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Monday, December 10, 2018

Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is Yuval Noah Harari's book about the future of human civilization. It's not actually got 21 lessons that are explicitly laid out or organized in any form whatsoever, and as a historian, Harrai's approach is to speculate about the future mostly by example from the past.

For instance, the problem of Fake News is discussed, but Harari poits out that the biggest "Fake News" of all are the various mythological religions and founding myths! OK, sure, we've managed to get a huge number of humans hooked on traditional witch-doctor-style indoctrinated belief systems, but there's no discussion about how despite humanity breaking free through enlightenment found itself tangled up in Fake News other than that wealthy people and big data analysis and machine learning somehow have learned to hack human psychology and created a mass of people who can no longer distinguish between reality and what Fox News is telling them. Harrari carefully ignores the fact that Fox started way before the prevalence of Big Data.

Harrari points out that in the future we might just trust Google/Algorithms/Big Data Cloud with our personal lives that we would just hand them our lives and ask them what we should do. This seems unlikely given that statistics are just that: you would still have to figure out which statistics apply to you. Harrari might simply have swallowed all the hype about machine intelligence hook/line and sinker without stopping to investigate deeply what this means. For instance, even if your doctor could be replaced by a Big Data algorithm, it's very likely that you would still need human contact for optimal care, and that cannot be done just by robots.

The net net is that the book discusses a ton of big problems facing humanity (massive loss of jobs, huge inequality, and of course the upcoming climate crisis), but doesn't actually provide any "lessons" or even a reasonable call to action. These are interesting problems to think about, but I think I'd prefer an analysis by someone who actually understands the technical problems, as opposed to a historian.

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