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Pinker: Our Lives Are Getting Better; Twitter Co-Founder On Social Media's Dark Side. Aired 5-5:30p ET

Aired February 23, 2018 - 17:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, two important conversations about the quality of our lives today. Amidst the daily onslaught of bad news, my

first guest, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says hang on, our lives are actually getting better. And he has the numbers to prove it.

And then, is social media broken? The co-founder of Twitter Evan Williams joins me to say, yes, it is and we shouldn't take it anymore.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London. And from where I sit, this felt like a particularly

week, from Parkland, Florida where a community grieves for its children and teachers; to East Ghouta in Syria, latest front in a bloody and endless

war; to Washington, paralyzed in the face of Russian interference in American democracy.

But in the onslaught of the bad news, are we missing the big picture? Some big thinkers say that we should really focus on what's going right in the

world. That's what Bill Gates recently told me on this program and that is also the gospel according to my guest, Dr. Steven Pinker.

He says quite simply that life is getting better, that humans are healthier, safer and even smarter than ever before. His new book is called

"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress". And he's in London on his book tour.

AMANPOUR: Professor Pinker, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: So, I sit here and you have been doing the same, just listening and absorbing all this bad news. Certainly, this week, it has been a

catastrophe, listening to what happened about the school shooting in Parkland, in Syria, everywhere you look.

But you say we've never had it better.

PINKER: If you don't just concentrate on the things that go wrong, and there are always things that go wrong, we'll never have a perfect world,

but if you count out the number of violent incidents, count up the amount of poverty, count up the amount of illiteracy, you see that, in many ways,

this is the best time to be alive.

The lifespan has never been longer. It used to be that people could expect to live to about 30 when they were born. Now, in the developed world, it's

80. In the world as a whole, it's 70. The world has achieved a rate of 80% literacy, 90% for our children. Diseases are in decline.

Global extreme poverty has gone from 90% of humanity a couple of hundred years ago to 10% today, with most of the gain just in the last couple of


And even peace, wars have not been eliminated. The war in Syria is the worst in a generation. Even with that, the rate of death in warfare now is

much less than it was in the 80s, 70s and 60s.

AMANPOUR: So, why does it feel so awful? And why does it feel that you're saying these things which are totally quantifiable, you're absolutely

right, and yet it just doesn't feel that way?

Or put it another way, so what?

PINKER: Well, one of the reasons it doesn't feel that way is as long as the rate of disasters and atrocities doesn't fall to zero, there'll always

be enough to fill the news. And, 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 the events we see every day

represent the way everything is all over the world as opposed to, exactly where the violence occurs, the news will be there to report it. So, it

gives us a bit of a distorted view of the world as a whole.

Why does it matter? It matters because we can try to identify what we've been doing right and we can be emboldened to think that we can drive these

rates lower still.

AMANPOUR: Well, I want to bring it to a very local level, but very national and international as well. That terrible shooting in Parkland,

given everything that you're saying and given what we have seen, 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 Sen. Marco Rubio stand up in front of a whole town hall of thousands and thousands of

people, most of whom 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?

PINKER: 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've predicted the Civil Rights Movement should be so successful in overturning Jim Crow as quickly as did once it got started.

Gay marriage is the most recent reform. Probably a year before it happened, no one would have predicted that the Supreme Court would have

declared it legal all over the country.

So, we can sometimes be pleasantly surprised at how quickly these changes can occur. We don't yet know if we're living through one of these moments,

but it would not be a shock.

[17:05:09] AMANPOUR: Well, it does bring a smile to my face because you want to cling on to something that's hopeful. And yet, I think you say

that people have a tendency to be nostalgic, to sort of absorb all the negativity and pessimism, and not really direct themselves in the

optimistic direction. Is that right?

PINKER: That's right. We tend to -- our heads tend to be turned by the horrific images of the day. We often forget the horrific images of

yesterday, of horrible wars like Iran-Iraq, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the Bangladesh war of independence, which killed people by

the hundreds of thousands or millions, displaced massive numbers of refugees.

When we forget, we think that the violence that we see today is something new, perhaps even a worsening. Whereas if you add them all up, 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 (INAUDIBLE) and crime.

AMANPOUR: Your books are incredibly popular and people just devour them. What made you want to write this particular one? What is enlightenment?

The enlightenment for dummies.

PINKER: Yes. The enlightenment refers to the period in the second half of the 18th century. Americans are most familiar with it as the source of the

ideas of the founders and framers that led to the Declaration of Independence and the constitution.

But it's the conviction that we can use reason to improve human well-being, human flourishing. And the design of the American democracy came when a

bunch of educated people exchanged ideas, reasoned it out, say, well, rather than just living with a kind of monarchy we always have lived under,

if we were just (INAUDIBLE) from first principles rationally, what would it look like? What can we actually defend in arguments?

