The Life Online themes in the Popular Media

From time to time I read an article that captures the tone and themes of the Life Online stories.  The excerpt below is only a small part of a much broader New Yorker article “Does Trump’s Rise Mean Liberalism’s End? by Yuval Noah Harari on October 7, 2016.  But these quotes reminded me all to well of the social situation in The Origin Point that makes building a global surveillance and online network possible.  Although the book is only fictional, the world it describes is very real.

Quoting from the article…

“Disruptive technologies pose a particularly acute threat to the power of national governments and ordinary citizens. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, progress in the form of the Industrial Revolution produced concomitant horrors, from the Dickensian coal pits to Congo’s rubber plantations and China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. It took tremendous effort for politicians and citizens to put the train of progress on more benign tracks. Yet while the rhythm of politics has not changed much since the days of steam, technology has switched from first gear to fourth. Technological revolutions now vastly outpace political processes.

The Internet suggests how this happens. The Web is now crucial to our lives, economy, and security, yet the early, critical choices about its design and basic features weren’t made through a democratic political process—did you ever vote about the shape of cyberspace? Decisions made by Web designers years ago mean that today the Internet is a free and lawless zone that erodes state sovereignty, ignores borders, revolutionizes the job market, smashes privacy, and poses a formidable global-security risk. Governments and civic organizations conduct intense debates about restructuring the Internet, but the governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare.

In the coming decades, we will likely see more Internet-like revolutions, in which technology steals up silently on politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology could overhaul not just societies and economies but our very bodies and minds. Yet these topics are hardly a blip in the current Presidential race. (In the first Clinton-Trump debate, the main reference to disruptive technology concerned Clinton’s e-mail debacle, and despite all the talk about job losses, neither candidate addressed the potential impact of automation.)

Ordinary voters may not understand artificial intelligence but they can sense that the democratic mechanism no longer empowers them. In actuality, the most crucial choices about the future of ordinary voters and their children are probably made not by Brussels bureaucrats or Washington lobbyists but by engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists who are hardly aware of the implications of their decisions, and who certainly don’t represent anyone. But voters can’t see them or address them, so they lash out where they can. In Britain, voters imagined that power might have shifted to the European Union, so they voted for Brexit. In the United States, voters imagine that “the establishment” monopolizes all the power, so they are determined to give the system a kick in the groin and prove that they still have a say. This makes Trump the perfect candidate. Precisely because he is utterly unthinkable to the mainstream élite, he is the ideal way to prove to the system that the ordinary voter still retains some power—if only the power of mayhem.”

Further in the article, the following questions are posed:

What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks?

What will be the political impact of an enormous new class of economically useless people?

What will happen to relationships, families, and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty?

What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open even larger gaps between the rich and poor?

These concerns highlight the challenge facing everyone who remains alert and aware of the technological changes that are sweeping through our society.  The question is – what to do about it?


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