
you read on the wire are all done by robot. And not that you’d know. And lawyers– I mean, the
whole legal profession is just being turned inside
out by these algorithms that can do– And so
yes, it’s happening. And I think you raise
an interesting point. Because you made
initially the point that well, we didn’t
worry too much about when cars replaced
horse and buggy, right? And that’s just sort
of the way things go. But think what cars brought. The car was part
of a much larger, massive multi-phase
Industrial Revolution that included not just cars
and transportation, but included all the
ancillary industries that had to feed into cars. So it was like,
tires, and steel. And all the
engineering expertise that had to go into that. And the petrochemical
business, and road building. So you have all these massive
multiplier effects going along. And in many of these
sectors, the jobs were higher paying than they
had been in the horse and buggy. So you have this
massive explosion. A lot of destruction, but
a lot of creation, as well. We have not seen that happen
in the automation revolution, as you point out. We’re coming up with new jobs. But they don’t replace the
jobs in terms of wages, by any means. I know you’ve heard
this statistic before, but 60% of the jobs that
were lost in the recession were mid wage jobs. And 60% of the ones
that have come back are service, are low wage. And you know, people
keep thinking, well, that’s just an anomaly. Things are going around. It’s like– oh, well. And it’s really making it
tough for a lot of people who have always supported
creative destruction as this thing that’s
worth the pain. And that argument is
getting– I mean, who knows? Maybe things will turn around. Maybe that pattern will
return to the mean. But maybe not. And then we have a
real question to ask. So is the answer basic income? Do we just acknowledge
that we’ve lost, and let’s just start
taxing the rich even more, and creating a basic income? And then, OK, so that allows
a certain level of security that people can feel. And maybe that level
of security allows them to be more civic minded. So that’s good. But then what about
the incentives for giving people
a basic income? What does that do to
their willingness to work? And so, I mean,
it’s really tough. And at the end of
the day, there’s no constitutional guarantee
that we get through this mess. I think we’ve come through
so many things in the past. And we’ve conquered some pretty
complex challenges in the past. And we’ve done so collectively. And I think that’s what
gives us the optimism. And we know what
the worst case is. We’re sort of talking, we’re
describing the worst case. And what I’m interested
in is, what’s the next step away
from the worst case? Now that’s the thing I want
to focus on, because I mean, I sort of grew up
professionally covering the environmental movement. And you have not met a bunch
of gloomier, grumpier people than the environmentalists. It’s just like, geeze
Louise, you guys. I mean, I get that the world is
ending, but come on, you know? And then you go talk to
the business community, and they’re like– that’s
where all the optimists are. They’re all like,
yeah, this is great. And you realize, you’ve got
to have some combination. You’ve got to have that
energy of the marketplace. And I know– ah, gee,
I should slap myself for being so cliche,
but I mean, it has to be a solution that
involves the market, you know? But we omitted ourselves
as the decision makers for so long, because we
basically said, oh, we don’t have to have
a moral framework. This is so great. It’s just a vacation
all the time. And it isn’t the case. That’s got to come back. So we have to make
decisions about, how much are we willing
to pay for food? Because it turns
out, if we follow that trend toward
automation and outsourcing, well, we can get
food super cheap. And we’ll have truckloads
of beef for like, $0.99. But the cost to the economy,
and to the job market, and to society, and our civic
fabric will be intolerable. So that’s why I like
the local food movement as a way to consider this. Because it forces you
to kind of go, wow. This food is good. And it’s fresh. And I can see the producer. And I realize that
it involves work. And it involves a
person doing this work. And OK, it makes sense. I at least have some insight as
to why food should cost more. Is that the way to
reorient society? I doubt it. But I mean, it offers us a clue. So anyway, that’s my two bits. Or actually my four bits. It’s special today. Any other questions? AUDIENCE: Over the
last couple of decades, this civilization has been
willing to throw bombs in order to spread itself. I’m making it very provocative. But in light of what
you are discovering, does it shed doubt that we
have the moral right to do so? And maybe their
ways might actually be not inferior in
some certain respects? PAUL ROBERTS: Now, whose way? AUDIENCE: Well, I’m talking
about the Western civilization that we’re all embedded in. And I’m talking about the
turmoil in the Middle East and so on. So– PAUL ROBERTS: You mean so– AUDIENCE: There are countries
and societies out there that violently
and aggressively– and energetically oppose our
ways of liberty and that. And sometimes those oppositions
end up being armed conflicts. And the narrative behind that
is Enduring Freedom– the catch phrase. Is that still right? PAUL ROBERTS: I
mean, well, one way to answer that would
be to sort of ask, what of these traditional
value sets is worth preserving? And is our privilege to select? And I think, in any society
that’s in a tumultuous stage like we are right now,
there’s always the instinct to reach back for more
conservative– I mean, that’s the whole notion
of reactionaries. I mean, that’s what happens. It’s a potentially
dangerous time. But you look back–
I’ll just use a mundane example
of the Victorians and how they dealt with
subjects that were taboo. I mean, you never discussed
politics or religion at the dinner table. And you do that because
you avoided arguments. And you allowed other
sort of social engagement to go forward. And, you know, I don’t know
that the Victorians had the answer to everything,
or even a few things. But they did have a
few things figured out. And you look at
the way that we’re so willing to share
anything with a stranger. I mean, you sit down
on a plane, it’s like, wow, at the end of a
45 minute flight– you know, (SILLY VOICE) “I’ll
promise I’ll write you. We’re best buds now.” Some things, I think,
should be withheld. That’s just– I’m 53 years
old and sort of coming to that conclusion, finally. And maybe there is something
to these older traditions. But I think you can’t run
to them as total solutions. You have to understand
what they offer. And what the costs
and benefits are. You know, we’re
sort of wishing we had this– like,
you buy a house. You lock in your
30-year mortgage. And you don’t have
to worry about it. And there’s no analog here. We’re going to have
be fighting over this and debating this forever. And this tension between the
individual and the collective is inherent. And will never go away. And if it did, that
would be scary. So it’s a battle
we’re going to have. And you guys are sort
of front and center. So thank you very much for the
attention and the questions. And all the best with
everything you’re doing. Thanks.

