This week’s selected media: July 9, 2023: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy, Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari, and Her, by Spike Jonze

July 9, 2023 by Joshua
in Tips

This week I read and watched:

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy: I loved the movie Ikiru, which I watched a month or two ago. It was was inspired by this novella. The friend who recommended Ikiru also recommended this book. It’s one of the best I’ve read. It’s thoughtful, funny with biting satire, and a joy to read or listen to. It’s also in the public domain so you can download it from many free sites (listed at the bottom of the Wikipedia page). I wonder if I’ll get to War and Peace soon.

What are you living for? What are you giving in your relationships and being returned? Who cares for you? Who doesn’t?

What systems are you living it? Do you see them and their influence on you? How many important choices are you making based on your values compared to going with the flow? What are you sacrificing of yourself for comfort, convenience, and acceptance?

What is money for? Why do you work at your job? What could you do instead?

Will anyone mourn you when you die? Will you affect others’ lives?

Besides Ikiru, I’d also compare it with Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, especially the books’ closings. I may have to reread Siddharta.

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari: I read Sapiens a while ago and found it forgettable. It was engaging to read, and on big thoughts, so I could see why it became such a bestseller, but I can’t for the life of me think of how it changed my thoughts or decisions since. Maybe I’m making myself look bad, but I don’t remember much about it.

I believe this book was his next. I found a copy of it while on a daily walk picking up litter. Maybe someone forgot it. I don’t know, but I decided to read it. It’s been on my shelf for maybe six months. It’s over 400 pages, so I didn’t read it all this week. I just finished it today.

I don’t get this book. To clarify, I understand his points, but don’t see how his views and thoughts make a difference. He talks about a lot of changes technology is bringing, especially artificial intelligence, but only raises questions. We can’t change that the changes will come, nor predict exactly how they’ll play out beyond watching them happen, so we can’t do much. We can prepare in some ways, but small difference from expectations may render many preparations worthless or counterproductive.

The book in a nutshell:

A glass of wine is falling and will shatter. Wine and glass shards will explode in all directions but we can’t predict exactly where and how. It will affect everyone in the room in ways we can’t predict. Some effects will be huge, some small. [Then: details about old ways we used glasses and wine, how they won’t work soon, and questions about how to handle the outcome.]

Her, by Spike Jonze: A 2013 movie about a man in the near future and the first artificially intelligent computer that fall in love with each other. It’s science fiction in the style of the 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both about love, loss of love, and how intimate relationships affect the rest of life; but that description doesn’t do them justice. They ask questions and give views beyond what most artists do. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who directed the latter, seem peers at the peak of their visionary film writing, directing, and screenplay.

I appreciated Her‘s sensitivity, but was distracted. On a small scale, I couldn’t help think of how it would affect everyone, not just him, so far more people than he should have been affected, not just him and his friends. I would have expected billions to be affected on a scale that might take down society. I’m happy to suspend disbelief of a science fiction work once or twice, but too many and I feel like they haven’t thought it through enough.

On a bigger scale, it only treated how the female AI mainly existed as a voice for him, without a human body, and how it was smarter than him, developing faster. It otherwise made it a human personality. With AI being so much in the news this past year, I feel everyone misses the biggest view (including Harari in Homo Deus, though it was published in 2017): two forces drive technology development, especially Silicon Valley-type technology; one is the human reward system that leads to addiction, the other is making a resource necessary without alternative, thereby creating a dominance hierarchy. These forces will lead AI to addict people and dominate their decisions. In Her, the AI was benign. I can’t see Silicon Valley companies making a benign AI. They may think they’re helping people, but they’ll get results like the people who invented heroin, thinking by making it more efficient, it will solve the problems of morphine. Instead they augmented it, a pattern repeated with Oxycontin, fentanyl, electronic cigarettes, social media, selling books online, doof, online gambling, and so on.

What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?, by Frederick Douglass: The Wikipedia page has a free recording of the fell speech, just over an hour. It’s tremendous. I’ve never listened to or read the whole thing. The whole time, I thought of its parallel today, where the role of the slave is the refugee displaced from their home, person dying from pollution, or child with birth defects. The role of Independence Day would be something like growth beyond sustainable of population and consumption; maybe the Green Revolution?

There were nearly 4 million slaves in America when Douglass gave the speech. Nine million people a year die from breathing polluted air every year. Our environmental problems cause suffering and early deaths orders of magnitude greater than American slavery.

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