The complex social deformations we face have become a tightly knit system: at the individual level, aggression, or even hatred is so easily stimulated; the social media global platforms maximize these feelings through AI and algorithms; the financial corporations contribute with dividend maximizing algorithms; at the political level, the trends are blended into sheer power

(Ladislau Dowbor)

A student once asked me how I saw the human being: are we naturally good humans deformed by institutions, in a somewhat Rousseau’s view of “le bon sauvage”, or a desperately perverted primate? The basic fact is that we manage to make life miserable for each other, and all of us while making up a beautiful discourse on “love each other”, “do unto others…” etc. The basic question is whether the idea that helping each other builds a decent life on earth is viable. And this does not concern only individuals: corporations claim ESGs and continue to destroy our future, politicians claim their dedication to the common good, and off we go to COP29 - yes, 28 years discussing what we should do, and not doing anything about it – while the global mess is deepening.

It is not only a question of absurd privileges at the top and economic instability for the many. One of the main causes of suffering is the general feeling of insecurity, penetrating all our lives, insecurity about our future, and that of our children. Do we need this? If some of us – the happy few – feel they are the glorious captains, most are more realistic. I once met an African former powerful minister tilling a rice field: so it is, he commented, one day you are a minister, next day you are in the “bolanha”, the muddy rice field. It certainly can be stimulating, the ups and downs of life, but the ease with which you can lose your home, see your kids go hungry, and the family drown in debt – not to speak of killings, torture, absurd wars with violence ranging from raped kids to high-tech bombing – pushes us into a permanent battle against each other, even if we know that the only thing that works is collaboration. It seems that short-term individual advantage, scrambling on top of one another, has taken over.

And the more insecure people feel, the more they scramble, the harsher the competition. They call it freedom, you are making your own couch, and that’s how you’ll sleep. That’s a Polish saying. But how many of us have the choice, and what are the choices about? We are facing a common drama, and it’s depressing to see billionaires struggling to be at the top of the ladder, not seeing the whole ground is sinking. Yes, it’s just an image, but it is the reality. They not only scramble but actively build a corporate and a political system to maximize their advantages, at the cost of explosive inequality and environmental disaster. Some build bunkers, others claim we could go to another planet, after having ruined this one. A dangerous mix of power and infantility.

Not realizing our irrational dimensions is simply dangerous. And obviously unintelligent. There is nothing like history to suggest we could replace the concept of homo sapiens with that of homo demens. Have you ever thought that at no time in the recorded history of mankind have we failed to slaughter each other? In every war or massacre we study, we are brought to define who were the good guys and who were the bad ones. What if the very inability to live in peace and collaboration, which would undoubtedly be more profitable for everyone, were the object of our analysis? I really like Frans de Waal's text, Our Inner Ape, in which it is clear how much we behave, in terms of defending our territories or political tribes, very much like our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Tribal wars, national wars, world wars, do any of them make any sense? 1

In another beautiful text, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt looks at our motivations, and in particular how we manage to embellish them. The Ku-Klux Klan massacred to protect white virgins and burned houses to civilize blacks, the Nazis were cleansing the race, the wars of religions killed and tortured everywhere according to the express orders of their respective gods, the Inquisition tortured women, preferably naked, to extirpate the demon that had taken possession of their souls. In Vietnam they killed two million, in Algeria one million, in World War II 60 million, the Middle East is increasing the bill every day. All in the name of the highest ideals. What Haidt makes clear is how pleasurable, and profoundly satisfying, it is to give free rein to what is most rotten within us, in the name of the highest ideals. It's the ultimate orgasm. Justified hatred generates irrepressible jouissance. Is it ignorance? Undoubtedly, but there is no shortage of degrees: Half of Germany's doctors joined the Nazi party. 2

Barbara Tuchman clearly doesn't have much confidence in the logic of power or the intelligence of the groups that wield it.

The absence of intelligent thought in the exercise of power is another universal fact, which raises the question of the extent to which, in modern states, there is something in political and bureaucratic life that reduces the functioning of the intellect in favor of 'wielding the levers' without regard to rational expectations. That seems to be a prospect that holds. 3 (p. 398)

The philosophy that permeates Barbara Tuchman's writings is no doubt the result of her own studies of history, but her skepticism about the exercise of power has older roots. The author reminds Plato:

He also had to accept that his fellow humans were anchored in the life of feelings, stirred like puppets by the threads of desires and fears that make them dance. When desire is not in accordance with the judgment of reason, he said, there is a sickness in the soul. And when the soul is opposed to knowledge, or opinion, or reason, which are its natural laws, this I call folly. 3 (p. 404)

Probably the greatest interest of Haidt's book is that it allows us to understand a little better this dark well within us, a mix of empathy, hatred, and political identifications, by detailing, based on research, the diversity of motivations. He works with a "moral matrix" of six motivations: care, which makes us avoid causing harm to others, wanting to reduce suffering; liberty, with its corresponding repudiation of oppression; fairness, which makes us seek equal treatment, and avoid cheating; the loyalty that makes us seek to adopt the values of our group, considering those who do not adopt them as traitors; the authority that makes us consider ethical what the leaders decide, and call those who rebel subversive; sanctity linked to sacred values such as traditions or religious reasons, which on the negative side makes us condemn to hellfire those who believe in other worldviews. 2 (p. 297)

