’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ shows humanity’s challenges

’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ shows humanity’s challenges

Review of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

The third book by Yuval N. Harari, historian and author of the bestselling books “Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind” and “Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow”, was published in August this year.

What does the future hold, an unemployment ridden wasteland or a leisure based post-work society?

Whereas Harari’s former works were focused on the past of humankind or toward its future, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” investigates the most pressing issues of our times. Professor Harari finds 21 topics which embody the plethora of uncertainties surrounding our present and immediate future, and then, with the past history of our specie well in mind, suggests his thought-provoking vision about them. His unique timeliness is due to his unparalleled ability to reframe the past in order to investigate the present.

In the second lesson, “Work,” Harari talks about automation, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and the impact they will have on the labor market and society as a whole. In order to avoid collapse, deep change is required, a true renovation of our social models.

And Universal Basic Income (UBI) may be one of the answers.

The pace of automation

It is unclear how the labor market will look in the long run. What is certain is that it is undergoing change. The advances in Information Technology (IT), machine learning and robotics will bring on a wave of automation, the author said.

But it is not the first time in human history that society measures itself with automation, as we already faced similar events, most notably with the industrial revolution. And the fear of mass unemployment was proven unjustified. Thus, in Harari opinion, we have to ask whether this time will be different.

Are our concerns about a jobless future legitimate? Or are we exaggerating the magnitude of the phenomena? Do we incur in the risk to act like modern luddites?

The situation of the nineteenth century was different, Harari mantains. When industrialization hit, it is true that many jobs were appropriated by machines, but at the same times many new jobs were created and the quality of life was profoundly improved.

As humans have two kinds of abilities, physical and cognitive, during the industrial revolution machines competed for only one share of the things humans could do, the physical one. When jobs in the industrial or agricultural sectors were automated, they opened the door to jobs requiring a cognitive skill set, the category of jobs we commonly associate with the third sector.

What is happening is due to the fact that the AI revolution is not just embodied by the evolution of computers, becoming faster and more “intelligent,” but it’s closely related to other fields; the momentum of the revolution is shouldered by advances in biology and social sciences, Harari said.

As more is understood of the underlying biological mechanisms controlling the emotive dynamics of humans, the more computers become able to analyze human behavior, to foresee human decisions and to take their place in a number of jobs.

Advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics revealed that our choices do not depend on free will as much as on the calculations of the neurons in our brains, assessing probabilities at enormous speed, the author writes. Human intuition can be considered “hacked” as it was revealed to consist of pattern recognition, the ability to identify recurring patterns and use them to create models and make predictions. And AI can become very good at pattern recognition. If intuition is no more than assessment of probabilities and creation of predictive models, it should not come as a surprise that machines can take our place, given that our very functioning is imperfect and prone to errors: it relies on circuits created through the evolution of our specie, in contexts far in time and place from those in which we try to apply them –the savannah is nothing like today’s cities.

Automation will not impact the entirety of fields, as some jobs are more susceptible to it than others, Harari writes. Particularly, jobs based on repetition, and following linear dynamics, will be more prone to automation. Multifaceted activities and unexpected scenarios are still a no-go zone for machines. Where the jobs of many doctors, requiring diagnostics and prescriptions could be expected to be a no-brainer for AI, the job of nurses would prove more problematic, requiring a mix of personal relationships and physical activity. Caretaking will probably be one of the most difficult task to automate, and could very well be the activity in which most humans will be occupied in the future, Harari suggests.

The future of jobs

Harari sustains that talking about a jobless future is premature, as automation will allow for more time and resources to be invested in study and research, with the potential to develop new treatments, drugs and deepen our understanding of the biological world. Furthermore, there will be a place for human-machine cooperation.

Drones require many operators to work them, driverless vehicles require some form of supervision, cyber security and maintenance will be needed, but as we advance in technology the requirement for human intervention will become less stringent.

But the jobs we are talking about are knowledge intensive, which means that even if they were numerically sufficient to limit unemployment (and they are not), we would nonetheless be left with the problem of unemployment due to under-specialization. In Harari’s opinion, one of the main differences of this technological revolution from the precedent is the degree to which professions were interchangeable. When jobs were less specialized, it was easier to switch from one profession to an another, but jobs that machines will not be able to do are going to require a high degree of specialization and years of study. This alignment will pose the risk of facing “the worst of both worlds”: mass unemployment and lack of qualified workers.

