Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)
Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)
Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?
I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)
The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:
- An obsession with attaining eternal life.
- The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
- The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
- A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
- The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.
- AND SO MUCH MORE
This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)
ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.
He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.” (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?
My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.
What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.
Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?
Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:
If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)
It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)
If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)
The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)
Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)
The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…
For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)
In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)
Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)
A highly recommended read.