While the first three groups of motivations, care, liberty, and fairness, lead us to a collaborative world, the latter three, loyalty, authority, and sanctity, easily transform us into monsters. Actually, not only monsters, as Hannah Arendt has shown us, but bureaucratic monsters. Christopher Hitchens shows us how Henry Kissinger skillfully and patiently opened the way and justified more massacres in Vietnam, in Chile with Pinochet, in Argentina with Videla, in Greece and Cyprus with Papadopoulos, in Indonesia with Suharto, to mention a few. 4 That he was essentially a realist makes us aware of how disgraceful is what we build. The over six million killed in the Congo Republic barely reach our history handbooks. 5

Max Fisher, in his recent study of conflict generated by social media algorithms, The Chaos Machine, makes the issue much clearer. 6 Fisher devotes chapters to Myanmar, where hatred between communities of different religions has led to massacres of minorities, but also to Sri Lanka, presenting the case of the United States, Brazil, India, Germany, and other European regions with the rise of fascism or neo-Nazi movements. Suddenly, ideological fanatics find not only ways to speak to the world, but the platforms’ algorithms disproportionately enhance their discourses. As of December 2022, Facebook reported having 2.96 billion monthly users: a global deformation.

Stimulating social divisions, hate and fanaticism was not an option for the creators of the social communication universe. For Meta, 98% of revenue comes from advertising, and advertising is priced according to how many people it reaches, the so-called m-DAUs (monetizable Daily Average Users, the unit of account used in the Twitter purchase negotiations with Elon Musk.) Thus, the whole system searches attention attention-maximizing messages: to sell more advertising space, the aim is to maximize sharing, and the algorithms are instructed to channel, stimulate, or drown out the messages of billions of users according to this criterion, with AI helping to find the necessary reorientations. Because emotional polarizations, in particular feelings of group identity and tribal hatred, are powerful motivators, they end up dominating social media.

In other words, the deformation is embedded and intelligently constructed by the maximization criterion itself, guided in turn by the general interest of maximizing financial return. Broadly speaking, it's unconscious, almost animalistic, and therefore easily manipulated by opportunistic leaders or algorithms in search of profit. Probably both. 6 (p. 243)

Even if Trump, Bolsonaro, and other leaders used companies like Cambridge Analytica and other algorithmically targeted dissemination companies, the reality is that, within the framework of the attention maximization policy of the platforms themselves, people were led to polarization and fanatical reactions, as they saw their prejudices reproduced and shared so much. The platforms have in fact generated a system of negative selection. A survey of 300 million comments found how treating people and facts in heightened moral-emotive terms brings out the instincts of loathing and violence in the public – which is, after all, exactly what social platforms do, on a scale of billions, every minute of every day... Entire societies spurred on to conflict, polarization, and escape from reality — to something like Trumpism. 6 (p. 211)

Designing AI certainly shows how intelligent we can be, but the results, in revealing what stimulates us more powerfully, also show the political morons and moral savages we can be. The algorithms just sailed on our more powerful motives. And platforms programmed to maximize attention and profits just pushed on. Those who invested in the platforms, presently the giants (Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Meta, Nvidia) only look at the resulting dividends. The asset management industry (BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard, and the like) is based on algorithms directing money flows to dividend maximizing. And the politicians tend to sail on the most powerful waves.

Where will I, worried about my pension, put my money? Well, Microsoft’s net profit in the last fiscal year was 34.1%, paid by all of us. I play with the system. Yes, it is a system.

Thus, Frans de Waal, who spent his life investigating chimpanzees and how their behavior could be “human”, more recently inverted the perspective, and was surprised at how apish humans can be. It was not about good or bad guys, it was about people. The many investigations on the role of algorithms in social media led Max Fisher to conclude that investing in the animal in us is indeed good business, because these are the most powerful motivations, and this understanding defines the priorities of so much of the corporate world. Barbara Tuchman, analyzing the political decisions of four American Presidents, all of them personally convinced the war in Vietnam could not be won, shows us how systemic the whole political deformation has become. Jonathan Haidt does his job as a social psychologist, displaying a set of motivations, negative as positive ones, but is not an optimist. And so many modern politicians, in so many countries, understood that using social media, fake news, and most of all hate speech – immigrants can be so useful – is a royal highway to power. If we put together our individual motivations, corporate power, and political opportunism, the mix is more than worrying. The parts are blended.

Is this the pessimist in me speaking? Well, looking at Trump, Milei, Bolsonaro, Orban, Netanyahu, Meloni and so many on the rise, even in Holland and Sweden, we have reasons to be pessimistic. But the key to bringing society on a more democratic track starts precisely with understanding how the knots are tied. We just finished COP28, twenty-eight years suggesting we have a problem. It is not a problem, it is a catastrophe.


1 Frans de Waal, Our inner ape. Riverhead Books, 2006.
2 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage, 2013.
3 Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam, Random House, New York, 2014, p.470.
4 Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Twelve, New York, 2002.
5 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1999.
6 Max Fisher, The Chaos Machine: the inside story of how social media rewired our minds and our world, Back Bay Books, 2023.