And professor Harari notices how, even for those who are able to pursue a new career, the rapid pace of technological advance could make it obsolete in the matter of years. Not just professional development, but jumping from a field of study to an another will become the norm in a volatile job market, as the ephemeralization of work will make the idea of formation for a career as an one-off effort laughable.

This should also be seen as an emotive cost for workers, the uncertainty causing a great strain in terms of mental health: if the unstable job market of the first decades of the twenty-first century produced an explosion of work-induced stress, mental resilience to change will be among the factors skimming the employment market.

Societal change

Looking back at the history of the industrial revolution, Harari considers how the new social conditions – great industrial metropolis and the dynamic nature of the arising economic markets – could not be accommodated by the existing political, economic and social models. Institutions such as religion, monarchy and feudalism were no longer apt to direct society. A whole century of social unrest followed before an equilibrium was found, with liberal democracies, fascist regimes and communist regimes on the playing field. What automation will bring rests in the realm of speculation, but Harari highlights how there is potential for great societal disruption, and we cannot afford complacency at the risky of bloody revolutions following systemic unemployment, given the great destructive power of modern warfare.

Universal Basic Income

The author then goes on investigating the role governments will have to assume as technology advances, saying that they will necessarily have to intervene, both via the creation of a dedicated structure for permanent formation, and by providing a safety net for people as they face transitions between jobs. The mantra should be the one which Scandinavia is already applying: “protect workers rather than jobs.”

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of the potential models that could respond to the technological and economical revolution we are expecting, Harari says. Its focus on the provision of means to satisfy basic needs is aligned with the necessary imperative of protecting people and not jobs, and could help to preserve the social status and self-worth of humans in a work-lacking future.

Financed through progressive taxation, an UBI would act as a redistributive instrument in a world which sees growing polarization between the riches and the poor. An alternative idea, in the author’s opinion, is to rethink the meaning of work by taking into account the education of children and caretaking. Considering caring for others as work which should deserve a monetary compensation would help foster informal safety nets and strengthen communities. Doing so would help preserve the social fabric which could be disrupted by the upcoming AI revolution. Since it would fall upon governments to pay for such activities, this would not ultimately differ from UBI.

Given that UBI could prove itself a valuable instrument to build a model for the society of the future, Harari calls for a better investigation of its possible application; that is, minimum and universal need to be defined.

In a globalized world, where market and industries are interconnected and delocalization is the norm, the meaning of universal need to be ascertained. UBI experiments have always been of reduced geographical extension, and it is usually thought, in its largest declinations, as a country specific measure. But if it was applied at the national level, its locality would create a problem, as its redistributive effects would not affect those who need it the most. As the wealth appropriated through the world is concentrated in a few nations, a progressive taxation used to fund UBI would then redistribute wealth not globally, but to a lucky minority.

Ideally, a global government could work out a functioning form of global UBI, but at the cost of its feasibility: redistributing wealth globally could very well prove impossible, in the opinion of professor Harari.

If a minimum income has to be enough to accommodate one’s basic needs, we have to decide which needs are basic, and this could prove to be a difficult exercise: homo sapiens needs food and water to survive, everything else may be considered superfluous, the author says.

Today we may consider also shelter, healthcare and instruction as basic needs, but there is no certainty about what is going to be included among them in the future. Human needs depend very much on expectations, they are far from being objective, and so the definition of minimum will remain a fluid concept as society changes through time, Harari forecasts. This means that the mere access to an income will not per se suffice in making people happy, but UBI will have to be integrated with activities which makes people satisfied, from civic engagement to sport.

Harari suggests that his country of origin, Israel, could be thought of as a testing field for a satisfying life in a post-work world. There, half of the ultra-Orthodox Jews do not work, but spend their lives praying and studying the sacred tests, while receiving government subsidies and a share of free services. They derive their happiness from the strong ties they develop with the community they live in and from the fulfillment gained via their investment in religion, Harari mantains.

Even as they are looked at with contempt from the laic citizens of Israel, which see them as freeloaders, their example may very well provide a model for the society of the future: life will be spent in the search for purpose, which could be found through the development of a strong sense of community and by investing time studying and in the construction of social relationships. Those activities, combined with the economic safety net provide by UBI, can maybe provide a picture of the society of tomorrow.

