I started to read Homo Deus without any prior information about the author or his previous and future books. I also never read reviews of books I plan to read. My motivation to read the book was simply that it was gifted to me and the cover said it was ‘The Million Copy Bestseller’. Being a researcher anything which appears deeply researched is fascinating reading even if I completely disagree with the author. Another advantage is the capacity to plod through the most complex material till the very end. This of course is not a very encouraging start to anyone reading this review. It is a warning to prospective readers that Home Deus is not an easy read! A statutory warning to those who plan to read this second magnum opus of Harari, this review goes with a ‘spoiler alert’! I have not read the first of this Trilogy ‘Sapiens’ and do plan to read the third one ’21 lessons for the 21st Century’ as another friend has gifted it to us!! I do buy and read books as well!!
Homo Deus is a fascinating account of what can become of Homo sapiens with the expanding frontiers of science and the new technology such as, bio engineering, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The latter two we seem to hear about in every lecture or newspaper article, whether it is on future of work, organization behaviour, genetics, manufacturing or anything on earth! AI/machine learning is the flavor of the day!
This review mainly summarizes the rather ‘difficult to understand’ arguments in the book. My few comments are in separate short paragraphs to distinguish them from the author’s views.
The primary question addressed in the book is ‘what is the new human agenda since issues of plague, famines and wars have been solved’?
Comment: To begin with I am not sure that we have solved these issues. As I write this review the world is faced with a massive challenge of the corona virus, COVID19. How is this different from the earlier challenge of plague? In fact it is worse as the impact is felt globally. And are we done with famines, or has it just metamorphosed into malnutrition for a large segment of the population and obesity for another segment? And have we got rid of war, or has that found a new name, terrorism? When I started to read the book I thought most of this may be true for the developed world but not so for the ‘third’ world. But as I progressed (since this magnum opus takes some time progressing) the world, first and third, were hit by COVID19.
Be that as it may, Harari predicts that the human agenda will focus on how to counter old age, how to remain in a permanent state of happiness, and then what? Of course being Homo sapiens is not satisfactory, so how to transform to Homo Deus, being God!
The book has three parts. Part I discuss the relationship between Homo sapiens and animals and show how and why humans are a superior breed. Part II examines the world that the Homo sapiens created revolving around the humanist creed or the philosophy of humanism. The final and most interesting Part III explains the downfall of humanism. The book proposes that the new human agenda of youthfulness, bliss and divinity shakes the foundations of belief in humanity. He does not just propose these ideas, but examines them through the daily practices of use of smartphones, dating and the job market.
Part I poses this interesting question: ‘Is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just a local bully?’ Do animals have emotions like humans? Is that the reason for our superiority? In the era when agricultural practices grew, religion also grew and God was the reason why good harvests or droughts occurred. So the antidote was also religion. Similarly epidemics were also explained through God. However, when science took over, the logic and reasons for such pandemonium was no longer explained by God alone. So why is Charles Darwin so disliked? His theory of evolution took away the story of the creation of life as an act of God! It also does not accept the idea of the soul as something that remains and survives the disintegration of the living body after death.
Today data and data science holds the key to everything. Life scientists have shown that organisms are just algorithms. Emotions are biological algorithms that are necessary for the survival and reproduction of all mammals. Emotions, subjective experiences, consciousness and the mind, are they the reason for the superiority of the Homo sapiens? Currently science understands that the consciousness of the mind is a set of electrochemical reactions in the brain.
Comment: Currently experimental research is a major field in academics. Cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and even marketing management use experimental research to understand consciousness and human behaviour in their respective fields.
Harari underlines a concept of ‘web of meaning’ where meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories leading to a common belief.
Comment: As an Economist I understand this best as to why currency is valued as money, why a bank is able to create money out of credit. This is only because a ‘web of meaning’ has been woven around these views.
Sapiens are superior to animals because they are able to weave a web of laws, rules, forces, entities (like multinational companies) that exist only in their common imagination. This web allows humans to drive war, revolution and human rights movements.
Part II poses the question ‘how did humanism, the worship of humankind, become the most important religion of all? Until modern times societies believed that humans played a role in a great cosmic plan and this gave meaning to human life and also restricted human power. Modern culture rejects this idea of a cosmic plan.
Comment: ‘Modernity’ is a word bandied about a lot in humanities and social sciences. The thought that amused me the most in the book was: “If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’”!! I love this and it explains this expression among many young characters in Hollywood movies. Always wondered what this expression really meant. It is not like ‘shit’ does not happen in our part of the world, but perhaps we express it differently! Or perhaps we have not reached that stage of modernity and still have some belief in ‘fate’ or God?
If science has dismantled the existence or importance of God and there are no natural laws or divine intervention, why did society not collapse? Why is there no social chaos? The book argues that the antidote was provided by humanism or the humanist religion. Humanism means that humans must draw from their innermost experiences the meaning of their lives and that of the universe. It has convinced us that we are the ultimate source of meaning and therefore our ‘free’ will is the highest authority of all. Humanism also had three branches. Liberalism believed in freedom in politics, economics and arts with no state or religious interference. Socialist Humanism advocated that authority comes from human experiences of collectives such as the party or trade union. Evolutionary humanism that did not believe all human experience is equally valuable and that this would lead to the extinction of humankind.
Today liberalism has won the humanist war of religions and is pushing human kind to reach its goal of immortality, bliss and divinity. The liberal package consists of individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market. It is egged on by the ‘feelings’, wishes and ‘meanings’ of the consumers, voters, scientists and engineers.
Part III poses the question ‘how do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism?’ Experiments have shown that humans who know their desires also consist of two selves, the experiencing self and the narrating self. When it is time to take a decision the experiencing self is silent and the narrating self takes a decision based on the immediate experience. However if biotechnology and AI develop a system that know us better than ourselves then much of our decisions become irrelevant. Humanism commanded ‘listen to your feelings’, but data-ism decided ‘Listen to the algorithms, they know how you feel?’ So why have democratic elections when an algorithm can decide exactly which party you want in power?
‘Once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and ultimately into sovereigns’. Cortana is an AI personal assistant to Windows and Microsoft encourages you to allow it to access all your files, emails and applications to know you better and assist/remind you to do important tasks. Innocent enough? But if my Cortana starts to speak to employer or partner Cortana and takes decision for me on the job market or marriage market?
Comment: Scary isn’t it? Every day, as we give more and more access of our personal information to our apps, we are getting closer to allowing these gadgets to dictate our decisions and lives. And there may come a time when these apps take a decision without you being aware of it!
Overtime it is possible that the system will find a large number of humans dispensable. It might also decide that some people are more important and can manage the system better. It might decide to biologically upgrade these individuals and not the others. The basic humanistic liberalist project ‘all humans are equal’ will no longer remain in the hands of the majority of the people. In fact this decision may not remain in the hands of Homo sapiens at all!! Data-ism may do to people what Homo sapiens did to animals.
Comment: We already see rising inequality in wealth, next it may be increasing inequality in human qualities. So while the humanist creed was using biotechnology and AI towards attaining immortality, bliss and divinity, the algorithms might take over and it is unclear what goal and whose goal humankind will pursue and attain in the future.
Comment: I guess if anyone has reached the end of this review you will see how difficult it is to even summarize the numerous ideas in this book. I hope this review encourages you to read the book and find out for yourself. And the review guides you through it!
Post script: For those who find the author’s ideas interesting, Yuval Noah Harari’s latest article on ‘The world after coronavirus’ is available in Financial Times, March 21-22, 2010