For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.
Where to next for humans? I pushed Sapiens onto the shelf, and picked up Homo Deus. Harari opens with this incredible fact, which becomes less incredible the more you read. As with One River, I have definitely felt this books impact more after finishing it rather than while immersed, and looking up the extracts I noted for this blog post, it sent thoughts spinning off in every direction.
Now that mankind is slowly reining in it’s timeless enemies of famine, plague and war, which are now mostly human inflicted rather than forgone conclusions, what will the species set it’s not inconsiderable intelligence and drive to next?
This is the central theme running through Homo Deus, and like Sapiens, Harari delivers it in his plain rolling prose, including contemporary references and thought/ire provoking arguments. I can’t help but feeling his clinical dismissal of god and religion are a taunt that he is begging to be picked up, although I am in full agreement with him.
The Pursuit of happiness is one area that Sapiens could look into. There are biological factors to why happiness is fleeting, could these be re-engineered, or done away with? One way is to constantly deliver the happiness hit (in one way the capitalist approach, keep buying to get that hit, is the hit becoming less or getting dull? By different! Buy Bigger! Keep Buying!). Harari juxtaposes this with Buddhism, and it’s objective to move us beyond all craving, so that our happiness is not dependent on our urges and desires.
What will determine these topics and areas. Although there are a number of elements from Sapiens that are repeated here, Homo Deus expands on them to look forward. The Humanist approach to life, and it’s desire to eliminate death and live forever, combined with the biological assumption that life is run by algorithms, even for biological creatures, not just invented technology. However this invented technology could become more and more intelligent, creating and running even more intelligent algorithms, and then what need for humans? If you’ve read my review for Sapiens, now would be a good time for Neo to appear. He’s not here though.
We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further it’s own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite it’s superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs.
My brother has tried to get me to watch endless programs about animals in the food chain, all of which I’ve had zero interest in. Reading Homo Deus however is the closest I have come to considering becoming a vegetarian. But that still seems wrong. Animals do kill other animals to eat, and there is not reason why humans should not also do this, particularly as humans also have the ability (and should use it) to not just eat the animal, but use every part of it for other uses. What humans should not be doing, is caging, modifying, selectively breeding other animals purely for the purpose of eating. The problem with that however, is that there would not be enough ‘wild’ animals to sustain the human population. Nature has it’s own solution to that problem, but humans are a step ahead of nature, and manipulate her to sustain it’s ever expanding population. Even this point is only part of the point Harari was making in the paragraph above, but it’s an example of the thoughts bouncing around your head while you read and long after you close the cover.
Suppose you were given a choice between the following two vacation packages:
Stone Age package: On day one we will hike for ten hours in a pristine forest, setting camp for the night in a clearing by a river. On day two we will canoe down the river for ten hours, camping on the shores of a small lake. On day three we will learn from the native people how to fish in the lake and how to find mushrooms in the nearby woods.
Modern proletarian package: On day on we will work for ten hours in a polluted textile factory, passing the night in a cramped apartment block. On day two we will work for ten hours as cashiers in the local department store, going back to sleep in the same apartment block. On day three we will learn from the the native people how to open a bank account and fill out mortgage forms.
Which package would you choose?
This paragraph, and the final one of the post, for me, are the most important in both of Harari’s books, and demonstrate exactly what a wonderful achievement these books are in realising what you think is actually just a perception. While we have undoubtedly achieved great things, overcome every obstacle to become the most advanced species on the planet, when you take a slightly different look at our progress, it seems less clear that we have actually advanced at all.
Harari points out at the end that although steps have been taken down some of the routes he has explained, they are only possibilities of what Sapiens may achieve in the future. Yet while reading about dataism in the book I listened to the Guardian Science Weekly podcast with Stephen Pinker which touched on certain points. This was the same time that the Cambridge Analytica story broke, and how it used harvested data from Facebook to influence people in the US election. It suddenly seems that the time of using algorithms to not only predict, but influence human behaviour has already arrived, whether the AI algorithms will be beneficial remains to be seen, better get that happiness hit in now.
We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?