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opinion

Elon Musk speaks at the E3 gaming convention in Los Angeles, on June 13, 2019.Mike Blake/Reuters

Sasha Akhavi spent over 20 years in the software industry and is now a Ph.D. candidate in science and technology studies at York University.

The popular image of tech in North America is dominated by the myth of the lone genius. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, we imagine tech leaders as industrious individuals who are supposedly destined to see further than the rest of us mere mortals; these figures give society their precious innovations and lift us up, by degrees, out of our darkness. In so doing, they earn wealth beyond what the rest of us could fathom, or even handle.

At the very least, this is how tech titans think of themselves. Never mind that most of them have people to cook dinner for them and clean up while they are off geniusing; no matter that their empires rely on public resources or that their achievements actually require huge teams of personnel. The Randian tradition, which runs deep through Silicon Valley, holds that progress is in the hands of what the Mountain View, Calif., Computer History Museum calls “rare individuals” – innovators who know what’s best for us all and must be freed from the usual social fetters to pursue it.

What we have seen as of late, in the multistage detonation of Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk, is a story of massive privilege confused for omnipotence and righteousness, and the implacable correction of that confusion by reality. It is what happens when great wealth, understood as the rightful reward of great tech virtue achieved in the past, is assumed to signify and certify great tech virtue to come. Were it not for those seriously harmed by the comeuppance – whether it’s Twitter employees in the U.S. with H-1B workers’ visas, whose lives have been upended, or Twitter users whose online communities have been central to their success – it would be uniformly hilarious, as any forced correction of egregious hubris usually is.

Events of this type – all too common in a way, though perhaps never before self-caricatured to this degree – give genius and technology bad names. But they wouldn’t be as poignant and infuriating if real genius and real tech innovation were non-existent or unworthy of celebration.

After working in the software industry for 20-odd years, I now study that industry as an academic, motivated primarily by the mirror that technology holds up to humanity. Humans have always used tech to try to make the world more to our liking and less to our disliking, and the amazing thing is that occasionally – more than any other species – we have succeeded. With many fits and starts, and almost as many reversals and downfalls, we have guided ourselves toward flourishing and away from suffering. It’s been a pretty incredible feat. One might even call it genius.

Along the way, however, we have sometimes lost sight of our original motivations, and sometimes we act as if the technology itself, or wealth, power, etc., are more important than our attempts to flourish as a species. In fact, the tech itself and the wealth that can result from it are epiphenomena. It’s not the technology, or even the inventor, that are important – it’s how innovation can best serve our collective well-being, and what it can do for humanity.

Digital technology in particular reveals a lot about humanity through its tendency to redraw the scales on which we pursue flourishing and eschew suffering: It fractionalizes the time involved and vastly multiplies our reach, which is sometimes enough to make us seem like different creatures, made of data instead of flesh and blood. On digital tech’s altered scales, inhuman behaviours can start to seem rational. We might start thinking we can predict crime via algorithms, or find ourselves relying on AI to write opinion pieces. But the underlying importance of human flourishing and suffering will always come out in the end, even in software – generally speaking, software teams try to create functionality that helps users flourish, and execs strive to prevent their own and their organizations’ suffering by trying to maximize profitability and outdo the competition.

Actual genius exists, but it doesn’t look like hubris or act like tyranny. It was genius for our species to evolve the capacity to care about others outside of our immediate families. It took genius for us to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the universe. It will be genius when we manage to make helping, and not hustling, the guiding force behind software companies’ operations.

Along the way, we will have to replace the current paradigm, which condemns the industry to continue preying on people, and we will have to dispense with the myth of the lone tech genius. It can’t happen soon enough.