Thursday, January 03, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." abstracted - Part 4 - Truth

This is the fourth installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part IV. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part IV - Truth - If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?

Chapter 15 - Ignorance - You know less than you think.

If you are left with the nagging feeling that this is too much, that you cannot process it all, you are absolutely right. No person can…In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual…[which] may well be a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of upper-class white men…behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than on rational analysis…woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age… We think we know a lot (“the knowledge illusion.”), even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own…People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged…The problem of groupthink and individual ignorance besets …also presidents and CEOs…great power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.

Chapter 16 - Justice - Our sense of justice might be out of date.

Like all our other senses, our sense of justice also has ancient evolutionary roots. Human morality was shaped over the course of millions of years of evolution to deal with the social and ethical dilemmas that cropped up in the lives of small hunter-gatherer bands…Most of the injustices in the contemporary world result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices, and our hunter-gatherer brains did not evolve to detect structural biases…In previous eras …you weren’t responsible for the plight of people halfway across the world. If you made an effort to sympathize with your less fortunate neighbors, that was usually enough. But today major global debates about things such as climate change and artificial intelligence have an impact on everybody—whether in Tasmania, Hangzhou, or Baltimore—so we need to take into account all viewpoints. Yet how can anyone do that? How can anyone understand the web of relations among thousands of intersecting groups across the world?…we now suffer from global problems, without having a global community.

Chapter 17 - Post-Truth - Some fake news lasts forever.

A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new, and even the habit of denying entire nations and creating fake countries has a long pedigree.…humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions…Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath)… For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology… We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect paper currency…Instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognize it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction.

Chapter 18 Science Fiction - The future is not what you see in movies.

…perhaps the worst sin of present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness. As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens…[Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is]… the most prophetic science-fiction book of the twentieth century…Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions…The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras but rather that authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realize that they are already trapped inside a box—their brain—which is locked within the bigger box of human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix…According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell. Since your brain and your “self” are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

(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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