Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Hebrew. Harper, 2017. Originally published 2015. 450 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “A Brief History of Tomorrow”, Harari’s book draws on his knowledge as a historian, explaining how homo sapiens have come to dominate the world — physically and philosophically. In the physical realm, for example, homo sapiens have domesticated animals for consumption. Philosophically, such actions are justified through claims that God granted them dominion over animals or that animals are unable to construct meaning to their existence.
The latter is an example of what Harari calls humanism, a form of religion that worships humankind instead of a god or higher being. In this philosophical framework, humanists elevate the individual over the collective in order to create meaning from a meaningless world.
However, Harari speculates that dataism — the elevation of data over humans — or techno-humanism will become the dominate thought process for in the rest of the twenty-first century, leading to the development of homo deus — super man or human god.
Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms.
Such a development will occur under the name of modernity and in direct rebuke to the philosophy of liberalism. (Not liberalism in the U.S. political right-left framework, but the economic philosophy that champions markets and free choice as the ultimate source of authority.)
In Harari’s view, modernity in the liberalism framework “upholds growth as a supreme value for whose sake we should make every sacrifice and risk ever danger”. Our current economy requires a relentless drive towards growth and we, as humans, “agree to give up meaning in exchange for power”.
However, as modernity and technological advancement occur, there are three developments that Harari foresees that will upend the humanism and, especially, the liberalism philosophy:
- Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
- The system will continue to find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
- The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will constitute a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.
Harari’s predictions rely on the growth of a so called “data religion,” which says “that your every word and action is part of the great data flow, that the algorithms are constantly watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel”. As we turn over control of our data and allow the data to shape our view of the world, the gap between rich and poor, between people who can write algorithms and those who cannot will continue to widen.
And, to Harari’s third point, as that gap widens, the efforts of advancement will be targeted towards the wealth. After all, why provide resources (food, water, etc.) or quality healthcare to the masses when you don’t need them for labor?
Harari adds the caveat to his predictions that humanity can behave in ways that will prevent these from materializing, but he doesn’t exactly provide examples on what people can do to stop these seemingly inevitable changes. Which made for a bleak start to a new year of nonfiction reading as I couldn’t stop ruminating on the doomsday scenarios presented. It all seems rather hopeless.
Of course, such feelings don’t preclude me from stating that the book is well-written and provides what I believe is a necessary, thought-provoking examination of our past and future. I’m still thinking about the ideas presented in this book (and the 28 highlights I made while reading), which is why the majority of my write-up is devoted to recapping its contents rather than my own thoughts.