With 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.