Yuval Noah Harari: We need a global economic rescue plan

Unconstrained surveillance is the high road to dictatorship

Τhe Israeli Professor and intellectual Yuval Noah Harari is optimistic about the scientific developments in the battle against coronavirus yet at the same time expresses his concern for the digital technologies that are all of a sudden introduced in peoples’ daily lives due to the pandemic. In his interview with the Sunday newspaper «To Vima», the widely read author of world best-sellers «Sapiens», «Homo Deus», and «21 Lessons for the 21st Century» points out that it is possible to use new surveillance technologies to contain the pandemic without undermining democracy and the right to privacy. He notes that the «health or privacy» dilemma is false and suggests strict control when a surveillance system is put in place, not by the police but rather by a special healthcare authority, independent from commercial or political interests. «When establishing this new surveillance system don’t think only about what the current government might do with it. Rather, think about the politician you most fear, and imagine that he or she might win the next elections» he points out. He also stresses the fact that «whenever you increase surveillance of individual citizens, you must simultaneously also increase surveillance of the governments and the big corporations. If surveillance goes only from top to bottom, this is the high road to dictatorship» or even worse for the establishment of the worst totalitarian regime in human history. Harari believes that close cooperation between countries all over the world is needed to tackle both the pandemic and its economic repercussions. «We need a global economic rescue plan», he notes, adding that «if this epidemic eventually results in closer global cooperation, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all the other dangers that threaten humankind – from climate change to nuclear war».

-Medicine historians have observed that over the centuries there is a certain pattern of behavior of leaders in times of pandemics. They initially negate the problem, then search for an internal enemy and finally resort to authoritarian solutions. Was this pattern confirmed in the present crisis? Do pandemics shape history but do not shape leadership?

While this pattern is quite common, it is neither universal nor inevitable. New Zealand, for example, has dealt admirably with the present crisis without denying the problem, scapegoating minorities or resorting to authoritarian solutions. The same is true of Germany, Taiwan and several other democracies. We also see that some leaders who have negated the problem or blamed it on alleged “traitors” and “enemies” – such as Trump and Bolsonaro – are facing a storm of criticism because of it.
Moreover, pandemics can shape new kinds of positive leadership emerging from below. Consider for example what happened in the LGBT community in reaction to AIDS. This was a terrible epidemic, and gay people were often completely abandoned by the state. In reaction, a new leadership emerged from below. LGBT activists created many new organizations to help sick people, to spread reliable information, and to fight for political rights. Consequently after the AIDS epidemic the LGBT community in many countries was actually stronger than before.

-At the end of the day, to what extent will democracies actually differ from authoritarian regimes in terms of citizen surveillance and restriction of rights?

I hope they differ greatly. We should not fall victim to technological determinism. Different countries can use the same technology in very different ways. South Korea and North Korea rely on exactly the same set of technological tools – electricity, cars, trains, computers – yet they have used them to create completely different societies. It is the same with the new surveillance technology. We should use it to stop the epidemic, but we can use it in many different ways. Using surveillance technology can be done without undermining democracy and privacy.

When people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health. But asking people to choose between privacy and health is a mistake. This is a false dichotomy. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by educating and empowering citizens. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.

Suppose you want to make millions of people wash their hands with soap every day. One way to do it is to place a policeman or perhaps a camera in every toilet, and punish people who fail to wash their hands. Another way is to teach people about viruses and bacteria, explain that soap can remove or kill these pathogens, and then trust people to make up their own minds. What do you think, which method is more efficient?

I would like to suggest two important principles for establishing and employing the new surveillance technology. First, the surveillance system should be operated by a special healthcare authority rather than by the police. The healthcare authority should be narrowly focused on preventing epidemics, and should have no other commercial or political interests.

-Nevertheless, many leaders compare the pandemic with war and act accordingly

I am particularly alarmed when I hear people comparing the Covid-19 crisis to war, and calling for the security services to take over. This isn’t a war. It is a healthcare crisis. There are no human enemies to kill. It is all about taking care of people. The dominant image in war is a soldier with a rifle storming forward. Now the image in our heads should be a nurse changing dirty bedsheets in a hospital. Soldiers and nurses have a very different way of thinking. If you want to put somebody in charge, don’t put a soldier in charge. Put a nurse.

The healthcare authority should gather the minimum amount of data necessary for the narrow task of preventing epidemics, and should not share this data with any other governmental body – especially not the police. Nor should it share the data with private companies. It should make sure that data gathered about individuals is never used to harm or manipulate these individuals, for example causing people to lose their jobs or their insurance.

When establishing this new surveillance system don’t think only about what the current government might do with it. Rather, think about the politician you most fear, and imagine that he or she might win the next elections. What will he or she do with this system?