Written by: Daniele Fabbri

More information at:

Yuval N. Harari, “21 Lessons For the 21st Century”, Jonathan Cape, 30 August 2018

Yuval N. Harari, “Yuval Noah Harari on what the year 2050 has in store for humankind”, Wired, 12 August 2018

Review: Parijs presents ‘Basic Income’ book at Stanford

Review: Parijs presents ‘Basic Income’ book at Stanford

On Wednesday, April 12th, Philippe Van Parijs, co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, Emeritus Professor at the University of Louvain and former Director of the Hoover Chair in Economics and Social Ethics, presented his latest book on Basic Income at Stanford University.

He offered a powerful defense of UBI as an instrument of freedom and argued that it can be economically sustained and politically achieved—especially if political communities consider starting with a small UBI. Basic income should be designed, he argues, to go alongside publically funded services, such as quality healthcare and education, and should be given to all fiscal residents of a country.

A video of the event can be found here.

“I’ve listened to criticisms and questions about basic income in five continents and seven languages,” Van Parijs told an audience of more than a hundred students, teachers and members of the broader community. He remains convinced that the policy has no fatal flaws.

Co-written with Yannick Vanderborght, and with the heroic title Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, the book is an absolute must read for basic income enthusiasts and critics, advanced and beginners alike. As the idea of UBI spreads faster than ever throughout the world, it can be hard to keep track of all the major developments in the academic and political worlds. Their book is a seamless solution to this problem.

Over eight insightful chapters, the authors offer the most comprehensive survey ever produced of the scholarship surrounding the recent and less recent revivals of the old idea. Van Parijs and Vanderborght trace back the roots of the policy proposal in the history of public assistance and social insurance, as well as in utopian thinking from Thomas Paine to Charles Fourier, and Martin Luther King. As a scholar, writing and teaching on basic income, I cherish the more than 100 pages of notes and references at the end, which prove to be inexhaustible sources of knowledge.

We learned from Philippe’s talk more about the long journey that led Philippe where he is now. From his first (disappointing) encounter with Rawls over breakfast to his (equally disappointing) encounter with Dworkin in a taxi. On those occasions, both political philosophers challenged the view that liberal egalitarian justice requires a universal cash payment. He recounted for us how he nonetheless ended up convinced that basic income was the instrument of freedom.

In the book, the authors argue that UBI enables a fairer distribution of the most important good of all – the real freedom to lead one’s life as wished, through work and outside work. They make the case that UBI is ethically justifiable by taking on the most pervasive objection of all – that unconditional cash would allow an unfair freeriding of some on others.

Vanderborgth and Van Parijs also offer answers to the many other questions and objections to UBI that come up again and again in political debates. For a start, how would people who believe that work is a moral duty and see the welfare state as a moral hazard ever agree to a system where we don’t even require recipients to demonstrate a willingness to work? And even if we could get them to agree, how could we afford it? And how could such system be sustained? Presumably, if people get money for doing nothing, they will stop working, which will in turn make it impossible to afford a generous UBI. Should we give it to migrants? Won’t it create a dangerous pull effect? And, what about the global poor anyway? Each time, they dissect the objections and scrutinize the questions with the rigor of philosophers, the wise perspective of historians, the rationality of economists and the pragmatic outlook of political advocates.

We also learned more from the talk about how UBI can help build a sane economy. Automation and globalization are important threats to employment and workers’ rights. Van Parijs argued that UBI could be a possible solution to support displaced workers – allowing them to retrain, and giving them access to the means to lead a decent life. He also shared his vision of a form of work-sharing that could help prevent two opposite problems – the fact that so many work too much and burnout, and the fact that so many are depressed for being out of work. A ‘sane economy’, then, is one that works for the many and does not make so many of us stressed and unhealthy.

I remain convinced that one of the most exciting promises of basic income is that it can help us see a way out of the current dominant regressive mindset on public assistance. Existing benefits systems often condone an obsession with screening out a supposedly undeserving underclass: the “welfare queens” and benefits scroungers. At worst, politicians take advantage of this paradigm to get elected, promising to screen out the free riders. At best, they address the problem in a shortsighted way, making benefits even more conditional to show that they are preventing scroungers from abusing the system. In doing so, they strengthen the myth that benefit claimants are indeed undeserving of assistance. Van Parijs and Vanderborgth’s book proposes to try out the opposite strategy to help rebuild the welfare state: doing away with conditionality to avoid benefits traps while also rejecting means testing, so that more workers also benefit from public assistance.

