My #reading October 2016

The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.

in an upgraded world you will feel like a Neanderthal hunter in Wall Street. You won’t belong.

I read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari on my kindle and highlighted 134 passages during the process. I then downloaded the audiobook and started again. What surprised me about this sequel to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which I have also just re-read) is how clearly Harari is able to make complex ideas – about technological change, politics, history and society – very accessible.

He opens with the current state of play on our small blue planet. In an era saturated with a 24 hour news and social media cycle of ‘bad news’ context is created about the reality of life for most on the planet compared to our ancestors:

For the first time in history, more people die today 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 combined.

In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.4 In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.

Terrorists usually don’t have the strength to defeat an army, occupy a country or destroy entire cities. Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries.

Harari does acknowledge those in war-torn countries like Syria and deprived people in Africa and parts of Asia are not as privileged. He does not neglect the looming possibility of environmental catastrophe or the other challenges for humanity, including growing inequality.

Harari’s commentary about the nature of how personal data is captured and used, bioengineering, the internet of things, challenges to humanism, politics and the future of employment is often original. His lengthy ruminations on ‘dataism’ alone make it worth reading the book. He considers the ethics of how we treat animals and what is happening to our physical environment. The author’s thoughts about education are not news but the lengthy quotes below frame a bigger picture than most contemporary reflection on the nature of formal education and what has shaped, and is shaping, the experience of schooling:

The modern educational system provides numerous other examples of reality bowing down to written records. When measuring the width of my desk, the yardstick I am using matters little. My desk remains the same width regardless of whether I say it is 200 centimetres or 78.74 inches. However, when bureaucracies measure people, the yardsticks they choose make all the difference. When schools began assessing people according to precise marks, the lives of millions of students and teachers changed dramatically. Marks are a relatively new invention. Hunter-gatherers were never marked for their achievements, and even thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution, few educational establishments used precise marks. A medieval apprentice cobbler did not receive at the end of the year a piece of paper saying he has got an A on shoelaces but a C minus on buckles. An undergraduate in Shakespeare’s day left Oxford with one of only two possible results – with a degree, or without one. Nobody thought of giving one student a final mark of 74 and another student 88.6.

Only the mass educational systems of the industrial age began using precise marks on a regular basis. Since both factories and government ministries became accustomed to thinking in the language of numbers, schools followed suit. They started to gauge the worth of each student according to his or her average mark, whereas the worth of each teacher and principal was judged according to the school’s overall average. Once bureaucrats adopted this yardstick, reality was transformed. Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough, schools soon began focusing on getting high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.

The same thing happens when the educational system declares that matriculation exams are the best method to evaluate students. The system has enough authority to influence acceptance conditions to colleges, government offices and private-sector jobs. Students therefore invest all their efforts in getting good marks. Coveted positions are manned by people with high marks, who naturally support the system that brought them there. The fact that the educational system controls the critical exams gives it more power, and increases its influence over colleges, government offices and the job market. If somebody protests that ‘The degree certificate is just a piece of paper!’ and behaves accordingly, he is unlikely to get very far in life.

As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data.

The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.

Harari explores the challenge for humanism from our contemporary worship and collection of data. For the last few hundred years humans have believed that experiences occur inside ourselves and that this how the universe is infused with meaning for individuals. It is made clear that the idea organisms are algorithms “and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data” is currently “scientific dogma” and is changing our world beyond recognition. Harari posits that “dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot – find meaning within ourselves.”He believes hat “dataism is neither liberal nor humanist. It should be emphasised, however, that Dataism isn’t anti-humanist. It has nothing against human experiences. It just doesn’t think they are intrinsically valuable”. This has clear implications for education and our social structures. In many ways, the following quotes encapsulates the challenge:

In 2016 the world is dominated by the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market. Yet twenty-first-century science is undermining the foundations of the liberal order…At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’ but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?

