This post is a summary of my thoughts from Homo Deus.
I’ve now read all three of Yuval Noah Harari’s books. There’s a fair amount of overlap between Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, but I would still recommend his writing. Each covers a unique point of view: past, distant-future, and immediate future. Homo Deus is an argument of what a distant future could look like based on existing trends and natural human tendencies.
Home Deus opens up talking about how humans have now solved their biggest problems: war, disease, and famine. It then identifies the next milestones of human progress as immortality, happiness, and divinity.
Like Sapiens, the book spends a great effort to drive the importance of stories in human history. This time it’s not to explain how things got where they are, but to show the stories that modern society has baked into “absolute truths”. Each of these truths - free will, consciousness, human liberties, religion, capitalism - gets broken down into scientific explanations.
I enjoyed the book not because this breakdown leads towards an era of supreme truth and wisdom. It simply makes the argument that our 2000+ year-old stories will no longer work and new ones will need to be invented. More than ever, humanity will depend on mass cooperation.
Most interesting to me was the idea that we could see a reversal of liberalism. It’s hard to imagine this happening because free will and individual choice are so ingrained into our culture. Today, there are outcries whenever something tries to block that human right.
Harari argues that the rapid pace of technological advancement paired with a high adoption rate will slowly push humans into a dependent state. Why should a person have to think if an algorithm understands you better and will make the choice for you? If that’s the case, then get out of the way and let the algorithm do its job! These algorithms would need data, so best to make sure it has all the data it needs to decide for me. This idea could become a central idea to human culture, and could even be considered a future religion.
I don’t agree with everything the book predicts, but it’s important to realize that it’s only that - a prediction. It makes compelling arguments, but it’s not fact. People could reject it and actively push towards a different future, and for some aspects, I hope we do.
Here are a few excerpts I highlighted:
“There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to”
“Our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness”
“It is misguided to regard individual satisfaction as the highest aim of human society.”
“Since no one understands the system any more, no one can stop it.”
“The Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions … [the] founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe.”
“The theory of evolution rejects the idea that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. [The] theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls … such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution.”
“Consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks.”
“Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of co-operating flexibly in large numbers.”
“As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behaviour of strangers and to organise mass-cooperation networks.”
“We don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives.”
“When millions of people believed in pharaoh and Sobek and therefore cooperated in building dams and digging canals, floods and droughts became rare.”
“Even in ad 1850 the life of the average person was not better – and might actually have been worse – than the lives of archaic hunter-gatherers.”
“Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”
“We will never reach a moment when capitalism says: ‘That’s it. Enough growth. We can now take it easy.’”
“The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.”
“New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.”
“History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.”
“Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold on to it, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.”
“Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends?”
“In the twenty-first century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This ‘useless class’ will not merely be unemployed – it will be unemployable.”
“Liberalism will collapse on the day the system knows me better than I know myself.”
“The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane personal choices.”
“Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.”
“Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things … This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it… connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning”