Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015)

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What does the future hold for humanity?

This is a question that many writers, artists, and thinkers have tried to answer. In fact, predicting the future is a sort of industry. Beyond sci-fi, serious writers have attempted to map out the future of our species in daring works of non-fiction. Yet Harari’s is one of the most believable.

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, and his previous book, Sapiens, is one of my favourite books. In that text, he masterfully explored the entirety of our species’ history, and in this one he looks into the near future. He often makes bold claims, but then tempers them with caution that no one could know the future, as well as offering tempting evidence to support his ideas. 

He starts off where the previous book left, by looking into the past. Here, he concludes – with the first of many seemingly shocking claims – that humans have defeated the problems that have tormented us since the dawn of time. We no longer suffer from disease, hunger, or war, he says. (Of course, he acknowledges that we do, but only in rather isolated cases and that, for example, more people die from eating too much than too little.)

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.

Thus, Harari turns to the future. If we have beaten the problems that have always plagued us, where now do we turn? We turn ourselves into gods, of course. That means humanity will in the future seek to achieve happiness, immortality, and divinity. (For some reason, he always lists his ideas and examples in sets of three.) This change, however, will not by conscious. We will not decide to do these things, but rather we will step-by-step graduate into them without realizing it, even if it happens quickly:

In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.

The rest of the book sort of follows these ideas, but it wanders significantly into different but related territories. Structurally, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness work as it wanders hither and thither, covering animal rights and artificial intelligence, the validity of human experience and the importance of data, and even speculating as to whether our world is real or just a simulation. He zips between the distant past, the present, and the decades to come in order to ask and answer questions about what we can expect humans to do.

Yet even if it goes off track a little, and is sometimes a bit repetitive, it is always readable. Harari knows how to explain very complex matters in simple language. He delves into deep science and philosophy, as well as areas from across the whole of human history, and the reader is not overwhelmed. It is a pleasure to follow his arguments.

Post-Truth

Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back, by Matthew d’Ancona (Ebury Press, 2017)

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That politicians lie is not exactly news, and no one would surely bother reading a book about that well-established fact. However, in recent years there has been a disturbing trend wherein we no longer seem to care that they lie. This is the topic of Matthew d’Ancona’s new book, Post-Truth, in which he suggests something very alarming:

We no longer expect our elected politicians to speak the truth: that, for now, has been written out of the job description, or at least significantly relegated on the list of required attributes.

Naturally, as a book published in 2017 about the effects of fake news, it makes numerous references to the tragic rise of Donald Trump and the regrettable decision by the people of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. However, these are not the subject of the book, which looks more broadly at the history of and importance of truth, and where it all stopped mattering. He gets into climate change denial, anti-vaxxers, and other conspiracy theorists, stating that, “like an infection resisting antibiotics, a virulent conspiracy theory can fend off even incontestable facts.”

For such a short book, Post-Truth does cover a lot of ground. It looks beyond Brexit and Trump to other examples of the diminishing value of truth in our society, exploring why we no longer care so much for facts. Of course, he gets into the rise of the internet and people’s growing distrust of the mainstream media (although, tellingly, as a proponent of the MSM himself he fails to acknowledge its role in moving us into the post-truth world).

It seems that these days people prefer emotions to facts, and that reality is often less appealing than a carefully crafted but utterly false statement like, “Make America Great Again,” which, he says, “may have won votes, but are also insultingly hollow.” D’Ancona explores various examples of politicians and media outlets blatantly exploiting people’s emotions and, in the process, getting them to move away from an appreciation of anything that is factually true.

Although it may seem depressing to live in a world where Donald Trump can be elected to the most powerful office and people will blindly follow the most obvious lies, doubling down on their certainty even when presented with undeniable evidence that they are wrong, d’Ancona suggest that it is not all so bleak, and the book ends on an upbeat note, with some advice for stemming this tide of idiocy. He acknowledges that “the gap between rhetoric and reality breeds disenchantment and distrust,” but suggests that those on the side of reality – ie people who believe in science and truth – ought to deliver their facts in a more palatable way. “Truth requires an emotional delivery system that speaks to experience, memory, and hope,” he says. If Trump and the Brexiters could win people’s support by sugar-coating obvious lies, why not sugar-coat incontrovertible truths to make them more appealing?