Know the Workings of Your Own Mind

In a recent New Yorker article Yuval Harari commented on the prospect of the possible nefarious uses of AI by governments, corporations or others to intrude on personal freedoms.

“Harari argues that, though there’s no sure prophylactic against such future intrusions, people who are alert to the workings of their minds will be better able to protect themselves. Harari recently told a Ukrainian reporter, “Freedom depends to a large extent on how much you know yourself, and you need to know yourself better than, say, the government or the corporations that try to manipulate you.” In this context, to think clearly—to snorkel in the pool, back and forth—is a form of social action.”

Makes sense to me. Not hard to do, just sit down (perhaps on a cushion) and shut up.

Dollars for Data

Do you ever stop to think about how much data is being collected on you daily by everyone from Google to your bank? Did you ever give them permission to do so? Well, in some cases you may have via the checkbox at that massive ‘Terms of Service’ document that no one reads, but the reality is that many companies were/are collecting data even without those, and sharing and selling it as well, in addition to analyzing it, primarily just to sell you product or keep you on the platform longer.

Whether they can ethically do all this, or should be doing it, is a massive discussion. That aside, many people are proposing that if large corporations are going to essentially use us individuals as data collection points – we should get paid for it.

Livia Gershon writes in her article We All Work for Facebook:

Writing in the Harvard Business Review with Jaron Lanier, a prominent critic of social media, Weyl argues that if Americans were paid for our data, many would make $500 to $1,000 a year the way things stand now (an estimate that the authors believe is low). If AI were to grow to represent 10 percent of the U.S. economy, Weyl and Lanier add, that amount could rise to $20,000 for an average family of four—though in that information economy, we’d all pay a little more for the services we use.

As a family of 6, I like that action. If we’re all gonna be digital zombies, lets at least pull down a decent salary while we do it.

The Rise of Digital Unions

Gershon notes that the best way to start demanding compensation from companies is for individuals to band together and deny the companies that which they’re seeking, until demands are met – to form unions.

Digital labor rights, like any labor rights, depend on workers’ ability to organize in pursuit of their interests. The idea of demanding pay for data depends on internet users coming together in something like a labor union or a craft guild, bargaining with data buyers and using strike threats to win contracts. Skilled translators or people with a specific medical condition might band together based on their knowledge of the value that their data could provide. Weyl suggested to me that users start with Wikipedia, since it has its own complicated, semi-democratic governance system.

At the end of his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari presents the viewpoint that moving into the future, our society can take one of two paths; one that is dominated and driven by data or one that is founded and continues on a humanist philosophy. It would seem that unless we prefer the former, humans must come together to become more than just ‘cogs in the machine.’

Summum Bonum

Some months back I loaned my copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens to a friend-of-a-friend. He messaged me awhile ago and said that he ‘owed me a book’. I asked for clarification and apparently his dog, a Vizsla that goes by the moniker Frank Tempo, had ‘dispatched’ the book with due prejudice. I laughed and said I could think of no better way for that book to have met it’s untimely end.

I said to not worry about the book, but noted that he’d given an Memento Mori coin to our mutual friend and hinted that one of those would be nice…

This morning in the mail I received a very nice gift from him, surpisingly a Summum Bonum coin instead. From the attached card:

Summum Bonum is an expression from Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator. In Latin, it means “the highest good.”

And what is the highest good? What is it that we are supposed to be aiming for in this life?

To the Stoics, the answer is virtue. If we act virtuously, they believed, everything else important could follow: Happiness, success, meaning, reputation, honor, love.

Our goal in creating this medallion is that you will feel its weight in your pocket and remember that no matter the circumstance, no matter how dire or desperate, how straightforward or scary, virtue is the answer.

The coin is very well made, nicely sized and with a substantial heft. Feels really nice in the hand. I am inspired to honor my friend and his gift by striving each day for “the highest good.”

Capitalist-Consumerist Ethics

As someone who is by no means innocent with regard to the following tendencies, yet has been working to be more self-reflective and step out of the cycle, this passage from a book I am reading struck me last night and though long and slightly out of context, I thought merited transcribing. It’s relevance to this time of year is oddly coincidental (Fortuitous? Prophetic?) as well.

“Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology (‘Just do it!’) to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression.

It has succeeded. We are all good consumers. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed. Manufacturers deliberately design short-term goods and invent new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products that we must purchase in order to stay ‘in’. Shopping has become a favorite pastime, and consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses and friends. Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day – originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers – is now an occasion for special sales. Most people mark this day by going shopping, perhaps to prove that the defenders of freedom did not die in vain.

The flowering of the consumerist ethic is manifested most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural society lived in the awful shade of starvation. In the affluent world of today one of the leading health problems is obesity, which strikes the poor (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas) even more severely than the rich (who eat organic salads and fruit smoothies). Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic contraction, people eat too much and then buy diet products – contributing to economic growth twice over.

How can we square the consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic of the business person, according to which profits should not be wasted, and should instead be reinvested in production? it’s simple. As in previous eras, there is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on extravagant luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally, minding every penny. Today, the tables have turned. The rich take great care in managing their assets and investments, while the less well heels go into debt buying cars and televisions they don’t really need. The capitalist and consumers ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty rough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideas that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum.

In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free rein to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.”

-From Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

Upcoming Reading

I’ve placed an order for a few new books that have been in my ‘to read’ queue for a long time, as well as a new addition. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately via my phone/laptop of ebooks, but I’m missing the physical sensation and satisfaction of a physical book.

I had gone to ebooks as an effort to ‘declutter’ as I didn’t want to keep having books around – I went through a process of purging a bunch some months back, so buying more physical books leaves me sort of conflicted.  We’ll see how it goes. Depending on my attachment to them I think I will either keep them or possibly donate them to the library. For the most part these that I’ve ordered aren’t available in my local library system.

I also need to check out the used bookstore downtown and see what kind of inventory they have cross-referenced with my ‘to-read’ list.

Here’s what I picked up:
Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Fitness
William Ferraiolo

This is interesting because I found it via a blog post I shared on LinkedIn regarding stoic philosophy. The author of this book, a philosophy professor, messaged me and made some solid reading suggestions. Looking forward to digging into this one.

These next two books were recommended via an online pal who reads as much as I aspire to.
The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
Kevin Kelly

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari

I actually went looking for this author’s latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, but there wasn’t a cheap used copy available so decided to put it off until later and read this one first.

Finally, I read Sand County Almanac last year and it was a game changer for me. I’ve seen a lot of cross-referencing between it’s author, Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, so I thought I’d check out some of his work starting with Desert Solitaire.