Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The new book by Yuval Noah Harari sounds like just what I need.

“For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.” Amazon

Mr. (Doctor?) Harari wrote the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


From a brief interview (WIRED) interview with the author:

Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.

Will tech companies become our new rulers, even gods?

When you talk about God and religion, in the end it’s all a question of authority. What is the highest source of authority that you turn to when you have a problem in your life? A thousand years ago you’d turn to the church. Today, we expect algorithms to provide us with the answer—who to date, where to live, how to deal with an economic problem. So more and more authority is shifting to these (technology) corporations.

Wikiquote

I recently stumbled upon Wikiquote (“a free online compendium of sourced quotations from notable people and creative works”). I have a quotation jones. When I read a book I obsessively underline passages for hoarding on Google Docs. So I can get lost for hours on Wikiquote. Here’s one from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (Erasmas theorizing why others are joining his journey):

“The work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be, it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power, but of story. If their employees came home with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story…had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure?”

Has all the story been bled out of your life? My life?

The prophetic Mr. Adams

First the good news. I finished reading God’s Debris (for the umpteenth time, as we mathematicians like to say), the 2004 novella by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. This will be the final excerpt (until next time).

I was a long time fan of Mr. Adams’ blog and the ideas he shared there but stopped reading when he — like the rest of America — became obsessed with Donald Trump. As far as I can determine, Adams was the first person (of some notoriety) to predict Trump would win the nomination and go on to win the White House. He was saying that as early as September 15, 2015 and perhaps earlier.

I seem to recall Adams insisting he wasn’t saying Trump would make a good president, just that he (like Adams) knew some Master Persuader voodoo that would take him all the way. And I don’t think Adams ever wavered in his conviction. Like I said, I stopped following because my politics toxicity was already dangerously high.

I bring it up as background for this bit from the final chapter of God’s Debris (written 13 years ago):

“The great leaders in this world are always the least rational among us. Charismatic leaders have a natural ability to bring people into their delusion. They convince people to act against self-interest and pursue the leaders’ visions of the greater good. Leaders make citizens go to war to seize land they will never live on and to kill people who have different religions.”

I hesitate to put words in Mr. Adams’ mouth but I don’t think he’s using “great leaders” in the sense of good or admirable but rather in terms of effective. Achieving an objective. Hard to argue Trump did not do that.

Two types of people

This excerpt from Scott Adams’ novella, God’s Debris, is the best explanation I’ve found for why Facebook is — and always will be — more successful (numerically) than Google+:

“There are two types of people in the world. One type is people-oriented. When they make conversation, it is about people — what people are doing, what someone said, how someone feels. The other group is idea-oriented. When they make conversation, they talk about ideas and concepts and objects. […] Idea people are boring, even to other idea people.”

“When a person talks about people, it is personal to everyone who listens. You will automatically relate the story to yourself, thinking how you would react in that person’s situation, how your life has parallels.”

I go to Google+ for new ideas, and usually find some. And I’m much more likely to share an idea than talk about people. Frankly, there are not that many people in my life and I’ve grown quite comfortable with that. The line between ‘people’ and ‘ideas’ can get fuzzy, I suppose. When one rants about Donald Trump’s latest outrage, are you talking about and idea or a person. My sense is the latter.

New Harry Bosch novel in November

“Michael Connelly will publish the next installment in the Bosch series (untitled as of now) on Nov. 7, 2017, and will introduce the world to the new Renée Ballard series kicking off with The Late Show on July 18, 2017, Little, Brown, and Company announced Tuesday.”

“The Late Show‘s Renée Ballard, Connelly’s first new protagonist in 10 years, is a young detective for the LAPD who has been stuck on the night shift in Hollywood after filing a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor. Given the nature of the job, she can never finish a case and must hand each project to the day shift detectives when the night ends. But everything changes when she finds two cases of violence against women that she refuses to part with.”

Entertainment Weekly

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. . . I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

— Richard Feynman

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Am I alive because of the atomic bomb?

I’m about halfway through Genius, James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman, considered by many the most brilliant American physicist of the 20th century. Feynman was probably the smartest of the scientists working on the Trinity Project (America’s atom bomb program). The first (and only test) of the bomb took place July 16, 1945. American bombers nuked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later (Aug 6-9). Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.

My father was in the Navy from May, 1943 until March 9, 1946. He served on the USS Mount McKinley; USS Appalachian; USS New Jersey; USS War Hawk; USS Iowa; and one or two others. All of which saw action in the Pacific.

According to Gleick, building the atomic bomb dramatically affected the lives of the scientists who created it. The Japanese lives lost to this terrible weapon have always been balanced against those that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Like my father, for instance. Japan surrenders, they turn the ships around and head home. Discharged March 9, 1946 in St. Louis. Meets and marries my mom (March 23, 1946) who was living in St. Louis. Happy ending. For some.

