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Me vs Technology

Crypto Slot Machines - Advice from the author of Homo Deus and the Time Well Spent movement

Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, was my favorite book of 2016, and probably in my top 5 of all-time. No anthropology class in college (I took 4 of them!) even comes close to how interesting and insightful and engaging as that book was. I takes topics we are all familiar with—human evolution, society, money, religion, happiness—and makes you think about them in an different way, from a different perspective. Here’s a rundown of the book:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

This year, Yuval Noah Harari released the followup to Sapiens, called Homo Deus. If Sapiens was the history of humans, this is the future of humans. Again, this book definitely one of my favorites of the year. Here is the rundown:

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow examines what might happen to the world when old myths are coupled with new godlike technologies, such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

What will happen to democracy when Google and Facebook come to know our likes and our political preferences better than we know them ourselves? What will happen to the welfare state when computers push humans out of the job market and create a massive new “useless class”? How might Islam handle genetic engineering? Will Silicon Valley end up producing new religions, rather than just novel gadgets?

As Homo sapiens becomes Homo deus, what new destinies will we set for ourselves? As the self-made gods of planet earth, which projects should we undertake, and how will we protect this fragile planet and humankind itself from our own destructive powers? The book Homo Deus gives us a glimpse of the dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century.

Yuval Noah Harari is now one of my favorite authors of all-time, so when I saw that he had a chapter in Tim Ferriss’s newest book, Tribe of Mentors, I flipped straight to his chapter, which happened to be the very last chapter of the book, page 554. As expected, I found some gems. This one is so good I decided to type the whole answer right out of the book:

What advice would you give a smart, driven college student about to enter the "real world”?

Yuval Noah Harari:

"Nobody really knows what the job marker will look like in 2040, hence nobody knows what to teach young people today. Consequently, it is likely that most of what you learn at school will be irrelevant by the time you are 40.

So what should you focus on? My best advice is to focus on personal resilience and emotional intelligence. Traditionally, life has been divided into two parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. In the first part of your life you built a stable identity and acquired personal and professional skills; in the second part of your life your relied on your identity and skills to navigate the world, earn a living and contribute to society. By 2040, this traditional model will become obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves again and again. The world of 2040 will be a very different world from today, and an extremely hectic world. The pace of change is likely to accelerate even further. So people will need the ability to learn all the time and reinvent themselves repeatedly—even at age 60.

Yet change is usually stressful, and after a certain age, most people don't like to change. When you are 16, your entire life is change, whether you like it or not. Your body is changing, your mind is changing, your relationships are changing—everything is in flux. You are busy inventing yourself. By the time you are 40, you don't want to change. You want stability. But in the 21 century, you wont be able to enjoy that luxury. If you try to hold on to some stable identity, some stable job, some stable worldview, you will be left behind, and the world will fly by you. So people will need to be extremely resilient and emotionally balanced to sail through this never-ending storm, and to deal with very high levels of stress.

The problem is that it is very hard to teach emotional intelligence and resilience. It is not something you can learn by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The current educational model, devised in the 19th century Industrial Revolution, is bankrupt. But so far we haven’t created a viable alternative.

So don't trust the adults too much. In the past, it was a safe bet to trust adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the work changed slowly. But the 21st century is going to be different. Whatever the adults have learned about economics, politics, or relationships may be outdated. Similarly, don't trust technology too much. You must make technology serve you, instead of you serving it. If you aren’t careful, technology will start dictating your aims and enslaving you to its agenda.

So you have no choice but to really get to know yourself better. Know who you are and what you really want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice the book: know thyself. But this advice has never been more urgent that in the 21st century. Because now you have competition. Google, Facebook, Amazon and the government are all relying on big data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. We are not living in the era of hacking computers—we are living in the era of hacking humans. Once the corporations and governments know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you and you won't even realize it it. So if you want to stay in the game, you have to run faster than Google. Good luck!"

"You must make technology serve you, instead of you serving it. If you aren’t careful, technology will start dictating your aims and enslaving you to its agenda.”

