statistics
Is there a 'tech curse'? (Credit: DOS_76/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

As humans, we have the most exquisite ability to understand, analyse, and systematise the world around us. Our predisposition to seek patterns is a central element of human consciousness – our survival has, over centuries, depended on our astute powers of observation, deduction, and extrapolation.

Our lives may have changed extensively as we moved from the pre-agricultural era to the post-industrial era, and now to the digital era, but our nature has remained fundamentally the same. This observation comes without any value judgement. We are who we are. And what we build in this world reflects these fundamental qualities.

Across the globe, these changes have not been uniform, nor should they be; our strength lies in our diversity and our ability to respond to fast-changing environments. This is a key principle of dialogue-based interaction.

Numbers are central to how we approach an analysis of the world around us. However, as with any code, understanding what the numbers really mean takes considerable effort.

More than just a number

Take for example statistics on country performance. For many years, GDP growth was taken as the gold standard by which countries were judged – it became journalistic shorthand for ‘success’ and entered public consciousness as such.

Numbers are central to how we approach an analysis of the world around us. However, as with any code, understanding what the numbers really mean takes considerable effort.

But now we are approaching consensus that GDP growth alone is a highly limited assessment of any one economy, and should, in fact, give way to other forms of analysis and categorisation.

This is one small example of what fetishised statistics have become in our ‘digital age’, and how misled we have been in the past when numbers were seen as a goal and an end in themselves.

Nowhere is the collision of the traditional and high-tech worlds more apparent than in farming: the most basic, fundamental human endeavour, vital to our continued wellbeing and survival. Faced by shifting lifestyles, growing demand, and climate change, people involved in this crucial sector look to new technologies to help meet fast-changing and expanding needs.

Yet merely increasing the volume of food produced does not automatically deliver better nutrition across the board. Today we see both an obesity epidemic in some societies and at the same time other communities facing profound food insecurity and hunger.

Farming has always been at the forefront of technological, industrial, and social innovation. It will remain so. The problems come when we look at systems and methods that are in place as final and fail to understand the constant need to improve and refine our approaches.

Infrastructure – statistics in action

Infrastructure development is an area where ‘getting it right’ is particularly important – for states, for private companies, and for people.

When I worked as CEO of the Russian railways, one of the largest transport companies in the world, I repeatedly found myself arguing with the financial authorities of my own country over the eventual purpose of large-scale investment in national infrastructure.

When we first introduced high-speed trains in Russia ten years ago, I always said that the long-range value of high-speed connection stretches far beyond the mere return on investment (it barely breaks even after dozens of years, if ever), but helps in social and even human terms.

Creating conditions for more intense communication helps people interact, find new opportunities in life, and earn more. The numbers are impressive. Take a suburban area in which people are limited by transport infrastructure to, say, a 200-kilometre radius, in their daily lives. Add high-speed trains into their transport mix, and they can end up 30% better off thanks to the increased earning power that comes with the resulting increase in mobility.

This means that the state is able to create conditions that offer people a better life, while also encouraging mobility and exchanges between people at all levels of society. This, of course, takes time to understand, but this eventually became accepted and is now frequently articulated in political discourse.

Creating conditions for more intense communication helps people interact, find new opportunities in life, and earn more.

These examples help us understand that, unless our focus on statistics can be tempered with a basic understanding of human values, we will continue to fail to achieve the ambitious goals we set ourselves.

New technologies, old societies

Efficiency should mean a rational use of resources towards the greatest good for the greatest number. Sadly, efficiency all too often has meant side-lining our most humane qualities. In business, politics, the economy, and in our day-to-day lives, advanced technologies and algorithms play central roles.

The internet was supposed to deliver free access to information to all, but has it? People suffer ‘internet poverty’ in many parts of the world, through lack of infrastructure and basic access. Elsewhere, content is formed by key players to correlate with user taste, forming a deafening echo-chamber instead of a free exchange of views or access to challenging perspectives.

We are in many ways very simple beings – our basic needs, alongside food, shelter, and water, include feeling that we belong, that we are part of a group, that we are needed, and that we have a role to play.

Yet recent research shows that this vital need is not only unmet by modern technology; it is eroded by it. Our atomised societies deliver a semblance of belonging – through online groups and forums – instead of the real knowledge that in our daily lives we matter and are making a difference.

Sociologists are concerned about how the virtual world impacts the real lived experience for young children – their aptitude for personal interaction declines in proportion to the time they spend in the virtual world.

Since we are currently seeking ways to reverse social atomisation, we should particularly look at the role played by digital technologies, and how to halt this impact while maintaining the many benefits offered by new technology.

