Harari: ‘If you want to make a country a colony, don’t send the tanks in. Just get the data out’

“In the 21st century, to make a country a colony, you don’t need to send the tanks in. You just need to take the data out. We are now seeing a new form of imperialism – you can call it “data colonialism”. It is all about the data. Just imagine a situation in Greece in 20 years when somebody in Moscow, or in Beijing or in Washington has the entire personal data of every politician, every journalist, every judge, every military officer. They will know your entire medical record, your problems, your past diseases. They will have knowledge of your entire sexual life and of anyone you knew in the last 30 years. They will know every bribe you took, every joke you ever told about a group or a minority. Will Greece ever be an independent country in such a scenario or will it be a data colony?”

By Alexis Papachelas

One of the foremost public intellectuals of our time, having gained global recognition with his best-selling books, the Israeli historian and academic Yuval Noah Harari came to Greece last Friday and participated in a panel discussion organized by “2020 Athens Democracy Forum” alongside the President of Microsoft Brad Smith and founder of CinqC. Kristen Davis.

After the discussion, Harari sat for an interview with Kathimerini in which he described in vivid colors the brave new world that is coming to us with an accelerated pace fueled by new technologies of digital connectivity, AI and biotechnology.

What makes this new world exciting and frightening at the same time is the fact that political power would be the catalyst that would make the future either a heaven of progress founded in liberal values or a nightmare of totalitarianism of a magnitude unheard in history.
Mr. Harari, thank you for being here and doing this interview.

Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure being here.

In the Athens Democracy Forum we talked earlier about Democracy, AI, technology and so on. The first question is whether you think Democracy and the liberal order are under threat.

Yes, they are under threat. But then again Democracy is always under threat because it demands a lot of preconditions in order to thrive. Democracy is like a rare flower that can’t grow everywhere whereas dictatorship is like a weed where anywhere you throw it, it can grow. As for the liberal values, yes, they are under attack but we should also remind ourselves that they are actually more widespread and stronger than ever before in history. People don’t even understand what liberalism means. So, a simple test whether you are a liberal is to be asked and reply to three questions: First, do you think people should have the right to choose their own government instead of obeying a king? Second, do you think people should have the right to choose their own profession instead of just working for in the same thing their parents did – that means, your parents being peasants so you are a peasant. And third, do you think people should have the right to choose their own spouse instead of marrying whoever their elders or priests choose for them. If you answer “yes” to these three questions, you are a liberal. And today more people answer yes than in any previous time. Even the people who call themselves conservatives today are actually more liberal in their views than the radical liberals were a century ago.

Despite that, there is the feeling that the jungle is growing around, as [the historian] Robert Kagan says. There’s an abundance of conspiracy theories and mistrust of authority and democracy. How do you fight back against this?

You can fight it in so many ways. But if you focus on the issue of conspiracy theories, then you can’t fight it back just by bombarding people with scientific facts and statistics and so forth because humans think in stories, not in numbers. You need a good story. And it’s difficult because the truth is far more complicated and painful than the fictions. When you tell a completely fictional story you can tell a story that is simple. You can flatter people and they will like it. The truth is usually more complicated and painful. So, we need a bridge between the scientific world and the general population. I see my job as being part of that bridge, of taking the latest findings and discoveries of science and telling them in a way of being accessible and even fun for the general public to engage with.

You’ve written about a class of people that is going to be useless in the future because of AI and the improvement of technology. And the question I have is that there are people that are scared. They say the train of globalization is going too fast. They want to get off the train and so on. I wonder whether believing in conspiracy theories, not trusting politicians, not trusting science is their revenge in some way. 

In some way you can say it is a revenge. But it is a revenge that hurts them as much as anybody else. Just by believing some conspiracy theory will not stop the march of technology. It will not reverse globalization and it will not provide you with a job if you are unemployed. I think the big challenge we are facing – if you talk about the job market and the loss of jobs – is not that technology is completely destroying jobs. Technology is destroying jobs but it also creates other jobs. The problem is retraining and reinventing yourself. To stay in the game in the 21st century you will have to retrain and reinvent yourself, not just once in your lifetime but several times. And this is extremely difficult. Throughout history life was usually divided into two parts.

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When you are young you mostly learn, you develop your skills, you acquire your abilities. Then, you are older and you mostly work and you make use of what you learned as a young person. Of course, you learn new things but mostly there is division. Now this division is completely broken. By the time you are 50 most of what you learned at school is completely irrelevant. The skills you acquired no longer are necessary. So, you need to reinvent yourself and for that you need the ability to keep learning throughout your life. Even more, you should have the psychological ability to retain a flexible mind, to keep reinventing yourself. Imagine that you were a taxi driver and now society doesn’t need taxi drivers anymore because they have self-driving vehicles. But they now need more yoga teachers. So, it is not about getting a new skill but acquiring a new personality. Yoga teachers usually have different personalities than taxi drivers. So, would you be able to do that or not? That’s the key for survival in the 21st century.