The second principle is that whenever you increase surveillance of individual citizens, you must simultaneously also increase surveillance of the governments and the big corporations. If surveillance goes only from top to bottom, this is the high road to dictatorship. Surveillance must always go both ways. For example, in the present crisis governments are taking extremely important decisions and are distributing enormous amounts of money. The process of making decisions and allocating funds should be made more transparent. As a citizen, I want to easily see who get money, and who decided where the money goes. I want to make sure that the money goes to businesses that really need it – like small restaurants and hotels – rather than to a big corporation whose owners are friends with some minister. If the government says it is too complicated to establish such a monitoring system in the midst of a crisis, don’t believe it. If it is not too complicated to start monitoring what I do – it is not too complicated to start monitoring what the government does.

-You have argued that in the future the use of data will constitute an ideology or even a new form of religion, ‘dataism’. Coronavirus has accelerated this process, rendering the choices more visible and putting them at the center of public debate. Could this maybe an opportunity to regulate this field before it gets out of control?

Yes, we definitely need to regulate it before it gets out of control. And we don’t have much time left. The most important technological revolution of the twenty-first century is the ability to hack human beings. To hack human beings means to understand humans better than they understand themselves. In order to that, you need a lot of biological knowledge, a lot of data, and a lot of computing power. Until today, nobody could do it. Even in Nazi Germany or in the Soviet Union the government could not know what every person was thinking and feeling.

But soon, some governments and corporations might have enough biological knowledge, enough data and enough computing power to monitor all the people all the time, and know what each of us is thinking and feeling. Once a government or a corporation understands us better than we understand ourselves, it can predict our feelings and decisions, manipulate our feelings and decisions, and increasingly make decisions on our behalf.

The ability to hack humans can of course be used for good purposes – for example, providing much better and cheaper healthcare for billions of people. Today we often discover that someone has Covid-19 only after that person has already infected other people. But a system that monitors your body 24 hours a day could detect Covid-19 in its early stages, even before you feel there is anything wrong with you.
Yet exactly the same ability can be used to create the worst totalitarian regime in human history. The regime will know not only everything you do, but also everything you feel. If you see the leader on television and you feel angry – the regime will know. If you read official propaganda and you think it is bullshit – the regime will know. The regime will even know things that people hide from themselves. For example, the regime will know that a 15-year-old boy is gay even before that boy knows it. Remember that things like anger and sexual attraction are biological phenomena just like fever and illness – a system that knows when you are sick can also know when you are angry or horny.

Even if we prevent the rise of such totalitarian regimes, we will still have to deal with a gradual shift in authority from humans to algorithms. Already today we rely on the Facebook algorithm to tell us what is new, on the Google algorithm to tell us what is true, Amazon tells us what to buy, and Netflix tells us what to watch. As algorithms come to know us better than we know ourselves, they will eventually tell us what to study, where to work, whom to marry, and whom to vote for. If we don’t regulate the ownership of data and the power of algorithms, soon humans might lose control of the economy, of the political system, and even of their own lives.

-Do you see any possibility of international organizations and/or the EU reacting to the coronavirus-related normalization of rights’ restrictions and the abolition of democracy, even by their own Members?

I think such organizations are too weak. They can protest and they can provide some help, but they cannot save democracy by themselves. The job of saving democracy can only be done by the public and by the civil society within each country.

-Western science arrogantly believed that, in the course of its progress, it had definitively won the battle against old enemies, like viruses and bacteria. However, it has been proven unprepared and unable to understand the extent and consequences of a devious enemy, like Covid19. Will this experience radically change our viewpoint? Is perhaps more money to be spent henceforth for the public health system and not e.g. for defence?

Already before Covid-19, most countries have spent a lot more money on healthcare than on defense. The USA spends about 3% of GDP on its military, and about 17% of GDP on healthcare. Germany spends only a little more than 1% of GDP on defense, and more than 10% of GDP on healthcare.

And despite Covid-19, humankind today is able to deal with infectious diseases better than in any previous time in history. The percentage of people dying for infectious diseases today is smaller than in any previous time in history. In the last 200 years life expectancy has jumped from under 40 to 72 in the whole world, and more than 80 in many developed countries.

Our view of epidemics have also changed. For most of history, epidemics were seen as either punishment from God or as a natural disaster beyond human control. Now we see epidemics as manageable challenges. Covid-19 is unlikely to change that. The dominant cultural reaction to Covid-19 isn’t helpless resignation – it is a mixture of outrage and hope. On the one hand, we assume that this pandemic could have been prevented, so its spread must be somebody’s fault. The crisis is far from over, yet the blame game has already begun. Obviously somebody has screwed up big time. The only question left open is who. Different countries accuse one another. Rival politicians throw responsibility from one to the other like a hand-grenade without a pin.

Alongside outrage, there is also a tremendous amount of hope. People throughout the world adore the doctors and nurses who are the thin white line holding death’s onslaught in check. Our heroes aren’t the priests who bury the dead and excuse the calamity – our heroes are the medics who save lives. And our super-heroes are the scientists in the laboratories. Just as moviegoers know that Spiderman and Wonder-woman will eventually defeat the bad guys and save the world, so we are quite sure that within a few months, perhaps a year, the folks in the labs will come up with effective treatments for Covid-19 and even a vaccination. The number one question on the lips of everybody is: “When will the vaccine be ready?”. When. Not if.

