Our Favorite Tech Big Thinker Says...

By in
Our Favorite Tech Big Thinker Says...

We’re most of the way through Yuval Hariri’s book “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow”, but a recent New York Times article on his sudden fame pushed us to present his ideas in today’s note. We’ll come back with a review of his work very soon, but his ideas merit a double-dip. Hariri is one of the most important thinkers we have run across in considering the intersection of technological disruption and the future of human governance and society.

Hariri’s central message from a recent TED Talk, in his own words:

#1. On technology and government: “The greatest danger that now faces liberal democracy is that the revolution in information technology will make dictatorships more efficient than democracies. In the 20th century, democracy and capitalism defeated fascism and communism because democracy was better at processing data and making decisions. Given 20th-century technology, it was simply inefficient to try and concentrate too much data and too much power in one place.”

“But it is not a law of nature that centralized data processing is always less efficient than distributed data processing. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, it might become feasible to process enormous amounts of information very efficiently in one place, to take all the decisions in one place, and then centralized data processing will be more efficient than distributed data processing. And then the main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century — their attempt to concentrate all the information in one place — it will become their greatest advantage.”

#2. On the power of governments and companies: “In the end, there isn’t such a big difference between the corporations and the governments, because … the questions is: Who controls the data? This is the real government. If you call it a corporation or a government — if it’s a corporation and it really controls the data, this is our real government.”

#3. On the waning power of capitalism’s “Invisible Hand”: “If a corporation really knows you better than you know yourself – at least that it can manipulate your own deepest emotions and desires, and you won’t even realize – you will think this is your authentic self. So in theory… you can rise against a corporation just as, in theory, you can rise against a dictatorship. But in practice, it is extremely difficult.”

The funny-strange thing about Hariri’s message is that US “Big Tech” loves it.The Times article described how Reed Hastings of Netflix threw him a dinner party. Bill Gates reviewed Home Deus for the paper’s book section. Google invited him to speak to the management of its “X” research division, where it incubates its biggest ideas. If technology is a threat to democracy, as Hariri describes, US Tech may see that as a feature. Not a bug…

In the end, we think Hariri has the right paradigm to consider the tension between technology and the future of government. China – not western democracy – is the case study here. That country has used Moore’s Law, AI and machine learning to centralize control rather than allow independent companies to influence society. That’s the governmental “hack” to what Hariri describes, but not one available to liberal democracies.

We’ll close out this section with Hariri’s take on what happens over the next 30 years to western forms of government: “So far, we’ve managed to overcome all the previous crises. And especially if you look at liberal democracy and you think things are bad now, just remember how much worse things looked in 1938 or in 1968. So this is really nothing, this is just a small crisis. But you can never know, because, as a historian, I know that you should never underestimate human stupidity.”


TED Talk (video and transcript available, and just 18 minutes long): https://www.ted.com/talks/yuval_noah_harari_why_fascism_is_so_tempting_and_how_your_data_could_power_it/transcript?language=en#t-1090949

New York Times Article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/09/business/yuval-noah-harari-silicon-valley.html