Archive for the ‘History’ Category

artificial intelligence and human stupidity

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

I am continuing to slowly read this wonderful book, and will occasionally point out parts that particularly interest me. Here is one such part.

The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. We are unlikely to face a robot rebellion in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots that know how to press our emotional buttons …, and use this uncanny ability to try to sell us something–be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology. …. We have already been given a foretaste of this in recent elections and referendums across the world, when hackers learned how to manipulate individual voters by analyzing data about them and exploiting their existing prejudices.

Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), pp. 70-71.

democracy, dictatorship and AI

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book is fascinating, so fascinating, in fact, that I am reading it at a slow pace. There is simply too much to think about. Here is an example, from chapter 3, “Liberty”, subtitled “Big Data is Watching You”.

In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing. A democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given twentieth century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much power and information in one place. ….This is part of the reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, soon AI [artificial intelligence] might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. …. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century–the attempt to concentrate all information in one place–might become their decisive advantage in the twenty-first century.

Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin, 2018), p 66.

war and human stupidity

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari (born 1976) teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has authored two international bestsellers: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). His latest book, which I just borrowed from the Victoria Public Library, is titled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). Of  its 21 chapters, I began with the 11th – “War” – because I am a convinced pacifist, so wanted to see what this famous historian had to say on the subject. I was fascinated, so decided to write a TdJ blog before reading the rest of the book.

Sapiens covers the past, Homo Deus the future, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century the present. Is there anything left for another book of Harari?

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the 3.5% rule

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

In a 2013 TED talk, Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth (born 1980) focused on what she calls a “3.5% rule”— “the notion that no government can withstand a challenge of 3.5% of its population without either accommodating the movement or (in extreme cases) disintegrating”.

“Researchers used to say that no government could survive if five percent of its population mobilized against it. But our data reveal that the threshold is probably lower. In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population—and lots of them succeeded with far less than that. Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5% threshold was a nonviolent one.” (more…)

Adam Smith and basic needs

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Mark Twain is reputed to have said “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” This is certainly true for the writings of dead economists. I recently saw an example in criticism of Adam Smith, the author of Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776. The economist, whom I will not cite, correctly wrote that the now-dead Adam Smith broke with the tradition of his day by explaining that it is consumption, not production or saving, that satisfies the wants of men and women.

But the contemporary economist went on to criticize Smith for not distinguishing between needs and wants, known also as necessities and luxuries. This distinction between types of consumption, he asserted, was done more than a century later, with the 1890 publication of Cambridge University economist Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics. This assertion is wrong. Alfred Marshall founded neo-classical economics, so is justly famous, but he was not the first to distinguish between necessary and luxury consumption. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith devotes considerable attention to this in a section titled “Consumable commodities are either necessaries or luxuries”: (more…)

classics as ‘other cultures’

Monday, April 8th, 2019
There are a lot of cultures very different from America [meaning the USA]. China was and is a civilization perhaps more distant from us than Rome.  And learning its language and culture is likely to be more instrumentally useful for most students in world where that nation is rising to challenge the United States in commerce and power.
John O. McGinnis, “How Classicists Undermine the Case for Classics“, Law & Liberty blog, 5 April 2019.
The author is Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012.

communication technologies, from Gutenberg to Google

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

“We must root out printing or printing will root us out,” the Vicar of Croydon told his 16th century parishioners. The cleric was responding to Gutenberg’s discovery not just as a standalone technology, but as an information network. His lament differs little from what we hear about the effects of the internet today.

In my new book, “From Gutenberg to Google,” I examine the two great network revolutions of the past—the aforementioned printing press in the 15th century, as well as the combination of the railroad and telegraph in the 19th century—to put in historical perspective the confusion and uncertainty brought about by the internet today.

Tom Wheeler, “With new technology challenges, remember we’ve been here before“, Brookings Brief, 22 February 2019.

With new technology challenges, remember we’ve been here before

The full blog is much longer. Mr Wheeler (born 1946) is an American businessman and politician. He was Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from November 2013 to January 2017. His book was published this month by the Brookings Institution Press.

When I read Mr Wheeler’s blog today, I recalled that I drafted a paper on the same subject, for the International Symposium on Network Economy and Economic Governance, Beijing, China, 19-20 April 2001. A slightly revised, post-conference version was published in the Journal of Information Science, 28 (2) 2002, pp. 89–96, and is freely available here and here.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

The development of what one might call ‘modern’ systems of information and communication began with the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, and progressed through the pre-paid postal system, electric telegraph and telephone in the nineteenth century, radio and television broadcasting in the twentieth century, and most recently the internet. This essay focuses on the response of governments to these innovations, beginning with the printing press.

The title of the paper is “Government policies toward information and communication technologies: a historical perspective”.

Priests, Mounties and poverty in indigenous Canada

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Maria Campbell’s memoir, Halfbreed, is short (157 pages) and free-flowing. It is a shocking, true account of what it is like to grow up poor and mixed-race in Canada. The book today is read almost universally by school children in Canada. (more…)

Adam Smith for our troubled times

Saturday, June 23rd, 2018

An old joke is that a classical book is one that everyone cites, but no-one reads. By this measure, each of the two books that Adam Smith wrote are classics. If his followers today took time to read then, they would disagree with much of what he wrote. (more…)

intellectual property theft by developing countries

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Dean Baker has posted a blog that nicely complements yesterday’s TdJ on “the rise of China“.

[I]t was largely the United States that has set the rules in this story and it is demanding ever more money for items protected by its patent and copyright monopolies. We do this through our control of trade arrangements, most importantly the WTO …. These rules were about forcing developing countries to pay more money to companies like Pfizer and Microsoft for everything from drugs and medical equipment to seeds and software. ….
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