tv Amanpour on PBS PBS February 26, 2018 6:00am-6:30am PST
♪ welcome to "amanpour" on pbs. tonight, two important conversations about the quality of our lives today. amidst the daily onslaught of bad news, my first guest, harvard psychologist steven sinker says, hang on, our lives are getting better. he has the numbers to prove it. then, is social media broken? the cofounder of twitter ed williams joins me to say, yes, it is and we shouldn't take it anymore. ♪ "amanpour" on pbs was made
possible by the generous support of roslyn p. walter. good evening, everyone. welcome to the program. i'm christiane amanpour in london. from where i sit, this felt like a particularly distressing week, from parkland, florida, where a community still is grieving for its children and its teachers, to east ghouta in syria, the latest front in a bloody, endless war, and to washington, paralyzed in the face of russian interference in american democracy. but in the onslaught of all the bad news, are we missing the big picture? some big thinkers say we should really focus on what's going right in the world. that's what bill gates recently told me in this program. and that's the gospel according to my guest tonight, dr. steven pinker. he says quite simply that life is getting better, that humans are healthier, safer and even smarter than ever before. and his new book is called "enlightenment now, the case for reason, science, humanism and
progress" and he's in london on his book tour. professor pinker welcome to the program. >> thank you. >> i sit here listening and absorbing all this bad news. certainly this week has been a catastrophe, listening to what happened about the school shooting in parkland, syria, everywhere you look. but you say we've never had it better? >> yes. if you don't just concentrate on the things that go wrong -- and there are always things that go wrong. but if you count up the amount of violent incidents, poverty, ill literacy, in many ways this is the best time to be alive. the life span is longer. it used to be 30. now it's 70. 80% literacy, 90% for our
children. diseases are in decline. global poverty has gone from 90% of humanity a couple of hundred years ago to 10% today. wars have not been eliminated and the war in syria is the worst in a generation. even knnow the rate of death mu less than it was in the '60s, '70s and '80s. >> you're absolutely right. and yet it just doesn't feel that way. or put it another way, so what? >> well, one of the reasons it doesn't feel that way, is as long as the rate of disasters, there will always be enough to fill the news. of course we have to know about them. but if the news isn't presented in the context of recent history, in the context of statistical data, we can think that event tls that we see ever
day represents what's happening all over the world. it gives us a bis t of a distord view. we can try to identify what we've been doing right. >> t >> i want to bring it to a local level and national as well, that terrible shooting in parkland. given everything that you're saying and given what we have seen, you know, these kids just stand up and rise to the occasion, the survivors. we've even seen the president of the united states move a tad. we've seen senator marco rubio stand up in front of a whole town hall of thousands of people, most of them weren't on his side, but he did stand there and he also moved a little bit. do you think it's a game changer? >> it could be. it's very hard to know as it's happening because we're often surprised when there are great moral changes that take place. no one would have predicted the civil rights movement would be
so successful in overturning jim crow as quickly as it did. gay marriage is the most recent reform. a year boyfriend efore it happee would have predicted. we don't yet know if we're living through one of these moments but it would not be a shot. >> it does bring a smile to my face, because you want to cling onto something that's hopeful. yet, i think you say that people have a tendency to be nostalgic, to absorb all the negativity and pessimism and not really direct themselves in the optimistic direction. >> our heads tend to be turned by the horrific images of the day. we often forget the horrible wars like iran/iraq, the soviets in afghanistan, which killed
hundreds of millions, splaced massive numbers of refugees. we think the violence we see today is perhaps new or worsening. whereas if you look at all of the wars of the past and every year you count the number of wars, you see that overall there has been progress. it hasn't been steady progress. there have been ups and downs. but by and large the trend has been downward for death and war and crime. >> your books are incredibly popular. people just devour them. what made you want to write this particular one? >> the enlightenment refers to the period in the second half of the 18th century. americans are most familiar with it with the founders and frames of the declaration of independence and the constitution. the design of the american democracy came when a bunch of
educated people exchanged ideas, reasoned it out, say rather than just living with the kind of monarchy we always have lived under, if we were to design a government from first principles rationally, what would it look like? what could we actually defend in arguments? and also looking around at what works, what has led to bloodshed, what has led to peace. let's adopt the things that work. that rational approach to reasoning things out is what we call the enlightenment. >> so we seem to be living in -- let's just take the united states of america -- in a place where reason is on the back foot. in fact, reason is something to be suspicious of. empirical facts are being denied. truth is being ob fufuscated. it's like tribalism.
