Why technology cannot be developed only by engineers. Harari vs. Zuckerberg on the social impact of technology.


Last week I was surprised to discover an engaging debate between Yuval Noah Harari (YNH) and Mark Zuckerberg (MZ), on the future of technology. I highly recommend the talk. It will give layman and tech people alike hints on current issues and future projections on technology development and its impact upon society as well as on Mark’s global ambitions.

Why is this discussion important? Well, both participants qualify as top influencers, that have or can have huge impact upon technology developments.  On the one hand, Mark Zukerberg (MZ), Facebook’s CEO, manages world’s biggest social network with more than 2,3 billion active users, being in the pole position to understanding the impact that technology has upon people. On the other hand, Yuval Noah Harari (YNH) a historian, philosopher and best-selling author of ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and “21 lessons for the 21st century”, has used his books as a vehicle for inspiring views upon the past, present and future of humanity at the highest levels.

If you get to read YNH’s books, you might notice his pessimistic tone, namely one of his recurrent theses is that current technology progresses, if not handled properly, can have detrimental and even disastrous effects upon future social development of humanity. Facebook’s tone presented by MZ is significantly more positive. Indeed, FB is a powerful platform capable to exert tremendous influence globally at the social political and economic level. From this perspective, the dispute is very thought-provoking.

First, the debate is a bit unbalanced, as MZ comes with a practical background, confronted with real daily operational issues, running a for-profit company. MZ thinks in practical terms, and his answers are tightly related to Facebook capabilities. As a result, in many cases he appears to be more shallow or at least not ready to rise at the amplitude and profoundness of YNHs thinking. Being a CEO comes also with a lot of responsibility and inability to approach freely any kind of topics, without affecting the image of his company. At the same time, YNH, as himself mentions during the debate, can easily juggle between all sorts of ideas as he does not have too many constraints. As such, MZ does not have straightforward answers to many of YNHs questions, and overall has a more optimistic vision upon the matters discussed.

Although not necessarily structured in this way, the debate circled around the two topics below, and my takeaways are the following:

  • Does technology unite or divide us?

YHN indicates that technology has the power to increase inequality, as some countries are doing far better than others (e.g. AI) at adopting new technologies. We are not sure what will happen in the future, if developing nations will not be able to catch up. More technologized countries are also more economically potent. This gap can grow in the following years.

Also, developed states tend to fragment and isolate themselves on the Internet, for better protection.

MZ responds that open standards and open technology (something that Facebook promotes) are key to a better integration of developing countries. Also, developed states already impose beneficial policies (e.g. GDPR), that serve as example to other countries also.

  • How will AI/future technologies impact humanity?

Current developments of AI might lead in the future to an authority shift from humans to machines. Is this good?

Advancements in AI in some countries, might lead to bigger inequality or imbalances of power. This is already happening, and we are not sure if the current democratic system can handle such slips.

How do we prevent the malevolent use of AI for surveillance? As the AI systems come to know you better than yourself, how can we prevent manipulation or oppression from authoritarian governments?

Can we leave our faiths in the hands of technology if we don’t have a sustainable model for human development and the meaning of life?

On all the matters above, raised by YNH, MZ had holistic answers, that covered only convenient parts of the question. Although having global ambitions his views still go through the business filter, though cannot grasp the extent of the impact in some cases. His take was mainly that we currently do not have a generalized AI, able of such performances and that a strategic policy level should exist between technology and humans.


Conclusions and takeaways

MZs optimistic vision can also be some sort of cluelessness on the magnitude of the social impact of technology nowadays. In the last few years MZ has tried to pose as some sort of a global moral leader, that takes responsibility for the constructive development of humanity through social networks/technology. This, despite the many scandals Facebook had (see Cambridge Analytica, US elections scandal etc.), that clearly demonstrated their focus was not necessarily on privacy or other moral objectives, but mostly on increasing revenues. In this respect, Facebook has clearly neglected aspects that had a pure negative social impact.  Nonetheless, he admitted mistakes and imposed changes that, he says, would have positive influence on people, although impacting his revenues on the short term.

YNH clearly and correctly points out that there is a conflict of interest here, as the objective of social media platforms should be to facilitate the development of meaningful relations. But by meaningful relations we do understand people getting out of their homes, or from their screens, to meet physically. Yet, the objective of a commercial company, managing a social media platform, ought to be to keep clients in front of their screens and serve them lucrative content. The syntaxes “customer is always right” or “what customers want is always good”, that sits at the center of the capitalist approach, are not necessarily suitable when developing a sustainable model of human progress. YNH claims that, currently, we don’t really know what is inherently good for humans and this could be one of the reasons technologies develop, in some cases, without a clear ethical direction, guided only by market requirements.

But don’t take me wrong with this, it’s good that we have CEOs that think like this, as in considering also the moral impact of his business upon clients and willing to support overall human development. We should have more like him! Nevertheless, seems like a too bigger hat for MZ, as inherently the business model of a social network might not necessarily go hand in hand with adopting too many moral principles, that in the end can lead to profit churn. Perhaps he has other ambitions and we’ll get to see him later running for presidency, while leaving the CEO position behind.

It is my overall opinion that MZ does not clearly realize the magnitude of the impact that technology can have upon humanity, but he is struggling, which is good. It remains to be seen though, how far he will manage to advance his plans on developing meaningful human relations through Facebook.

My takeaways are:

  • None of the two debaters questioned the clear positive impact that technology had on humanity, up to now. It is from now on that they are concerned. I’ve wrote a post on this some time ago.
  • We do not know if current technological developments are inherently good or bad; we need more study into this. The role of humanities in this process becomes vital, as technology should not be developed without psychologists, sociologists, neurologists, public policy experts etc.
  • Technology leaders do not really have answers when it comes to social or policy related questions; their aim is to develop technology, make business, not necessarily save the world. That is why we need more thinkers/visionaries like Harari, as they challenge the systems, and this is beneficial.



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