We might forgive those who have decided to avoid reading the newspapers or to find something, and often anything else, to watch rather than the TV news in their attempts to reduce the amount of negativity in the orbit of their world. It’s hardly a long term strategy that’s destined to keep anyone sufficiently involved in the wider world but it’s certainly understandable. Indeed, it’s easy to conclude that the wheels are wobbling precariously on the world’s bus or, in watching as one nation repeatedly vetos humanitarian relief in Syria, to conclude that they may already have come off. However, a recently published book by Stephen Pinker – Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – points out that, by looking at the numbers rather than the emotive headlines, it’s easier to get a feel for the real state of the world.
Certainly, the news headlines point to this being a miserable world; Syria is still at war, a nineteenth lunatic has gone on a gun rampage in an American school this year alone and, as the temperature of political rhetoric increases, it’s hard to recall a period when political discourse has been as crass and poisonous as it is today. Indeed, the leader of the Free World (if such a term still has meaning) simply dismisses news that he doesn’t like as being fake news.
Stephen Pinker makes the point that front pages are grim for the same reason that Shakespeare’s plays feature a lot of murders – tragedy is dramatic. Many years ago, Piers Morgan, when interviewed on TV as the editor of The Sun newspaper, reminded viewers that his job was to sell newspapers and not to report the news. If the two could be brought together, that was a bonus, but few people would read a story headlined “100,000 had successful operations yesterday”. Additionally, bad news stories often happen suddenly and with emotive images while good news usually happens incrementally, and across a wide area, making it much harder to film.
If you’ve read Stephen Pinker’s earlier book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, you’ll have seen his thesis that humankind has grown less violent and the new book demonstrates that steady, cumulative progress is occurring on many other fronts. Pinker cites the values of the 18th-century Enlightenment, arguing that by applying reason to problems, people can successfully solve them and move on. He points to the world of trade and technology where the spread of good ideas has allowed rich countries to grow richer and poor ones to catch up. “The world is about 100 times wealthier than 200 years ago and, contrary to popular belief, its wealth is more evenly distributed. The share of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of that in the 1980s and half a percent of the toll in the second world war. During the 20th century Americans became 96% less likely to die in a car crash, 92% less likely to perish in a fire and 95% less likely to expire on the job.”
There are many examples of such progress but perhaps the more intriguing area to look at is the increase in people’s intellectual ability – in short, people are also growing more intelligent, and more humane. He points out that, in every part of the world IQ scores have been rising, by a sizeable 30 points in 100 years, meaning that the average person today scores better than 98% of those people who were measured a century ago. Children are more likely to go to school than they were in 1900, while “outside the schoolhouse, analytic thinking is encouraged by a culture that trades in visual symbols (subway maps, digital displays), analytic tools (spreadsheets, stock reports) and academic concepts that trickle down into common parlance (supply and demand, on average, human rights).”
Without doubt, this progress comes with moral consequences, as the capacity for abstract reasoning develops critical questioning. Over the last century, the development of the western world has spread the concept of enlightenment and now two-thirds of people live in democracies, and even authoritarian states such as China are freer than they once were. We see a far greater awareness of the necessity for equality for ethnic minorities, the avoidance of racism and tolerance for sexual diversity but we also see a far greater conviction that, empowered by easy access to knowledge through the Internet and the immediacy of video coverage from around the world, individuals are increasingly ready to assume parity in their discussions with professionals – whether within the legal, financial, healthcare or simply in buying a car, nowadays, everyone is an expert. That carries a risk of its own.
Clearly, we live in a complex world where inexorable change simply adds further complication and pressure for almost everyone. As our world changes, so must we but, within the established coda of belief and behaviour, it is easy to see how it can be even harder to adapt and adopt such a constantly moving target. What complicates things even further is the ubiquity of mainstream marketing which has, through the Internet and social media, made a level playing field around the world for the promotion of products, services and even ethos. If Alexa and her friends are not already pan-lingual, they soon will be, razing national cultural differences to the ground as a blanket level of expectation descends around the world. The ready availability of western brands and culture will be enhanced by a transformation in their accessibility and made concrete by the collection of peoples’ habits, behaviours, enquiries and purchases by the feedback gleaned from consumers’ interactions with Alexa et al. How long will it be before the board members of a handful of AI companies are setting the ethos and moral tone for the entire planet?
The incident of Cambridge Analytica using the personal data of 50 million Facebook users for political and commercial gain simply confirms that the general body of the population is at risk of exploitation, or worse, by a handful of people who are only accountable when caught in the act. The cynics amongst us might say that t’was ever thus, but the speed, scale and ramifications of such actions is completely new to society. In the last US elections, the Trump camp used available digital data far more effectively than the Clinton campaign, targeting the undecided voters with their electoral messaging. By US, UK and European law, that would only be acceptable if those ‘floating’ voters offered themselves up for such communication, but the digital world’s ability to know more about us than we do ourselves clearly produces an endless stream of opportunity for abuse on a mammoth scale. What about tiny countries where no data protection yet exists? How would we deal with such an issue if the problem took shape in international waters, outside anyone’s control?
Maybe that’s the real problem, society is still operating by a set of moral rules that have evolved over millennia while the digital opportunity for extraordinary gain is evolving faster than anyone can describe it. Society is patently vulnerable to a small percentage of its members exploiting the majority without regard for the damage that may be caused. A recent UK study, that showed that one in three 12 year olds had watched online porn, is a good example of how our expectation for societal checks and balances to operate is clearly misplaced. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica allegations should stir society into a more concrete insistence on probity and that can only be a good thing from a societal perspective although, at an individual level, it may have lasting effects that some individuals may not welcome. We still celebrate the actions of the US ‘Shoe bomber’ every time we tackle airport security so digital freedom may yet be curtailed.
This highlights an issue that should cause real concern when we gleefully ask Alexa and her friends to order a pizza or lock the doors at night. Our new breed of digital assistants has the capacity to gather valuable data on an enormous scale but we have no say in how that data is stored or utilised. The exponential rate in which technology is entering our living space is fascinating but far riskier than we might think. The cavalier way in which people post their personal data, likes and dislikes, details about friends and enemies and literally all our financial data shows that the man in the street is leaving digital security to someone else – anyone really – so long as it’s happening somewhere out there on a cloud that very few of us understand.
From Putin to Trump and from Facebook to the app store, we can see that this may well not be happening. While we are unsure whether it is even possible, I shall be leaving Alexa in her box in my garage, which I continue to lock with a key. The dinosaur is dead, long live the dinosaur!
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