[WSMDiscuss] In the world of COVID19, we have choices that will shape the world for years to come (Yuval Noah Harari) .... are there flaws in this argument?

Ashish Kothari ashishkothari at riseup.net
Wed Jul 8 15:47:15 CEST 2020

Friends, I only now managed to read this piece by Harari. Given his 
superstar status as a writer, it is worth a read ... and multiple 

At some point I'd like write a detailed commentary on this, but for the 
moment, only making a few quick (and somewhat crudely articulated) 
points to see if others also have similar (or other) concerns:

1. the focus on avoiding a permanent state of state surveillance arising 
out of the COVID crisis, on the legitimacy of a 'self-motivated and 
well-informed' people rather than top-down imposition of norms, and on 
the need for global solidarity instead of 'nationalist' selfishness, are 
most welcome.


2. it is astounding that there is no mention of the 
ecological/environmental aspects of this crisis. I have not read any of 
his books, but does he similarly neglect these fundamental aspects in 
looking at the history of humanity? Surely the 'choices we make now' 
have to include a fundamental rethinking of our relations with the rest 
of nature (by 'our' I mean those currently wielding political and 
economic power, including those amongst us who have the consumer or 
producer power to direct human activity)

3. it is also noticeable that the rethinking of the economy in any 
fundamental sense, is missing. The role of economic globalisation, of 
capitalist corporations, of extractivism, of industrial agriculture, 
etc, find no mention ... only that on economics too there is a need for 
global solidarity. Sure, but in what direction? On bailing out 
corporations and the airline industry, or on supporting community-led 
recovery that provides agency to and prioritises the most marginalised 
people, and undermines the profits and power of the corporate elite?

4. there is a touching faith in 'science', without acknowledging the 
need for multiple forms of knowledge to co-exist and cooperate, and that 
surely 'science' is not the 'objective' tool it is has often been made 
out to be. And so while his point about governments having undermined 
trust in science and scientists (climate denial to the way in which 
knowledge of COVID has been handled by many political leaders) is 
entirely valid, can we also go to the other extreme and say we believe 
everything that 'science' tells us? How do we avoid this blind faith in 
science, while also calling out the hocus-pocus that the likes of Trump 
dish out ... and thereby providing ample space and respect for, say, 
indigenous knowledge systems?

5. is there an alternative vision of global governance that can be 
articulated out of the current crisis? clearly it is justified in the 
current crisis to demand nation-states to be accountable and for UN 
agencies to provide well-reasoned advice they ought to, but  moving out 
of the crisis, how does 'global solidarity' translate into a far more 
democratic, bottom up regime that enables the voice of all people (and 
especially to marginalised populations within nation-states) while also 
dealing with multiple global crises ... it would be unfair to expect 
Harari to give a solution here or to talk about the need to question the 
nation-state itself (even if he believes in it), but some indications 
for a different global political regime would have been welcome, else 
the call for global solidarity could be interpreted to be the 
nation-state based UN kind of business-as-usual.

No single article can deal with the entire complexity of an issue, of 
course, and I'd be happy to learn if Harari has simply missed these 
points due to lack of space/time (and covers them elsewhere), but 
somehow, I wonder if these are more systemic flaws in his approach?

I'd appreciate thoughts from anyone on these lists who has read his 
other work ... or has things to say about the above,



LATEST! Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (thepluriverse.org)
and www.globaltapestryofalternatives.org

Ashish Kothari
Apt 5 Shree Datta Krupa
908 Deccan Gymkhana
Pune 411004, India
Tel: 91-20-25654239; 91-20-25675450
Twitter: @chikikothari