It’s time to examine the practical implications of these scientific discoveries. Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might make this belief obsolete: 1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them. 2. The system will still find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals. 3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.

“Glum, Marx, glum.” The clap on the shoulder made him start, look up. It was that brute Henry Foster. “What you need is a gramme of soma.” Brave New World (1932)

Homo Deus reflects on the nature of happiness and Aldous Huxley’s prescient novel written almost a century ago. If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by “rigging this system”.  Harari says, “forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry. And this is exactly what we have begun doing over the last few decades…” Society regulates the supply of medicine but prescriptions of powerful mood altering drugs have skyrocketed in recent decades. Harari knows this trend will continue.

If you do not have the time to read Homo Deus at the moment, this podcast, of the author talking about inequality and the ideas in his book, followed by a Q&A, is worth your time as a brief overview of his thinking. He makes it clear that this book is not prophecy or prediction on any level but maps of possible futures. Harari’s hopes that “long after you have finished this book” the following ideas will be given thoughtful consideration:

1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?

2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?

3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

“What’s the point of living if we don’t die at the end of it?”

“Haven’t you felt it? The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualised. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed? All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata. Is there something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere?”

I am really in to rereading at the moment and Zero K by Don DeLillo is very deserving of more of my time. The language is poetic, austere, musical and coldly cerebral. I constantly hit rewind and listened to sentences and passages again to reflect on the ideas and to savour DeLillo’s way with words. Listening to the audiobook, the atmosphere is meditative and trance-like; the author’s reflections on life, time, technology, mortality, identity and self unfold and loop back on themselves.

“The self. What is the self? Everything you are, without others, without friends or strangers or lovers or children or streets to walk or food to eat or mirrors in which to see yourself. But are you anyone without others?”

This novel – which I read at the same time as Homo Deus – explores many similar themes and ideas. Some are as old as our oldest stories (think of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the eponymous hero’s fruitless quest for eternal life). It is hard to imagine, moving between between these two complimentary books, anything more intelligently written by authors as cognisant of history, philosophy and literature. There are many books about imagined futures but few as erudite or deeply thoughtful.

Jeffrey Lockhart, an American and son of a billionaire with more than a passing interest in immortality, accompanies his father to the Convergence, a facility located in a remote area of Eastern Europe where his ill step-mother will be cryogenically preserved; the naming of the facility instantly made me think of the Singularity. The technological sophistication, married with religious belief, gives the facility an atmosphere akin to a buddhist monastery or where Mother Teresa helped the poor and dying:

“Faith-based technology. That’s what it is. Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.”

“Life after death.”

“Eventually, yes.”

“The Convergence.”

“Yes.”

“There’s a meaning in mathematics.”

“There’s a meaning in biology. There’s a meaning in physiology.”

DeLillo is never much interested in plot. Nothing much happens and the technology is never explained. The novel is richly reflective of the place of art and literature in a contemporary society where we maintain ourselves “on the puppet drug of personal technology. Every touch of a button brings the neural rush of finding something I never knew and never needed to know until it appears at my anxious fingertips, where it remains for a shaky second before disappearing forever.”

Jeffrey is an outsider. His observations, especially of his father’s troubling nature and identity, are astute and his view of work and society often amusing. His own personal choices do not really make sense, even to himself. The dialogue is enjoyable and one incident, travelling in a cab across New York City, is etched for ever in the way only really great writers can do. I won’t quote. You read it in context.

Highly recommended.

I purchased a hardback of On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor excited at the prospect of reading this unusual book. I was seduced by advertising blurbs like:

Moor began to wonder about the paths that lie beneath our feet: How do they form? Why do some improve over time while others fade? What makes us follow or strike off on our own? Over the course of the next seven years, Moor traveled the globe, exploring trails of all kinds…

The book started well enough but became a chore to finish and I skimmed some of it. Contextually, I was reading and rereading Homo Deus and Zero K which were so much more intellectually stimulating and better-written (although Moor certainly writes well) that this likely impacted on my enjoyment of the book.

