The Health of the People is the Highest Law

Death is Optional is a fascinating and terrifying (alternately and concurrently) conversation between historian Yuval Noah Harari and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, in which Harari uses his knowledge of the past to make predictions about the future. In one very memorable exchange he talks about the presumption we currently hold, that new advances in medicine will always trickle down to the general populace. But that was only true for a very short period of our history and, as automation supplants the human workforce in the future, won’t necessarily always be the case:

In the 21st century there is a good chance that most humans will lose their military and economic value. And once most people are no longer really necessary, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain.

Above the door to the former Walworth Town Hall, near my home in South London, there is the prominently displayed edict used in the title of this post:

This used to mean something.

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That edict was given when the town hall was built at the turn of last century, because people were the engine that drove the industrial revolution and the empire machine; an ivestment was made to keep the people healthy and educated because it benefitted Britain. But in the 21st century a healthy and educated populace isn’t required, because the heavy industry is long gone, and the dwindled empire needs no army to retain it.

The Future Is Coming Faster Than We Think

Today I read a fascinating article in the London Review of Books. The Robots Are Coming, by John Lanchester, is about the rise of cheap automation and the effect it’s going to have on the workforce and society at large. In his introduction he talks about the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative’s computer, Red, launched in 1996 and eventually capable of processing 1.8 teraflops – that is, 1.8 trillion calculations per second. It was the most powerful computer in the world until about 2000. Six years later, the PS3 launched, also capable of processing 1.8 teraflops.

Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

This makes me think of IBM’s Watson, a deep learning system, ten years in the making at a cost in excess of $1 billion, with hardware estimated at $3 million powering it, and coming soon to children’s toys.

Shame and Social Engineering

Just finished reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson’s zeitgeisty book about social media pile-ons. There were many, many good points in the book, but I forgot to highlight them as I was enjoying reading it so much. One thing that has stuck in my mind, however, is an email exchange with the film-maker Adam Curtis, in which he talks about feedback loops and the social media echo chamber:

Feedback is an engineering principle, and all engineering is devoted to trying to keep the thing you are building stable.

It’s undeniably true that I now self-censor a lot more on Twitter than I did in the past, for fear of a strong negative reaction. I don’t think I’m alone in this; anecdotal evidence suggests many people are also becoming more tame to avoid the Twitter mobs. The net effect is, as Jon Ronson himself says:

We see ourselves as nonconformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. ‘Look!’ we’re saying. ‘WE’RE normal! THIS is the average!’

I recommend you read the book yourself to see all of this in much greater context. And I wonder if Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t give away a free copy to all their users.