The future of human agency

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Insights about human behaviour are being ignored by policy makers and entrepreneurs

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human behaviour is not possible from within any single discipline. Not only is each discipline focused on specific aspects of human behaviour, but the different disciplines that examine human behaviour rest on mutually contradictory assumptions about human nature. This excellent talk by Herbert Gintis outlines the limitations of established disciplines and provides the motivation for an interdisciplinary approach.

Those who cling the most to the use of specific models of human behaviour tend to be the ones who actually don’t have any understanding of the limitations of the models they are using. Especially when a model is non-trivial, most people confuse being able to “use” a model with understanding the model, all the underlying assumptions, and the limitations. Economists and psychologists work with implicit assumptions all the time without without worrying much about it.

Whilst insisting on sharp boundaries between disciplines is unhelpful and leads to weak models, the established boundaries are not entirely arbitrary. This is easily seen when visualising the scope of the various disciplines in terms of spacial and temporal scale. Psychology for example focuses on the behaviour of individuals across a human lifetime, sociology focuses on the behaviour of groups at various levels of scale over the course of recent history and anthropology focuses on both individual and group behaviour over the entire course of human evolution.


The assumptions that are baked into current schools of economic thought, which influence government policies and corporate decision making – and therefore the quality of our daily lives, extend at best over the last few centuries of human history, and in many cases are at odds with the evidence and assumptions made by other disciplines.

It is therefore not surprising that up to 80% of people globally are disengaged at work, and that important insights about human behaviour, which only become apparent when studying human history and human evolution over the last 2 million years, are ignored  by policy makers and business decision makers.

We live in a time of exponential changes in communication technology. Just a few decades ago humans only needed to learn one of two languages and perhaps the jargon of a particular profession to be equipped for a successful life. Today thousands of new apps (little languages) become available every month, far more than anyone can ever learn to use, appreciate, and trust. More and more people are realising that quantity does not equal quality when it comes to digital technologies.

The disciplines of design and engineering play an increasingly important role in a world where communication between people and all forms of economic activity are by default being mediated via digital technologies.

To understand the full implications of the new technologies that we are churning out every month, is it enough for designers to be familiar with the latest in pop-psychology and for engineers to be familiar with the latest economic fads and monetisation models?


What if some important considerations about human nature have fallen between the cracks, and if the rate of technological change has outpaced the rate at which human cultures can evolve? Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications.

In the meantime deeply flawed economic assumptions continue to be baked into new technologies.

The very fact that flawed assumptions about human behaviour are being perpetuated is an indicator that the feedback loop of cultural learning is not working well enough.

The limits of human agency

A single human brain can only process a finite amount of cognitive load. Perhaps we have become a bit too eager to offload cognitive load to our digital “helpers”, and along the way, perhaps we are also unconsciously unlearning or failing to exercise and improve our critical thinking skills.

The following trends are appearing on the horizon:

  1. A shift away from centralised digital services towards individualised intelligent digital exoskeletons that are programmable according to our personal value systems, and which complement our capabilities and compensate for our human weaknesses.
  2. A shift away from brittle centralised data architectures towards end-to-end encrypted decentralised personal knowledge and data repositories.
  3. A shift away from big corporations towards much more agile and adaptive employee owned institutions that are democratically ruled.
  4. A shift away from big government towards decentralised and increasingly automated governance at various levels of scale, based on open source software and real-time democratic feedback loops.

The shift away from centralised intelligent digital services is still in its infancy, but it is the inevitable consequence of the shift towards decentralised data architectures and the slowly growing appreciation of the risks of opaque artificial intelligences that are being fed a culturally biased and pre-filtered diet of information.

The need to shift away from centralised data architectures grows with every major security breach or misuse of trust by the operators of popular digital services. The first steps can already be seen in the growth of end-to-end encrypted personal data stores.

The shift away from big corporations is reflected in employee engagement metrics, in the growth of employee owned businesses, and in the growth of the not for profit sector.

The desire to shift away from big government is visible in the recent election outcomes in the US and the UK, but even more so in the growing economic relevance of specific cities and regions, and the corresponding loss in relevance of nation states. There is a lot to be said for the Swiss model of governance, where the 26 cantons enjoy a lot of autonomy, and where the federation does not even need a head of state.

Earlier this month at the HINZ conference on health informatics in Auckland I learned that the data from one credit card is worth USD 1 on the black market and that a basic healthcare data record is worth USD 50 on the black market. The latter number in combination with the recent data breach at the Red Cross Blood Service in Australia illustrates that centralised data architectures are way past their best used by date. The healthcare sector alongside the finance sector  is plagued by a lack of trust and collaboration across organisational boundaries. Establishing trust and improving collaboration in a context of brittle and unreliable systems is not an easy matter.

The future of software intensive systems over the next two decades can not be understood through the lens of popular digital services such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Smaller providers of digital services and start-ups are well advised to stay clear of advertising based and consumption oriented business models that reflect a set of increasingly outdated cultural values.

Much of the foundational technological work today is being performed by the open source software communities that develop and maintain the components underneath the digital candy wrapper services from Google, Facebook, etc.

Although many open source software projects have been co-opted by corporations, the tacit knowledge associated with open source software increasingly lives in brains that reside outside the sphere of corporate influence.

The trend towards zero marginal cost means that proprietary digital candy wrappers become less and less relevant, as alternative non-proprietary services unencumbered by corporate interests can be offered at close to zero cost.

Individualised intelligent digital exoskeletons hold a huge potential for re-establishing human agency on a new platform – without needing to sacrifice the benefits of automation. Autists for example might program their digital exoskeletons to act as powerful social filters that handle some or even most of the interactions with other humans.

Once we appreciate the value of technologies that compensate for human weaknesses more than technologies that exploit human weaknesses, we are well underway towards the cultural transformation that W. Edwards Deming envisioned several decades ago.

Register for the next CIIC unconference on 3 December to look at innovation and collaboration through a multitude of neurodiverse lenses, and apply your creativity to wicked problems that are not solvable by “monetising data”.

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