Madness And Wisdom: How Dickens Might See Our Fraught Times
The world faces a set of challenges not unlike the tumultuous times depicted in the classic British novel A Tale of Two Cities.
PARIS — Not all human societies follow the rhythms or same life paths. This is the painful observation Charles Dickens made in his 19th-century novel A Tale of Two Cities, which tells the story of a family caught between Paris and London and torn apart by the events of the French Revolution.
His novel, although historical, still speaks to us because it is about a phenomenon we recognize to this day: the issue of divergence. It touches on the political divergence between two countries, however close they may be, but also highlights the technological divergence of an England in the midst of an industrial revolution launched at full speed, and a France, in the meantime, plunged into terror.
Between the two is the distress of those seeking a middle way, who refuse to choose between social progress, political freedom and economic progress. People who have the impression that the epoch they're living through is "the best of times and the worst of times, the century of madness and the century of wisdom," as the book's opening lines famously read.
The serial "Tale of Two Cities," 1859 — Illustration: Hablot Knight Browne/Wikimedia Commons
And in today's world? Who represents Paris and who represents London? There are several possible answers to this question, as the world plunges further and further into divergence between political leaders who don't even know if they're democrats or not, and between the giant tech companies and consumer citizens who grow increasingly worried and suspicious.
To continue benefiting humanity, technology — which is more powerful now than ever — must subject itself to a set of shared standards, particularly with regards to algorithms. Just how intelligent should they be? What norms should they adhere to? What can they do and what can't they do? These questions are crucial, and they're being asked every time a technological advance transforms how we go about our business.
This is the case we find ourselves in today with artificial intelligence. Technology can be a tool of great convergence, of bringing together our practices and vision of the world. Today, wedged between the two technological giants of China and the United States, Europe knows this better than anyone. And those who don't want to choose between social progress, political liberty and economic development must do so urgently.
*The author is French business executive and former CEO of the German consulting firm Roland Berger.