The One and Only Significant Story About WHATSAPP’s Privacy Debate
By Amir NOUR for the Saker Blog
“It’s only hubris if I fail”
(Gaius Julius Caesar)
Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece in these same columns. What I thought was an important topic, namely the close and dangerous relationship between the GAFAs and transhumanism, went somewhat unnoticed, compared to other more pressing issues on the international agenda at that time.
However, recent momentous world and American events brought the topic to the forefront in spades while, unfortunately, TESLA CEO Elon Musk proved my predictions right twice.
Firstly, when he unveiled, in August 2020 a pig called Gertrude with “a coin-sized computer chip in her brain to demonstrate his ambitious plans to create a working brain-to-machine interface”. His start-up Neuralink applied to launch human trials in 2019 with a view to allowing people with neurological conditions to control phones or computers with their mind. Mr. Musk argues such chips could eventually be used to help cure conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries, with the long-term ambition being to usher in an age of what he calls “superhuman cognition”, in part, purportedly, to combat Artificial Intelligence “so powerful it could destroy the human race”.
Secondly, on the occasion of the current WhatsApp privacy terms debate. Indeed, amid mounting outcry and protests from its hundreds of millions of users around the world, WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, has just decided to delay the rollout of its controversial planned privacy in an attempt to stem a serious backlash entailing looming big money losses. WhatsApp said it would push back the changes, to May 15 from February 8, to give users three extra months to review and agree to its new policies in the hope of dispelling what it says is “confusion” and “misinformation”. Users had originally been informed that they had to agree to the new rules by 8 February, or face having their accounts suspended or deleted. One of the GAFA billionaire entrepreneurs, Elon Musk — who is now the world’s richest person after surpassing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in net worth — recently tweeted a meme criticizing Facebook and suggesting to his 41.5 million followers to download Signal, a competitor encrypted messaging App. Following this boost from Musk an increasing number of WhatsApp users have rushed to competing apps such as Signal and Telegram, in pursuit of what they perceive to be better security and privacy. Signal, in particular, saw a remarkable surge in new signups; so much so that the company is seeing delays in phone number verifications of new accounts across multiple cell providers. 
These are some of the most deceptive and “distractive” features of the ongoing controversy characterized by a flurry of concerns related only to the collateral damage of an unprecedented war being waged against the biological nature of Man by the billionaire owners of the GAFAs. In their feverish quest to achieve the unattainable objective of immortality they are steering humanity, at a forced march, into great depths of immorality.
As for the real and truly “destructive” consequences of this war, an aspect of the debate almost completely obliterated by those very GAFAs and their zealous advocates, they have been — paradoxically enough — very well analyzed and explained by Yuval Noah Harari during a presentation of his best-selling and acclaimed book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, at The SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California. The Santa Barbara-based Center is said to be a catalyst for interdisciplinary study of the relationship of brain and mind. It integrates a wide range of scholarly endeavors and technologies in the humanities, social sciences and the sciences, including “the metaphysics and the philosophy of the mind; methodologies in the social and behavioral sciences; and the relatively recent tools that have been developed in the sciences such as functional neuro-imaging, genetic techniques, computational modeling and immersive virtual environment technology”.
Brought to the firmament of world fame, with much hype and in an astonishingly short period of time rarely recorded in recent history, this 44-year-old professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has had a very singular journey, first spiritual — in his own words — and then “scientific”. Indeed, just a few years ago Harari was an obscure Israeli historian specialized in a no less obscure discipline called “medieval military history”. Shifting from this “inadequately remunerative” area of intellectual activity to the highly valued and gainful domain of big ideas, he wrote Sapiens in his native country in 2011, but only reaped the benefit of his work in 2014 when the book was published in the United Kingdom. The book, a really sweeping cross-disciplinary synthesis of human history, was translated into many world languages, went on to sell millions of copies, and also won him a large number of high-profile public admirers, like Barack Obama and Bill Gates, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, one of the GAFA billionaire Chief Executive Officers.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 2015 New Year’s resolution was to read an important book every two weeks and discuss it with the Facebook community. Zuckerberg’s book club has focused on big ideas that influence society and business. For his 12th pick, he explained on his personal Facebook page: “This book is a big history narrative of human civilization — from how we developed from hunter-gatherers early on to how we organize our society and economy today. Following the Muqaddimah, which was a history from the perspective of an intellectual in the 1300s, Sapiens is a contemporary exploration of many similar questions. I’m looking forward to reading these different perspectives”. With such a boost from such a worldwide celebrity, Harari didn’t need any further encouragement to march triumphantly on to the top step of the best-sellers’ podium in the United States.