On 25/03/20 4:09 am, Brian K Murphy wrote:
>     /*
>     */
>     /*"In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important
>     choices. The first is between totalitarian
>     surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is
>     between nationalist isolation and global solidarity."*/
> https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75
>>   The world after coronavirus
>>     /This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change
>>     our lives for years to come/
>>   by Yuval Noah Harari:  March 20, 2020  | /Financial Times/
>> Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis 
>> of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the 
>> next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They 
>> will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, 
>> politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should 
>> also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions.
>> When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only 
>> how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we 
>> will inhabit once the storm passes.
>> Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will 
>> still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.
>> Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. 
>> That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical 
>> processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of 
>> deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.
>> Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, 
>> because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve 
>> as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.
>> What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at 
>> a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go 
>> online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational 
>> boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these 
>> aren’t normal times.
>> In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. 
>> The first is between /totalitarian surveillance/ and /citizen 
>> empowerment/. The second is between /nationalist isolation/ and 
>> /global solidarity/.
>>     Under-the-skin surveillance
>> In order to stop the epidemic, entire populations need to comply with 
>> certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this.
>> One method is for the government to monitor people, and punish those 
>> who break the rules. Today, for the first time in human history, 
>> technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty 
>> years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a 
>> day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the 
>> information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, 
>> and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But 
>> now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful 
>> algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.
>> In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments 
>> have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable 
>> case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use 
>> of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging 
>> people to check and report their body temperature and medical 
>> condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify 
>> suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and 
>> identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps 
>> warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.
>> This kind of technology is not limited to east Asia. Prime Minister 
>> Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently authorised the Israel Security 
>> Agency to deploy surveillance technology normally reserved for 
>> battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients. When the relevant 
>> parliamentary subcommittee refused to authorise the measure, 
>> Netanyahu rammed it through with an “emergency decree”.
>> You might argue that there is nothing new about all this. In recent 
>> years both governments and corporations have been using 
>> ever-more-sophisticated technologies to track, monitor and manipulate 
>> people.
>> Yet if we are not careful, the epidemic might nevertheless mark an 
>> important watershed in the history of surveillance. Not only because 
>> it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in 
>> countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it 
>> signifies a dramatic transition from “over the skin” to “under the 
>> skin” surveillance.
>> Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and 
>> clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your 
>> finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest 
>> shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your 
>> finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.
>>     The emergency pudding
>> One of the problems we face in working out where we stand on 
>> surveillance is that none of us know exactly how we are being 
>> surveilled, and what the coming years might bring. Surveillance 
>> technology is developing at breakneck speed, and what seemed 
>> science-fiction 10 years ago is today old news.
>> As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that 
>> demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors 
>> body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is 
>> hoarded and analysed by government algorithms. The algorithms will 
>> know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also 
>> know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of 
>> infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. 
>> Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within 
>> days. Sounds wonderful, right?
>> The downside is, of course, that this would give legitimacy to a 
>> terrifying new surveillance system. If you know, for example, that I 
>> clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you 
>> something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. 
>> But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood 
>> pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what 
>> makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really 
>> angry.
>> It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are 
>> biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology 
>> that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations 
>> and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they 
>> can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can 
>> then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings 
>> and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician.
>> Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking 
>> tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea 
>> in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours 
>> a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet 
>> picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.
>> You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a 
>> temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away 
>> once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit 
>> of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new 
>> emergency lurking on the horizon.
>> My home country of Israel, for example, declared a state of emergency 
>> during its 1948 War of Independence, which justified a range of 
>> temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation to 
>> special regulations for making pudding (I kid you not). The War of 
>> Independence has long been won, but Israel never declared the 
>> emergency over, and has failed to abolish many of the “temporary” 
>> measures of 1948 (the emergency pudding decree was mercifully 
>> abolished in 2011).
>> Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some 
>> data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric 
>> surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of 
>> coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in 
>> central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea.
>> A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The 
>> coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when 
>> people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will 
>> usually choose health.
>>     The soap police
>> Asking people to choose between privacy and health is, in fact, the 
>> very root of the problem. Because this is a false choice.
>> 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 
>> empowering citizens. In recent weeks, some of the most successful 
>> efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic were orchestrated by 
>> South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made 
>> some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on 
>> extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing 
>> co-operation of a well-informed public.
>> Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to 
>> make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told 
>> the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to 
>> tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a 
>> Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and 
>> well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective 
>> than a policed, ignorant population.
>> Consider, for example, washing your hands with soap. This has been 
>> one of the greatest advances ever in human hygiene. This simple 
>> action saves millions of lives every year. While we take it for 
>> granted, it was only in the 19th century that scientists discovered 