But do we ask too much from the average person?

Probably, yes. But history will not give discounts to anybody. If you are left behind and you can’t do it then you cannot complain. You cannot tell: “wait slow down its too fast for me”. Let’s remember the 19th century’s industrial revolution when some countries industrialized first. Britain, France, US led the way while most other countries remained far behind. These countries said about industrialization: “this is what the British can do, but here in Greece or Egypt or China we have more urgent tasks to do”. Well, in a couple of decades these countries became officially or unofficially American, or British or German colonies. And it’s happening again with AI and biotechnology. Again, there’s a divide: a few countries are leading the world in this new industrial revolution and most remain far behind. And the gap now is even bigger. In the 19th century there was a gap between somebody who had steamships and railroads and somebody who didn’t.

But the gap between somebody who has AI and somebody who doesn’t is much bigger. In the 21st century, to make a country a colony, you don’t need to send the tanks in. You just need to take the data out. We are now seeing a new form of imperialism – you can call it “data colonialism”. It is all about the data. Just imagine a situation in Greece in 20 years when somebody in Moscow, or in Beijing or in Washington has the entire personal data of every politician, every journalist, every judge, every military officer. They will know your entire medical record, your problems, your past diseases. They will have knowledge of your entire sexual life and of anyone you knew in the last 30 years. They will know every bribe you took, every joke you ever told about a group or a minority. Will Greece ever be an independent country in such a scenario or will it be a data colony?

I guess the counterargument is that a child in Somalia or Yemen or somewhere else will have tremendous opportunities that they could not think of previously.

I don’t say it is so bad. There are enormous opportunities and enormous dangers but the thing is that the new world is extremely stressful. The child of Somalia may have opportunities that did not exist before but to make use of these opportunities is extremely demanding. That is what I was talking [about] earlier about learning and reinventing yourself throughout your life. It’s not like you learn how to cultivate your field. If you are born into a farming community as a child, you learn how to plant and harvest and how to drive the cart and throughout your life you basically make use of that. It will not be enough anymore. You will need to keep learning – and it’s so stressful. We just before had the conversation with President of Microsoft in the panel, Brad Smith, and you asked me what I would ask him. I asked him a question but another question I would ask is: “Why do you change Windows all the time? I am in fear of this notification that “Windows 10 is over and now you will have to install Windows 20”. Why don’t you just leave it as it is?

It is a good point, actually. You talked about Covid-19 as a watershed moment in terms of data, surveillance and so on. Why are you worried about it? Do you fear that the autocracies will become more efficient if they will be able to harness more surveillance powers?

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It is a power [that] never existed before. It is not so bad. It could provide an excellent health system, for example. Every new major power is a major threat. If we look back to the industrial revolution to get the historical perspective, we will see that in the end, industry gave enormous power. In the end looking from the perspective of early 20th century this power benefited us. The average person across the world – there are exceptions, but the average person – has a better life than they had 200 years ago because of industry. We have better medicine, more food, we have better infrastructure. You can measure things like child mortality: it went down from 50% 200 years ago, to 5% in all the world – and less than 1% in developed countries. But it was a steep learning process. When it was difficult even to learn how to use industry, we had meanwhile colonialism, the two world wars, Nazism, Stalinism. Eventually, we learned. But we had to pass through this trial and error process.

Now, we have even bigger powers than steam engines and cars. AI and total surveillance are far more powerful than trains and we don’t have any room for error. We can’t survive another World War. If we have another Stalin it will not only be far worse than the original one. It might be irreversible. Once you install this system of AI and surveillance you have so much power that it will not be reversible. Humans will not be able to change it anymore. The threat of AI is not about democracies. It threatens authoritarian regimes even more. Let’s think: which are the first countries AI will take over? It will be North Korea or China. Because to take over a country like the US is so complicated. Because power is defused everywhere. But when power is concentrated and hierarchical and you inject AI, it’s much easier for algorithms to take it over. It’s a gradual shift. More and more decisions are taken by the algorithms that humans don’t understand. They trust their algorithm but they don’t understand the decisions they are taking and they find increasingly that they become like puppets in the hands of these algorithms. And this can happen to China far quicker than the US because it is so centralized.

