30 October, 2017Issue 3535.4HistoryTechnology

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Propheteering

Alexandre Leskanich


Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Yuval Noah Harari
Harvill Secker
2016
448 pp
£25

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, God informs Adam of the unique capacities for autonomy and agency granted him and his descendants: 

We have given you, Oh Adam; no visage proper to yourself, nor any endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.

Humanism places humans at the centre of the planet, possessed of special abilities denied to other creatures. Our capacities – ethical, technical, political – provide us with ample opportunity to construct a world of our choosing. Whatever their provenance, such capacities, so presumed, have produced both remarkable and disturbing results. It would be a strange irony indeed if these capacities were subverted by the labour of our own hands, if our behaviour fell under the sway of machinery that could access every nook and cranny of our inner lives, and if we produced forms of intelligence that outstripped our own. Evidently, human beings are denied foresight – we can’t know all the consequences of our actions. But if one assumes, as people usually do, that the past, present and future are in some way connected, that lines of continuity can be traced, it is but a small step to assert that the shape of the future can be at least vaguely surmised. 

Making this assumption, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow proposes that our ‘homocentric’ dispensations may yet be humbled by artificial intelligence. Humans as we know them will probably be superseded in a maelstrom of technological gimmickry. Today liberal humanism might offer a meta-narrative of human advancement vouchsafed by globalisation and individualism. But belief in this story is waning, shaken by multiple technological, ecological, and political ruptures. On the horizon, Harari spies a new religion in which the prime mover isn’t human beings, but Big Data. In ‘Dataism’, the locus of authority will lie in algorithms more perceptive, more knowledgeable, and more efficient than ourselves. According to Harari, liberal humanism (comprising capitalism, individualism, human rights and democracy) is but the latest in a series of quaint mythologies with which the human species continues to delude itself, and will die out in due course. Anyway, Harari argues, the thought that we possess something so delusional as ‘free will’, or that we are ‘individuals’ with a delimited ‘self’ of our own choosing has already been debunked.

Moreover, the current model of Homo sapiens is apparently reaching its ‘last days’ on earth, as tricked out ‘superhumans’ wait to replace us, modified with all manner of physical and intellectual enhancements. These cyborgs will collapse the distinction between human and machine. The old projects around which humanity formerly coalesced (‘overcoming famine, plague and war’) will give way to new ones (‘gaining immortality, bliss and divinity’). Only a privileged class will be able to realistically profit from the attainment of these latter projects. Having amassed the world’s wealth, there may be an interstitial period during which this class controls all the algorithms, leaving a vast surfeit of ‘useless’ humans whose jobs have been outsourced to robots, and whose cognitive abilities have been rendered redundant by superior data-processing systems. The paucity of opportunity in such a world for these unfortunates, practically half-witted in comparison to their superhuman betters, will leave them hooked on virtual reality if only to escape the erroneousness of the external world. Such are the many delights to which we may look forward.

In April the National Geographic ran a piece called ‘Beyond Human’, which discussed our ongoing evolution, abetted in unprecedented ways by techno-science. The great hope of some transhumanists, such as Ray Kurzweil, is to ‘transcend all of the limitations of our biology’, and thus to ‘extend who we are’. To such people, the human body is a bit of a disappointment. It’s all too prone to disease, deformity, and most dispiriting of all, death. The article covered an impressive array of various human mergers with machinery, such as the hundreds embedded with radio-frequency identification devices that enable them to unlock their doors and access their computers. For Harari, these coming superhumans will owe their status to the clique of technical wizzes experimenting with biotechnology and artificial intelligence. This technological tinkering will invert the presumption of human guardianship, not only of the world, but of ourselves. The techno-enthusiasts take their innovations to be intrinsic marks of progress. Views to the contrary are met with a strident belief, an unrelenting faith, that these developments bring in themselves moral and material goods. There is a slightly fanatical, ‘consequences be damned’ streak among these people, as revealed lately in the BBC documentary Secrets of Silicon Valley. Harari sees history today as driven on by these technicians, ever transfixed on ‘changing the world’, on ‘connecting people’ under the dubious auspices of progress.