>> the importance of washing hands with soap. Previously, even doctors 
>> and nurses proceeded from one surgical operation to the next without 
>> washing their hands. Today billions of people daily wash their hands, 
>> not because they are afraid of the soap police, but rather because 
>> they understand the facts. I wash my hands with soap because I have 
>> heard of viruses and bacteria, I understand that these tiny organisms 
>> cause diseases, and I know that soap can remove them.
>> But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need 
>> trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and 
>> to trust the media. Over the past few years, irresponsible 
>> politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public 
>> authorities and in the media.
>> Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the 
>> high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you just cannot trust the 
>> public to do the right thing.
>> Normally, trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt 
>> overnight. But these are not normal times. In a moment of crisis, 
>> minds too can change quickly. You can have bitter arguments with your 
>> siblings for years, but when some emergency occurs, you suddenly 
>> discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and you rush to help 
>> one another.
>> Instead of building a surveillance regime, it is not too late to 
>> rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the 
>> media. We should definitely make use of new technologies too, but 
>> these technologies should empower citizens. I am all in favour of 
>> monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data 
>> should not be used to create an all-powerful government. Rather, that 
>> data should enable me to make more informed personal choices, and 
>> also to hold government accountable for its decisions.
>> If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would 
>> learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, 
>> but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access 
>> and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would 
>> be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and 
>> whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic.
>> Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same 
>> surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments 
>> to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments.
>> The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship. In the 
>> days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and 
>> healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and 
>> self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we 
>> might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, 
>> thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.
>>     We need a global plan
>> The second important choice we confront is between nationalist 
>> isolation and global solidarity.
>> Both the epidemic itself and the resulting economic crisis are global 
>> problems. They can be solved effectively only by global co-operation.
>> First and foremost, in order to defeat the virus we need to share 
>> information globally. That’s the big advantage of humans over 
>> viruses. A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the US cannot 
>> swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the US many 
>> valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it.
>> What an Italian doctor discovers in Milan in the early morning might 
>> well save lives in Tehran by evening. When the UK government 
>> hesitates between several policies, it can get advice from the 
>> Koreans who have already faced a similar dilemma a month ago. But for 
>> this to happen, we need a spirit of global co-operation and 
>> trust. Countries should be willing to share information openly and 
>> humbly seek advice, and should be able to trust the data and the 
>> insights they receive.
>> We also need a global effort to produce and distribute medical 
>> equipment, most notably testing kits and respiratory machines. 
>> Instead of every country trying to do it locally and hoarding 
>> whatever equipment it can get, a co-ordinated global effort could 
>> greatly accelerate production and make sure life-saving equipment is 
>> distributed more fairly. Just as countries nationalise key industries 
>> during a war, the human war against coronavirus may require us to 
>> “humanise” the crucial production lines. A rich country with few 
>> coronavirus cases should be willing to send precious equipment to a 
>> poorer country with many cases, trusting that if and when it 
>> subsequently needs help, other countries will come to its assistance.
>> We might consider a similar global effort to pool medical personnel. 
>> Countries currently less affected could send medical staff to the 
>> worst-hit regions of the world, both in order to help them in their 
>> hour of need, and in order to gain valuable experience. If later on 
>> the focus of the epidemic shifts, help could start flowing in the 
>> opposite direction.
>> Global co-operation is vitally needed on the economic front too. 
>> Given the global nature of the economy and of supply chains, if each 
>> government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, 
>> the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis. We need a global 
>> plan of action, and we need it fast.
>> Another requirement is reaching a global agreement on travel. 
>> Suspending all international travel for months will cause tremendous 
>> hardships, and hamper the war against coronavirus. Countries need to 
>> co-operate in order to allow at least a trickle of essential 
>> travellers to continue crossing borders: scientists, doctors, 
>> journalists, politicians, businesspeople. This can be done by 
>> reaching a global agreement on the pre-screening of travellers by 
>> their home country. If you know that only carefully screened 
>> travellers were allowed on a plane, you would be more willing to 
>> accept them into your country.
>> Unfortunately, at present countries hardly do any of these things. A 
>> collective paralysis has gripped the international community. There 
>> seem to be no adults in the room. One would have expected to see 
>> already weeks ago an emergency meeting of global leaders to come up 
>> with a common plan of action. The G7 leaders managed to organise a 
>> video-conference only this week, and it did not result in any such plan.
>> In previous global crises — such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 
>> 2014 Ebola epidemic — the US assumed the role of global leader. But 
>> the current US administration has abdicated the job of leader. It has 
>> made it very clear that it cares about the greatness of America far 
>> more than about the future of humanity.
>> This administration has abandoned even its closest allies. When it 
>> banned all travel from the EU, it didn’t bother to give the EU so 
>> much as an advance notice — let alone consult with the EU about that 
>> drastic measure. It has scandalised Germany by allegedly offering 
>> $1bn to a German pharmaceutical company to buy monopoly rights to a 
>> new Covid-19 vaccine.
>> Even if the current administration eventually changes tack and comes 
>> up with a global plan of action, few would follow a leader who never 
>> takes responsibility, who never admits mistakes, and who routinely 
>> takes all the credit for himself while leaving all the blame to others.
>> If the void left by the US isn’t filled by other countries, not only 
>> will it be much harder to stop the current epidemic, but its legacy 
>> will continue to poison international relations for years to come. 
>> Yet every crisis is also an opportunity. We must hope that the 
>> current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed 
>> by global disunity.
>> Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of 
>> disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?
>> If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but 
>> will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future.
>> If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against 
>> the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that 
>> might assail humankind in the 21st century.
>> /*Yuval Noah Harari is author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘21 
>> Lessons for the 21st Century’*/
>> /Copyright © Yuval Noah Harari 2020/
>> ***********
> *See Also:*
> https://www.cgdev.org/blog/covid-19-information-problems-and-digital-surveillance 
> <https://www.cgdev.org/blog/covid-19-information-problems-and-digital-surveillance?utm_source=200324&utm_medium=cgd_email&utm_campaign=cgd_weekly>
>>   COVID-19, Information Problems, and Digital Surveillance
>> Michael Pisa <http://www.cgdev.org/expert/michael-pisa>, March 20, 
>> 2020 | Center For Global Development
>> */CGD’s ongoing work on //data governance and economic development/ 
>> <https://www.cgdev.org/blog/reconciling-calls-more-and-better-data-responsible-data-use>/ focuses 
>> on how societies can best balance the social good that having better 
>> information can provide with the need to protect individual rights. 
>> The COVID-19 pandemic puts this challenge in the starkest terms./*
>> */Full article:/*
> */https://www.cgdev.org/blog/covid-19-information-problems-and-digital-surveillance/* 
> <https://www.cgdev.org/blog/covid-19-information-problems-and-digital-surveillance?utm_source=200324&utm_medium=cgd_email&utm_campaign=cgd_weekly>
>> //
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