Thursday 17 October 2019

Homo Deus

Catching up on a few book reviews after my recent holiday.

This is Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which was the follow up to Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, both by Yuval Noah Harari. It's going to be quite a quotey review as there's some interesting stuff in there. 

Whereas Sapiens looked at how the human race got to where it is, Homo Deus looks at where it might potentially go from here.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.

Some parts of the book are a recap of Sapiens, looking at the state of the world today. As you can see from the Sapiens review, parts are word for word:

In 2012, about 56 million people died throughout the world. 620,000 of them died due to human violence. War killed 120,000 people and crime killed another 500,000. In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Still, worth revisiting as I still highlighted some of the same passages as really interesting, having forgotten them from the first time round.

There's some interesting perspective on the shift from material economies to knowledge economies, which sets the stage for future developments:

As knowledge became the most important resource, the profitability of war declined, and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world... where the economies are still old fashioned, material-based economies.

In 1998, it made sense for Rwanda to seize and loot the rich coltan mines of neighbouring Congo, because this ore was in high demand for the manufacture of mobile phones and laptops, and Congo held 80% of the world's coltan reserves. Rwanda earned $240 million annually from the looted coltan. For poor Rwanda, that was a lot of money.

In contrast, it would have made no sense for China to invade California and seize Silicon Valley, for, even if the Chinese could somehow prevail on the battle field, there were no silicon mines to loot in Silicon Valley. Instead, the Chinese have earned billions of dollars from cooperating with high-tec giants such as Apple and Microsoft, buying their software and manufacturing their product. What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.

And there are echos of The Brain: The Story of You in there, talking about how the idea of a soul - an eternal individual essence - is more likely mythical than factual, which does put a different spin on things when we consider what individualism means for the future. 

He also revisits the power of fiction and the fictions we tell ourselves in the section The Storytellers. "In the 21st century, fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth..." Which always catches the imagination of a writer. However, he also talks about the confusion humans face between fiction and reality, and how we so willingly relinquish control of our own reality, and our lives, to fictional bodies such as gods, corporations and nations:

When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.

It's also long been known that people tend to respect the written word over the spoken, even if it comes from a less reliable source. One story in this book that I found fascinating was that of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who I had not heard about before. He saved thousands of people from Nazi death camps by continuing to issue visas even after he was told to stop:

Yet officials who cared little for the plight of human beings nevertheless had deep respect for documents, and the visas Sousa Mendes issued against orders were respected by French, Spanish and Portuguese bureaucrats alike. Spiriting up to 30,000 people out of the Nazi death trap. Sousa Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the Holocaust.

History isn't a single narrative but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.

Once we catch up with where we are today, the book really breaks down into two parts. First, like Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy, it takes a shot at traditional religion and the outdated fictions they weave. Whereas Russell discussed how religion had held back human intelligence, Harari simply suggests it's obsolete in the modern age. We've gone beyond a point where it can hold us back.

If modernity has a motto, it is "shit happens". On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not limited to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want, provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning, but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future, but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death, but we can create paradise here on earth, and live in it forever if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.


More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced him dead, God seems to be making a comeback, but this is a mirage. God is dead, it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package because, for all their fervour, the zealots don't really understand the world of the 21st century and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us...

What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor? You will not find the answers to any of these questions in the Quran or Sharia law, nor in the Bible, or in the  Confusion Analects, because nobody in the Medieval Middle East or in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms, but in order to navigate a storm, you need a map and a rudder, rather than just an anchor. Hence, radical Islam may appeal to people born and raised in its fold, but it has precious little to offer unemployed Spanish youths or anxious Chinese billionaires. True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, but numbers alone don't count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.


The Church established Europe’s first economic corporations – the monasteries – which for 1,000 years spearheaded the European economy and introduced advanced agricultural and administrative methods. Monasteries were the first institutions to use clocks, and for centuries they and the cathedral schools were the most important learning centres of Europe, helping to found many of Europe’s first universities, such as Bologna, Oxford and Salamanca.

Today the Catholic Church continues to enjoy the loyalties and tithes of hundreds of millions of followers. Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from a creative into a reactive force. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the Internet – and rabbis argue whether orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call upon women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, the Islamic State knows how to put videos on YouTube; but leaving aside the industry of torture, how many new start-ups have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity. Think, for example, about the acceptance of gay marriage or female clergy by the more progressive branches of Christianity. Where did this acceptance originate? Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they find what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriages and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to liberalism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice – you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.

Hard to argue with that, really. The next part goes on to look at where we go once our original fictions die. What's the new story we tell ourselves? Will algorithms take over the world in the way nations and corporations currently do? In the way the gods of Sumer once did? Will we give up control and decision-making to them in the same way we have always done to great stories? And why not? Wouldn't that be a wise decision if these algorithms know us better than we know ourselves? If they are more likely to bring us happiness than our notoriously misguided and erratic 'gut feeling'?

A recent study commissioned by Google’s nemesis – Facebook – has indicated that already today the Facebook algorithm is a better judge of human personalities and dispositions even than people’s friends, parents and spouses. The study was conducted on 86,220 volunteers who have a Facebook account and who completed a hundred-item personality questionnaire. The Facebook algorithm predicted the volunteers’ answers based on monitoring their Facebook Likes – which webpages, images and clips they tagged with the Like button. The more Likes, the more accurate the predictions. The algorithm’s predictions were compared with those of work colleagues, friends, family members and spouses. Amazingly, the algorithm needed a set of only ten Likes in order to outperform the predictions of work colleagues. It needed seventy Likes to outperform friends, 150 Likes to outperform family members and 300 Likes to outperform spouses. In other words, if you happen to have clicked 300 Likes on your Facebook account, the Facebook algorithm can predict your opinions and desires better than your husband or wife!


Today in the US more people read digital books than printed volumes. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are reading the book. For example, your Kindle can monitor which parts of the book you read fast, and which slow; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kindle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it can know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to evaluate the suitability of a book much better than ever before. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.

This leads to a discussion on Dataism. It's worth following that link to Wiki, to get a grip on the concept.

People rarely come up with a completely new value. The last time this happened was in the 18th century, when the humanist revolution preached the stirring ideals of human liberty, human equality and human fraternity. Since 1789, despite numerous wars, revolutions and upheavals, humans have not managed to come up with any new value. All subsequent conflicts and struggles have been conducted either in the name of the three humanist values, or in the name of even older values such as obeying God or serving the nation.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a really novel value: freedom of information. We mustn't confuse freedom of information with the old liberal ideal of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression was given to humans, and protected their right to think and say what they wished - including their right to keep their mouths shut and their thoughts to themselves.

Freedom of information, in contrast, is not given to humans. It is given to information. Moreover, this novel value may impinge on the traditional freedom of expression, by privileging the right of information to circulate freely over the right of humans to own data and to restrict its movement.

All in all, I did enjoy this book, though I felt it was rather weighted towards recapping Sapiens, and I would have like to explore the future a bit further. I'm a huge fan of Black Mirror, with San Junipero being perhaps my favourite of all time. I am intensely interested in how mind and machine will merge and the possible ramifications of that. I felt The Brain: The Story of You really went deeper on this point. Whereas I find the idea of dataism very interesting, I didn't come away feeling I fully understood the implications or the possibilities.

Combined, though, I think Sapiens and Homo Deus are a fantastic double act and well worth reading in close succession.

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