The authors would prefer if everyone had access to the highest sustainable basic income, but they fear basic income will only work with a great deal of realism and pragmatism. The challenge is to strike the right balance between the ideal and the feasible – without compromising the vision and without wishful-thinking on what is achievable. For basic income to work, Van Parijs said at the end of his talk, the world needs visionaries, enraged activists, and opportunistic thinkers to work together. But don’t worry, he added, “I am sure that all three kinds can be found in this room”.

*** All Pictures are a courtesy of Christine Baker-Parrish

*** A longer review of the book by Juliana Bidadanure can be found on the Stanford Social innovation Review website here.

*** For more on the event, please read Sara Button’s review here.

FILM REVIEW: ‘In the Same Boat’

FILM REVIEW: ‘In the Same Boat’

On January 9th, Zygmund Bauman passed away at the age of 91. He is considered one of the great philosophers and sociologist of our time, who introduced the concept of “liquid modernity” to describe the postmodern age.

He is the main character in the recently released documentary “In the Same Boat” where he urges to tackle global problems on a global scale, and suggests exploring new roads such as a universal basic income.

Read more in this review: “Man vs machine, or man ahead with machine?”


MACHINE VS MAN, OR MAN AHEAD WITH MACHINE?

Written by: Bart Grugeon Plana

In the modern era, digital technology is substituting human brain power in a similar way as the steam engine did in the eighteenth century, making muscle power inefficient. Would it be possible, however, to harness this digital revolution for the benefit of humans and the planet, to share prosperity? The documentary “In the Same Boat,” which is being released in several countries throughout Europe, has opened up this interesting debate.

We are in the middle of a new industrial revolution and with the advance of Artificial Intelligence, this process is affecting an increasing number of sectors in the economy. Not only is traditional blue-collar work being carried out by machines, but also work that requires specifically human capabilities. In the coming years, for instance, the self-driving car will turn the transportation sector on its head.

This revolution in productivity can be seen as good news, since machines will do our traditional work and we can dedicate our time to education, care, hobbies and services. Also, new technologies and the availability of huge amounts of data allow us to optimise the planet’s scarce resources. However, there is no guarantee that the increase of wealth will be spread over the inhabitants of the planet with any criterion of equity. There is a real risk that the ownership of machines will be reduced to a small number of people and that the great majority of the world’s population will be left without the means to generate an income.

Most countries in the world have seen income inequality rise during the last decade, in part because of the technological revolution. Economic data (Link 1) show that since the year 2000, the western economy has invested more in technology and less in human capital. This strategy has endowed innovative entrepreneurs with more benefits, without creating more jobs or raising average incomes. The generated wealth went to a tiny minority. Wealth accumulation can come if you already have financial capital and know how to invest it, but if you depend on selling your skills in the labour market, it becomes more difficult to make a living.

When looking at the data of the concentration of wealth, there isn’t much margin for many interpretations. There are 62 people in the world that are as wealthy as the poorest half of the global population. In the US, the middle class is endangered; in the period of economic recovery between 2009 and 2013, the top one per cent of the population was assigned 25 times more of the national revenue than the rest (Link 2).

Many people feel that they are being excluded from the labour market, and they are aware that they have little chance to win the race against the machines. The solution is to learn to work ahead with technology and to think about a strategy to create wealth together, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an expert in information economy (Link 3).

“We are in full transformation towards the society of the 21th century, and the outcome is still open: either with shared prosperity, or, at the contrary, with more inequality. This decision depends on our individual choices and on our strategy as a society. The power is in our hands. Technology is merely an instrument,” Brynjolfsson said.

RECONCILIATION OF POWER AND POLITICS

Image still from ‘In the Same Boat’

The dominant political debate today doesn’t pay much attention to the digital revolution we are experiencing, and mainly focuses on creating favourable conditions to stimulate companies to create as many jobs as possible.

This way of thinking conforms to the paradigm of the second half of the 20th century, when we got used to the idea of ‘full employment’, explains sociologist Zygmund Bauman (Link 4). In our social consciousness, the normal situation is to be in employment and a person that is ‘un-employed’ does not fit this normality. However, in the new technological world, the techniques of the past don’t seem to work, and a solution for the structural problem of unemployment hasn’t yet been found. In Europe, 8.5 per cent of the active population has no job, with significant regional and age variation (Link 5). The situation in Greece and Spain is the most alarming.