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to boil down some meaning from this bit of history. But “what if this event hadn’t happened” is a pointless game. It did happen.

“Nothing can happen unless the entire universe makes it happen. A thing is as it is, because the universe is as it is.”

Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State

“American democracy just isn’t good enough anymore. A costly election has done more to divide American society than unite it, while trust in government–and democracy itself–is plummeting. But there are better systems out there, and America would be wise to learn from them. In this provocative manifesto, globalization scholar Parag Khanna tours cutting-edge nations from Switzerland to Singapore to reveal the inner workings that allow them that lead the way in managing the volatility of a fast-changing world while delivering superior welfare and prosperity for their citizens.” Amazon »

Switzerland is so decentralized it does not have a president (or head of state), but rather a Federal Council of seven members whose chairman rotates each year. (Most citizens cannot name even three of the seven.)

(Info-states) define their geography by their connectivity rather than just their territory; their supply chains are as important to their map as their location.

Their only ideology is pragmatism.

As with natural selection, governance models evolve over time through adaptation, modification, and imitation. The more the world becomes connected and complex, devolved and data-saturated, the more the info-state model will rise in status. Global political discourse is shifting into a post-ideological terrain where performance—based on citizen satisfaction and international benchmarks—is the arbiter of success.

We are coming to appreciate that the difference between successful and failing countries today is not rich versus poor, left versus right, or democratic versus authoritarian, but whether they have the capacity to meet their citizens’ basic needs, empower them as individuals, and act or change course when needed. Everything else is window dressing.

Here then is a key reason to pay attention to technocracy: Because it is Asia’s future. Technocracy becomes a form of salvation after societies realize that democracy doesn’t guarantee national success. Democracy eventually gets sick of itself and votes for technocracy.

China’s spectacular rise versus that of democracies such as India has shown the world that it is better to have a system focused on delivery without democracy than a system that is too democratic at the expense of delivery. For democracy to be admired, it has to deliver.

In the long run, the quality of governance matters more than regime type.

“Chinese people don’t love their government, but they trust it.”

“The Swiss no longer believe in churches and religion,” muses Reto Steiner, a professor at the University of Bern. “They put their trust in deliberation, academics and experts.

Watches and knives, pharmaceuticals and chocolate, precision tools and encrypted hardware—almost everything Switzerland makes is better than anything anyone else can offer. This is because rather than shun vocational education, Swiss overwhelmingly prefer apprenticeships as a mode of skill-building for the global marketplace.

The top three most competitive economies in the world according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) are Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore, all of which have vocational educational systems and worker retraining programs and near-zero unemployment.
The state-builders, urban planners, and economic strategists of the 21st century all take their inspiration from (Singapore’s founder) Lee Kuan Yew, not Thomas Jefferson.

Singapore’s civil service is a spiral staircase: With each rung you learn to manage a different portfolio, building a broad knowledge base and first-hand experience. By contrast, American politics is like an elevator: One can get in on the bottom floor and go straight to top, missing all the learning in between.

At no point in the past decade has any official or academic in a foreign country told me they want their country to look like “America.” They want to have a Silicon Valley, a New York City and a Boston—hubs of innovation, finance, and knowledge.

The notion that western societies rule by reason and eastern societies by despotism is a tired cliché in a world of constant data feedback.

In the coming decades, global competition will punish the sentimental. A society that could do something better but doesn’t is either stupid or suicidal—or both. For political systems this means less emphasis on democracy and more on good governance. Success is measured by delivering welfare domestically and managing global complexity, not by holding elections.

Chaos: Making a New Science

“The first popular book about chaos theory, it describes the Mandelbrot set, Julia sets, and Lorenz attractors without using complicated mathematics. It portrays the efforts of dozens of scientists whose separate work contributed to the developing field. The text remains in print and is widely used as an introduction to the topic for the mathematical laymen.” (Wikipedia)

This book was tough sledding for me. I got about half, maybe. Still, I came away with some appreciation for the brilliance of the people who birthed this “new science.”

Does William Gibson know what’s ahead?

“It’s the music of a disenfranchised, mostly white proletariat, barely hanging on in post-post-industrial America.” William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties was published in 1999 so the line above was written at least 17 years ago. More so than any other writer, I get the feeling Gibson somehow knows what’s ahead for us. Maybe he gave us a glimpse of that in The Peripheral. Perhaps that future is already here. I wish I could pick up the phone and call Mr. Gibson or Kevin Kelly or James Gleick or (insert name of really smart person here): “I’m sorry to bother you, but what do you think? Is everything going to be okay or not?”