A lesson for Yuval Noah Harari from the 19th Century

The cover of current editions of Marx’ seminal work Das Kapital

Andrew Yang is unstoppable. An appearance on The View is indisputable proof. Before Yang went on tour with dread warnings about automation to punctuate his upbeat, optimistic mission, Yuval Noah Harari did the same thing with a far more melancholic, sombre tone. Both men have some ideas about the direction that society will move in thanks to technological innovation. Empirical evidence and centuries of scholarship have a few things to say on the topic as well.

21 lessons for the 21st Century made great waves throughout its seventeenth year. Bill Gates has said it’s one of his favourite books of 2018. Author, Yuval Noah Harari has been able to give a comprehensive overview of his ideas everywhere from the Atlantic to Russell Brand’s podcast. Harari contends that the rise of ever more sophisticated technology is sure to upend the world that we know.

Harari’s social concerns are best summarized by a sort of maxim he has recited in many interviews and public appearances: “people are no longer worried about being exploited. They’re worried about being irrelevant.” He refers to the process by which increased technical sophistication has made a great deal of human labour unnecessary.

Harari’s work has also attracted criticism. The relationship between technological innovation and demand for human labour is in fact highly contested. Reviewers have said that Harari needs to put forth better arguments and propose better solutions. Despite this, the majority of public and intellectual opinion seems to be that technology is compromising people’s job security and presenting distinct challenges.

It’s well-worn territory. Karl Marx foresaw this and discussed it at length in his 1867 seminal work Das Kapital. Harari has the advantage of living through the “crisis” that the former author foresaw. Despite the advantage, Harari doesn’t take heed of something crucial that Marx anticipated; the compromised position that managers, leaders, and “owners of capital” shall find themselves in.

Marx, however, couldn’t possibly have imagined the exact form that compromised position would take. Scholars may not often be in a position to perceive this, but anyone who has worked in a technical field like finance, medicine or engineering knows that it isn’t just the truck driver whose job is on the chopping block. Science and technology are getting very good at doing what highly educated professionals are supposed to do.

Using intuition and “good judgement” to decide what, if any, loan or insurance premiums to give someone is a thing of a bygone era. This has long been the domain of actuarial methods: algorithms and formulae derived from massive amounts of data. Even in an arena with profound moral and emotional significance –corrections- it has been demonstrated that actuarial methods are superior to human clinical judgement for predicting who is and isn’t likely to re-offend when released from prison.

The same is true in the field of medicine. Artificial Intelligence can be more accurate at diagnosing lung disease than pulmonologists. In other areas, like diagnosing breast cancer, doctors may have a slight edge over AI, but their judgment is even more accurate when assisted by it. An AI that can replace a human GP is a long way off, but one start-up is making a strident effort to see it happen.

These scientific and technological advances have had profound significance in the world of business and finance. Those boisterous men holding dial pad telephones to their ears and giving earnest financial advice, while their colleagues simultaneously make trades in real-time on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange surely have had to embrace the winds of change; most of the boisterous men are now computers, and many experts consider it a miracle that their NYSE colleagues are not.

A whole class of people with university degrees in business and related fields used to be relied upon for decisions that could mean the difference between profit and loss, debt and surplus, bankruptcy and success. Professionals have survived by accepting lower salaries and seeking out other opportunities, but there is no getting away from the fact that the standing of people in a highly elite bracket of the modern capitalist economy has been profoundly shaken.

The crucial question is to what degree can AI replace executives? We certainly have not developed computers that can give comprehensive advice and develop long term plans like a CEO with 20 years of experience can. That isn’t to say that computers can’t encroach on very sophisticated project management territory. Perhaps the most important value-adding obligation of an executive is included right in the title: making executive decisions. As far as optimizing returns is concerned, AI’s capacity to make decisions is already excellent, and will only keep getting better.

Maybe it’s by design that banks and financial institutions are filled to the brim with DOS-based applications and platforms for managing data that are profoundly disintegrated, and at a general level of sophistication far below 21st Century standards. By design or not, such stagnant innovation may provide job security for finance professionals, but it comes at the cost of making traditional financial institutions easy prey for cutting edge FinTech start-ups.

What about the information technology field itself? Surely the people who build AI are safe. Surely those executives will be the last people whose jobs are made “irrelevant.” Be that as it may, thanks to new innovations that make software development and maintenance far less esoteric, a CTO’s role and tasks have become more accessible. Even so, for now, a lay-person friendly “low-code” approach to systems development is no match for the knowledge and skills of a good CTO. The continued advancement of AI will eventually make the previous statement categorically false though.

Why does Mark Zuckerberg own Facebook? Because he was able to build it and the Winklevoss twins were not. They didn’t know how to code like Zuckerberg could. Of course in the year 2004, knowledge and mastery of the programming language PHP 4 came with a very high premium. It came at the cost of having highly educated parents who could afford to hire a software developer to privately tutor you while a boy and send you to a prestigious prep school.

What happens when compilers are sophisticated enough that people can code in the English language or any language and simply describe how they want a program to work, and it works? What happens when Facebook can be quickly built with drag and drop, and point and click? What happens when building a feature that instantly migrates user data from the old Facebook to a new social media platform becomes a trivial exercise?

What happens when the things that make a billionaire a billionaire become trivial tasks for anyone and everyone? The question arises; what do we need executives for? Why should Mark Zuckerberg be Mark Zuckerberg? Ostensibly, because he owns a lot more hard drives, data storage facilities, and intellectual property than we do. The question will eventually arise; why not just take it from him?

When the technology is the main source of added value -and not executives who own it or command it- the position of the executive becomes tenuous. Harari has said that “it’s very dangerous to be redundant,” with reference to low-level workers. One has to wonder why he doesn’t devote much discussion to how that same fundamental truth is also threatening the security of a very privileged class of people. Karl Marx had the rough idea worked out a century and a half earlier.

If highly automated factory farms are owned by a privileged few, are we to believe that the starving, redundant masses will simply lie down and accept their fate? Suffice to say, that privileged few better hope that their army of drones and machine guns on mechanical swivels are a match for the cunning, intuitive, battle-hardened guerrilla fighters who will stop at nothing to arrest control of the factory farm.

For civilized people, the way forward is clear. As we advance along a path where expert human judgement is outperformed by technology, the need for expert human decisions will become highly dubious. Thus it steadily becomes imperative that decisions are outsourced to some democratic mechanism. This leads naturally to a new generation of shareholder driven businesses, and co-operatives.

Criticisms of Harari’s latest work rise to the level of scorn in some cases and with good cause. His trite platitudes taken from Buddhist philosophy –underpinned by the preposterous notion that technology gives ever greater power to elites while disenfranchising the masses- are of little use at best and destructive at worst. Harari could use some lessons from a man who lived in the 19th Century. Though his was a mechanical, steam-powered world that had barely tasted electricity –let alone digital circuits- Karl Marx was close to spot on.


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William Tomos Edwards

William Tomos Edwards


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