While Descartes posited “I think; therefore, I am,” today, we know we exist because our profiles exist in cyberspace. “I text, therefore, I am.” (There’s a possible whole other post on the fact that text has become a verb.) In fact, even as another ad. pops onto my screen recalling the fact that yesterday I was looking at lighting fixtures on line, I am one of those who asserts extremely strongly, “I refuse to be only an algorithm!” While I blog, use email, and text, I use little other social media partly because so much of it exists to sell me to advertisers, and partly because I have what is perhaps fast becoming a dated idea of privacy. I still hold to ideas of myself as an individual, of my self being something uniquely mine. I understand that I didn’t arrive here as a totally blank slate; some things are indeed programmed into my DNA, and other aspects of me have been shaped by experience. Nevertheless, I still feel there is something about me that makes me who I am, and I value that individuality, trust my own judgement, and listen to my own feelings. I am very much a product of humanistic thinking.
In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that now “people just want to be part of the data flow, even if that means giving up their privacy, their autonomy and their individuality” (385). He goes on to argue that we are living through “a religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century” (389).
The book’s subtitle is A Brief History of Tomorrow, and Harari’s vision of the future is not particularly attractive if one is still committed to the humanistic ideas of the essential self and individual freedom. In the future, such concepts may in fact be irrelevant. “When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism” (276). The future will have a new religion: Dataism. Where once we gave authority to invisible gods, and then, in various forms, to human feeling, Dataists will subscribe to a creed that gives authority to the “invisible hand of data flow” (386).
Depressing? Frightening? Outrageous? Heretical? Pragmatic? All of the above and more.
Prefaced by a long introduction “The New Human Agenda” outlining what Homo Deus sets out to achieve, the work is divided into three parts: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World, Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World, and Homo Sapiens Loses Control. We as a species may be losing control, but Harari’s control and development of his ideas is logical; his tone, personal, persuasive and confident; his theories, clearly explained and illustrated; his vision of the future, possibly a shock to the very core of our sense of ourselves. Or possibly not, especially if one is comfortable with the idea that one’s value as an entity if any is not in any individual sense of self but in the value of the data emitted from the particular entity one might refer to as I or myself.
Evoking for me the dystopian worlds encountered in Brave New World and Star Trek, the future posited by Harari isn’t, I imagine, particularly attractive to most of us. Whether our political leanings are to the right or the left or whether we espouse a god centred faith or not, the idea of being absorbed into a collective such as the Borg (Star Trek)or being programmed for a certain kind of contentment (Brave New World) denies us a sense of self and a right of choice. But perhaps my anxiety is but a reflection of the world view in which I was encultured: western humanism. “I have no faith in democracy,” a student once said to me; “I don’t believe it will work in my country.” What struck me then was the student’s use of the words “faith” and “believe,” and reading Harari and considering his definitions of religion recalled that conversation to me. When people stop believing in shared narratives, when they lose faith, the systems built on that faith fail.
Harari suggests that Dataism may replace humanism. He is not saying that it will. His work’s conclusion is not an assertion of inevitability; it’s a challenge to us to consider how we shape the narrative that will articulate what we value and define the future.
I’ve no doubt you will find this book absorbing and disturbing.