Ownership of data – how to define it and how to control it — is one of the three most important political issues of our time, but is so complicated people do not focus on it, according to an Israeli historian and author, Yuval Noah Harari, who’s latest best-selling book is, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.”

“”Definitely I would say that is one of the top three political issues of they day, or should be, is ‘who owns the data?” Harari says. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University and lectures at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

During September interviews at Google, and on WBUR’s “On Point” NPR program, Harari warns that the ability of governments and influencers to target messages to individuals is ushering in an era of what he calls “personalized propaganda” which he likens to “precision-guide munitions.”   The reason for concern he says is that the capacity of computers is now at the point where it is feasible to use artificial intelligence to understand and influence human feelings better than humans alone can do so.

Here’s an excerpt from his Sept. 16, 2018, discussion at WBUR with host Meghna Chakrabarti (audio, start at 23:50):

Yuval Harari

“In ancient times the most important asset in the economy was land. So politics was largely a struggle to control land. Then in the last 100 years, since the industrial revolution, machines replaced land as the most important economic asset. So politics became the struggle to control the machines.

“And now data is replacing machines as the most important asset. And politics is really becoming the struggle to control the flows of data. The problem is, we have almost no experience in regulating the ownership of data. We have thousands of years’ experience regulating the ownership of land. We know how to do it. We know what it means to own land. If I own a piece of land, a field, I can build a fence around it, place a gate, I can stand at the gate; I decide who goes in and who goes out.

“But what does it mean to own my personal data? How do I protect it? Data, unlike a field, data can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You can have as many copies of it as you want. There a quite a number of interesting ideas today about how to regulate data but we have very little experience.”

But — many people don’t care who owns their data, WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti interjected. Harari responded:

“Yes, because it is still not as big a political issue as it should be,” replied Harari. “And partly it is simply because it is a very complicated subject. People tend to care not about the important things but about the understandable things. They prefer to argue about immigration and not about data because in immigration you feel you know what you are talking about, whatever your opinion is. But with data, it is just so complicated.”

Harari’s books have been translated into 50+ languages, with 12+ million copies sold worldwide. ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2014) looked deep into our past, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ (2016) considered far-future scenarios, and ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ (2018) zoomed in on the biggest questions of the present moment. In a short, 150-second video about the book, he says the merger of infotech and biotech is making it possible to “hack humans.” He adds: “If we are not careful, we’ll soon be living under digital dictatorship.” He explores this topic in an April, 2018, TED2018 talk entitled, “Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it.”

VIDEO: Harari’s Sept. 14, 2018 interview at Google