There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of futurology, the utopian and the apocalyptic. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, like the Book of Revelation, offers a bit of both. And why not? The function of imaginary futures is to deliver us from banality. The present, like the past, may be a disappointing muddle, but the future had better be very good or very bad, or it wont sell.
Harari, an Oxford-educated Israeli historian who teaches in Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens (2015), a provocative, panoramic view of human evolution and history upward from apedom. It became an international bestseller, recommended by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama. Hararis style is breezy and accessible, sprinkled with allusions to pop culture and everyday life, but his perspective is coolly detached and almost Machiavellian in its unflinching realism about power, the role of elites, and the absence of justice in history. He is an unapologetic oracle of Darwin and data. And he is clearly a religious skeptic, but he practices a form of Buddhist meditation, and among the best things in his new book, like his previous one, are his observations on the varieties of religious experience.
Harari begins by assuring us that humanity is on a winning streak. Famine and plague, two historical scourges, are disappearing, and a third, war, is no longer routine statecraft. For the first time in history, more people die of eating too much than eating too little. More people succumb to ailments related to old age than to infectious diseases. Victims of all kinds of violence are, as percentages of the population, at historical lows in most places. The next stop, presumably, is Utopia.
But if its the best of times, its also the worst of timesat least for other species. In the present era, which Harari follows other writers in calling the Anthropocene epoch, a dominant, overbreeding humanity is playing the role of the dinosaur-dooming asteroid 65 million years ago. Were transforming the planet. Many species of larger wild animals are reaching the vanishing point, while the now far more numerous domesticated animals raised for food have been bred into miserable, bloated, immobilized travesties of their wild ancestors. We live in an age of mass extinctions. The question Harari raises is whether we are going to be the next victims of our own success.
In a few decades, we might have a new caste society that, in Hararis account, looks something like the Egypt of the pharaohs. Most of humanity, made redundant by artificial intelligence and robots, will be ushered into subservience or virtual-reality obliviousness. But there will be a rich elite whose technical mastery will bring them something approaching omniscience. They will periodically arrange complete biochemical makeovers, giving themselves perpetual youth, and they will have assorted injections and brain prosthetics to bestow unflagging confidence and intelligence and bliss. They will be beings apart, experiencing mental states unknown to all previous merely human beings. It will make them, in effect, a new species, Homo deusjust as the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago gave rise to our own human species, Homo sapiens, with unheard-of powers of abstraction and imagination, thereby turning an insignificant African ape into the ruler of the world.
On the other hand, this god-incubating project might just be a mad-scientist experiment that blows up in our genetically enhanced faces. Harari concedes that revamping the human mind is an extremely complex and dangerous undertaking since we dont really understand the mind. He would seem to agree with critics who think that any such transhumanist or posthumanist enterprise should proceed with caution and be carefully considered and debated in advance. His book is only meant, he says, to enable us to think in far more imaginative ways about the future, and it is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto. But he isnt optimistic about halting the project of redesigning humanity and merging it with machines, even if it turns out to be a big mistake. After all, history is full of big mistakes. Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity and immortalityeven if it kills us.
As for the other, more conventionally apocalyptic ways of killing us, Hararis book is remarkable for tiptoeing past the usual suspects, like climate catastrophe and nuclear war. He does bring up something he calls the logic bombembedded malicious software that could be activated during a geopolitical crisis, producing power blackouts, plane and train crashes, and the obliteration of financial records (in other words, all the money you thought you had squirreled away in a safe place).
Harari has nothing to say about how todays technology seems to be aiding and abetting our descent into an increasingly crude, inarticulate, and barbaric societyonline bullying and abuse, livestreamed suicides and rapes and murders, terrorist recruitment and incitement, and so onand thus fails to project those trends into the future. In fact, he downplays terrorism as a desperate measure adopted by historys losers.
So much for the good news. Harari describes several other current technological fads and intellectual trends that might remake the world. The Quantified Self movement involves monitoring and measuring human activities; for many people, using a Fitbit can bring about improvements in physical health. But what Harari describes is more like an obsession or an ideology, reducing the self to nothing but mathematical patterns. Then there is Dataism, which he rightly calls a current scientific dogma. It holds that all life is basically just hardware and software: Organisms are algorithms and giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. Harari seems to suggest that if these ideas prevail, humanity may drown in a biblical-caliber flood of numbers, with no ark of autonomy in sight.
In 1888, Edward Bellamy, an American socialist, published his immensely popular novel Looking Backward, which envisioned a happy future in the year 2000: We would have no wars, no banks, no money to put in them, no poverty, no wealth, no prisons, no politicians to put in them, no advertisements, no professional sports, no bad manners, and (now comes the good part) no lawyersjust a rather genteel Industrial Army receiving equal rations of modest middle-class amenities. No mention of computers and the Internet, nor even radios, but there would be telephone connections in every home to a symphony orchestra playing live music.
