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The Future’s Bovine

John Fanning

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, 368 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1787330672

Serious books that attempt to shed some light on our dangerous and frightening times have become a popular publishing phenomenon. Referred to as “brainy” or “smart” books, they now feature on bestseller lists and in the windows of bookshops. Of course there have always been the occasional surprise brainy bestsellers, from Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s and 60s to No Logo by Naomi Klein and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman in more recent years. A Dublin bookseller was moved to try out an Irish translation and included a smaonaibh glic area in his store. The undoubted “king of glic” at the moment is the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens (2014) has sold over a million copies and is still on the bestseller lists. He followed this with another blockbuster, Homo Deus (2016), and this year he brought out 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Confusingly the latest is about today, whereas Sapiens was about yesterday and Homo Deus deals with tomorrow. Although 21 Lessons can be read on its own it does help to have an idea of the main themes of the first two books.

Sapiens attempted a history of the human race from the earliest times, with Harari announcing his ambition to take a “cosmic spy satellite” view which involves scanning millennia rather than mere centuries. His resulting schema begins seventy thousand years ago when homo sapiens emerges as the dominant species in what he refers to as a cognitive revolution because unlike other species, such as the Neanderthals, members of homo sapiens developed the capacity to cooperate with each other in large numbers and the ability to believe in things that existed only in the imagination – they could imagine better futures. Fast forward to eleven thousand years ago and the agricultural revolution, when hunter-gatherers became farmers cultivating a settled space; and then to five hundred years ago when the scientific revolution ushered in the next phase of human development, leading ultimately to the industrial revolution (250 years ago), the information revolution (fifty years ago), and today’s biotechnological revolution, which Harari suggests will result in a new “singularity”, where homo sapiens will be replaced by different beings with technologically enhanced physical characteristics, enabling them to live indefinitely. Within this panoramic vista he speculates on the future of the nation state: it doesn’t have one, the future is global. And religion? It doesn’t have a future either (though he’s keen on Buddhism).

In Homo Deus, sub-titled A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari discusses the implications of the new, biologically enhanced age and in particular the contradictions that are likely to arise. The first is that,while as a species we are currently ruled by emotions rather than reason, our future will increasingly be devolved to algorithms which are devoid of emotions. Secondly, though we are essentially egalitarian – our communal nature cannot tolerate too much inequality – the future will be more and more unequal. Harari points out that twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick, but twenty-first century medicine is aiming to upgrade the healthy. The former was egalitarian where the latter is elitist.

There is also the impossible problem of reconciling the need for economic growth with the looming threat to the planet. He compares the economy to a shark: if it doesn’t keep moving it dies and if the economy keeps moving at its current pace, the planet dies. Harari identifies a further problem here: since progress has become the secular religion of our time, any doubts about its feasibility will disrupt what gives meaning to our lives. He implies that this factor is responsible for all those surveys suggesting that for the first time in centuries people today believe life will be worse, not better, in the future.

The book concludes with another gloomy prognosis about the loss of jobs as we move to a data-driven age, a time when the value of any phenomenon is determined by its contribution to data processing. Harari claims that dataists (his word) believe that humans can no longer cope with the flow of data and therefore work will be outsourced to algorithms whose capacity far exceeds the human brain. He paints a stark picture but doesn’t really provide any solutions.

21 Lessons attempts to synthesise the ambitious scale of Harari’s cosmic vision, and here the author does make a tentative stab at how we might respond to the undoubted challenges that lie ahead. Twenty-one chapters cover five overall themes: the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. The absence of any clear connection between these five headings, apart from the first two, are typical of the lack of coherence in the structure of the book and it has been pointed out that some of the chapters were originally written as stand-alone pieces for other publications. Nonetheless, Harari can write, and even if you’re not following the argument there are enough good lines to hold your attention so I’m going to pepper the rest of this piece with a few of them.

When a thousand people believe some made-up story for a month, that’s fake news; when a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s religion.

