Book Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Previous week’s post

Some authors are capable of bringing so many disparate ideas to the table that you begin to wonder where the limits of their creativity lie. A few are able to turn the tangle of ideas they introduce into a coherent, compelling synthesis. Yuval Noah Harari has shown in Homo Deus, that he is not only capable of doing this for human history (in his widely appreciated Sapiens), but for the human future as well. Where Homo Deus falters most is perhaps in its repetition. The first two sections do contain several informative strands of thought, but it takes too long to reach the meat of the work: the section concerning the future of humanity. 

Harari’s thesis will certainly be controversial to many readers. He claims that the past has seen the religions of old replaced by the story of humanism: concerned fundamentally with the experiences of human beings themselves. The liberal variety of humanism, which dominated the 20th Century and lives on in democratic societies today, is now under threat by improving technology.

Giving value to individuals makes sense when you need them to fight wars, run factories, and participate in a growing economy. Through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, advanced machines and enhanced humans will likely be capable of these tasks in the future. This will result in the breakdown of the liberal humanist story. Harari suggests two alternatives: a form of techno-humanism, valuing the experiences of technologically modified humans, or Dataism, valuing the free exchange of information above all else.

Concerned more with convincing than assuaging the reader, Harari relies on analogies from the past and present. He starts by chronicling the shift away from the pre-agricultural human worship of animals. Non-coincidentally, this shift occurred precisely when farmers began to domesticate animals. Suddenly, animals were seen either as a means for human gain or ignored completely. 

Furthermore, rulers were often given divine status precisely to justify the unequal value given to them and provide a structure that society could operate under. When capitalism and mass-mobilization required that men perform additional economic and military duties, they were given more inherent value. When mass-mobilization required these men to leave the factories in World War I, the women who replaced them also gained inherent value in the eyes of society.

These and other examples lead Harari to the conclusion that history describes a web of stories that humans tell one another to justify their actions. These stories are not feeble bits of imagination. The stories we tell ourselves about Jesus, capitalism, science, France, and others, direct the lives of billions of people, altering the world in their wake. For readers of Sapiens, this will be a familiar concept. 

When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give humans will certainly change.

Harari makes it clear that the dominant story of our age, liberal humanism, is under threat. When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give huamans will certainly change. There is certainly evidence that technology will profoundly alter the value structures we now cling to. Liberal humanism, which values every person’s experiences enough to allow them to vote and speak their mind, is likely to change.

The question Harari leads the reader to ponder is what story or value structure will come next? Harari suggests that the likeliest successor is Dataism, or the belief in the value of connecting bits of information. I think this is questionable. Harari does little to convince me that we will be walking away from fundamentally valuing certain conscious experiences themselves. Perhaps this is because this work takes the contemporary materialist line on consciousness (which I will critique in a post next week). Regardless, I think the experiences of the most powerful beings around will likely dictate the value structure society operates under. 

I do accept the likelihood that increasing information flow between people, cyborgs, and machines would usually provide net benefits to society at large. But I think every improvement to society will emphasize the amazing states of consciousness and harmony provided by increased information flow (as Harari in fact emphasizes to defend Dataism). This is different from valuing information flow a priori. The quadrillionaire cyborgs of tomorrow (perhaps a future Elon Musk) will likely not be pleased if increased informational flow leads to their suffering and ultimate destruction.

Whether Dataism pans out or gets panned by its cyborg critics, Homo Deus will certainly expand your conception of what the future will look like and where we’re heading as a civilization. It stands as a creative, albeit lengthy, successor to Sapiens.

-Alexander Pasch

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