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The Great Collision

I exited social media in 2018 due to anxiety over what Big Tech was doing with our data to influence our perception and behavior.

The same year, Yuval Noah Harari released a book titled, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The book provides insights on the collision of history, infotech, and biotech - an unlikely trio that is quietly altering societal DNA across the globe and the fueling my unease.

Let's tackle history first. It's relatively easy to comprehend the root causes of a historical event after the fact.

When the initial shock of the 2016 election wore off, we understood that the Make America Great Again movement appealed to a large swath of people bemoaning the loss of control over their socio-economic, political, and cultural context. MAGA supporters blamed globalization and the liberal ideology for bringing them to an abyss that only their messiah could bridge.

The MAGA leadership masterfully weaponized infotech - Facebook and Twitter, in particular - to control the messaging in their favor.

Infotech - technology-driven innovation - influences us at every step of our online existence: from what social media feeds us, to what Google shows us as the result of our searches, to the ads curated for us, to the movie suggestions, to the prices offered to us, and to the way our phones track us. We are driven by algorithms which leverage our internet history, our geography, and our bio-demo data to influence our choices and actions. The unbelievable amount of data generated every time we get on our devices (and even when we are not using them) has given machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms an opportunity to understand us far better than what we know about our own preferences and feelings. Far better.

To-date, manipulation-by-data is limited to entertainment, shopping, and politics. Harari encourages us to think what the next step could be.

An authoritarian leader could compel Big Tech (or create new tech companies) to collect, mine, and control how we feel and how we act. Hitler did this with oration and violence. The next avatar of evil is perfectly positioned to use data to manipulate us. Russian action in the 2016 election was the precursor. It was digital interference. In the future, we are likely to travel from interference to what Harari calls "digital dictatorship" - authoritarianism that controls us with data manipulation.

Add biotech to history and infotech for a future we are not yet fully comprehending.

Biotech is biometric sensors which convert biological processes into electronic signals analyzed by computers. Heart rate, temperature, muscle contractions, eye movements are examples of biological processes. These are read by tech that observes us or tech we wear.

Our ubiquitous smart phones, watches, and home assistants are collecting information about us without our knowledge. Our smart TVs are surveilling us by accumulating data about our viewing choices and observing us through cameras and mics built into our devices. We know an entrepreneur who is developing an emotion-recognition app; it observes while you are on your laptop and reports your biometric data. Right now, you have to permit it to do so, but as wearable biometric sensors become the norm or as digital dictators set the agenda, our ability to make appropriate choices will continue be impacted.

Once a streaming platform can observe our facial twitches, furrowing, smiles, laughs, and boredom how long before it tells us what to watch?

To some this may seem like sci-fi but none of it is far-fetched. I specialized in AI in graduate school when all this was theoretically possible; now we are seeing it in practice at a faster pace than we anticipated.

AI is all around us. It is embedded into autonomous vehicles and robots are manning massively complex factories. As chatbots get better at responding to customer support queries, Harari notes call center jobs across the globe could be largely diminished. When Gucci handbags can be 3D-printed in Arkansas, will outsourcing drop off? Does the 3D printed esophagus transplanted in a rat in Japan herald a new frontier?

It's not if infotech and biotech will alter the future employment landscape, economy, and politics, it is when. It is also inevitable that this great collision of the trio is poised to alter our collective will.

We assume will to be a highly rational and structured concept which drives our thinking in reasoned ways. Harari argues that will is not rational at all. In the electoral context, It is a feeling expressed at the voting booth – I feel the conservatives can do a better job or the liberals are better for society. There’s no rationality in how we arrive at this feeling. But it is and will continue to be controlled by our experiences based on what infotech algorithms offer us for viewing and reading and how biotech measures our reactions.

By falling off social media, am I safe from manipulation? I have no illusions about this. I never stopped using iPhone or Google or email or streaming sites. I am still prey to behavior modification just like the avid Facebooker. It's just that my eyes are open to the manipulation.

I’ll be watching the effects of the great collision from multiple angles - how this will affect me personally, how it will reshape how our politics, how our economic and investment choices will be altered, and how parenting strategies need to adjust to the prepare the next generation.

Add this book to your reading list. It will help you rise above the shenanigans of conservative and the liberal politics to see the big picture of what's coming next.



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