It is striking when you find yourself living at major inflection points of history. After all, there is no such thing as quiet times. The 1990s, for instance, seem like a distant quiet time. But in that period, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda were happening. O.J. Simpson’s “trial of the century” has faded into the mist of history.
Yet sometimes, history is momentous. The fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11 are memorable to those who experienced it — and even to those who didn’t.
Then there are technology revolutions. Until recently, there was a serious argument to be made that the internet revolution was not as momentous as the 1920s, with the popularization of electricity, cars, radio and airplanes. It is now harder to make that case, with the rise of Big Data and artificial intelligence.
Decisions will be made in the next few decades concerning privacy, distribution of wealth and personal freedom. Unlike quieter periods, these changes will not be evolutionary, but will be made explicitly — and often painfully.
For example, a recent New York Times article detailed an effort at various government levels to limit the use of facial-recognition technologies. At the far extreme, if we allow it, is the authoritarian model of China, with its social credit system intertwining with Big Data, using facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor individual citizens and give them “scores” that determine their access to material and social goods in their closed society.
In 1902, the French novelist Anatole France published a short story, “The Procurator of Judea.” In it, a retired Pontius Pilate is sitting in his Mediterranean villa commiserating with another retired colonial administrator about their various postings over the course of their careers. At one point, the desolate province of Judea is mentioned, and Pontius Pilate recollects his miserable experience trying to pacify the Samaritans and various other tribes.
But when asked if he remembers a minor troublemaker in Galilee, he draws a blank: “Pontius Pilate contracted his brows, and his hand rose to his forehead in the attitude of one who probes the depths of his memory. Then after a silence of some seconds: ‘Jesus?’ he murmured, ‘Jesus — of Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.’ ”
Decades from now, we will look back at this era as the period when Big Data gave governments the new ability to monitor and control citizens, and artificial intelligence automated tens of millions of jobs without replacing them with new ones.
How we as a society respond and restructure will determine how our descendants live.
saac Cheifetz is an executive recruiter and strategic résumé consultant based in the Twin Cities. His website is catalytic1.com.