“Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them. Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization. Most people rarely think about it, but we have in the last few decades managed to rein in famine, plague and war.” ~ Yuval Noah Harari
I just finished the trilogy of books written by the author Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century). Harari’s writings on history have finally pulled out the subject from the domain of political hankering, timelines, artefact preservation and pushed it to the domain of a broad-based analysis that can guide humans (or individuals) to chalk out future plans.
There are many big ideas in this book. I had forgotten most of the details and theories I read in the book when I sat down to write this review. The origin of this sloppy statement is not in my ability to remember things. During the process of enjoying the seamless flow of the narrative, my mind prioritized on enjoying the book rather than remembering exciting things.
This forced me to skim the book again. After this exercise, I gathered a summary of its contents. Harari divides his book into three parts. In the first, he demonstrates how humans have conquered the world and eliminated their three major enemies, i.e. famine, war and disease. In the second, he explains how humans have given meaning to the world by inventing stories and ideologies. In the third part of the book, Harari predicts the future. He wonders how the merger between algorithms, data and human biology can change the course of our species.
He explains how the human spark has given rise to inter-subjective realities that helped us to conquer the world. The concept of inter-subjective reality explains how we give importance to abstract aspects of life like money, god, religion and nation. Without these inter-subjective realities, humans could not have cooperated on a large scale. At the end of this part, he makes a stunning prediction.
As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the inter-subjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history.
Unlike his other book, ‘21 Lessons For The 21st Century’, this one does not draw sharp borders between one chapter and the other. That makes it a bit more abstract. Of course, one can argue that both books were written entirely for different purposes. But this definitely has an impact on the reading experience.
Another important idea that emerges from the book is that of the ‘Humanist Revolution’. According to Harari, the humanist revolution has based itself on five significant ideas: (a) the voter knows best, (b) the consumer knows best, (c ) beauty is in the eye of the beholder, (d) if it feels good, do it, (e) think for yourself. He argues that the multitude of possibilities in the world in every domain is possible because all these aspects of the humanist revolution are open for interpretation from time to time. They are shaped by technology, fashionable ideas and politics of different eras. The author poses a very compelling question at the end of the chapter concerning this idea.
What, then, will happen once we realize that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?
The final part of the book explores scenarios that could emerge when humanity loses control over the world and algorithms take over. First, he explores how consciousness is being decoupled from intelligence. What would happen if the consciousness of humans is rendered useless by intelligent algorithms? How would it impact inequalities that are already existing around us? What would happen to liberal ideologies as we know it if algorithms take over the world? The author tries to explore possible futures even as raises these bone-chilling questions to the reader.
The final chapter of the book is titled — ‘The Data Religion’. Here the author claims that data could drive the world in future. If algorithms are equipped with enough data from the human world, they can take over the entire system and run it in future. The essence of this idea is captured in some of the lines written by the author.
By equating human experience with data patterns, ‘Dataism’ undermines our primary source of authority and meaning and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century. […] In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from a deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, dataism may sideline humans by shifting from homo-centric to data-centric view.
One can either believe in Harari’s words and anticipate a dystopian future. Or, the reader can perceive it as an excellent work of writing that has brought academicians closer to the ordinary public. The final picture might turn out to be entirely different. There could be a black swan event, which could demolish the basic premises of Harari’s writings. Even as I read the book, I could not come up with any serious critique of his interpretations or predictions solely because of a lack of information over the big picture. However, I must confess that the book has widened my horizons as a reader.Advertisements