Resistance? Not so Futile? Questioning the Algorithm. Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. 2015. Trans. Yuval Noah Harari. Signal, 2016.

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.

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To Everything a Season?: Ali Smith’s Autumn


Smith, Ali. Autumn. Penguin, 2017.

Autumn is a strange season, at its beginning a golden “season of mellow fruitfulness” (Keats “Ode to Autumn) but also at its end the harbinger of winter which “raineth drop and staineth slop” (Pound “Ancient Music”). Some see Autumn as the period of abundance and harvest; to others, it’s the beginning of the end, a season of farewell. Even Keats’ poem “To Autumn” ends with the image of swallows preparing to leave. Shelley responds to the season with “Autumn: A Dirge” and focuses on death and departure. I begin this post with these somewhat self-conscious references to poems addressing autumn and winter because Ali Smith’s Autumn is itself highly allusive. Its opening sentence “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” (3) plays with the opening sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. If I were to annotate my copy of the book marking every literary reference or word play that recalls another work, my book would be densely annotated.

Autumn is set just after the vote that committed the British to leave the EU. What the result of that vote revealed is a Britain fragmented, polarized, at odds with its present, anxious about the future, nostalgic about its past. The novel itself is fragmented. I was about to say it follows the lives of Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth Demand, but it would be better to say displays or presents. This is not a wholly linear narrative; it twists and turns between the present and the past, between the longed-for and the forgotten. Reading it is something akin to looking at kaleidoscope: the pieces making the pattern shift and change. Nothing is stable. The pieces fall randomly. Only Elisabeth’s struggles to have a passport application approved at the Post Office follow a normal chronology through the book. Elisabeth’s initial frustrating encounter with bureaucracy in the Post Office—there is always something wrong with her photograph—could stand alone as a satirical short story and is almost (Monty) Pythonesque in its critique.

Despite the flashbacks and shifting focalization, as one reads, one senses how the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck developed. At eight years old, Elisabeth was assigned a homework project to interview a neighbour. Despite her mother’s disapproval, Elisabeth chose Daniel Gluck. Twenty-four years later, Elisabeth, now a university sessional lecturer in art history, visits the mostly comatose Daniel in a care home as he hovers between life and death. As the work moves towards its conclusion, we discover that Daniel has been mentor and friend to Elisabeth despite her mother’s anxieties. Moving between Daniel and Elisabeth, between now and then, the reader is offered not only a meditation on the instability of memory but also a celebration of the different, of the unusual, of the non-conforming. The reader discovers how much of what drives Elizabeth now—her interest in art history, for example, particularly in the rediscovered work of Pauline Boty—is the result of Daniel’s gentle tutelage during her childhood and youth. Interwoven with the fiction are threads of Britain’s cultural and political past, especially the early sixties when Britain was rocked by the scandals of the Profumo affair but was also experiencing what was for some a time of invigorating cultural questioning and energy.

As one rather expects of Smith’s work, this is not a simple book. It is witty, somewhat acid, Horatian in its humour. It’s a book about anxiety, frustration, and perhaps forgiveness; a book about loss and about love, about being and knowing oneself, about the power of language and the power of art. A novel that is at once a meditation on post-Brexit Britain and a celebration of the individual, it’s a book about hope.

It’s also the first in a planned quartet of books. I have Winter in my “to be read” pile. What will Spring and Summer bring when they appear?

 

 

 

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Adjusting Focus: Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends

Trollope, Joanna. City of Friends. Mantle, 2017. ebook.

City of Friends is Joanna Trollope’s twentieth novel. She is, I suppose, known primarily for what we might call “women’s fiction.” Certainly, many of her novels deal with what some readers may feel are issues that concern primarily women. Her major characters tend to be women, and the novels are written primarily from a woman’s point of view. For some readers, I know, this kind of approach somehow lessens the import of a work. Such readers don’t necessarily denigrate women but feel that novels whose focus is more domestic and personal than societal and political are of less import than those that address serious themes such as social inequality, or which address the whole concept of what fiction is.

