Image by Daniel Thomas Smith

Too much information – Yuval Harari on the future of communicating

In Homo Deus, Professor Yuval Harari paints head-scrambling pictures of the future, where power is freedom from misinformation, humans merge with robots, and people live to 200. In an Influence exclusive, he considers the evolution of communication

Traditionally, people lived in a world in which information was scarce. Power meant that you had access to information: the king had an archive and scribes; the peasants had nothing. Censorship worked by blocking the flow of information.

In the 21st century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information, or misinformation. And power means knowing what to ignore. The rich and powerful, above all else, have the ability to focus.

Look around you in an airport: the rich are insulated from the announcements and the advertising and all the attention-catching messages, whereas the poor people are constantly bombarded. Not having a smartphone is the new symbol of power because it provides the ability to have peace and quiet from misinformation.

I don’t have a smartphone precisely because I care very much about my time. It’s not that I’m afraid of information leaking out and people spying on me; it’s that I’m afraid of irrelevant and, increasingly, fake information flooding in. It is becoming more and more difficult to know what to ignore and what to pay attention to.

Learn to change

To compete as an individual in the 21st century, the ability to change will be one of the most important mental abilities. Traditionally, we’ve had a view of life that divides into two main parts: in the first part, you mainly learn; in the second part, you mainly work and make use of the skills that you learned as a young person.

This worked perfectly well for thousands of years, but it won’t work in the 21st century because the pace of change is so rapid that most of what you learn as a teenager will be irrelevant by the time you’re 40.

So the most important mental skill that you’ll need is the ability to keep changing and reinventing yourself throughout your life. You cannot create a personal and professional identity and then stay with it. This is very difficult because, while you change quite easily as a teenager, you just don’t want to change when you reach your 40s and 50s.

Communicating with the one

With the coming of big data and extremely sophisticated machine-learning capabilities, it may become possible to monitor public opinion on an individual basis. You no longer have to work with general statistics; you can actually follow each and every individual (for example, through their Facebook account).

In political campaigning, it will be possible to tell who are, say, the 120,000 people in Pennsylvania who still haven’t made up their mind how to vote. You could also know what to tell them, on an individual basis, to swing them in your favour. Politics will rely on such big-data algorithms.

Traditional politics is based on crude statistics and on an almost mystical belief in the free will of individuals. Once we have the ability to monitor individuals, both of these beliefs will become obsolete. Instead, you’ll have a personal algorithm that follows you and knows about everything that you do, based on real-time data.

This will go down to the level of biometric sensors in your body. You’ll watch an ad on TV – whether it’s about Donald Trump or a vacation or a car – and the sensors will pick up your biometric reactions. This might be what’s happening to your brain activity, blood pressure, adrenalin level and so forth. With this data, the sensor can have a better understanding of what the person feels or thinks than the person does.

This is particularly powerful because people often lie to themselves about what they like: they see something and they like it, but they know they shouldn’t because it’s wrong for some religious or ideological reason. But they still like it, and they don’t tell themselves the truth. In politics or economics, this is one of the biggest problems. When pollsters ask people questions, they lie to themselves. With big data and biometric sensors, you don’t need to ask the people themselves; you can peek right into their brains and biochemical system, and you know what they feel much better than the person themselves.

Tech titans: beyond businesses

Facebook and Google are now beyond businesses. They have the potential to shape the future of the world, the future of humanity and even the future of life, to a degree people usually don’t grasp.

In the past, the most important assets were land or, in Marxist jargon, the means of production. In the 21st century, the big question is: who owns the data?

With enough data, you can, potentially, hack human beings. You just need enough data and computing power. And, when you do that, you can not only manipulate people, but you can upgrade them and create them. When you combine this with the abilities of bioengineering, then the sky’s the limit.

Data giants such as Facebook and Google or, in China, Tencent, Baidu and the government have the potential to change what it is to be human and what life means. For four billion years, life was confined to the organic realm; all life forms were based, basically, on biochemistry. Now we have the chance to create the first partly inorganic life forms, based on the combination of an inorganic brain with inorganic parts, or even the direct combination of organic brains with computers. This is far beyond normal business or even normal politics; you’re talking about taking life in a different direction.

This is the scale at which we should understand enterprises like Google and Facebook. They’re accumulating the data and the computing power that is necessary to hack human beings and create a new kind of life form.

The important data is inside us

At present, Google, Facebook and the like focus primarily on your activities online and, to a lesser extent, your activities in the outside world – following you on your smartphone and with GPS, say.

But the really important data is not what you click on online; it’s in your body – your DNA and biometric data, which can be extracted by biometric sensors.

I think that the healthcare industry will convince most people to give up this data because, in exchange for giving up your privacy, you will receive much, much better care than ever before. In the conflict between health and privacy, health will win. People will be willing to give up the privacy of their own body.

If you allow, say, Google to monitor your body, it could discover cancer when you have, say, just 10 cancer cells that are beginning to spread in your liver. This will be discovered when it’s easy and cheap to get rid of it. You won’t have to wait five years and go through chemotherapy. When people are offered this kind of deal – give up your privacy and get the best healthcare in history – most of us will go for healthcare.

Long live some of us

It’s not impossible, with the proper technology, to overcome old age – to discover ways to rejuvenate the body, to replace body parts and, thereby, to give people indefinite lifespans. This is not immortality – immortality is a religious idea of being unable to die, no matter what happens – but it is postponing death and extending life indefinitely.

If you’re lucky and rich enough, you will be able to live to be 100, 150, 200 and so forth. It is feasible though it won’t happen in the next 40 or 50 years. My sense is that a baby born today to a rich family with enough money may, for the first time in history, have a fair chance of living indefinitely.

The responsibility of giants

There is more social and political responsibility on the shoulders of people in the information technology and communications industries than ever.

Today, information technology is the most powerful agent of change in the world, but it wasn’t always like this. Of course, information was always important, but until recently the big revolutions in the world – whether the rise of Christianity, the Chinese empire or communist Russia – did not originate in the information sector.

Now IT and the people engaged in it have moved to the frontline. They are no longer in a support role. It’s for good reason people such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Larry Page now get a lot of attention, as they’re not in the service of some king or prophet or priest – they are the prophet and the king. They’ve huge responsibility, and can’t hide behind numbers and algorithms and say: ‘Oh, we’re just a transparent platform or medium.’

Yuval Harari was in conversation with Matthew Rock. Homo Deus is published by Harvill Secker at £8.99

Image by Daniel Thomas Smith


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2017.

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