No, not this way

homo deusWith my interest in ideas of a New Renaissance, I could not resist reading Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book that is clearly widely read judging by its prominence in the local Waterstones.

Harari is an entertaining and informative writer, and I enjoyed reading his description of the emergence of the anthropocene era, and particularly his story following Western culture from the Renaissance, and the subsequent emergence of three interrelated themes of humanism, liberalism and democracy, along with modern science/technology and capitalism.

Harari suggests that liberalism is running into the buffers, pointing at some of the current symptoms that suggest that all is not well with the world. Well we could all make our own lists of those – like increasing inequality, global warming, species extinction, pollution,… The current paradigm or ‘web of meaning’ is no longer effective in addressing the situation we’re in. I cannot but agree with him this far.

But then his analysis suddenly seems to go awry. He suggests that contemporary science contradicts free will and the possible existence of a soul or inner self, that the mind is essentially algorithmic and subject to external control. “… biologists concluded that organisms are algorithms.” Of course, if you set out with a ‘clockwork universe’ materialistic mentality, this is the sort of world view you might come up with.

Then we get to the suggestion that organisations are just algorithms, and you could eventually replace the whole structure of an organisation with algorithms, no jobs for humans. Of course, were all this the case it undermines humanism, liberalism and the whole human project. But, come on…

And then there is the suggestion that in the era of ‘big data’ being gathered by such a Facebook and Google, these algorithms will get to know us ‘better than we know ourselves’. The dangers of ‘big data’ are clear enough, in that they may have played a role in the Brexit and Trump phenomena, but what on earth can it mean to know us better than we know ourselves?

Inequality is a big phantom in this context, as an increasingly a rich elite will have no interest in providing for the mass of humanity, as they the elite will no longer be dependent on the labours of so many others – leading eventually to a new caste system. The elite become like gods (hence homo deus), and the rest, and liberal ideals, go hang.

And if you don’t like that scenario, Harari offers an even more disturbing possibility: the religion of Dataism. “The universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” This is a world where computers have taken over and the ‘world’ is run totally by algorithms. Insane.

So basically Harari is giving a couple of horror scenarios, nightmares outlining where we don’t want to go. The thing about human beings is that we have the capability to change direction, change the paradigm, change the ‘web of meaning’, change what is considered acceptable and what not.

What he doesn’t offer is any clue to a New Renaissance.




2 thoughts on “No, not this way

  1. “To know someone” I would say, regarding Harari’s view point, is to have enough behavior recognition collected to be able to predict someone’s next move, or words. The “knowing” is only data. And really, although I don’t think we’d admit it to ourselves, knowing another actually is just data collection. You know your spouse because you spend so much time with them.

    Life will probably be dissected to the point where it becomes fully understood, and replicate-able. Emergent behavior from collections of life nodes (cells, humans) may also be examined so deeply that a fully artificial society could be built from the knowledge.

    But, to me, the history of life adds to its essence. But, in the end, even history is information.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting comment. However, I disagree with what appears to be your basic premise, that ‘life will probably be dissected to a point where it becomes fully understood, and replicable’. Because life has an inner, subjective element as well as an outer, objective aspect. The outer is in some sense able to be understood by scientific models of cause and effect; the inner is not amenable to the scientific mode of analysis, is not ‘understandable’ in this sense, and may not even follow laws of cause and effect. We just do not know.

    The inner is of course the realm of meaning and values, which a look at the society around us suggests has been a bit neglected in the pursuit of science, technology and money.

    History suggests that we are just like the flat earthers, who think we pretty well know what is going on with our theories, but in the end prove to have been just looking at a tiny facet of the true reality.


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