Ingeborg van Teeseling

Yuval Noah Harari: Modern history’s Nostradamus

Harari

Approx Reading Time-17Yuval Noah Harari is a dangerous thinker. In charting our recent past, he suggests the future will be one of technology, where we tear down religion and honour ourselves.

 

 

 

This is the thing with visionaries: they march to the beat of their own drum. So where most of us would be careful with predictions for the future, they are far less subtle. When they’ve got a message, they will hit you between the eyes with it. That is certainly the case with visionary number four, Yuval Noah Harari. He started out as a lowly researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, specialising in medieval warfare. Then his bosses forced him to teach a course in the academic “new black”: big history. Nobody else wanted to do it, because researching the whole history of humankind from start to finish is not for the fainthearted. But Harari had little choice, so he did what he was told.

Within a year or so, his course was a major hit among the students. Out of the course came a book, Sapiens, that was soon on the reading list of the Masters of the Universe: people like Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and Bill Gates. Now, that book has got a twin called Homo Deus. Where Sapiens was A brief history of humankind, this book is about what happens next, A brief history of tomorrow. And that future, according to Harari, is not without its problems. In fact, if we are not careful, humankind as we know it will cease to exist in a century or so, taken over by a caste of “new godlings, who might be as different from us sapiens as we are different from homo erectus”, our ancestor who went extinct about 70,000 years ago. If that happens, it will be our own fault, says Harari, which is why he wrote Homo Deus: as a cautionary tale.

Harari might sound like Nostradamus, but the problem is that he makes far more sense than the French physician. Let me take you through his arguments. Since the dawn of time, the historian writes, humans have been obsessed by three things: famine, plague and war. To try and protect us against them, we have invented religion, so we had gods, angels and saints to pray to and ask for protection. We also “invented countless tools, institutions and social systems”, but still died in our millions. But those days are over. Of course, there are still problems, but they have “transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges”. Famine, for instance, killed 15% of the French population in the early 1690s. In 1695, a fifth of Estonia, a third of Finland and 20% of Scotland died from hunger. But humankind is smart, so we have come up with technological, economic and political developments to protect ourselves from this fate. Now, “mass famines are almost always caused by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to”. Now, the problem is not hunger, but overeating. “In 2014, more than 2.1 billion people were overweight” and “half of humanity is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010, famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed three million”.

In the past, the people in the palaces had good reason to keep the masses alive, because people were necessary to keep factories running and harvest the crops. But those jobs will become obsolete, and so will the people who perform those tasks. What will happen to them? Harari is not optimistic.

That changes our priorities a little. Especially because enemy number two, disease, is also not the threat it was before. During the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, a quarter of the population of Eurasia died. In England, four out of ten people lost their lives, while the city of Florence was left with only half its citizens. In 1778, when James Cook landed in Hawaii, the islands were “densely populated by half a million people”. After Cook and his sailors had introduced TB and syphilis, only 70,000 survivors remained. Then there was the Spanish Flu, that raged just after WWI. Where the war cost 40 million people their lives, the flu took out 100 million. At that time, about 30% of children died in childhood. But now that rate is less than 1% and when there are new plagues, like AIDS, Ebola or SARS, not nearly as many people die. Wars too are disappearing, Harari says. “Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15% of all deaths, during the 20th century [the one with the two world wars] this only caused 5% of deaths. Now it is 1%. In 2012 56 million died: war killed 120,000, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder”. Terrorism isn’t that much of a problem either: its victims are counted in the thousands, not the millions, and it is not ISIS, but “overreacting nations” that “pose a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves”. The thing with war is also, Harari writes, that in the past, war was waged because “the main economic assets were material – things like wheat fields and gold mines and slaves. War made good sense, because you could enrich yourself. But now the main economic asset is knowledge, and it’s very difficult to conquer knowledge through violence”.

So that is the good news: far less war, disease and famine to worry about. The bad news is that “history does not tolerate a vacuum”, as Harari writes. “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they have” and are “always on the lookout for something better, bigger, tastier”. And in that quest they will go after three things: immortality, happiness and divinity, the historian says. Homo sapiens will turn into homo deus, the God of planet Earth. Using the new technology, he will take the old body and “intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance, and even grow entirely new limbs […] For thousands of years of history, one thing has remained constant: humanity itself…classics were created by humans just like us, hence we feel that they talk about us. In modern theatre productions, Oedipus, Hamlet and Othello may wear jeans and T-shirts and have Facebook accounts, but their emotional conflicts are the same. However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend”.


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That is a scary prediction, but it gets worse. In this new Nirvana, at the top of the tree will be an elite of technocrats, who will be immortal and in control. The rest of us, billions and billions, will be “useless” and “superfluous”. In the past, the people in the palaces had good reason to keep the masses alive, because they were valuable as soldiers or workers. For that reason, the powers that be took care of their citizens. They invested in the development of antibiotics, for example, because people were necessary to keep the factories running and harvest the crops. But those jobs will become obsolete in the near future, and therefore so will the people who perform those tasks. So what will happen to them? Harari is not optimistic. But what he finds an even bigger problem is that the meaning of our lives will disappear, or at least change beyond recognition. What humankind is really good at is inventing stories, he says. In fact, no human society can function without a shared mythology, a fiction, a narrative. About God, human rights, freedom, the nation. Our societies operate on the basis of myth and fiction. Only if we are convinced that our country is important, are we willing to die for it. Or give up our lives in the name of God, or some concept like communism or democracy. We are also tied together by stories; that is what makes communities. But religion is disappearing, nationalism is old hat and all the systems, like liberalism, democracy and communism, are crumbling too. Money won’t do it either. Although it is “the greatest story ever told”, it will become useless in the brave new world. But because we can’t live without stories that give meaning to our lives, we will, Harari says, invent “dataism”, a belief in the power of algorithms, or technology. We will sell our souls to the machine, our new God, and its priests, the technology-elite.

Computers are, of course, much more efficient than states, so those will disappear as well. Individuals will no longer decide what happens to them, “as voters, consumers, lovers, workers. It will be the first time in history where humans will no longer play the leading part”. We will, in fact, “be in the same situation as other animals: capable of suffering at the hands of the possessors of superior intelligence”, meaning technologically superior beings. And they won’t care what happens to the rest of us. The world will become “heartless”. As David Runciman writes for The Guardian, “keep scratching at a faceless bureaucracy and you’ll eventually uncover a civil servant with real feelings. But a search engine only has data points”.

Where Sapiens was A brief history of humankind, this book is about what happens next, A brief history of tomorrow. According to Harari, if we are not careful, humankind as we know it will cease to exist in a century or so, taken over by a caste of “new godlings, who might be as different from us sapiens as we are different from homo erectus”.

So far, Harari writes, the story of humankind consisted of three parts: a cognitive start, that gave us the capacity to think, learn and communicate. The agricultural phase, where we domesticated crops and animals, providing us with stable societies. And the scientific revolution, which taught us to manipulate physical, chemical and biological worlds and gave us technology. The fourth, and maybe last stage, is where humans, instead of inventing gods, become gods themselves and blow up what makes humans human.

If that scares you (and it does me) Harari has a disclaimer attached to his theory. His prediction, he writes, is “focused on what humankind will try to achieve, not what it will succeed in achieving”. As a historian it is his job, he thinks, “to study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it… Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. Studying history enables us to turn our heads and begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine. By observing how we got here, we can begin to think and dream differently. Once you say it out loud, you can begin to think about alternatives”.

In that regard, Yuval Noah Harari is an old-school visionary: somebody who warns us what might lie ahead in order to get us to think and change. I sincerely hope we do.

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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