When Tech Loves Its Fiercest Critics, Buyer Beware

Detail from the cover of Harari’s lastest work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”

Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”

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Is Humanity Obsolete?

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Upon finishing Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, I found an unwelcome kink in my otherwise comfortably adjusted frame of reference. It brought with it the slight nausea of a hangover, a lingering whiff of jet exhaust from a hard night, possibly involving rough psychedelics.

I’m usually content with my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the role humanity plays in the universe, and in particular, with the role that technology plays as that narrative builds. And lately that technology story is getting pretty damn interesting — I’d argue that our society’s creation of and reaction to digital technologies is pretty much the most important narrative in the world at present.

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Can The Future Be Perfect? It Can Certainly Be Better

As my 2011 review of his Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation proves, I am a Steven Johnson fan. So it was with relish that I settled in to read his latest release: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Steven had already told me the premise of his book – the first he’s written since moving to my neck of the woods in Marin, California (I hope we can keep him from going back to Brooklyn, but we’ll see…).

In short it’s this: the evidence has become overwhelming that a new form of political expression is developing, an expression deeply informed by the gravitational pull of the Internet (for more on that, see Steven’s piece in the Times: The Internet? We Built That).

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Super Sad True Love Story: A Review

In my continuing quest to reflect on books which I have found important to my own work, I give you a work of fiction, first published in mid-2011:  Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart, an acclaimed writer born in Russia, now living in the US. This is my first read of Shteyngart, known also for his previous works Absurdistan and Russian Debutante’s Handbook, both of which established him as an important new literary voice (Ten Best Books – NYT, Book of the Year – Time, etc. etc….). Of course, I was barely aware of Shteyngart until a friend insisted I read “Super Sad” and I will forever be grateful for the recommendation.

Based in a future that feels to be about thirty years from now (the same timeframe as my pending book),  Shteyngart’s story stars one Lenny Abramov, a schlumpy 39-year-old son of Jewish Russian immigrants who lives in New York City. Abramov works at a powerful corporation that sells promises of immortality to “High Net Worth” individuals. But he’s not your typical corporate climber: The book begins in Italy, where Abramov has taken a literary vacation of sorts – he’s left an America he no longer loves to be closer to a world that he does – a dying world of art, literature, and slower living. But Abramov’s duty to his parents and his need for money drive him back to America, where most of the action occurs.

It turns out the future hasn’t been very kind to America. Just about every possible concern one might have about our nation’s decline has played out – the economy is in a death spiral, the Chinese pretty much control our institutions, large corporations control what the Chinese don’t, books and intelligent discourse have disappeared, shallowness and rough sex are glorified, and the Constitution has pretty much been suspended. Oh, and while the book doesn’t exactly put it this way, Facebook and Apple have won – everyone is addicted to their devices, and to the social reflections they project.

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Jaron Lanier: Something Doesn’t Smell Right

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.

I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.

I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.

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On “The Corporation,” the Film

If you read my Predictions for 2012, you’ll recall that #6 was “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark.

We aren’t very far into the year, and signs of this coming true are all around. The “Occupy” movement seems to have found a central theme to its 2012 movement around overturning “the corporation as a person,” and some legislators are supporting that concept.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere, but I wanted to note, as I didn’t fairly do in my prediction post, the role that “The Corporation”  played in my thinking. I finally watched this 2003 documentary over the holidays. Its promoters still maintain an ongoing community here, and it doesn’t take long to determine that this film has a very strong, classically liberal point of view about the role corporations play in our society.

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Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants”

It took me a while, but I’ve finally finished Kevin Kelly’sWhat Technology Wants,” first published last year and now out in paperback. Befitting a tome that took five or so years to write, Kevin’s book is not the kind of work that is easily digested – at least for me.

But that’s not to say it’s not worthy. It most certainly is. I worked with Kevin for five wonderful years as a co-founding editor of Wired, and throughout that tumultuous period (1992-1997) Kevin never ceased to surprise me – both with stories of his extraordinary life (after converting to Christianity whilst wandering in the Middle East, for example, he bicycled across the US under the self imposed belief that he would die at the end of his trip), as well as with his boundless curiosity. I was very young when we worked together, to say he had a profound impact on how I understood the practice of writing is an understatement. Together we edited every single word in more than fifty issues of Wired, after all.

With those caveats declared, then, let me get to the book at hand. Some non-fiction books present themselves as lectures or arguments. And still others are very clearly the manifestation of the author’s own unscratchable itch. What Technology Wants is both of these, and more. In the introduction, Kevin pretty much sums it up: “What was (technology’s) essence? If I didn’t understand the basic nature of technology, then as each new piece of it came along, I would have no frame of reference to decide how weakly or strongly to embrace it.”

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