The first part of the book, the technological challenge, is central to the author’s main thesis that we may be nearing the end of the reign of Sapiens and are on the threshold of some new form of trans-human being capable of living indefinitely through the addition of biotech sensors and other “improvements” to our physique and psyche. However, this upgrade will only be available to a tech and cosmopolitan elite; the rest of us will remain human but with the added disadvantage of being surplus to requirements, as most jobs will be outsourced to far more capable algorithms. Harari claims that some of the recent disturbing political eruptions were caused by more people being aware of life passing them by and an increasing sense of bewilderment about technological change.

Now people don’t revolt against an economic elite who exploit them but against an economic elite who don’t need them.

An even more frightening aspect of these developments is the undermining of our free will by the confluence of the biotech and infotech revolutions. As a result the liberal ideal (which the author still believes is better than any alternatives) is threatened, because it was based on the assumption that we have a free will. Harari believes that humans do have a will but it is not free. Our choices are dependent on genes, biochemistry, family background, gender and national culture, and therefore susceptible to hacking by governments and corporations with an understanding of biology and vast computing power. He feels that we need to develop a new political project that is more appropriate to the realities of twenty-first century technologies.

The bitter truth is that the world has simply become too complicated for our hunter-gatherer brains.

The next three sections seem to add little to the main arguments. The author reiterates his suspicion of nationalism and religion. He believes there is an inexorable tide towards a global society and increased immigration and that secularism is best placed to cope because it is more comfortable with hybrid identities. He is sceptical about terrorism, believing its effects to be minimal, and war, which he believes has been minimised by the advent of nuclear weapons.

If you devote enough time and energy you discover that nations are elaborate yarns.

In one of the most alarming metaphors in the book Harari envisages a future where the majority of humans will be like docile cows. He explains that we have bred tame cows that produce huge quantities of milk but are otherwise inferior to their wild ancestors and we are now creating tame humans that produce large amounts of data. In another part of the book he seems to suggest that as data is the most important asset of the digital age we may need to consider some form of public ownership, but he doesn’t go into any detail. The nearest he comes to any proposals for how humans can remain relevant in a data-driven future is in the last section of the book which discusses education, meaning and meditation under the overall heading “resilience”.

In the same way individual freedom undermined divine authority, algorithms could undermine individual freedom.

Like many other commentators trying to make sense of the tech revolution Harari pinpoints education as being critical. We must make a greater conscious effort to understand what’s going on. The alternative is to leave the future in the hands of the Silicon Valley tech elite, and from what we know of their libertarian political philosophy that is a future no sane person would welcome. But the main problem is that developments in the Valley are moving at such a pace it is difficult for anyone to keep up, let alone combine all of the different tech breakthroughs into a broad picture of the new world. Harari’s main recommendation is that the education system should switch from concentrating on technical skills to more general-purpose life skills, in particular the four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. His argument is that people in future will need to reinvent themselves on a regular basis and greater proficiency in the four Cs will make that task easier. It will also help us to know ourselves better. Harari believes that this ancient Greek imperative will become even more of an essential at a time when the tech corporations claim to know ourselves better than we do. If you want to retain some control over your personal existence and the future of life you will have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government and get to know yourself before they do.

Harari’s final piece of advice is that the Buddhist philosophy and in particular the practice of meditation are the best way of keeping up to date with “yourself”. He recommends we pay attention to the three Buddhist realities of the universe: everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence and nothing is completely satisfying. He follows his own advice, meditating for an hour or two every day and taking a month off every year for a long meditation retreat. He defines meditation as any method of direct observation of one’s own mind. “We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.”

At times the lack of coherence and the inclusion of chapters which seem completely irrelevant to the main narrative make this an infuriating book, but as the author admits, no one could possibly make complete sense of the extraordinary and alarming pace of the tech revolution. Having said that, I believe this is an important contribution to help us come to terms with our bewildering world and some of Harari’s insights will help us “take back control” from a tech elite who are now out of control.

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you can’t question.


John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the Smurfit Business School in Dublin.