Book: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Publication: Jonathan Cape
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari earned fame with Sapiens, a wonderfully lucid prehistory of the human race for the lay reader, and disappointed a little with Homo Deus, a speculation on the eventual future of the human race. Sapiens made the reader think afresh — even the reader familiar with Denisovans and the debate about the cultural accomplishments of Neanderthals. But Homo Deus was familiar territory to anyone who has kept up to speed on transhumanism and futurism, if only in the pages of the popular press. Now, with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari focuses on the hectic moment between the remote past and the distant future — the present day and tomorrow’s world, a confused interregnum in which nothing seems to make sense, and the screens of the phones we are riveted to hold no answers. The cat videos are uplifting, but the stories the phone tells are bewildering, and far too many for the human mind to absorb. Harari follows in a great tradition of thinkers who believe that humans make sense of reality by storifying it. We are not moved by scientific fact or demonstrable social truths, but by narratives about them. Even ‘No Story’ — the state that transcendental meditation tries to achieve — is another story, as surely as atheism is another dogma. And dogma, of course, is another story.
Harari locates the human race at the point of No Story. Galileo’s telescope saw through the oldest story, that of the anthropocentric universe. The nationalist and fascist stories were exploded by two world wars. The global struggle between the narratives of capitalism and communism is long over. The story of liberal, free-market democracy is accepted only because, to paraphrase Churchill, the alternatives are simply revolting. After 2008, its narrative collapsed, and atavistic nationalism and xenophobia have become attractive again. Designed to give meaning to a world transiting from the age of agriculture and nation states to that of production lines and globalisation, the story of liberal democracy has no chapters on a future that could be post-politics, post-work and even post-human. “We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced new ones,” writes Harari.
Politics, the most powerful narrator at present, does not even understand the challenges facing us, and is so out of touch that it reacts paradoxically. For instance conservatives, who should be interested in retaining the fields and streams of their home countries in a pristine state, are climate change deniers. Liberals, who are all for change, are at the forefront of conservation. And the only way that politicians can grasp artificial intelligence is through the metric of job losses. It represents a tiny fraction of the problem, but it is understood because jobs constitute the voter’s identity and dignity.
But politicians do not understand that a jobless future is unprecedented. In the past, automation has created more jobs. A production line worker displaced by a robot could turn overseer, or service or sell the product. But the millions of cabbies who will be rendered jobless by automated cars can’t do that. Uber’s AI is the overseer, and there is nothing else to be done. Elsewhere in employment news, a job that was presumed to require peculiarly human capabilities has been lost to networked computers. Fast machines have replaced analysts on the futures market.
But a post-work culture, to be addressed by the dubious mechanism of a universal basic income, is still far away. The real problem is already here, and a fundamental reality has changed. While politics is focused on the question of which agency hacked which server to swing an election, the reality is that Silicon Valley giants and the governments of nation states are trying to hack you. You are no longer just the product. You are now the server. You are not inside the Matrix. You are the Matrix, and hacking you is a rewarding enterprise.
For a century, advertising and propaganda have been trying to manipulate our minds. Now, the digital communications which binds a global world has made it trivial to accumulate data about you, and artificial intelligence can get to know you far better than you know yourself. We already depend on Google’s AI to get us from place to place, because it is clearly better at the job. We let streaming services decide which movies we’ll like, and they are usually right.
How long before a dating service or social media platform decides that we don’t need to type out a description of ourselves when we join, because its AI knows the truth already? And, Harari wonders, how long will it be before a finance minister waits patiently for an AI to spit out the Budget so that it can be presented in Parliament?
Harari overstates the case for AI and biotechnology occasionally, as when he surmises that data will be more valuable than land in the future. This could happen only in a short-lived bubble, since data is a derivative of land, capital assets and human activity, which constitute the underlying. But he convincingly claims that the prowess of AIs in specific roles foretells a shift of authority and power, and the growing need for a narrative which makes sense of disruptive technology. In its absence, humans are falling back on earlier narratives like those of nationalism and world dominance, whose irrelevance is obvious when, for instance, Harari contrasts Narendra Modi and Genghis Khan with the yardstick of appetite for war. Indian readers will find much to connect with in this book — a nationalist Israeli yoga teacher who insists that Abraham invented yoga and exported it to India, a mention of the fake technological history in the Vaimanika Shastra, an insider account of Vipassana and a passage on the Gita.
Harari ascribes the crisis of the present to the inability of the human mind to process the volumes of data that are thrown at it, and the failure of political systems and institutions to engage with future shock. A convincing story of the self and its place in a brave new world cannot be written in an endless hubbub of data, he concludes and, disappointingly, he prescribes meditation as a firewall. But then, perhaps the self is also a story, a myth reinforced by many retellings. Just as we cannot escape the Matrix because we are the Matrix, maybe we cannot escape our stories because we are the story.