Glen Weyl on Technology and Social Innovation

Social movements have spurred major transformations in society, including the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and voting rights, the rise of labor unions, and so on. Yet somehow after decades of economic stability, we began to rely on technological rather than social tools to remake the world, according to Glen Weyl, a principal researcher for Microsoft.

While technology flourished, we “did not allow our social wisdom and social infrastructure to balance that out,” said Weyl. “I think it’s killing equality and structure of our society, so I think we need to regain that spirit of being open to those fundamental social innovations.”

Weyl spoke at the WIRED25 Festival on Sunday, during a panel that explored the ideas in the book he co-authored, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. The book argues that markets, radically reimagined, are the best place to combine social innovation with technology and then disseminate those changes to the masses.

WIRED cofounder Kevin Kelly, who was moderating the panel, asked Weyl why he seemed so confident that the world needs to try his sophisticated, but rather mathematical ideas.

Weyl says his faith in economic theory comes from his own political evolution. At age 10, he was a socialist, but that gave way to Ayn Randian libertarianism in his teens. “By the age of 18, I realized that I had inhabited these two completely contradictory ideologies,” and yet believed in both. For Weyl, the puzzle pieces only came together when when he was studying for a PhD in economics. Deep inside economics were “all these really powerful ideas for transforming the world,” which “allowed me to reconcile my Randianism and my socialism,” he said. Finally he was able to connect “my deep economic theory work back to the passions that I had since the age of 18.”

Likewise, the ideas in Radical Markets will only take root if people reconcile different approaches, added Weyl. Take, for instance, quadratic voting, his idea to solve problems caused by majority rule by allowing people with a strong preference to vote more often on issues they care about, if they abstain from other votes.

Technocrats could experiment on quadratic voting, but “they can’t press a button and make this happen and we wouldn’t want them to,” he said. “Activists can hope to build imagination” around the idea, but no one will follow them until they see an opportunity to experiment with it. “Entrepreneurs can build things and find areas where you can use quadratic voting to do ratings of online services or polling or whatever, but they can’t figure out what it should feel like to people in order to make them be able understand it.” For that, we need artists and designers.

Weyl’s hope is that the same diverse, intersecting communities needed to bring about these ideas will, in turn, build a world that better embraces diversity and more flexible ideas around individual and collective identity.

As an example of the interplay between social and technological change, Weyl pointed to blockchain technology, which allows for a decentralized and transparent public ledger. Blockchain may not be the answer to every need, but “it’s a great technology for bringing fundamental social change the world that can sustain liberalism,” he said.