When the pandemic is over, I imagine that humanity’s main takeaway will not that we are helpless in the face of epidemics, but rather that we need to invest even more efforts in protecting human lives. We need to have more hospitals, more doctors, more nurses. We need to stockpile more respiratory machines, more protective gear, more testing kits. We need to invest more money in researching unknown pathogens and developing novel treatments.

-During this crisis, the first truly global event, citizens have resorted to the state and its health authorities. On the other hand, states, instead of cooperating have fueled a diplomatic war over medical consumables, like respirators. What does this mean for the future of globalization and international solidarity?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. It depends on the choices we make in the present. Countries can choose to compete for scarce resources and pursue an egoistic and isolationist policy, or they could choose to help one another in the spirit of global solidarity. This choice will shape both the course of the present crisis and the future of the international system for years to come.

I hope countries will choose solidarity and cooperation. We cannot stop this epidemic without close cooperation between countries all over the world. Even if a particular country succeeds in stopping the epidemic in its territory for a while, as long as the epidemic continues to spread elsewhere, it might return everywhere. Even worse, viruses constantly mutate. A mutation in the virus anywhere in the world might make it more contagious or more deadly, putting in danger all of humankind. The only way we can really protect ourselves, is by helping to protect all humans.

Moreover, even to stop the epidemic in one country, we usually need to rely on information received from other countries. The big advantage of humans over viruses is that we can cooperate in ways viruses cannot. A virus in Korea cannot give advice to a virus in Greece about how to infect people. But what a doctor in Korea discovers in the morning can save lives in Greece by evening. The Greek government today faces dilemmas that the Korean government faced a month ago – it can ask for advice. Why repeat the same mistakes other governments made in the past? And when in a month’s time Brazil would face a similar dilemma – Greece can help it.

Global cooperation is needed in the economic field, too. If every country looks only after its own interests, the result will be a severe global recession that will hit everyone. Rich countries like the USA, Germany and Japan will muddle through one way or the other. But poorer countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America might completely collapse. The USA can afford a 2 trillion dollar rescue package for its economy. Ecuador, Nigeria and Pakistan don’t have similar resources. We need a global economic rescue plan.

-Do you think there is a global leadership able to design and implement such a plan?

Unfortunately, so far we don’t see anything like the strong global leadership we need. The USA, which acted as world leader during the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the 2008 financial crisis, has abdicated this job. The Trump administration made it very clear that it cares only about the USA, and has abandoned even its closest allies in Western Europe. Even if the USA now comes up with some kind of global plan, who would trust it, and who would follow its lead? Would you follow a leader whose motto is “Me First”?
But every crisis is also an opportunity. Hopefully the current epidemic will help humankind realize the acute danger posed by global disunity. If indeed this epidemic eventually results in closer global cooperation, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all the other dangers that threaten humankind – from climate change to nuclear war.

-You have stated that ‘The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come’. Do you believe that there are certain sectors where the change will be so radical that nothing will be the same?

There are never clean breaks in history. Some things always persist. Humankind has passed through many previous crises and pandemics, many of them far worse than Covid-19. As bad as things may look to us now, the Black Death was far worse, World War II was worse. The Black Death and World War II certainly brought about many changes, but many other things remained the same. In particular, human nature is unlikely to change.

And I think that our biggest enemies in this crisis are not the viruses, but rather the inner demons of human nature: hatred, greed, ignorance. If people blame the epidemic on foreigners and minorities; if greedy businesses care only about their profits; and if we believe all kinds of conspiracy theories – it will be much harder to overcome this epidemic, and we will later on live in a world poisoned by hatred, greed and ignorance.

On the other hand, if in this moment of crisis we show solidarity with people all over the world; if we generously help those most in need; and if we strengthen our trust in science and in responsible media outlets – it will be much easier to overcome this epidemic, and later on we will live in a much better world.

-You have stated that “Greece is doing a great job of containing this epidemic. If I had to choose say between Greece and the United States who should be leading the world now giving us a plan of action I would definitely choose Greece» Why do you think that Greece constitutes a paradigmatic case of state reaction to Covid-19?

Greece seems to have reacted to the crisis very well – much better than many of its European neighbors. And countries all over the world can learn and benefit from the Greek experience. However, no country should be blindly copied, because every country is in a somewhat different situation. New Zealand too did a good job, but it is a remote island nation, so a country with a very central location such as Switzerland might not be able to copy New Zealand easily. Germany did a good job, but it is a very rich country, so a poor country like Ecuador cannot just copy the Germans. South Korea did a good job, but perhaps that has something to do with its unique culture, so maybe its policies will not work easily in countries with a different culture, like South Africa. The same is true of the Greek example.

So I think it is important for all countries to openly share information about their policies and the results they got. Not only in terms of number of sick and dead people, but also in terms of their economic situation and the mental health of citizens. There is much to be learned from the experience of everyone – including from mistakes and failures.

If countries don’t share this information, or if they cannot trust the information they receive from others, they will not know which policies to adopt, and they might end up repeating the mistakes of others. But if reliable information is freely shared, each country will be able to choose the policies that best suit its unique conditions.

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