Non-fiction Review: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

HomoDeusLike most people with an interest in the future, I tend to drop the William Gibson quote from time to time:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

It felt like the central thesis of Homo Deus, which was both the strength and the weakness of the book.

On the one hand, Gibson’s quote sums up a truth that’s easy to forget: the world we’ll be living in tomorrow can be seen in the bleeding edge of today’s technology. Harari’s explorations of cultural and technological trends that amount to today’s unevenly distributed future made for fascinating and occasionally disturbing reading, especially the section that deals with living in a world in which we’re surrounded by algorithms that know our own minds as well as we do.

On the other hand, Gibson’s quote implies a truth that Harari doesn’t engage with: if the future is already with us, so is the past. The changes that matter tend to spread slowly from small beginnings, and most of us have to wait for the spread to catch up with us. That doesn’t mean we’re living in a moment that is crystallised throughout the world until the future catches up with us. The past can remain with us for a very long time, perhaps pushed into a smaller and smaller enclaves and perhaps changing its character as parts of it are fully erased, but it’s still there and as likely to spill into our present as the inspiring or terrifying futures spreading toward us.

An example would be the role of religious fundamentalism in our present and immediate future. Homo Deus presents the extremes of Islamism and evangelical Christianity as the last throes of deism in a world being taken over by humanist ideologies like socialism and liberalism, which accord human experience the central position that religions once accorded only to mythical beings. However, deist religions are far from a spent force. They continue to dominate many of the world’s societies alongside, and often in alliance with, the sort of nationalism that prioritises a particular socioeconomic group.

A further gap in the Homo Deus thesis is that while it gives a lot of space to discussing how we might live with technology, it only spares a few pages to talk about how our future will be affected by either climate change or the meteoric rise in the sheer numbers of humans over the last few decades. Neither trend looks likely to reverse direction any time soon, and we won’t need algorithms to tell us how we feel about our home being washed away by a storm surge that never used to get this far inland while we can barely afford to eat because of the skyrocketing food prices.

It is of course possible that the right algorithm, fed enough of the right data, could come up with practical solutions to those problems while they are still mere problems, and before they become catastrophes. However, the truth is that our elected representatives don’t need algorithms to tell them that. To quote a man of less vision than Gibson, but far more experience of being one of those representatives:

We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.

That was Jean-Claude Juncker, currently president of the European Commission although he was still the prime minister of Luxembourg at the time he said it.

Juncker sums up the problem with looking to data collection and algorithms to show us the way forward: they are not solving the right problem. It’s not that no one can see the way we should all be going, but that no one is doing a very good job of coaxing the lumbering, stubborn, amorphous beast of modern society into taking it.

One of Harari’s suggestions is that we might appoint algorithmic surrogates to do our voting for us. It makes perfect logical sense, in that the algorithms could assimilate far more information about the candidates and their manifestos than we ever could, and they could compare them against what we actually want our representatives to do instead of choosing one makes us feel good on election day. It’s not hard to see an algorithm making better choices on election day than the human being they are sent to represent.

The problem will arise in the long years between elections. Because we can never get everything we want out of the political process, the state of the citizen of a democratic country is one of chronic dissatisfaction. That’s no bad thing. Successful democracy is based on the dissatisfaction and discontent of its citizens, who are then strongly motivated to hold their representatives to account.

It doesn’t always work that way: dissatisfied citizens can often be observed turning semantic somersaults to explain why they’re not getting what they want out of the political process actually proves that they do not live in a democracy and worse, that there’s no point in voting at all unless their bespoke candidate is on the ballot. Meanwhile, candidates who succeed in making their followers feel good are free to be ineffectual or downright disastrous when they actually get their hands on the levers of power.

Given that the most democratic government imaginable would not be able to give all of us everything we want – indeed it could be argued that a defining feature of a successful democracy is that nobody gets everything they want because no one is privileged enough to be free of the constraints that we are all subject to – leaving voting to an algorithm is likely to have the effect of redirecting that discontent away from the algorithmically elected representatives and toward the algorithm itself. It wouldn’t be long before enough people are blaming the algorithms to set candidates falling over themselves to demonstrate their enthusiasm for eliminating voting algorithms, and the voting algorithms will understand that’s what the people they represent want and faithfully vote themselves out of existence.

The final chapter of Homo Deus discusses the possibility of dataism as a mainstream religion but if he’s right, it’s a religion likely to give rise to as many heretics as adherents.

For all my gripes, Homo Deus is an engaging read and pushed my own thinking on the topics it covered. It’s not as masterful as Sapiens, which I reviewed in far more glowing terms, but then it’s far more challenging to write about the future than about the past. Harari writes like a man in search of constructive engagement with his ideas rather than sycophantic agreement, and I think him for pushing my own thinking on the subjects he wrote about.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

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