Is there a ‘tech curse’?

Experts have also identified a reduction in IQ among young people by 6 or 7 points each year. So, do these numbers tell us something potentially worrying about the impact of our modern lives on our youth? Or do they tell us that current IQ tests are outdated and in need of revision to reflect modern realities?

Some of the side-effects of ‘digitalisation’ can be seen in our global financial systems. On the positive side, we see transactions that are virtually instant, accepted universal standards for security, transparency, and the fight against trans-border crime and organised crime.

Yet we also see abuse. Some abuse is so far-reaching it seems almost an inherent part of the system – such as the disproportionate influence certain countries have on decision-making processes in the IMF or World Bank.

Here we see systems designed to function as international systems becoming vulnerable to accusations that they are merely global tools designed and used extraterritorially by the United States. One country’s laws and norms are thus extended across borders and imposed on other countries through the monopolisation of these global financial channels.

The internet is often thought to have sounded a death-knell to the monopolisation of information as it has been considered an open source of information for all who care to dig deep enough. Yet this somewhat idealised vision is now being replaced with a more realistic understanding of what the internet is and how it functions.

The US Senate committees’ questioning of Facebook’s CEO and their plans to call data scientist Aleksandr Kogan to answer questions about his time as a contractor for Cambridge Analytica all underscore the extent to which our current digital reality is more complex than many initially believed.

We must remain сognisant of the complexity of the data architecture that underlies these easy-to-use systems, and of the possibility that governments or corporations could seek to exploit them to their advantage – as with global financial systems.

We have a duty to question, not just accept ready-made solutions. We should look at proposed measures, such as those relating to the protection of personal data, which come in the wake of these revelations and consider whether they too might be used unilaterally by states or corporations to their own ends.

We have a duty to question, not just accept ready-made solutions.

Our technologies, our future

Efficiency, statistics, numbers, AI, and technology are not responsible for these negatives. We are. Our societies put paper representations of ‘effective action’ above real-life assessments of impact. This is a cause for optimism – if the problem is of our own making, then the solution must be within our capabilities.

I maintain that in looking for ways to modify our complex and crucial relationship with modern technologies and AI, we should take inspiration from those values that have been with us from day one and which are commonly shared by all cultures on the planet. At their heart lies respect – for ourselves, for each other, for our rich natural resources, and for our place in the timeline of human existence.

Technology and humanity are inextricably linked. We went down a rabbit-hole in thinking that technologies could replace our inherited value structures. If we take a different perspective, and apply the latest technologies in harmony with the values we share, we might find a new more effective way to be ‘efficient’.

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Vladimir Yakunin

Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, Head of the Department of State Governance of the Faculty of Political Science, MSU, RU

Russian business leader, philanthropist and Doctor of Political Sciences. Former President of Russian Railways. Head of the Department of State Govarnance of the Faculty of Political Science of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Doctor of Political Sciences, Visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, visiting professor at the Peking University, Honorary Doctor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Member of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences. Vladimir Yakunin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics as a Mechanical Engineer in 1972. After completing military service he worked with the Administration of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the USSR for Foreign Trade and as a department head at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute. In 1985-1991, Vladimir Yakunin was Second and then First Secretary of the USSR’s Permanent Representative Office at the United Nations. Vladimir Yakunin served as Chairman of the Board at the International Centre for Business Cooperation, and was then nominated head of the North-Western Federal District Inspectorate of the Senior Control Department of the President of the Russian Federation. Yakunin was appointed Deputy Minister of Transport in October 2000 and first Deputy Minister of Railways in February 2002. In October 2003 the Board of Russian Railways JSC appointed Vladimir Yakunin First Vice President. In June 2005 he was promoted to President of Russian Railways JSC, a position he held until August 2015. Vladimir Yakunin is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of St Andrew the First-Called Foundation and Centre of National Glory, Founding President and Co-chairman of the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and Co-president of the Franco-Russian dialogue Association. He is Head of the State Policy Department, Political Sciences Faculty, Lomonosov Moscow State University. In 2013 Vladimir Yakunin founded the Endowment for the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations aimed at supporting research in the sphere of political and social sciences, religion and culture, developing communication between countries on political and economic matters, and seeking compromise in cases of social unrest and international disputes. In 2016 together with the Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer and Professor Peter W. Schulze of the Georg-August University of Gőttingen, he founded the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. Vladimir Yakunin was appointed Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Institute. Vladimir Yakunin has received around 30 state awards, both Russian and foreign.