“Big data is giving birth to new myths”

Article  by  François QUINTON  •  Published 15.10.2015  •  Updated 13.09.2016
Yuval Harari
Digital revolution, privacy, big data… Interview with historian Yuval Noah Harari.

Yuval Noah Harari is lecturer at the Department of History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Vintage, 2014), is translated in more than 30 languages and was recommended by people such as Jared Diamond or Mark Zuckerberg.
 
Sapiens Yuval Harari
As you very well explain in your book, the Industrial Revolution didn’t have only technical impacts, but transformed many aspects of human societies. Because scarcity was solved, it led to an ethical revolution: consumerism became more important than frugality; it also changed our conception of time, in synchronizing human activities according to a new rhythm (coming from factories); in addition, it weakened small intimate communities by transferring some responsibilities (such has work, health care, security, credit,…) which belonged to families, to the state and market. So, one question would be: what about the so-called “digital revolution”? Is it a revolution as well, and to what extent?
 
Yuval Noah Harari: The digital revolution has the potential of changing our lives in even more drastic ways than the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century every human was valuable, because every human was needed to serve as a soldier in the army, or a worker in the factory and the office. However, computer algorithms are now catching-up with humans in more and more cognitive fields. It is expected than in the coming decades, computers and robots will outperform us in more and more tasks, and will therefore replace us in more and more jobs. This has already began to happen in the armies, which no longer need masses of humans. A 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, of the University of Oxford, estimated that 47% of the jobs in the US job market are likely to be automated in the next 20 years.
 
It is not that computers will become like humans. That is science fiction. Computers are unlikely to develop anything even close to human consciousness, emotions and feelings. However, in order to replace humans in the economy, computers don’t need consciousness. They just need intelligence. Throughout history, intelligence always went hand in hand with consciousness. The only intelligent entities were conscious entities. The only ones who could play chess, drive vehicle, fight wars and diagnose diseases were conscious human beings. But intelligence is now decoupling from consciousness. We are developing non-conscious algorithms that can play chess, drive vehicle, fight wars and diagnose diseases better than us. When the economy has to choose between intelligence and consciousness, the economy will choose intelligence. It has no real need for consciousness. Once self-driving cars and doctor-bots outperform human drivers and doctors, millions of drivers and doctors around the world will lose their jobs, even though self-driving cars and doctor-bots have no consciousness. What will be the use of humans in such a world? What will we do with billions of economically useless humans? We don’t know. We don’t have any economic model for such a situation.
 
Considering the whole human history, you assume that is has one direction, which is unity of humankind (all human societies are now connected). And you point out 3 key factors of this tendency: religion, empires and, last but not least, money. But what about the media? What is their role regarding this process? You say radio and TV are a factor of unification as well, throughout synchronization of societies (via TV shows schedules, for instance) and the promotion of consumerism. Could you explain your point of view? Don’t you think the personalization of the way people access information (via Twitter or Facebook) may separate people?
 
Yuval Noah Harari: Unity isn’t sameness. Just as you can have many different organs in a single body, so you can also have people with different tastes, habits and opinions within a single network. Indeed, large bodies and large networks almost always rely on a division of labor. Yet no matter whether you prefer Twitter or Facebook, you are part of a single unified and global network.
 No matter whether you prefer Twitter or Facebook, you are part of a single unified and global network             
This unified global network is the result of thousands of years of history. History has known many wars and revolutions, but overall, its general direction has been towards unity. 10,000 years ago humankind was split into many separate tribes. Each tribe had its own culture and religion, and lived in relative isolation from other tribes. Earth was an entire galaxy of distinct human worlds. Today all humans are part of a single economic and political network, and they all share the same culture and the same basic view of the world. Yes, there are some political and religious disagreements, but the similarities are far more important. A thousand years ago, doctors in Europe, the Middle East, India, China and America had radically different views of nature, of the human body, and of medicine. Today, doctors all over the world share very similar views of nature, of the human body, and of medicine. If you happen to have a heart attack in Copenhagen, in Jerusalem, in Teheran and in Tokyo, you will probably be rushed to similar hospitals, and will receive similar treatments following similar medical protocols. Iranians, Israelis and Americans have their differences, no doubt, but when it comes to understand reality, they all believe in the same physics. If not, why are Israelis and Americans so concerned about the Iranian nuclear program?
 