In this book Harari looks to the future, exploring how “godlike technologies such as artificial intelligence and genetic engineering will define what we become”. And in an interview with Steve Paulson, on December 27, 2018, in “NAUTILUS”, a New York-based online and print science quarterly, Harari stated that he feels “worried about our souls” because the ongoing big-data makeover of humanity could be a recipe for disaster. He agreed with his interviewer that something feels very different about this moment in history. They thought we are on the precipice of a revolution that will change humanity for either our everlasting benefit or destruction—it’s not clear which. “For the first time in history,” Harari said, “we have absolutely no idea how the world will look in 30 years.” Asked about what’s different regarding this moment in history, the Israeli historian answers that the difference lies in the pace of technological change, especially the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. They “make it possible to hack human beings and other organisms, and then re-engineer them and create new life forms”. We are no longer afraid of the machine, Harari points out, we have become it: “We no longer search for information. We Google. We trust the Google algorithm and we lose the ability to search for information independently”.
Towards the end of the interview Harari was asked whether he was an optimist or pessimist about where we’re headed. He answered by stating that there are things we can do to improve the situation, “although there is nothing inevitable about it”. Expressing doubts about the belief that science and technology will inevitably create a better world, Harari affirms that the science and technology guarantee only one thing. And this thing is power: “Humankind is going to become more powerful. But what to do with this power? Here we have all kinds of options. If you look back in history, sometimes people use power very wisely, and very often they misuse their power. One of the most important forces in human history is human stupidity. We should never underestimate human stupidity. When you combine the limitless resource of human stupidity with amazing new powers that humankind will gain in the 21st century, this can be a recipe for disaster”.
In the excellent book they published in 2016, Marc Dugain and Christophe Labbé claim that the digital giants, the GAFAs, aspire to control individuals through the collection of data about our lives. Behind this espionage, the scale of which we can appreciate every day, we discover, they say, that there is a secret pact, sealed by Big Data with the most powerful intelligence apparatus on the planet. This coupling between U.S. agencies and digital conglomerates is giving birth to a new kind of entity. A mutant power, seeded by globalization, which aspires to re-format humanity. The takeover of our lives is being operated in favor of a new global oligarchy. For Big Data, democracy is obsolete, as are its universal values. It’s a new dictatorship that threatens us: A Big Mother even more terrifying than Big Brother. If we let it go, tomorrow we will be “naked men” with no memory, programmed, under surveillance. The authors warn that “it is time to take action”. Amen !
- Algerian researcher in international relations, author of the book L’Orient et l’Occident à l’heure d’un nouveau Sykes-Picot (“The Orient and the Occident in time of a New Sykes-Picot”), Editions Alem El Afkar, Algiers, 2014, downloadable free of charge, by clicking on the following links:http://algerienetwork.com/blog/lorient-et-loccident-a-lheure-dun-nouveau-sykes-picot-par-amir-nour/ (French)
http://algerienetwork.com/blog/العالم-العربي-على-موعد-مع-سايكس-بيكو-ج/ (Arabic) ↑
- See: https://thesaker.is/the-enduring-quest-for-ubermensch-from-renaissance-humanism-to-silicon-valleys-posthumanism/#comments ↑
- Read: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53956683 ↑
- Read: https://www.theverge.com/2021/1/7/22218989/signal-new-signups-whatsapp-facebook-privacy-controversy-elon-musk ↑
- Watch the video of University of California Television (UCTV):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ChHc5jhZxs ↑
- Marc Dugain & Christophe Labbé, “L’Homme Nu : la dictature invisible du numérique”, Robert Laffont and Plon, Paris, 2016. ↑