Lesley Stahl: Algorithms, ‘Creative Destruction’ and the Dark Side Taking Hold?

Famed “60 Minutes” co-editor Lesley Stahl says she seldom tells others about stories she’s working on, but she made an exception for the attendees at the Tuesday working lunch General Session.

“I’m working on a story [about FinTech — financial technology] that I think you’ll be interested in. And it also has me thinking and worrying about where we’re headed,” Stahl says.

She was in Silicon Valley recently where tech companies, she says, are actually in the business of “disrupting.” 

“They are searching for ways to upend existing sectors of the economy. ‘Creative destruction’ they call it,” Stahl says. Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term in the middle of the last century. “He said it was an essential engine of economic progress and central to capitalism. New technologies would destroy old businesses and new jobs would be created. The automobile put 238,000 blacksmiths out of business. It created even more workers in Detroit making cars. 

“But it appears that many of the new technologies today are all disruptive and [less] creative in the sense of creating new jobs,” Stahl says.

One tech firm, she says, reports that one-third of all jobs will be lost to automation within 10 years. New apps on smartphones are destroying sectors of the economy. “Look at what Uber is doing to the taxi industry. Airbnb to hotels. Algorithms may not be your friend.”

While reporting on her FinTech “60 Minutes” story she discovered that creative destruction financial institutions are creating bank apps that could replace the 600,000 U.S. tellers. “Even financial advisors may be replaced by algorithms.” 

Stahl says that technology’s dark sides include privacy invasion, cyber warfare and electronic hacking.  And while researching a recent story, she reported on “The Internet of Things”: many new cars, refrigerators and other common everyday items are already connected to networks. Eventually, almost every item in our offices and homes will be linked to the Internet, she says, so fraudsters can easily access our personally identifiable information. 

 “We blithely go along and allow these technologies to take over our lives. We don’t debate it. It just happens,” she says.

Technology also has affected the covering of news, she says. When she first entered journalism, the president spoke to the nation on the three networks — no cable, of course. “That meant that the entire country heard the president. … Everybody in the country watched the evening news at the same time from the same three anchormen. And that was bringing us together as a country. It was very unifying. The anchormen were calm, reassuring, trustworthy.”

Now, she says, we have a plethora of outlets on cable and online, which provide “content” — none of it delivered calmly and reassuring. Online info is dished out in fragmentary, hysterical bits and as “flows of lava” with no reassurance that what we’re reading is true, Stahl says. This compartmentalization is causing polarization of people who are only interested in reinforcing their own likeminded views. “We have to stop and find a way to find a pause” to reevaluate what technology is doing to us, she says.

Stahl, however, didn’t want to leave attendees with all doomsday news. She said a recent survey found that the Millennial generation is reading printed matter rather than online or electronic content for pleasure or studying. “They do want to read the old-fashioned way, and that’s heartening,” she says. And a Pew survey found that the highest rates of those reading are in the 18- to 29-year-old group. “And they still use public libraries!” she exclaimed. “So not all is lost.” Perhaps that backlash pendulum is swinging back, and the darkest effects of technology are abating, after all.