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Yuval Noah Harari's articles on Covid-19

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Yuval Noah Harari is the author of the popular science bestsellers "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind", "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow", and "21 Lessons for the 21st Century".

I am uploading three of his articles published over the past year related to Covid-19. Sharing for those who are interested in having a historian's view of things.

Enjoy!

Comments

Extremely pro-government and surveillance support articles in Financial times. If you read his books, they are telling different story. It seems that fame, money and power change every person.

laneigile wrote:

If you read his books, they are telling different story.

Interesting. In what way? Can you provide a difference between the two sources?

Harari wrote about literacy, farming, hunter gatherers, debt, usury, relations in society. One of the observations is that technology would lead humans to be separated in two distinct species. He teaches history with focus on humanity and not on nations, states and religions. Implicitly historian is explaining how our civilization become what is today. Just by act of sharing it's perspective and historical context he is helping the poor and uneducated readers to prosper in our world.
Instead of teaching people, in these articles he is telling, don't worry, state would provide you everything. You don't need to know anything; others will take care of you. When there is a lot of money there is no empathy. In books you can found Harari which is fighting for ideals, people and scientific prestige. In articles Yuval is part of the establishment.

Cheers, I appreciate your willingness to discuss ideas not political positions. Covid is the new McCarthyism and people are taking an us vs them position too readily.

Even so, I can't quite agree with your assessment of Harari. I am far from expert on him (I prefer Jared Diamond, actually) but from what I have read, Harari has always been a big proponent of modern progress. I was thinking about uploading his chapter on capitalism because it is quite understandable but, more importantly, it reads like a big "recipe for modern economic success". Am I wrong?

Put another way, is it possible that you perhaps mis-read his earlier work? I think it is likely he always held these views and I still haven't seen inconsistencies between them but, as I say, I haven't looked too deeply yet.

Here's an example where he is actually the cautious one among other vocal proponents of state surveillance:

https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3121924/how-think-about-cov...

That's an interesting article because it also includes the Slovenian philosopher Zizek. I also like it because it should hopefully open some eyes here to the different perceptions of big data. You or I may think data monitoring is wrong but just because we do, does that make it so? billions of Asians would tend to disagree!

Here is his last few paragraphs on capitalism... pasting here because of their potential relevance to the science afoot today:

"Conversely, the history of capitalism is unintelligible without taking science into account. Capitalisms belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. A society of wolves would be extremely foolish to believe that the supply of sheep would keep on growing indefinitely. The human economy has nevertheless managed to grow exponentially throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years – such as the continent of America, the internal combustion engine, or genetically engineered sheep. Banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.

Over the last few years, banks and governments have been frenziedly printing money. Everybody is terrified that the current economic crisis may stop the growth of the economy. So they are creating trillions of dollars, euros and yen out of thin air, pumping cheap credit into the system, and hoping that the scientists, technicians and engineers will manage to come up with something really big, before the bubble bursts. Everything depends on the people in the labs. New discoveries in fields such as biotechnology and nanotechnology could create entire new industries, whose profits could back the trillions of make-believe money that the banks and governments have created since 2008. If the labs do not fulfil these expectations before the bubble bursts, we are heading towards very rough times."

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I prefer Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond seems intersting, I would read some of his works

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https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3121924/how-think-about-cov...

Behind the paywall, can't read it

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You or I may think data monitoring is wrong but just because we do, does that make it so?

You are not programmed/manipulated only if your behavior can't be predicted by data acquired from monitoring.

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Put another way, is it possible that you perhaps mis-read his earlier work?

History’s Biggest Fraud

All this changed about 10,000 years ago, when Sapiens began to devote almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the ground and led sheep to prime pastures. This work, they thought, would provide them with more fruit, grain and meat. It was a revolution in the way humans lived – the Agricultural Revolution.

The Scent of Money

In the Afro-Asian world from which the Spaniards came, the obsession for gold was indeed an epidemic. Even the bitterest of enemies lusted after the same useless yellow metal. Three centuries before the conquest of Mexico, the ancestors of Cortés and his army waged a bloody war of religion against the Muslim kingdoms in Iberia and North Africa. The followers of Christ and the followers of Allah killed each other by the thousands, devastated fields and orchards, and turned prosperous cities into smouldering ruins – all for the greater glory of Christ or Allah.

Other writers which wrote theories like this are called conspiracy theorists, but Harari is world-wide renowned.

Paragraph on capitalism is too complex to elaborate in comment. As summary, book is reflection of the reader's personality. Everyone will make conclusions according to it's affinities and experiences.

laneigile wrote:

You are not programmed/manipulated only if your behavior can't be predicted by data acquired from monitoring.

Your argument is circular: I am free so long as I am not monitored. That is untrue -- history shows that there were issues and questions about freedom long before the electronic age.

It is also unsound: DNA is itself a program and it is pretty easy to predict when I will go to the toilet even though there are no cameras there.

Most importantly, though, let's not let our hubris get in the way of hearing Harari.

From his chapter on Dataism:

  • free-market capitalism and state-controlled communism are competing data-processing systems. Capitalism uses distributed processing, whereas communism relies on centralized processing.
  • Capitalism did not defeat communism because capitalism was more ethical but because distributed data processing works better than centralized data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological changes.
  • democracies and dictatorships are in also competing mechanisms for gathering and analyzing information. Dictatorships use centralized processing methods, whereas democracies prefer distributed processing.
  • In the last decades democracy gained the upper hand because under the unique conditions of the late twentieth century, distributed processing worked better. Under alternative conditions – those prevailing in the ancient Roman Empire, for instance – centralized processing had an edge, which is why the Roman Republic fell and power shifted from the Senate and popular assemblies into the hands of a single autocratic emperor.
  • This implies that as data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear . As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they don’t process data efficiently enough.
  • The governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data. The NSA may be spying on your every word, but to judge by the repeated failures of American foreign policy, nobody in Washington knows what to do with all the data.
  • In the coming decades, it is likely that we will see more Internet-like revolutions, in which technology steals a march on politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology might soon overhaul our societies and economies – and our bodies and minds too – but they are hardly a blip on our political radar.
  • Yet power vacuums seldom last long. If in the twenty-first century traditional political structures can no longer process the data fast enough to produce meaningful visions, then new and more efficient structures will evolve to take their place. These new structures may be very different from any previous political institutions, whether democratic or authoritarian. The only question is who will build and control these structures. If humankind is no longer up to the task, perhaps it might give somebody else a try.

If you like his earlier work (and it sounds like you do) then what he wrote in the FT builds on the argument above (because he sees it as inevitable) and he offers some wise counsel:

    Three basic rules can go a long way in protecting us from digital dictatorships, even in a time of plague:

  • First, whenever you collect data on people — especially on what is happening inside their own bodies — this data should be used to help these people rather than to manipulate, control or harm them.
  • Second, surveillance must always go both ways. If surveillance goes only from top to bottom, this is the high road to dictatorship. So whenever you increase surveillance of individuals, you should simultaneously increase surveillance of the government and big corporations too .
  • Third, never allow too much data to be concentrated in any one place. Not during the epidemic, and not when it is over. A data monopoly is a recipe for dictatorship. So if we collect biometric data on people to stop the pandemic, this should be done by an independent health authority rather than by the police. And the resulting data should be kept separate from other data silos of government ministries and big corporations.