how does the enlightenment fit into this era right now? >> the reason is that everyone always falls back on it at some point. as soon as you try to say that you're right about anything, you're full of bologna. you're appealing to reason. you just can't make it go away. likewise with truth. a conspiracy thieory, the truth always sneaks back. it's just a question of holding people's feet to the fire to carry through their conviction of what they're saying is true and to prove it. there have been many periods in the past of fake news and major decisions based on false information. the invasion of iraq in 2003, the explanation of the vietnam war, world war i, the lynchings, all of them are triggered by conspiracy theories and rumors. at the same time, there's been
the rise of this very troubling fake news and blatant disregard for standards of evidence. we also have an apparatus of fact checking which wasn't part of journalism a couple of decades ago. we have snopes. even wick ki pakipedia. >> he says it suppressed natural human urges. and that when suppressed, they're even more destructive. what do you say to that? >> that's kind of a hydraulic model of human psychology. if you try to repress some of our impulses, they'll leak out somewhere else. it's not a correct model of psychology. a lot of human impulses are highly destructive.
and part of wisdom and insight is that we ought to exert control over the darker side of human nature. >> of all the fascinating data that you discovered, what did you find the most interesting, the most surprising in your investigation? >> that certain liberal values like tolerance of gay people, tolerance of women's rights, public participation in the political process have been increasing in every region of the world for 50 years. now some regions of course are more liberal than others. western europe is much more liberal and the middle east and north africa. but even there, the opinions have been rising in the lib cer direction. that was a surprise. i'll just throw out one other fact. i have a lot of grasp how life is getting safer. i didn't know in america you have a 96% less chance of being
killed by a bolt of lightning than our ancestors. >> one thing you didn't really address is the idea of social mobility, the equality gap. you didn't find it disheartening. you found that people were heartened. they weren't sort of helpless because of it? >> in the developing world, countries that are more unequal tend to be happier. >> why is that? >> because they see a path to upward mobility. they see that it's possible to rise. in the rest of the world, it turns out that inequality makes no difference one way or the other. but affluence makes a difference. wealthier countries are on average happier. >> do you think that's why america seems unhappy right now, because you've seen the statistics. social mobility in the united states has almost come to a grinding halt. in the middle class, people feel they cannot move up.
those are the latest statistics. parents don't know whether their kids are going to be better standards of living than they did. do you think that is part of the anxiety, i don't know, the depression that people feel these days? >> i do. the para ddox about the united states is that the majority of americans say they're happy, but we're not as happy as we should be given how wealthy we are. many western countries and british commonwealth countries are happier than the united states. >> why? >> no one knows for sure. i think you may have identified one reason. another hypothesis is that americans feel insecure because of our patchy social safety net. one layoff and we could lose good health insurance or be destitute. that's less likely to happen in other western democracies. that sense of existential security might make everyone a bit happier. also whereas most countries have gotten happier over time, the
united states has stagnated for about 70 years, the level of happiness has been about the same even as the country's gotten far richer. >> you think it's because of that social safety net? >> that's one possible explanation. and america does have surprisingly -- the club that we belong to of western democracies, we don't do so well. we have higher rates of crime, drug abuse, obesity, abortion. we kind of punch below our wealth. since so many things go together, it's hard to know which is the cause and which of the others are effects. there's also been some disillusionment compared to the high we started out from. the 1950s, everything seemed great. american ingenuity brought us the atomic bomb, which was thought to be a good thing. everyone thought women had domestic bliss in the kitchen with their appliances. there was a kind of disillusion
in the '60 the recognition of povty a opprsion so the united states had a kind of disillusionment compared to our idealized vision of ourselves. >> thank you for ending our week on a very hopeful note. >> thank you for having me. and so one thing we do know is that when irrational human behavior bumps up against a really powerful technological innovation, the results aren't always so great for humanity. tech giants once society's great hopes are now facing backlash as they've become breeding ground for trolls, extremists, conspiracy theories and election meddling. at the same time there's deep concern about tech addiction and what it's doing to our bodies and our minds. here in the u.k., the health secretary says that social media is as bad for children as obesity. it's rare to hear from someone at the top of one of these tech
