Who should read this book: Futurists, thinkers, teachers, philosophers, economists…oh, and anyone that is concerned about the future of society.
History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.
Yuval’s first book Sapiens explored human evolution, the agricultural revolution and the creation of modern society, asking some big questions like whether or not we’re really better off with all of the technological and cultural advancement around us.
Suppose you were given a choice between the following two vacation packages: Stone Age package: On day one we will hike for ten hours in a pristine forest, setting camp for the night in a clearing by a river. On day two we will canoe down the river for ten hours, camping on the shores of a small lake. On day three we will learn from the native people how to fish in the lake and how to find mushrooms in the nearby woods. Modern proletarian package: On day one we will work for ten hours in a polluted textile factory, passing the night in a cramped apartment block. On day two we will work for ten hours as cashiers in the local department store, going back to sleep in the same apartment block. On day three we will learn from the native people how to open a bank account and fill out mortgage forms. Which package would you choose?
Homo Deus is the sequel, extending the question to the future of our species. Where are we headed and do we really want to be going there? What can we learn from history; do we even have a choice, or is there an invisible hand dragging us forward? What are the pros and cons of the Data Religion that we find ourselves engulfed in? What is at stake? What will humans become?
Big Ideas from the book:
Since there is no script, and since humans fulfill no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending, or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
Capitalism as religion
Yet is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.
You begin a game of chess with sixteen pieces, and you never finish a game with more. In rare cases a pawn may be transformed into a queen, but you cannot produce new pawns nor upgrade your knights into tanks. So chess players never have to consider investment. In contrast, many modern board games and computer games focus on investment and growth. Particularly telling are civilisation-style strategy games, such as Minecraft, The Settlers of Catan or Sid Meier’s Civilization. The game may be set in the Middle Ages, the Stone Age or some imaginary fairy land, but the principles always remain the same – and are always capitalist. Your aim is to establish a city, a kingdom or maybe an entire civilisation. You begin from a very modest base, perhaps just a village and its nearby fields. Your assets provide you with an initial income of wheat, wood, iron or gold. You then have to invest this income wisely.
The evolution of humanist philosophy
If everything is for sale, including the courts and the police, trust evaporates, credit vanishes and business withers.6 What, then, rescued modern society from collapse? Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a revolutionary new religion – humanism.
Power vacuums and complex systems
In a chaotic system tunnel vision has its advantages, and the billionaires’ power is strictly proportional to their goals. When the world’s richest tycoons want to make another billion dollars, they can easily game the system in order to do so. In contrast, if they felt inclined to reduce global inequality or stop global warming, even they wouldn’t be able to, because the system is far too complex. Yet power vacuums seldom last long. If in the twenty-first century traditional political structures can no longer process the data fast enough to produce meaningful visions, then new and more efficient structures will evolve to take their place. These new structures may be very different from any previous political institutions, whether democratic or authoritarian. The only question is who will build and control these structures. If humankind is no longer up to the task, perhaps it might give somebody else a try.
Data and algorithms as religion
In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything that is happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on? If we think in term of months, we had probably better focus on immediate problems such as the turmoil in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe and the slowing of the Chinese economy. If we think in terms of decades, then global warming, growing inequality and the disruption of the job market loom large. Yet if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes: 1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing. 2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. 3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.
He leaves us with three big questions to consider…
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?