My main struggle was the connections he was making seemed tenuous or just not that interesting. I was often uninterested in his personal anecdotes and just found the Appalachian Trail sections dull. I just didn’t want to go back on the trail with author. The cover is beautifully designed but maybe the editor needed to tighten the overall narrative of what felt like a bunch of disconnected essays or feature articles.

on-trails

Australia is in transition. Saying it is easy. The panic kicks in when we are compelled to describe what the future might look like. There is no complacent middle to aim at. We will either catch the next wave of prosperity, or finally succumb to the Great Recession.

The default setting of politics in the twenty-first century – to trust in the market – has proven to be bad economics, even for Australia, the only high-income nation to avoid the Great Recession. It has left us with gridlocked cities, growing inequality and a corporate sector that feels no obligation to pay tax.

Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal (Quarterly Essay #61) is an excellent piece by George Megalogenis  and exactly why Quarterly Essay is an important contributor to the wider debate about Australian politics, society and culture. Megalogenis believes that a permanent change in the relationship between the state and the market is needed and that “Government must reclaim responsibility for the areas of public policy that will prepare us for the future – most notably, education and infrastructure”. Any poll would show that’s what voters also want but the political orthodoxy continues to have “a misguided faith in the open economic model”.

The data provided throughout the essay reminds us how much Australia has changed since the 1980s. Here’s few examples I found surprising: when Hawke-Keating took office Australia’s workforce comprised of only 4% male white-collar workers; in 1990 household debt was 70% of gross domestic product compared to the current 185%; today, 39% of Sydney’s population are overseas-born, and another 25% have at least one parent who is a migrant.

The level of education, especially school retention to Year 12 and Australians with undergraduate degrees has grown significantly. Megalogenis suggests:

The tertiary-educated men and women of Australia – let’s call them Malcolm’s graduates – are the underestimated voter of the twenty-first century. The main parties have tended to ignore them, despite their growing numbers, because they are assumed to be an alien species with no connection to ordinary Australians.

which may be one reason for The Greens being the largest of the minor political parties in the federal parliament. It will be interesting to see if educated voters increasingly turn towards their policies as the major parties refuse to make any significant changes to how we manage our environment and economy with climate change in mind.

The following video is a good, brief introduction to the essay.

At present, the formulation of independent national security advice for the prime minister is a somewhat haphazard process – at the highest levels it lacks institutional rigour and continuity. No one is formulating long-term strategy for the government, or conducting the deep thinking necessary for a world in which competition between our friends and allies is the new normal.

Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War (Quarterly Essay #62) by James Brown is also a good edition to this series of essays published each year. I have read and previously reviewed the author’s book about the ANZAC tradition. He is currently the Adjunct Associate Professor, Research Director at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.

Captain Brown, as a veteran, acknowledges he brings “biases which have both sharpened my focus and filtered my gaze” while endeavouring to understand how Australia decided to go to war when he was a serving soldier. There is much that is personal in this essay about policy and process. He suspects worrying rates of suicide among veterans from anecdotal experience but knows “no one in Australia yet has the data to know for sure”. He also tells us that “John Howard is not an abstract political figure to me; he is the father of one of my closest friends”. 

The opening section focuses on his experiences of the fog of war and battle in Iraq. There are quite a few examples of what Brown did not understand prior to being in the army. These experiences lead to knowledge and the essayist effectively positions the reader to acknowledge the wisdom of what he is to propose.

It is clear to Brown that the Australian military is better at tactics than strategy. He goes as far to say that “the ability to do battle in the realm of ideas has been more of a liability than an asset”. He believes there is a lack of thoughtful policy because planning for war is not a respectable activity to many in our society blessed with stability and security. His analysis of the kind of thinking needed for the future and the need to understand the voices of neighbours in our region resounds. An understanding of geopolitics, languages and an ability to grasp the subtle nuances of how operations may develop as political contexts change are skill sets desperately needed. Cultural change is needed in the military and from our politicians.

