New Zealand & Human Nature

Dr. David A. Bray

Distinguished Fellow

Stimson Center

After three weeks in Sydney and Melbourne on an Eisenhower Fellowship, meeting with their industry and government leaders regarding future opportunities and challenges with the Internet of Everything (IoE), I now briefly am in New Zealand before returning to the United States. New Zealand’s rural countryside and lake views provide a strong contrast to the tall, human-made cityscapes of Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.

Our lives undoubtedly will be impacted socially, economically, and geopolitically by increased global adoption of the internet and the IoE. The five-week Eisenhower Fellowship was an opportunity to step outside of my professional role and have personal conversations with brilliant leaders in Taiwan and Australia on potential futures that they foresee.

I should note that neither they nor I advocate for an unconditional embrace of all emerging technologies simply for the sake of technology; rather the breadth and depth of individual lives, dreams, hopes, and aspirations ultimately are what matter the most. A central question of the IoE’s impact in our future is a question of what future do we, as humans, want to choose as communities?

Reflections from New Zealand

Given current estimates that will be approximately 50 to 200 billion network devices on the face of our planet in 2020, our technological tools are becoming much more numerous and complex than they ever have been before; specifically:

  • We stand at an era where our tool-making allows us to produce other tools that can shape the planet.
  • Some of these tools we make can be given broad scope on what they do, a degree of autonomy similar to our own regarding problem solving.
  • Where might these tools go and what might they produce in the world?
  • Some of these tools can alter not only the earth's biological processes, but also our own.
  • What then will these tools produce when we can ask them to change ourselves?

It might seem odd for a U.S. public service executive to have such thoughts on nature, tool-making, technology, and what makes us, as individuals human – except I would suggest reflection of human nature has roots back to the start of the United States, to include James Madison who observed in 1788:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men [and women] were angels, no government would be necessary.

[excerpt from The Federalist Papers No 51]

… which perhaps explains why I believe more than ever that a renewal of why and how we do public service both within the U.S. and in partnership with multiple nations globally is necessary.

On Public Service and Human Nature

Both during my time in Afghanistan and during my five years as a non-political senior executive I have worked with all sides of the political spectrum, working to find both consensus and identifying items that can help move the nation forward. Part of my role means putting aside any personal views I might have and working with leaders to provide data, evidence, action plans, and ultimately results – sometimes in the midst of intense national debates.

Reflecting on human nature, science has shown that all of us – as humans – are subject to confirmation bias. Once we have a set view in our minds we often interpret data and narratives to reaffirm our set view, and dismiss data and narratives that challenge that view, which means it is very hard to change our minds once our minds are set.

We also know from research by Prof. Jennifer Lerner at the Harvard Kennedy School that even incidental emotions can shape the decisions we make – for example, if we are angered by an event prior to our work day, we become more likely to take risks throughout the day; whereas if we are worried about something, we are more likely to be risk-averse. This is why embodying a non-anxious presence in the midst of intense national debates can be so important.

Looking back at human history, there are examples of we humans doing wonderful things as a species, doing awful things as a species, and a spectrum in between. Perhaps this is why I find beauty in striving to encourage both productive adaption and positive “change agents” in public service during this time of rapid advances in technology and globalization. I hope, recognizing human nature for what it is and that we all have human biases that collectively we might be able to push for results more on the side of wonderful for us all vs. less beneficial outcomes.

Towards the Future

If we accept the beauty, as well as the flaws and biases, present in human nature, then by extension there will be beauty as well as potential flaws and biases in any human endeavor that we choose to do. What then does this mean for a future where technologies once previously available only to sophisticated nation-states and large corporations are becoming increasingly affordable and available to individuals?

Ultimately the IoE, 3D mass fabricators, and whatever other new technologies emerge simply are tools that we humans chose to develop and use. Perhaps I am biased from my roles responding to the events of 9/11 and anthrax in 2001 with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, long before concepts like “black swans” were popularized – however I believe we should recognize the existence of low-probability, high-consequence events. While we should not let negative low-probability, high-consequence events bog down future choices, we should be mindful that they do exist – particularly in an era of rapid technology change – and should consider with any future strategy that we include some contingency plans that we hope are never, ever needed.

In considering the future of the U.S. and the world, the larger question becomes how do we humans best organize across sectors to encourage results more on the side of wonderful for us all vs. less beneficial outcomes. In both Taiwan and Australia, I met with brilliant leaders from both industry and government who emphasized the future will require collaborations across sectors, including a triangle with the individual members of the public up top, and both the private and public sectors as the base working to produce a future with more beneficial choices, options, and freedoms for everyone.

Given all of us humans have biases, undoubtedly the future will include intense debates across the political spectrum and there will be times when we each have either a confirmation bias and mentally filter information that only reinforces our existing views – or a sunk-cost bias were we are reluctant to make changes because we have already spent time or resources on a previous path.

Hopefully along the way we’ll be able to encourage both shared goals and a diversity of different perspectives to ensure better outcomes among participants. Reflections during my last few days in New Zealand have reinforced and emphasized to me that such a triangle of the public, private sector, and public sector working in partnership will need to include shared understandings of human nature and what motivates us as individuals.

We humans do wonderful things as a species, do awful things as a species, and a spectrum in between – here’s to a future that includes horizontal partnerships to encourage outcomes more on the side of wonderful for us all.

Sep 17, 2015