I just finished reading Homo Deus, the second book from Yuval Noah Harari. I loved his first book so my expectations were high. It didn’t exactly disappoint, but it didn’t leave me as excited as Sapiens. His first book was a look back and this one is a look forward. The basic thesis is that humanism / liberalism has sown the seeds of its own destruction by enabling the creation of ideas and technologies that destroy the fundamental assumptions that they are based on. It seems an echo of Nietzsche’s idea that Catholicism created the necessary conditions for the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, two forces which weakened the church.
The book left me a little flat since it seemed to meander around – making a lot of interesting points, but no seeming big point. Maybe it was the overall mood that put me off. It was more than a little bit gloomy. Harari doesn’t give us humans much of a chance over the next few centuries mostly due to the inevitable emergence of intelligence independent of consciousness, i..e AI, and the resulting devaluing of all things uniquely human. To be fair, it may be harder to construct a coherent projection of the future than it is a coherent explanation of the past and he does conclude with some interesting discussion questions.
One theme that I have carried with me has been this idea of the choice we have in the matter. Do we plug in or do we stay in the real world? It’s some what related to the last post I made to share and comment on the article from MIT Tech Review: what do we gain and what do we loose when we choose to tune in, turn on and drop out? Harari says that those that choose to plugin are (unconsciously perhaps) shifting the arbiter of the meaning of their actions from their own internal perspective to their “network”. It’s the shares and likes that matter, not the subjective value of the experience.
This seems like a bad deal to me, but then I can’t help but think of one of the sub-themes from Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I re-read it over the beach part of my summer vacation and one sideline story that happens before the book starts is the emergence of the Bitchun’ society. It’s never exactly defined in the book, but according to the Wikipedia page it is:
the dominant Earth culture in which rejuvenation and body-enhancement have made death obsolete, material goods are no longer scarce, and everyone is granted basic rights that in our present age are mostly considered luxuries.
The main characters talk about in the past tense the Luddites that clung to the ways of appearing the age you were, living day to day without a backup and a retinal overlay and dying only once. It’s that last choice that was their downfall. Those that decided to do those things simply outlived those who didn’t. It wasn’t a matter of trying to convince people through reason, logic or evidence it was just a
I’ve been tempted to jump on the quantified life train with the release of the newest apple watch, but the idea that all of my health data gets streamed off to some remote server that I don’t have control over gives me pause. To be fair, I’m not sure that any of that’s true, it may be that everything is encrypted, secure and only available to me, so maybe it’s just the idea that it could be is why I haven’t. I do wonder though if I am living through the emergence of some form of the Bitchun’ society. Those that choose to live a quantified life are likely to live longer than those that don’t, so maybe they don’t have to convince us all – they can just wait us out.