giants. but i recently spoke to the cofounder and former ceo of twitter, ef williams. he told me he agrees and that something is definitely broken. ev williams, welcome to the program. >> thank you. >> ev, this seems to be almost sort of an epidemic of the founders of these fantastic social media platforms coming out and admitting there's something wrong, something needs to be fixed, you know, that things aren't going as brilliantly as you all expect it to. what happened? >> well, it's a complicated question. i think media in many ways is broken and social media is a part of that. and what's happened is over the last ten years or so is these platforms have gotten very, very big and they're still in many ways very new. and so there's a lot of
challenges with them, a lot of things we haven't figured out in terms of information quality and abuse and protecting the freedom of speech while also protecting against abuse. so yeah, there are a lot of problems. there's a lot of good things going on as well. >> it has been accused of changing the democratic process in the united states, off e peddling fake news, of altering people's realities and also ripping apart the social fabric, only to mention a few criticisms. i want to ask you what you find the most horrifying when you say it's broken and it need to be fixed. >> i think the thing that i wouldn't have thought 20 years ago and really underestimated is that with an overwhelming amount of information available to all of us, the truth is out there, so to speak, but the ability to spread misinformation is easier than ever, because people are
overwhelmed with information. and it's not like we were ever dealing with perfect information or perfect media. so there's a lot of better stuff. but the ability to really to spread misinformation and false beliefs is easier than ever. and that's -- and again, i don't think it's just social media. i mean, television has in many ways gone the same direction. and the underlying business model that drives both media online and off is generally advertising, is incredibly harmful in my view. >> i guess the ultimate result of this that we're all talking about is the election of the most powerful person on the planet, the president of the united states of america. do you, a, buy that? do you think that twitter helped propel him to the white house by giving him this extraordinary
platformnd aually by him being a very, very savvy use of this social media? >> well, there's no doubt the president is good at talking to his base via twitter. and that was a tool that he employed. i also think it's one of many things. i think it was perhaps inevitable that someone like him was elected due to the corrosive effects of all media on the country over the last couple decades. it certainly couldn't have happened in a vacuum just because of one person got access to twitter. but yeah, i think these -- it was certainly a wakeup call, i think, for many of us in the tech world to say like, oh, you know, this is very, very powerful stuff. >> i mean, we exist right now in
an environment where intelligence committee members, for instance, in congress are worried that twitter and the other platforms are already being used by the russians to infect the 2018 election. so you guys haven't fixed it yet and it's still a very vulnerable area in our public square. i guess, what do you think -- you know, there's the good and then there's the enabling people of all different stripes to put whatever they want out on your platform. you know, where do you come down on all of that? >> on one hand, it is a mess in many ways. the impact of letting anyone publish anything for free and get rewarded based on the attention that they can drive is a bad concept in itself. there has to be -- but we can't throw the baby out with the bath water. so we have to remind ourselves that the good side of these
platforms, the ability for information to flow very rapidly, the ability for everybody to have a voice, which they certainly didn't before, powers lots of awareness of all kinds of issues that wasn't happening before when there was a lot more gate keepers and a lot fewer people in control. and there are bad ak to ctors we messing with the system. as we turn our attention to the bad actors -- and we're doing that. we enforced new rules at twitter. they're enforcing new rules at twitter. they're removing thousands of accounts on a weekly basis. i think people are being held accountable more than ever before. >> can i play you something that bill gates has said about all of your platforms? let me play you a little bit of what he told me the other day. >> the tech platforms are now a
type of media. and the media business has always had to think about how it balances viewpoints and represents the whole spum these companies deserve to be part of the public dialog, e policies on what they allow to go across our platform, how they deal with privacy. with their monumental success and profitability comes a responsibility to work with governments all over the world. >> do you agree with that? >> i would say that the responsibility is clear. and i think the responsibility is felt. the good news is that everyone i know in these companies is aware of this and is working on this. i think what gets a little distorted and maybe underestimated externally is how much all these companies are paying attention to these issues, not just because there's a threat of regulation or a threat to their business from advertisers, but because people really care. >> so i wanted to follow up and ask you about medium which you