18 thoughts on “Paul Roberts: “The Impulse Society” | Talks at Google

  1. "So what do we do about that?"

    You coax people into having a conscience and work together by choice. Not through force – which as far as I can tell is all we've managed to accomplish so far. But this is a nice first step.

  2. Well, I guess we're going to have to reorient and strike a healthy balance between self interest and social norms. I can tell you firsthand that social norms kill self interest and innovation (which is messed up because self-interest and innovation help drive a higher social norms – assuming we don't forget about social norms and continue to have a conscience).

  3. "Take a selfie in front of an abandoned store."

    It also launched multiple social revolutions and given people digital Hitchhiker's Guides to the Galaxy in their pockets.

  4. Hah. I guess we're going to have to generally grow up and be less squeemish about our bodies – in that we really don't talk about these things. Sexual repression, much?

    Believe me. I don't envy you.

  5. "He's in serious trouble." LoL. The world is in serious trouble. I guess the real world (the infrastructure of which is very outdated in so many ways, btw) is going to have to merge and adapt to the best elements of the digital / game world.

  6. Maybe we need a few shocks to the system.

    "Absolutely, we need a combination of a top down and bottom up approach."

    First sensible thing I've heard all week.

  7. "Create this distance, and reengage with society."

    LoL. Rather subtle form of nonviolent resistance, eh?

    Ahh, how sweet it is. Are we at that stage of the Journey, already? (The Return). I just didn't expect society to literally come knocking at my door. 😉

  8. "Let the market decide."

    More like use full cost (natural resources, i.e. carbon cap and trade) accounting.

    The problem is that we don't see the connection between "planting a few trees" and cutting down forests that provide us with breathable air.

    What we need are innovators who can maximize the output of scarce resources.

    I'm all for free market capitalism, but even the most cutthroat game needs rules and referees. Corporations and the power to enforce their will in spite of social

  9. interests and norms. Corporations were not initially created to exist for their own sake. They were created to provide the maximum benefit to society, and giving people more power to self-determine how to allocate and maximize utility ended up being the quickest, most efficient way of providing those be exits to society.

    Kindle Fires (and other mobile social media tech) allow people the world over to issue unofficial status reports and thus change society, and by extension corporations and

  10. Scintillating! Just the right mix of despair, paranoia, outrage, lachrymosity, and hope. Good as it was, though, the book is far better….

  11. Interesting, and disturbing.  The narrow alley of consequence and personal responsibility/concern is shrinking even further.  We not only have to re-learn the value of respect, but again, of patience?
    Terrific talk, and greatly enjoying the book.

  12. Paul delivers very important words that are important to consider in this day and age.  
    Highly recommend "The Impulse Society"  

  13. Honestly he misses the point when it comes to trolling.  This fixation on trolling is a distraction tactic used by so many, its overblown.  You only have to look at the current Gamergate fiasco affecting the games media, where wide spread corruption and even journolist type secret mailing lists have been uncovered where these people work behind the scenes to perpetuate false narratives for their own self interest.  These people use the narrative of victimhood, of trolling to brow beat their opponents into silence.  Its such an effective and attractive tactics its been taken up by so many people with malevolent intent, even regimes.    I'm sure some of the stated reasons behind controls on the internet in places like china or russia or iran are to "protect" the people from trolls.  The definition of troll has crept over time to really just mean people who dare disagree with me.
    I just see one problem is being far worse than another, sure there are some psychopaths out there, but they are a super minority, while people who have various agendas have latched onto this issue as an excuse to game the system for their own advantage, whether its silencing dissent or to smear ideological opponents en mass.  Just look at sites which claim to control speech to combat trolling.  Any valid dissent with proof like urls or just arguments the author can't deal with will stay in the pending queue forever.  The excuse of controlling trolls leads to suppression of dissent. Again, look up the gamergate scandal, the only sites willing to cover this are the breitbarts of the world, while a wall of silence exists in the regular gaming media, the mainstream media only echos the games media being too lazy to research for themselves, which only reinforces the narrative and corrupts places like wikipedia who use them as "authoritative sources", and the narrative of "trolling" and victimhood just continue to rule the day.
    The missing part of the "trend" is that people are more and more willing to act as victims for advantage.  Not just online but in real life.  A prominent feminist blogger resorted to making threats against herself when she couldn't find what she needed on the site she was going after, she's being prosecuted last I checked, meg lankers simmons was her name.   A lesbian waitress  famously made national news when she claimed her patrons had left a bigoted message on her tip receipt when in fact that was not true.  She got sympathy, coverage and donations, and when caught didn't give it back.  A family claimed their disfigured daughter was kicked out of a KFC, turns out they were lying about that too. They too received donations.  That is the actual trend, not one of impulsive trolling, its more of one of impulsive victimhood and a need to believe in such stories.

  14. The Impulse Society is a powerful book. Why don't you see Paul Roberts on mainstream television or cable television?  Simply because the corporations own the media and they don't want you to read his book or hear his speeches. He is brilliant.

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