Just think about something like appointments. One of the most important things in a system like the Chinese system is appointing people – mayor, head of a province etc. Now, increasingly, the decisions at least on the lower level will be taken by an AI system. This system gathers all the data, for example: what did you do in kindergarten. It has all the data and analyzes them and decides about which person will now be mayor of this town. And nobody understands why. Because the calculations are far beyond the capacities of the human brain. So, the members of the Politburo who are now the result of a human choice, they increasingly look around and see the entire party being taken over by the algorithm. And they are powerless to stop it or to change it. It is not a science fiction scenario.

As you indicated during our previous panel discussion, for you the ultimate Orwellian nightmare is an algorithm dictating whether you get a bank loan or a dictator seeing if you are happy with his decisions?

Yes. Surveillance is not necessarily evil. It could be used for good purposes. But if it falls in bad hands it will create a totalitarian regime that will be far beyond anything that existed – I mean the Soviet Union will look like a libertarian paradise. The scarier thing is that this regime will not be like Stalin or Hitler but still it challenges the very meaning of human life. We are used to thinking of human life as a drama of decision making. Every great work of art, let’s take ancient Greek drama, is about making a decision. Antigone is making a decision, Oedipus is making a decision. Now what happens in a world when increasingly all decisions are taken by an algorithm that knows you better? Increasingly the algorithm tells you what books to read, what films to watch, what to study, whom to marry, where to live. And we don’t have any philosophical models for understanding such a life. What does it mean to live such a life when all your life is managed by these outside systems?

What I admire about you is how you bring history and philosophy together. So, I have one specific question about leadership. One could observe that the strong world leaders are the ones that are often on the wrong side of history. Strong leaders are not considered the liberals or the ones who want to move things forward. How do you explain this?

History does not show that the good guys often win. Often the bad guys win. We don’t notice it because the bad guys write history and they pick themselves as the good guys. But in so many times in history it’s the bad guys who won. I try to be optimistic about the situation we are in now but there is no guarantee. I often say that one of the most powerful forces is human stupidity. Humans often make bad decisions. We do it as individuals, we also do it as collectives. The situation now is particularly fragile because in most other periods in history, if you made a bad decision, you had another chance. But now, at least for some decisions, if you make a bad decision, that’s it. You will never get the chance to rectify it. And the fact is that there is a huge gap between human power and human wisdom. We are far more powerful than wise. We as a species are very good in developing powerful technologies but we are not so good in deciding how to use these technologies in a good way. We see that in history. It is not something new.

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By reading your books you get the idea that maybe in 50 years from now man will feel like God. Will it really be the case or a human being will be instead a citizen scared by the forces that he would have unleashed?

There are many scenarios. I don’t actually know what it will happen in 50 years because it depends on what we decide in the coming months and the coming years. What I try to do in my writings is to map different possibilities, different scenarios. Many of these scenarios are contradictory. They can’t all happen. And I don’t know which of them will come true.  The whole point of making these predictions is not to be right. It is to warn people about the most dangerous scenarios in the hope that they will make good decisions that will prevent these scenarios from happening.

You’ve written about Greece regarding Covid. I wonder what really struck you about Greece?

The difference with Israel is striking. I came from the airport and I saw people queuing two meters apart. It is amazing. If you were in Switzerland we would say, “OK these are the Swiss”. But Greeks and Israelis are not so different and in Greece I was really struck by the level of cooperation that you see from the ordinary citizens. I don’t know what the reasons for this are but I would say that it indicates a much higher level of trust between individuals and between the citizens and the government that unfortunately we have in Israel.

We have surprised ourselves, I think. How about the fact that you are turning your books into a comic now. Is it a challenge? Is it fun?

It is a big challenge and it is a lot of fun. I don’t do it by myself. I don’t draw, I draw like a five-year old kid. I am in a team with two artists, Daniel and David from Belgium and France. And we are working on this together. And it is really a very interesting experience because we experiment with different ways of telling history, of telling science. So, we have one chapter about human cooperation and we follow the conventions about superhero movies to explain that. The key in human cooperation is believing in common stories. So, we create this superhero, Dr. Fiction which personifies this human superpower of telling stories and making people cooperate. The entire chapter is not told like a history book but like a superhero movie. And then we have another chapter about the disappearance of big animals more than 10,000 years ago.

As humans spread around the planet more and more animals disappeared, like the mammoth. More than 90% of the big animals of Australia disappeared. So instead of telling this like a typical science book we follow the conventions of a detective movie. We’ve created this fictional character, Detective Lopez, and she is travelling around the planet tracking the worst serial killers ever – ecological serial killers who killed all these animals. So, there is all the science, we researched very carefully, but the package is different: We experiment on how to tell stories with reality TV and so many different genres. The goal is how to tell science in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. People who don’t read typical science books I hope will read and enjoy this book.

Thank you. I look forward reading this book and I hope you enjoy your stay in Greece.

Thank you.

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