Why Fascism is So Tempting – and How Your Data Could Power It: Yuval Noah Harari (Transcript)

When you look in the fascist mirror, you see yourself as far more beautiful than you really are. In the 1930s, when Germans looked in the fascist mirror, they saw Germany as the most beautiful thing in the world. If today, Russians look in the fascist mirror, they will see Russia as the most beautiful thing in the world. And if Israelis look in the fascist mirror, they will see Israel as the most beautiful thing in the world. This does not mean that we are now facing a rerun of the 1930s.

Fascism and dictatorships

Fascism and dictatorships might come back, but they will come back in a new form, a form which is much more relevant to the new technological realities of the 21st century. In ancient times, land was the most important asset in the world. Politics, therefore, was the struggle to control land. And dictatorship meant that all the land was owned by a single ruler or by a small oligarch.

And in the modern age, machines became more important than land. Politics became the struggle to control the machines. And dictatorship meant that too many of the machines became concentrated in the hands of the government or of a small elite. Now data is replacing both land and machines as the most important asset. Politics becomes the struggle to control the flows of data.

And dictatorship now means that too much data is being concentrated in the hands of the government or of a small elite. The greatest danger that now faces liberal democracy is that the revolution in information technology will make dictatorships more efficient than democracies. In the 20th century, democracy and capitalism defeated fascism and communism because democracy was better at processing data and making decisions. Given 20th-century technology, it was simply inefficient to try and concentrate too much data and too much power in one place. But it is not a law of nature that centralized data processing is always less efficient than distributed data processing.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, it might become feasible to process enormous amounts of information very efficiently in one place, to take all the decisions in one place, and then centralized data processing will be more efficient than distributed data processing. And then the main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century — their attempt to concentrate all the information in one place — it will become their greatest advantage.

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Another technological danger that threatens the future of democracy is the merger of information technology with biotechnology, which might result in the creation of algorithms that know me better than I know myself. And once you have such algorithms, an external system, like the government, cannot just predict my decisions, it can also manipulate my feelings, my emotions. A dictator may not be able to provide me with good health care, but he will be able to make me love him and to make me hate the opposition.

Democracy will find it difficult to survive such a development because, in the end, democracy is not based on human rationality; it’s based on human feelings. During elections and referendums, you’re not being asked, “What do you think?” You’re actually being asked, “How do you feel?” And if somebody can manipulate your emotions effectively, democracy will become an emotional puppet show.

How can we prevent the return of fascism and the rise of new dictatorships?

So what can we do to prevent the return of fascism and the rise of new dictatorships? The number one question that we face is: Who controls the data? If you are an engineer, then find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands. And find ways to make sure the distributed data processing is at least as efficient as centralized data processing. This will be the best safeguard for democracy.

As for the rest of us who are not engineers, the number one question facing us is: how not to allow ourselves to be manipulated by those who control the data. The enemies of liberal democracy, they have a method. They hack our feelings. Not our emails, not our bank accounts — they hack our feelings of fear and hate and vanity, and then use these feelings to polarize and destroy democracy from within. This is actually a method that Silicon Valley pioneered in order to sell us products.

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But now, the enemies of democracy are using this very method to sell us fear and hate and vanity. They cannot create these feelings out of nothing. So they get to know our own preexisting weaknesses. And then use them against us. And it is therefore the responsibility of all of us to get to know our weaknesses and make sure that they do not become a weapon in the hands of the enemies of democracy.

Getting to know our own weaknesses will also help us to avoid the trap of the fascist mirror. As we explained earlier, fascism exploits our vanity. It makes us see ourselves as far more beautiful than we really are. This is the seduction. But if you really know yourself, you will not fall for this kind of flattery.

If somebody puts a mirror in front of your eyes that hides all your ugly bits and makes you see yourself as far more beautiful and far more important than you really are, just break that mirror. Thank you…

Q&A Session

Chris Anderson: Yuval, thank you. Goodness me. It’s so nice to see you again. So, if I understand you right, you’re alerting us to two big dangers here. One is the possible resurgence of a seductive form of fascism, but close to that, dictatorships that may not exactly be fascistic, but control all the data. I wonder if there’s a third concern that some people here have already expressed, which is where, not governments, but big corporations control all our data. What do you call that, and how worried should we be about that?

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