According to Bauman (Link 6), we don’t know how to regain control over our economic system because it operates on a global scale: “With just one click on a computer, a company can decide to move 100.000 jobs from here to another part of the planet where labour conditions are more interesting,” he asserts, “Capital and finance move without restraints, but labour does not.”

Looking for solutions, citizens turn to the political class who ultimately can’t influence the economic decision-making process. “They have a local sphere of action, mainly at the level of the nation-state, but power is organised on a global scale and escapes from political control. This divorce between power and politics is the essence of the problem of our society in transformation”, says Bauman, who considers it is a task of all citizens to reconcile both (Link 7).

For the first time in human history, all inhabitants of the planet are interconnected and are interdependent. If we want to resist the populist and protectionist wave that is extending over the globe after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, we must think about different ways to organise work and to distribute wealth. Several experts insist that we should radically rethink the foundations of our society and they propose an open dialogue to come to sensible solutions.

WE ARE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT

The documentary “In the Same Boat” made a momentous effort to open this debate and to project the voices that invoke a new paradigm. Zygmund Bauman, Serge Latouche, Tony Atkinson, Mariana Muzzucato, José Mujica and many others explain why the current labour model has hit a dead end. With a cinematographic style, spectacular photography and a varied musical palette, the film is fresh and inspiring, even whilst dealing with such a weighty subject as the future of humanity.

Zygmund Bauman considers the message of ‘In the Same Boat’ the complete antithesis of Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan ‘TINA’; claiming that “There Is No Alternative” to the liberalisation of all parts of society as it is the only way to guarantee welfare. On the contrary, the polish sociologist proposes to “change the course of the boat that all inhabitants of the planet are in”. He believes that the new paradigm of the 21st century should cut the ties between income and work. “We should abandon the idea of working to make our living. We cannot condition the right to live to the interests of the company we work for,” he argues (Link 8).

The documentary proposes a universal basic income as one of the solutions to fair wealth redistribution. It is not considered a charity for the misfortunate, but rather a technological dividend of the past — a common right. Mariana Mazzucato (Link 7), an economist specialized in technological innovation, explains that “innovation largely depends on public financing and on a collective effort. Moreover, innovation today is a heritage of discoveries of the past.” In other words, what makes your smartphone smart (battery, GPS, Internet, mathematical algorithms, touch screen, etc.) are no individual or private inventions, but are the result of the effort of society as a whole with publicly-funded research programs. Why is it then that the benefits of this technological heritage go to just a privileged minority? How can it be justified that the cost and the risk of research is burdened by the public, but the rewards are privatised? If technology allows us to delegate work to machines due to the effort of many generations, wouldn’t the legitimate heir be society as a whole?

The film has arrived at the precise moment to put the current economical and institutional crisis into a wider perspective. Hopefully it can help to spark a global debate about the necessary societal changes.

“In the Same Boat” was released in Spain in November 2016 and will be screened in other countries during 2017. Members of the Basic Income Network that want to organise local screenings can contact the team on the Facebook page www.facebook.com/inthesameb.

Included is the trailer of the documentary and the presentation with Zygmund Bauman, talking about the future of work. Barcelona, February 2016.

About the author:
Bart Grugeon Plana works as an investigative journalist for the Barcelona based newspaper La Directa, and collaborates with other news platforms such as Apache.be and Ouishare Magazine. He has a special interest in common-based peer production, collaborative economy, platform cooperativism and energy transition.

Trailer In the Same Boat

Interview with Zygmund Bauman

Link 1 the great decoupling

https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-great-decoupling

Link 2 US inequality

https://www.epi.org/files/pdf/107100.pdf

Link 3 Brynjolfsson

https://raceagainstthemachine.com/

Link 4 Bauman

https://www.socialeurope.eu/2013/05/europe-is-trapped-between-power-and-politics/#

Link 5 EU unemployment

https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Unemployment_statistics#Unemployment_trends

Link 6 Bauman

https://wpfdc.org/images/docs/Zygmunt_Bauman_Living_in_Times_of_Interregnum_Transcript_web_I.pdf

Link 7 Bauman

https://directa.cat/actualitat/zygmund-bauman-ordinadors-poden-fer-nostra-feina-essers-humans-serem-redundants

Link 8 Mazzucato

https://marianamazzucato.com/the-entrepreneurial-state/