"We are not living in the era of hacking computers—we are living in the era of hacking humans. Once the corporations and governments know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you and you won't even realize it it.”

Time Well Spent

I’ve recently gotten into the work of Tristan Harris. I listened to him on a podcast with Sam Harris, watched 2 TED Talks, and read some of his essays. Tristan runs an organization called Time Well Spent, which builds awareness and offers solutions to society’s addiction to technology. Before that, Tristan studied persuasive technological design at Stanford, ran a company that got acquired by Google, and then worked in a role titled Design Ethicist at Google.

The problem, that Tristan is fighting against at Time Well Spent, is that technology companies are purposefully addicting us to their technologies, because that is there business model. Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat, Google and Youtube, Twitter, Netflix... they are in a zero-sum race for our finite attention. If they can convince us into more time on-screen, more engagement, they win. They win in revenue, in advertising dollars. Why else is our technology constantly nagging us for more attention? Here is what Tristan says:

So, these companies are trying to addict us, and they are incredibly good at it. They understand the psychology and neurology behind it. Do you think Snapchat created streaks, or Youtube and Netflix added autoplay on accident? And there are 2 things that are even more alarming than these companies trying to addict us... The first is that these technologies reach billions of people and are easy to manipulate and exploit. We saw this with Russian ads on Facebook during the election. It becomes easy to spread fake news to millions of people. Our newsfeeds are optimized for clicks and engagement, and outrage happens to be the most effective at getting clicks and engagement, so we tend to see that more often. Facebook even knows when and how to sell and advertise to you, for example, they learned that depressed teens buy more makeup. And the other thing that is alarming is how much more powerful this type of technology is than TV, radio and computers.

So now, if you re-read the two quotes above again from Yuval Noah Harari, they might be a little bit more scary in this context.

What Tristan is doing at Time Well Spent is trying to not only build awareness around this "invisible" problem, but also to change the way Apple and Google design their phones and App Stores, and get these companies to take a more ethical approach to design. But what can we do, as the users of these technologies, right now? Yuval says "run faster than Google. Good luck!"

If technology is hacking humans, like Yuval says, then we have to hack it back. Tristan wrote a great blog post called How To Unhijak Your Mind From Your Phone. He uses findings from phycology and behavioral science to minimize compulsive checking, unconscious use, and the "fear of missing something important." One of his tips include "creating the essential home screen" by categorizing your apps into Tools (camera, calendar, Uber), Bottomless Bowls and Slot Machines (Email, Instagram, Stocks), and Aspirations (Headspace, Duolingo, Audible). Based on a really interesting study at Google about M&Ms - if the candy wrappers are in plain sight, people eat them almost uncontrollably, but if you move them into white opaque jars, its way easier to have self control - if you move the Bottomless Bowls and Slot Machines out of sight, onto the second page of the home screen and into a group, you won't get sucked in, and you can visit those apps only when you consciously want to.

All of these technologies - iPhone, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, etc - provide tons of value, and that's why we use them and they are billion dollar businesses. But unfortunately we now live in a time where you need to hack, or be hacked.

No post on this blog ever feels complete without some wisdom from Seth Godin. This was just posted today...

Instagram has taken a backseat, my newest addiction is checking the crypto market. Tristan's analogy of a slot machine is perfect here. I open the app, and I'm up $1000. The next day I'm down $1000.

As Seth points out, it's not just technology that we have to watch out for. There are many things out there that try and hook us, addict us, and distract us from the "real work of making a difference" - email, money, likes, drama. Bringing it full circle now, Yuval's advice is that the most important thing we can do is be self-aware. We need to know ourselves - what we want, how we want to spend our time. We need to know ourselves better than our technology does. Tristan's whole movement of Time Well Spent is built upon the idea that there is an amount of time that is "well spent" on Netflix and Instagram, and it's different for everyone. We need to know what that is for ourselves, and do our best, hack it if need be, to not waste time, or spend time we will regret. We must make technology serve us, like it was originally intended for.

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