have also founded and that is meant to be harkening back to the more quality serious idealistic vision that you started out with. and i think you ditched ads, is that correct? >> that is correct. about a year ago i decided with medium -- just to explain what medium is. it's mostly the publishing of articles and blog posts, so more substantive media than social media. for a while, we were pursuing a similar business model where there's branded content and ad platform we were working on. we realized that was probably detrimental to our ultimate goal, which was to spread quality information and ideas. and so we decided to turn to a subscription model where we charge people directly. there's a pay wall much like the "new york times," except there's no ads at all. for $5 a month you get unlimited
articles and there's lots of fee articles as well. >> is it working? i mean, can that be a sustainable model? >> i think it's absolutely the future. with medium, it's new and we're just getting started. very pleased with the results so far. i have no doubt that's where the world is going and that there's a large discerning audience who cares about the ideas and stories they consume because they shape their world view. they shape so much of how we understand the world. that pain of $5 a month is not a big ask. >> can i switch to something that parents and others who are studying the phenomenon of the smart phone and social media are increasingly worried about. i read in some of the research that all of this is essentially an uncontrolled global experiment on the human mind. would you agree with that? >> yeah. i mean, that's a good way to put
it. i hadn't heard that phrase. but yeah. i think no one knows the real impacts of these technologies and the fact that we're carrying around these devices that command our attention. i think the work that tristan harris has done and talk about time well spent and talking about how lots of technology companies -- really their entire business is predicated on manipulating the mind and is true for sure. i even commend mark zuckerberg on his recent statements about how their goal with the changes they're making to facebook is to help people spend their time better. yeah. >> let me read you some of these things. it is actually extraordinary. a 2015 study by common sense media basically says that more than half of teenagers spent upwards of four hours a day looking at screens. and for some for about a quarter of that the figure is more than
eight hours. an early investor in facebook says smart phones are incredibly valuable. but the apps delivered on them are the technological equivalent of a sugar hit. >> yeah. i think it's incredibly concerning. i think roger touches on something that is a valuable analogy. it's as if society has just discovered sugar or some other substance that reaches deep into our psychology and our biology even and exploits instincts that are part of our evolution and we're odding on it in many ways. i think we're going to look back this period and say, remember when we were uncontrolled and just devoured this stuff and the unhealthy effects that had? like there's no doubt we're going to learn. i think we have to learn how to control it, both on an individual basis and a societial
basis, just like we learn to control if we care about our health and our kids' health that you learn what sort of substances you put in your body. >> ev williams, thank you for sharing your insights. >> thanks for having me. on some of the big issues facing us, we've heard the hopes, the fears and indeed some solutions. that is it for our program tonight. thanks for joining us on "amanpour" on pbs and join us again next time. ♪ "amanpour" on pbs was made possible by the generous support of roslyn p. walter. ♪ you're watching pbs
steves: prague's old town square, once just another farmers market, is now the heart of the city, but today, the commerce is clearly tourism. the fanciful gothic tyn church soars over everything as if to remind tourists lots of religious history took place right here. back in the 15th century, when some christians were beginning to struggle against roman catholic dominance, this was prague's leading hussite church. hussites were followers of jan hus, whose statue graces the square. he was a local preacher who got in trouble with the vatican a hundred years before martin luther and the reformation. the chalice is a symbol of hus and his followers, who believed everyone, not just priests, should be able to partake in the eucharist, or holy communion. these days, huge crowds gather at
the 15th-century astronomical clock back on the old town square. the dials seem to tell you everything you could possibly want to know. it tells the phases of the moon, sunset, current sign of the zodiac, each day's special saint, and, somehow, it even tells the time. and of course, 500 years ago, everything revolved around the earth. at the top of the hour, death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord. the windows open as the twelve apostles parade by, acknowledging the gang of onlookers. the rooster crows... ...and finally, the bell rings. but my favorite part of the show is watching the crowd gawk.
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