Monday, December 31, 2018

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons.." abstracted - Part 1 - The Technological Challenge

In this and the next four posts I'm passing on the result of something I do for myself when reading an interesting book - attempt to get the essence of the arguments by assembling summary clips of text, in this case reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph. (The clips are taken from Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group.) My idiosyncratic choices of text miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter. I find that re-reading the clips is a nudge to my memory of the whole chapter. To avoid posts of excessive length, I am using five posts, once for each section of the book. Here is the first installment:

Harari - 21 Lessons for the 21st century 

Part I - The Technological Challenge - Humankind is losing faith in the liberal story that dominated global politics in recent decades, exactly when the merger of biotech and infotech confronts us with the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered.

Chapter 1 Disillusionment - The end of history has been postponed

 …during the twentieth century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. .. since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story…In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, and in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail. In 2018 we are down to zero…Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions.

Chapter 2 Work - When you grow up, you might not have a job.

If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing. Losing control over our lives, however, is a much scarier scenario. Notwithstanding the danger of mass unemployment, what we should worry about even more is the shift in authority from humans to algorithms, which might destroy any remaining faith in the liberal story and open the way to the rise of digital dictatorships.

Chapter 3 Liberty - Big data is watching you

As algorithms come to know us so well, authoritarian governments could gain absolute control over their citizens… Not only will the regime know exactly how you feel, but it could make you feel whatever it wants. … Even if democracy manages to adapt and survive, people might become the victims of new kinds of oppression and discrimination.. more and more banks, corporations, and institutions are already using algorithms to analyze data and make decisions about us…just as Big Data algorithms might extinguish liberty, they might simultaneously create the most unequal societies that ever existed. All wealth and power might be concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, while most people will suffer not from exploitation but from something far worse—irrelevance.

Chapter 4 Equality - Those who own the data own the future

If we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, the key is to regulate the ownership of data…The race to obtain the data is already on, headed by data giants such as Google, Facebook, Baidu, and Tencent...Perhaps the very same scientists and entrepreneurs who disrupted the world in the first place can engineer some technological solution. For example, might networked algorithms form the scaffolding for a global human community that could collectively own all the data and oversee the future development of life? As global inequality rises and social tensions increase around the world, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg could call upon his two billion friends to join forces and do something together.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")

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