And looking also around at what works, what doesn't, what has led to bloodshed, what has led to peace, let's adopt the things that work. That

rational approach to human institutions and 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 obfuscated. It appears that people don't want to listen to experts

anymore. It's all trust your instinct, trust you gut. Is that tribalism?


AMANPOUR: So, how does the enlightenment fit in to this era right now? How does one pull back from that brink?

PINKER: Well, the thing about 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, that you're not full of baloney, that people should believe you, you're appealing to reason. You just can't make it go away.

And likewise with truth, anyone coming up with conspiracy theory, you challenge, they will -- is that true or you're just making it up? They

say, no, no, it's true. Well, then the truth always sneaks back and it's just a question of holding people's feet to the fire to carry through their

conviction, at least from what they're saying is true and then to prove it.

And, of course, there have been periods, many periods in the past when there's been the equivalent of fake news and major decisions based on false

information. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, the escalation of the Vietnam War, World War I, the pogroms, the lynchings, all of them are triggered by

conspiracy theories and rumors. So, it's not as if this is a new thing.

And in some ways, at the same time as there's been the rise of this very troubling fake news and a 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 to track down urban legends and rumors. We have even Wikipedia put together by volunteers, not perfectly accurate, but

surprisingly accurate.

So, you've got a big disparity.

AMANPOUR: I just want to read you something that a German philosopher says. He has a counterargument against the enlightenment. He says it

suppresses natural human urges. And that when surprised, impulses break out, they're even more destructive. What do you say to that?

PINKER: That's kind of a hydraulic model of human psychology that if you try to repress some of our impulses, they'll leak out somewhere else. It's

not a correct theory of psychology. And it is true that the Enlightenment does try to cap certain impulses, and that's good. 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.

AMANPOUR: Of all the fascinating data that you discovered and you bring to bear in this book, what did you find the most interesting, the most

surprising in your investigations?

[17:10:05] PINKER: 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.

And now, some regions, of course, are more liberal than others. Western Europe is much more liberal than the Middle East and North Africa. And

even the Middle East and North Africa, the opinions have been rising in the liberal direction. So, that was a surprise.

And I'll just draw one other fact. I have a lot of graphs on how life is getting safer. I did not realize that an American today has 96 percent

less of a chance of being killed by a bolt of lightning than our ancestors, one of many ways in which life is safer.

AMANPOUR: That is very, very good. We're happy about that. But one thing you didn't really address was the idea of social mobility, the whole

inequality gap. And you did say one thing, and that is in parts of the world where there is inequality, you didn't find it disheartening. You

found it people were heartened, they weren't sort of helpless because of it.

PINKER: Yes. Actually, in the developing world, countries that are more unequal tend to be happier.

AMANPOUR: Why is that?

PINKER: Because people see a path to upward mobility. They think their children can have a better standard of living than themselves. 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 another, but affluence makes a difference. Wealthier countries

are on average happier.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that's why America seems unhappy right now because you've seen the statistics. Social mobility in the United States is almost

come to a grinding halt. I mean, the middle class, people feel that they just cannot move up. I mean, those are the latest statistics.

Parents don't know whether their kids are going to have a better standard 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?

PINKER: I do. And a paradox about the United States is that while Americans are -- a majority of Americans say they are happy, but we're not

as happy as we should be, given how wealthy we are. I mean, we're among the happier of countries in the world.

But many Western European countries and British Commonwealth countries like New Zealand and Canada are happier than the United States.


PINKER: No one knows for sure. I think you may have identified one reason.

Another hypothesis, we don't know for sure 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. And 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 is a bit

about the same, even as the country has gotten much -- far richer.

AMANPOUR: And you think it's because of that social safety net that they feel --

PINKER: That's one possible explanation. And America does have -- surprisingly, for the club that we belong to of Western democracies, we

don't do so well. We have higher rates of crime, we have higher rates of drug abuse, higher rates of obesity, higher rates of abortion. We kind of

punch below our wealth.

And 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 that we started out from. In the 1950s, everything seemed great. American ingenuity

brought us the atomic bomb, which was thought to be a good thing.

The African-Americans were kind of invisible and everyone thought women had domestic bliss in the kitchen with all their appliances.

There was a kind of a disillusionment in the United States starting in the 60s, with the recognition of poverty and of racial oppression. And so, the

United States had a kind of disillusionment compared to our idealized vision of ourselves.

AMANPOUR: Well, thank you for ending our week on a very hopeful note.

PINKER: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Steven Pinker, thanks very much.

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 a backlash as they've become breeding grounds for trolls, extremists, conspiracy theories

and election meddlers.

At the same time, there's deep concern about tech addiction and what it's doing to our bodies and our minds. In fact, here in the UK, 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, Ev Williams.

And he told me that he agrees and that something is definitely broken.

[17:15:00] Ev Williams, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Ev, there seems to be almost sort of an epidemic of the founders of these fantastic social media platforms coming out and admitting that

there's something wrong, something needs to be fixed, that things aren't going as brilliantly as you all expected to. What happened?