 
In 1999, Sun Microsystem CEO said we had “zero privacy anyway. Get over it”. He was followed by people such as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO (“Public is the new social norm”) or Vint Cerf , one of Internet founding fathers (“Privacy May Be An Anomaly”). Do you think privacy ever existed? What do you think of the hypothesis of the end of privacy?  
 
Yuval Noah Harari: Different kinds of privacy certainly existed in the past. But privacy as we have known it in the West in the late twentieth century is a historical phenomenon characteristic of a particular time and place, rather than a universal constant. For countless generations, families and intimate tribal communities were the basic units of human society. Social structures changed from time to time, but some kind of family and tribe were always the basis, not only for people's emotional life, but also for the economy and for politics. Under such conditions, humans were not individuals who had a secure private space, but rather members of families and communities with very little privacy.
 
For example, very few people had private rooms. Even rich people did not have privacy. Medieval castles rarely contained private rooms. The teenager son of a medieval baron did not have a private room on the castle’s second floor, with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur on the walls and a locked door that his parents were not allowed to open. He slept alongside many other youths in a large hall. He was always on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said. Someone growing up in such conditions naturally concluded that a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what other people said of him. Medieval teenagers were exposed to far worse cases of shaming than contemporary teenagers on Facebook.
 Medieval teenagers were exposed to far worse cases of shaming than contemporary teenagers on Facebook  
Over the last 200 years, the state and the market have taken upon themselves most of the traditional functions of the family and tribe, such as providing pensions, healthcare, education and security. This has led to the disintegration of most tribes and intimate communities, and the weakening of the family. This is what turned humans into individuals, and made privacy such a central value. It may sound paradoxical, but it is the state and the market that have fostered individualism and privacy by breaking down the traditional communities. So there is nothing natural about our current views of individualism and privacy.
 
 
Another interesting point of your book is what you call the “Gilgamesh project”, i.e. the aim to defeat death and disease. Don’t you think our digital societies gave birth to another myth: omniscience? With “big data”, would you say that Sapiens seek to measure and to foresee everything (even if, as you say, “a predictable revolution never occurs”)? 
 
Yuval Noah Harari: Yes, big data is changing our worldview, and giving birth to new myths and even new religions. Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not Syria or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That's where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.  The all-powerful and omniscient God of traditional religions is being replaced by all-powerful and omniscient algorithms  They promise all the old prizes – happiness, peace, justice, and eternal life in paradise – but here on earth with the help of technology, rather than after death with the help of supernatural beings. The all-powerful and omniscient God of traditional religions is being replaced by all-powerful and omniscient algorithms.

Recently, at Google Talks, you compared the Silicon Valley to the 13th century Vatican. Could you tell us more about this comparison?
 
Yuval Noah Harari: I was making a point about the history of the Christian Church and other traditional religions rather than about Silicon Valley. I wanted to explain why traditional religions are turning from a creative to a reactive force. In the past, Christianity and Islam were a creative force. For example, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was responsible for numerous social and ethical reforms as well as important economic and technological innovations. The church founded many of the first European universities; its monasteries experimented with novel economic methods; and it led the way in techniques of data-processing (such as creating archives and catalogues). Any king or prince who wanted an efficient administration turned to priests and monks to provide him with data-processing skills. In this sense, the Vatican was the closest thing thirteenth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.
           
Yet in the late modern era Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. Ask yourself: "What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the 20th century?" This is difficult to answer, because it is hard to choose from among a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: "What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of religions such as Islam and Christianity in the 20th century?" This too is difficult, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and mullahs discover in the 20th century that can be mentioned in one breath with antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, whence do you think the big changes of the 21st century will emerge: From the Islamic State or from Google? Yes, ISIS knows how to put video-clips on Youtube. Wow. But leaving aside the industry of torture, how many new startups have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

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Photo Credit :
Rami Zarnegar

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