All Australians need to scrutinise the processes that lead to a democratic country like ours sending citizens to war. There are too few protocols that assist leaders and our parliament to make wise and rational decisions under pressure and in an atmosphere of partisan politics. Here are the 10 questions Brown would want our leaders to answer before they commit the ADF:

•Are our vital national interests threatened?

•Is there a clear political objective?

•Are our military aims linked to this political objective?

•Can the case be made to the Australian people that this campaign is in their interests, and can their support for the campaign be sustained through casualties and setbacks?

•Do we understand the costs – to the country, to civilian victims, to the enemy and to our veterans?

•What new dangers might this campaign cause?

•What proportion of the Australian Defence Force will it commit?

•What options will close to us if we take this action, and if we don’t?

•Will the Opposition remain committed, should it form government?

•How does this end?

Regardless of a citizens understanding of politics or each context where there is the danger of war, the answers to these questions should be publicly known.

Take a look at the video advertising the essay.

I listened to The Canterbury Tales retold by Peter Ackroyd during the last holidays while walking to Gerringong along the coastal path, mowing the lawn, doing chores and cleaning under the house. Chaucer’s tales made me laugh but none more that The Wife of Bath’s Tale. I could not remember the being so rocked with mirth when studying it at high school and suspect we had a pretty sanitised version of the prologue to study.

I do not have a lot to say about these tales but recommend you try and listen to them, if possible. Ackroyd’s introduction is a revealing look at Chaucer and the context in which he lived and wrote. If you are interested in the development of the English language and Chaucer’s role in popularising the vernacular, make a start here.

The word ‘hygge’ originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’. For almost five hundred years, Denmark and Norway were one kingdom, until Denmark lost Norway in 1814. ‘Hygge’ appeared in written Danish for the first time in the early 1800s, and the link between hygge and well-being or happiness may be no coincidence.

Hooga? Hhyooguh? Heurgh? It is not important how you choose to pronounce or even spell ‘hygge’. To paraphrase one of the greatest philosophers of our time – Winnie-the-Pooh – when asked how to spell a certain emotion, ‘You don’t spell it, you feel it.’

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking is a light and fun read for anyone interested in Denmark, the Danes or just feeling good. There is growing number of this kind of book exploring all things Danish and I am happy to read them. The Danes certainly acknowledged that their country is not a utopia but feel proud enough of their way of life to understand why highly-taxed Denmark is a source of inspiration for other nations that need to increase the quality of life for their citizens.

Hygge is very much about relaxed thoughtfulness. Nobody dominates the conversation for long stretches of time as equality is a trait deeply rooted in the Danish culture. Everybody takes part in the creating a truly hyggelig evening, especially with preparing food. A host slaving alone in the kitchen is just wrong.

There’s some fun facts throughout the book that are quite revealing about the Danish way of life (or is that light?). They really like candles and know there is no better way to create a convivial atmosphere. Danes burn almost twice as much candle wax (3.16 kilos per year) as the second-placed, Austrians. The word for spoilsport in Danish is lyseslukker, which literally is ‘the one who puts out the candles’. Only 4% of the population say they never light candles.

One of the reasons for the high level of happiness in Denmark is the good work–life balance allowing people to make time for family and friends. I noticed how short the working hours were for most people when I lived in Denmark and how long lunch breaks seemed to be for many. According to the OECD Better Life Index, Danes have more free time than all the other OECD members. No wonder “33% Danes report feeling calm and peaceful all or most of the time, while the percentages are 23 for Germany, 15 in France and 14 in the United Kingdom.”

It made feel great just reading the book and I would recommend it to you after an outrageously long day at work, or even better, when you have some time to just ‘be’ with family and friends.

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Featured image: screenshot of book covers

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