30 Apr The Book I Read In... March 2019 - Future Politics by Jamie Susskind
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“We are not analysing a world, we are building it.”
Tim Berners-Lee – inventor of the World Wide Web
Unusually this month, I’m reviewing just one book I read in March.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I read the book ahead of having the privilege of meeting the author as he was a keynote speaker at Dimensional’s Global Conference in Sydney, and he also attended an in depth discussion of his work and its potential implications for the future of financial planning firms at our GAIA conference. Secondly, I found the book (and the time spent listening to Jamie) so astonishing, thought-provoking and frightening I couldn’t do the author or the book justice by just writing a few paragraphs about it, which is what I normally do in these monthly book reviews.
That said, what follows doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this book covers. This post could have been five times as long and still probably wouldn’t do it justice. My hope is that I can give you enough of a flavour to encourage you to read the book yourselves.
I’m not going to go into any detail about who Jamie is. Frankly, when the acknowledgements at the beginning of a book list two British former prime ministers among the ‘several readers’ who were ‘kind enough to read the manuscript in full’, you know you’re holding a book of some gravitas.
I’m also going to state, right out the gate, that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a book which I think should be read as widely as possible.
It starts with this paragraph:
“The future stalks us. It is always waiting, barely out of sight, lurking around the corner or over the next rise. We can never be sure what form it will take. Often it catches us entirely unprepared.”
It’s a sobering thought. As Jamie points out, “We have no evidence from the future, so trying to predict it is inherently risky and difficult.”
The primary message that I think Jamie is trying to convey in this book is that civilisation is at a crossroads. Advances in technology have reached a point where we need, on a global basis, to determine where we go from here. Failure to do so runs the risk of creating a political landscape most of us would consider abhorrent: where power is concentrated in the hands of a few; where democracy and everything associated with it which we currently take for granted would be lost; where our basic freedoms could be stolen from us without us realising until it’s too late and where social justice increasingly depends on code.
That’s not a future I’d imagine many of us would want any part of.
Do we want our future to increasingly be shaped by techies in Silicon Valley? A cohort which is 90% male, and predominantly white males with fairly strongly held political beliefs, at that.
Do we want our data to be used to manipulate our view of the world to such an extent that we no longer get to see anything which doesn’t reflect our own values and opinions?
Jamie makes a good case for the argument that how our data is gathered, stored, analysed and used affects how we organise our politics.
He also argues that just because we can do something, it shouldn’t automatically follow that we should. We can’t assume that technology means progress. I found the following examples he cites as pretty compelling:
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, thought his invention would mean the end of war.
So did Marconi when he invented the radio in 1912.
Orville Wright proclaimed the same thing in 1917 regarding aeroplanes.
Jules Verne agreed in that same year regarding submarines.
The same was thought about the inventions of the torpedo, the hot air balloon, poison gas, land mines, missiles and laser guns.
Much store is held by the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Computing power is already almost at the point where a home PC will contain the processing power of the entire human race.
“The average smartphone has more processing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer which sent Neil Armstrong to the moon.”
Machines already exist which are learning by doing. Self-driving cars are a prime example of this. There is no algorithm, or line of code which tells the car how to get from A to B. It learns what to do by observing what the driver does.
Just think about that for a moment. Or Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay, which was launched on Twitter in March 2016 and programmed to mimic the speech of a 19 year old girl. The account had to be removed after only 16 hours due to the rabid racist rant Tay went on, including posting a photo of Adolf Hitler with the words ‘swag alert’.
The development of the ‘digital lifeworld’ as Jamie refers to it has brought us to an important time in our history. Digital systems will increasingly surpass the capabilities of humans. This will affect us economically, politically and socially. As technology becomes ever more sophisticated it will have the potential to exert significant power over us.
With great power comes great responsibility. How will society cope with a world in which many jobs previously carried out by humans will be carried out by machines? How will we deal with matters of social justice being decided by a machine rather than by our peers or those democratically elected to do so? How will our politicians put in place TODAY the framework which will be able to cope with the challenges of tomorrow? How do we decide what that framework should look like? What is the future of democracy?
Towards the end of the book Jamie rightly points out that at its heart, this book is not a book about technology, it’s a book about people. Most of the problems he identifies are the result of the choices made by people.
The following appears very close to the end of the book:
“The future stalks us more closely with each passing day. Staggering new achievements in science and technology are transforming the way we live together.
We are not ready.”
That is so true, and so utterly frightening.
What’s abundantly clear to me is that we have a lot of important decisions to make and we need to be making them now, before it’s too late. The question I’m still pondering, weeks after having finished the book is, ‘How?’