Accounts such as Harari’s induce fantastical beliefs in an ordained future unfurling before us. They trace alleged paths of ascendancy or decline far into the future, and project spellbinding sagas upon the world. History lies at the heart of all these accounts; they reach incessantly, obsessively, for the antecedent, searching for any sign of guidance, any hint of providence. In effect, historians are really metaphysicians, constructing and administering narratives to appease the masses afflicted by a deep ‘nostalgia for the absolute’, as George Steiner remarked; perpetually hoping for the story that makes sense of it all. People are readily susceptible to such chimeras. Indeed, in a world completely historicized it would be surprising if such accounts didn’t resound. Yet they won’t find much comfort in these pages. Harari, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is himself a relatively circumspect and restrained visionary, yet he gives the mistaken impression that there is a ‘plot’ to be found in history, and that he has found it. But the forms of technological incarceration he describes are not, he emphasises, already inscribed into the future. Prediction is a tricky business, he warns, and history in the end no real guide…which makes one wonder why he keeps flouting his own advice.

Harari’s previous effort, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was reminiscent of grand accounts of the human adventure such as The Outline of History by H. G. Wells, itself extremely popular in its day. It’s a sprawling book charting civilisation’s ‘march’. Since it wasn’t aimed at an academic market but at the wider reading public, its egregious simplifications and exaggerations could be readily overlooked. But in Homo Deus, there are essentially two Harari’s: Harari the Historian, and Harari the Prophet. In Sapiens, Harari the Historian grasped how addicted people are to history, especially ‘Big History’, and how right he has proved, with sales in excess of a million copies. In Homo Deus, Harari the Prophet recognises how tantalised they are by the future. One might as well cash in. Now, Harari the Historian knows something of history, and was on firmer ground because of it. After all, history concerns what has already happened. Harari the Prophet, however, knows nothing of the future (the subject of his book), so he keeps transforming back into Harari the Historian to lend the book some semblance of credibility. He refers to history as though hoping for guidance, because that’s what historians are trained to do. Yet he frequently forgets himself and lets unsubstantiated assertions pile up (e.g. ‘in the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era’). Later, he reins himself in somewhat, and transforms into Harari 3.0: Humble Harari. After a catalogue of predictions, Humble Harari gently reminds the alarmed reader that ‘we cannot really predict the future, because technology is not deterministic’. So why does he earlier claim that ‘though the details are therefore obscure, we can nevertheless be sure about the general direction of history’? Compounding the confusion, why does the sentence directly preceding the one just quoted read: ‘our present-day minds cannot grasp what may happen next’? He seems barely able to persuade himself. What we have here is not a ‘history of tomorrow’, but a series of loose projections and extrapolations backed, not by evidence, but by contemporary ‘trends’ and ‘processes’ that Harari thinks he can discern. But how would he know? The answer is that he doesn’t, and he can’t.

The future represents both the possibilities and liabilities of time. Since it contains what will be, it must necessarily replace what is, including ourselves. To get to the future, one has to destroy the present. Hence it is anticipated with a mixture of longing and apprehension. Ever doomed to straggle behind the new, history can never catch up to the future, no matter how hard books such as this try. Still, Homo Deus does at least reinforce the patent absurdity of Francis Fukuyama’s proposition, in The End of History and the Last Man, that ‘we are now at a point where we cannot imagine a world substantially different from our own’. Not only can we imagine it, it may be closer than we think. Then again, it may not. Nobody knows, but they certainly desire to know. Crackpot visionaries and fortune-tellers have always depended on this desire. They have long preyed on the wishful thinking of the credulous. But in the case of Harari’s impoverished future, most of us will think ourselves fortunate to miss out.

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Alexandre Leskanich read history, philosophy and political theory at the universities of Leicester, Edinburgh and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has previously written for The Hong Kong Review of Books and The LSE Review of Books.