WILLIAMS: 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, as these platforms have gotten very, very big and they're still in many ways very new. And

so, there is 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.

And so, yes, there are a lot of problems. There's a lot of good things going on as well.

AMANPOUR: It has been accused of changing the democratic process in the United States, of peddling fake news, of altering people's realities and

also ripping apart the social fabric, only to mention a few of the criticisms.

I want to ask you what you find the most horrifying when you say it's broken and it needs to be fixed?

WILLIAMS: Well, 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.

AMANPOUR: 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 platform and actually by him

being a very, very savvy user of this social media?

WILLIAMS: 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 of decades. It certainly couldn't have happened in a vacuum just because of one person got access to Twitter.

But, yes, I think these -- it was certainly a wake-up call, I think, for many of us in the tech world that to say, like, oh, this is very, very

powerful stuff.

AMANPOUR: 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 elections.

So, you guys haven't fixed it yet and it's still a very vulnerable area in our public square. And, I guess, what do you think of -- there's the good

and there's the enabling people of all different stripes to put whatever they want out on your platform. Where do you come down on all of that?

WILLIAMS: On one hand, it is a mess in many ways. The impact of letting anyone publishing anything for free and get rewarded based on the attention

that they can drive was -- is a bad concept in itself.

There has to be -- but we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. 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 is a lot more gatekeepers and a lot fewer people in control.

[17:20:10] And there are bad actors who are messing with the system. So, as we turn our attention to the bad actors, I think -- and we're doing


So, recently, we enforced new rules at Twitter. Their enforcement rules at Twitter, they're removing thousands of accounts on a weekly basis. And I

think people are being held accountable more than ever before, but the problem is not solved yet.

AMANPOUR: Can I just play you something that Bill Gates who, obviously, was tech -- super tech 1.0 has said about all of your platforms. Let me

just play you a little bit of what he told me the other day.


BILL GATES, FORMER CEO OF MICROSOFT: 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 spectrum.

These companies deserve to be part of the public dialogue, the policies on what they allow to go across their platform, how they deal with privacy.

With their monumental success and profitability comes a responsibility to work with governments all over the world.


AMANPOUR: Do you agree with that?

WILLIAMS: I would say this. 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.

AMANPOUR: 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?

WILLIAMS: That's correct. About a year ago, I decided with Medium -- just to explain what Medium is for a second. It's mostly the publishing of

articles and blog posts, and so more substantive media than social media.

And for a while, we were pursuing a similar business model where there's branded content and (INAUDIBLE) ad platform we were working on. And we

realized that actually that was probably detrimental to our ultimate goal, which was to spread quality information and ideas.

And so, we started 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.

So, for $5 a month, you get unlimited articles and there's lots of free articles as well.

AMANPOUR: So, is it working? I mean, can that be a sustainable model?

WILLIAMS: I think it's absolutely the future. And with Medium, it's new and we're just getting started. Very pleased with the results so far.

I've no doubt that that's where the world is going and that there is a large discerning audience who cares about the ideas and stories they

consume because they shape their worldview, they shape so much of how we understand the world, that paying a little bit for it, in our case it's $5

a month, is not a big ask.

AMANPOUR: Can I switch to something that parents and others who are studying the phenomenon of the smartphone and the social media are

increasingly worried about?

I mean, I read in some of the research that all of this, the advent of the smartphone is essentially an uncontrolled global experiment on the human

mind. Would you agree with that?

WILLIAMS: Yes. I mean, that's a good way to put it. I hadn't heard that phrase. But, yes, 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 talked about with time well spent and talking about how lots of technology companies are --

really, their entire business is predicated on manipulating the mind and is true, for sure.

And I even commend Mark Zuckerberg on his recent statements about how their goal is -- with the changes that they're making to Facebook is to help

people spend their time better.

AMANPOUR: Let me read you some of these things because it is actually extraordinary.

A 2015 study by Common Sense Media basically says that up to half -- more than half of teenagers spent up of four hours a day looking at screens.

And for some, for about a quarter of that, the figure is more than eight hours.

I mean, Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook, says smartphones are incredibly valuable, but the apps delivered on them are the technological

equivalent of a sugar hit.

[17:25:00] WILLIAMS: Yes. I think it's incredibly concerning. I think Roger touches on something that is a valuable analogy. It's as if society

has just realized, 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 ODing on it in many ways.

And I think we're going to look back at this period and say, like, number one, we were uncontrolled and just, like, devoured the stuff and the

unhealthy effects that had. I think there's no doubt that we're going to learn -- I think we have to learn how to control it, both on an individual

basis and a societal basis, just like we learned to control -- if we care about our health and our kids' health, we learn to control what you consume

and whether you -- what sort of substances you put in your body.

AMANPOUR: Ev Williams, thank you for sharing your insights.

WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

AMANPOUR: So, on some of the big issues of our time, tonight, we've heard about the fears, the hopes and also some of the solutions.

And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Facebook and

Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.