In the quarter-century after Bellamy, more than 200 futurist tracts and novels appeared in English, almost all optimistic, though a few grim futures began raining on the utopian paradethe first drops of the later dystopian deluge that included Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Some were memorable; all were wrong.
Except for a few remarks about Marxist mistakes, Harari doesnt deal with the picturesque ruins of the bright futures of the past. And he confesses, reassuringly, that he does not know what the future will be like. Nobody does. He is, he claims, only sketching a few indistinct possibilities and not endorsing any of them. But like Bellamy and other past futurologists, he is extrapolating current technological and social tendencies and cutting and pasting them onto the blank slate of the future, and his chances of being right are not any greater than theirs were. What makes his book readablehis sweeping, high-altitude style of analysisalso makes it somewhat facile.
Harari does acknowledge a few cracks in his own tentative utopian faade. Weve managed to achieve unprecedented levels of prosperity, comfort, safety, and choice, but these things do not always translate into true happiness or full human flourishing. Indeed, we find ourselves living distracted, disconnected lives. We have more choice than ever before, Harari writes, but we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose. Rates of depression, drug use, and suicide are, Harari notes, higher in some affluent, high-tech societies than in some indigent but tradition-rich places.
Modernity, he says, came to us as a deal in which humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power. Until recently, most cultures believed that humans play a part in some great cosmic plan that gave meaning and purpose to their lives but also limited their power, since ultimate power always resided with the gods or the natural order. Human hubris of the Tower of Babel or Greek tragedy varieties earned quick retribution. But modern humanity has developed powers of its own that match the awe-inspiring powers once attributed to the godsmiracle-working medicines, instant global communication, nuclear bombs, and so forth. Power, however, tends not only to corrupt, it makes the absence of meaning more glaring. On the practical level, Harari writes, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.
Its not that modernity completely gave up on meaning. It just withdrew it from the cosmos and reinvested it in humanity, creating humanism, which is, Harari says, the real religion of the modern world. Liberal humanism, allied with democracy and consumerist capitalism, has prevailed over its totalitarian rivals by anchoring meaning to the autonomous individual self. Since Rousseau, weve been looking inward and consulting our feelings to find meaning and purpose in life. Life thus becomes, as far as possible, a series of freely chosen, emotionally gratifying, significant experiences; whole industries, like the travel industry, have sprung up to provide them.
Trying to build a humanist church on the shifting sands of feeling has had some unintended consequencesa sentimental, subjective morality; politics in a feel-good or touchy, outrage-driven key; and a self-absorbed therapeutic culture in which everyone is healing and no one is well. Harari gives almost no attention to these. But he demonstrates throughout the book that history has always been a record of unintended consequences, and he offers no reasons for thinking that will change.
The one thing we can be reasonably sure of about the future is that the best-laid plans of mice and men and computerized societies will, as is the custom, go awry. Amid his Homo deus conjectures, Harari remarks that by achieving immunity to disease and aging, the new technocratic elite will be potentially immortal, but they would still be vulnerable to death by accident (or assassination, I would add). In other words, the supergeeks of tomorrow may have godlike aspirations, but they will be extremely nervous little gods. They may never get out of the house.
In Dostoyevskys Notes from Underground, his ranting antihero predicts that people will sabotage the precisely calculated, number-ruled technological utopias of the future by doing self-destructive things and committing random acts of violence just to assert their freedom. You might argue that this is already happening.
Maybe computers will take over the world. But, as Harari admits, scientists have so far failed to come up with an explanation for human consciousness and subjectivity, let alone replicate them in computers. Computers lack not only consciousness but the self-doubt, inner ambivalence and conflict, and sheer self-loathing that are its faithful companions and the source of all our trouble and creativity. Harari says that they may not need consciousness, doubt, and creativity to replace us. But I suppose if they begin saying, like St. Paul, I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate, or, like Montaigne, what we believe we do not believe, and we cannot disengage ourselves from what we condemn, we should start to worry.
Subverting the prospective techno-apotheosis Harari describes may not require drastic Dostoyevskian measuresmaybe just imagination, which, for Harari, echoing a famous remark by Napoleon, is what rules human life. Lives of artificial bliss handed to us on a platter of biochemical and neuroelectronic manipulation may well turn out to be stifling, unchallenging lives, and the human imagination, if it is not stunted and stupefied by virtual reality and other illusions, is likely to find unpredictable ways to subvert them. We will have found out that gods are never happy.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.
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