The Curse of Meritocracy / by Robert Smith

RSA has posted an excellent “minimate” video from the wonderful Michael Sandel, on how the (false) idea that the world is meritocratic - that people “get what they deserve” - leads to the social disfunction and populist politics of today, curses that we need to overcome. Highly recommended viewing.

There’s a subtle connection here to an idea in my book, Rage Inside the Machine. Around 56 seconds into the minimate, you’ll see a sketch of The Fates. In Rage, I talk about how the idea of these fateful figures, who actually worked above the Gods, and would respond to no plea or prayer, were abandoned as a concept with the widespread adoption of a single omniscient God, and the invention of probability theory in the Renaissance.

That development leads directly to the idea held by many AI technologists that if we just calculate the right set of statistics from big data, we can make the highest merit decisions about the future. But, this overlooks the fact that probability theory does not model the complexity of the real world, and never can.

So the abandonment of the concept of The Fates leads not only to the tyranny of meritocracy that Michael Sandel talks about, but also a “decision meritocracy” based on faith in big data algorithmics. This new faith overlooks the real-world uncertainty that non-probabilistic, human decision-making has been adapted specifically to address.

So it’s not just that we have a false idea of social merit that’s connected to our divisive world, it’s the idea that we can make decisions of inherently high merit based on algorithms and big data. We need to re-centre humanity in our decision-making and be more humane in accepting that much of our success and failure lies in the hands of Fate.

And I also recommend Sandel’s fantastic book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.