Zeitgeist is defined as “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” Right now, there is an abundance of conversation among writers, academics, business people, politicians, etc., centered on the related themes of technology induced job automation and rising inequality. Related topics include STEM vs. the humanities, artificial intelligence, consciousness, and so on.
I may be falling prey to some cognitive biases that are causing me to overstate the “defining spirit” of our particular period in history (take your pick). But it does seem like the impact of technology on society is one of the dominant and recurring narratives among writers and thinkers today.
Here is a quick roundup of some things I’ve read recently on these topics. Not necessarily endorsements, simply articles that have come my way.
The Robots Are Coming in the London Review of Books. A quote:
We are, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, on the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one.
To me, this is the key question. Is the computer + internet “revolution” simply economic / technological progress that has very significant individual employment repercussions but ultimately no fundamental changes to our underlying economics? Or is it a fundamental change?
If it is a fundamental change on the scale of the industrial revolution, wow. From Wikipedia on the Industrial Revolution: “Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals, plants and fire.”
NIMBYs in the twenty-first century in the Economist. A quote:
…a 26-year-old graduate student…presented a new paper…[that] several reputable economists regard…as the most serious and substantive critique that Mr Piketty’s work has yet faced.
Just the most recent in continued discussion over Piketty and issues of inequality.
####Humanities vs STEM
Fareed Zakaria’s column in the Washington Post on Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous - he has a new book called In Defense of a Liberal Education.
Leon Wieseltier’s Among the Disrupted in the NY Times and much that was written in response. (not to mention the New Republic controversy)
Of course much is written about incredible AI feats by companies and researchers, but perhaps more interesting is the growing number of prominent figures speaking out against its potential dangers. If you haven’t seen such threats, do a search for Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Steve Wozniak, Sam Altman, etc. talking about the risks of artificial intelligence.
I found this overview on research into the nature of consciousness fascinating.
Separately, I was reading an interesting but perhaps unnecessarily long article on Near Death Experiences and saw a related point:
…Rather, it shows that the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of the brain, knitted together somehow by all the physical and chemical processes in our nervous system.
But if so, then how does that knitting occur? This is the crucial question for consciousness studies…
…The question of how consciousness emerges is in fact likely to be one of the defining problems of the 21st century, when we might first be able to create machines as complex as the human brain.”
Perhaps more interesting than the link to AI is the connection to Yuval Harari’s closing remarks in his talk that I previously wrote about. Harari’s point is that we can find correlations between electrochemical patterns in the brain and subjective experiences, but we don’t truly understand the connection. Check out my other post for the full implications of this (which are drastic according to Harari, and relate to this zeitgeist).