How to think about today’s larger than life tech moguls

Stephen Hawking predicts that humans only have at best 100 years left on Earth, therefore colonizing space as fast as possible is essential. Elon Musk wants to bring tens of thousands of people to Mars for the same reason. He also expects a brain computer to become feasible within a comparatively near future. Mark Zuckerberg believes that connecting every human being on a digital platform (his digital platform) will make the world a better place. And Jack Dorsey believes in the importance of a platform to spread 140-character messages to the world.

When very accomplished and respected people from the technology industry and neighboring fields forecast the future and explain their visions, we listen. But should we?

That’s a question I ask myself every time when some bold quote about the future made by one of today’s tech celebrities travels through the international media.

The larger than life individuals from the entrepreneurial and technology sphere that nowadays dominate the headlines belong without a doubt to the smartest people on this planet. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in positions in which everyone listen to them. But they also are humans with the same flaws as everyone else. Their brains don’t fundamentally function in a different way. They simply have developed ways to leverage the brain’s capabilities in an especially effective way while simultaneously limiting or controlling the negative effects that their cognitive biases and primal impulses have on their own thinking.

Still, as long as they are human beings (to which there are no indications for the contrary), there will be flaws, thinking errors, biases. If whenever you speak everyone pays attention no matter how freaky your ideas are, how do you make sure not to develop hubris? The risk for an inflated ego inevitably increases.

That alone suggests that one should never stop being skeptical about any of these claims, no matter how much one otherwise admires a person. In addition, it’s impossible to distinguish the genuine result of hard and long thinking about humanity and the future from the self-serving promotion of narratives conducive to one individual’s reputation or strategic business interests. Does Mark Zuckerberg really believe what he wrote in his controversial manifesto, or has he chosen to claim to believe it knowing that promoting this vision will make his company prosper?

What I am writing here might sound obvious. Yet, thanks to the Halo effect, once we acknowledge someone’s accomplishments and intellectual authority, we tend to be susceptible to overestimating their foresight and intelligence in other areas of life and fields of knowledge. We tend to ignore the range of other motivations or causes that could be behind their statements.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt just cited a popular story about how ATMs led to more bank teller jobs – and was properly called out for this flawed anecdote. But he of course knows that rebuttals usually are only seen by a small share of those who heard or read about the initial claim.

In these moments when I catch myself forgetting to remain sceptical, I like to picture sitting with Musk or Zuckerberg in a bar, them being completely drunk. That usually helps to put things into perspective.

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The internet brings people into space

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During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.

That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist. Continue Reading