That is a point of view. I’m not sure I agree with it. Trollope’s style is straightforward but not simplistic. Yes, many of her novels address the theme of love, but her presentation of that emotion reveals an understanding that is entirely unsentimental. In fact, many of her novels deal with the passing of love or with changing loves and with how mature people deal with such changes. More importantly, the action of her novels plays out against a very recognisable world, the world we live in now, and much of Trollope’s strength and the reason for her success lies in her ability to capture that world and the challenges we face today. To a great extent, the setting of her work is extremely important to the stories she tells. While, for want of a better phrase, the love themes of her work may well provide the main narrative thread in her novels, what is more important is how the characters relate in terms of all the various aspects of their lives to the outside pressures of the environment they inhabit.

In City of Friends that world is London. Four women, Stacey, Beth, Gaby, and Melissa have known each other since being the only four girls reading economics at university. Now, they are all successful career women and still firm friends. The novel begins when Stacey is fired from her job. What follows allows Trollope to examine the whole question of work life balance. Just how defined are we by what we do to earn a living? How do we balance emotional responsibility to our spouses, partners, and children with responsibility to employers and to ourselves? Can ambition blind us to strengths and failings: our own and those of our loved ones? City of Friends also raises the whole question of how open and how private should we be in personal relationships. Just what constitutes betrayal? When is what we think is sensitive reticence actually self-serving?

All four women in City of Friends make journeys of self-discovery in this novel and face some important changes in their lives. While it’s not my favourite of Trollope’s works, the novel is carefully plotted, the characters realistically and sensitively drawn, and it has a moral centre. In sum, then, I found it thought-provoking and not unsatisfying.

 

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Making Sense? Terry Eagleton’s Materialism

Eagleton, Terry. Materialism. Yale UP. 2016.

 As regular followers of this blog know, I am rather fond of Terry Eagleton’s writing. This small volume—I suppose if I were being particularly precise I might call it a monograph—does not fail to meet expectations. From the beginning, where Eagleton tells us that this book is “a book about the body, but not (such, anyway, is . . .[his] fervent hope) the kind of body that is currently fashionable in cultural studies, and which as a subject of discussion has become narrow, exclusivist and tediously repetitive” (viii), the reader engages with Eagleton’s highly personal and strong voice. One of the aspects of his writing I most enjoy is his refusal to couch his ideas in the endlessly flowing periods of sesquipedalian discourse, perhaps better defined, as academic waffle. He is not averse, however, to relying on the persuasive strengths of appropriate hyperbole, especially when declaring his hope that the “polemical subtext” of the work and his “unabashed universalism will prove sufficiently scandalous to the commissars of contemporary cultural discourse” (viii). Eagleton really has little patience with post-modernist orthodoxy” (viii).

I have quoted at length from the opening paragraph of his preface in the hope that by laying out something of Eagleton’s tone and his own setting of the context of his book, I will be able to resist the temptation to rely primarily on quotations from Eagleton in the rest of this post. Suffice it to say that I did enjoy his pithy examination of his subject which is, no surprise there, materialism. The book is a short voyage of re/discovery and rumination on “forms of materialism that are in some broad sense social or political” (1). Eagleton arranges his thoughts in five chapters: “Materialisms,” a brief summary of strains of materialist thought; “Do Badgers Have Souls?” further discussion of mind/body tension and aesthetics, “Emancipating the Senses,” primarily about Marx; “High Spirits,” Nietzsche, and “The Rough Ground,” Wittgenstein. While Eagleton draws on the thought of philosophers ranging from Spinoza to Deleuze and Foucault, his major interest is the works of Marx, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche. Freud is rather important, too, and St. Thomas Aquinas is not to be forgotten. However, it is Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein who interest him most. He reminds us that for Wittgenstein “treating a philosophical problem . . . is like treating an illness” (141), and goes on to assert “Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein are not in the business of treating symptoms. Instead, they seek to tackle the root cause of the disorder, which means approaching its various expressions in diagnostic spirit” (141). 1

The point of Materialism is to emphasise how particularly the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, despite their differences, are rooted in an understanding of the corporality of being human. We live in bodies, and a body is a tangible, physical thing, not an abstract construct.

While it is not entirely necessary to be heavily familiar with the all the works of the philosophers referenced by Eagleton, some knowledge is more than helpful. While Eagleton shares enough information for a reader to understand his thesis, he does write for a readership he assumes to be familiar with the subject matter. He includes detailed reference notes but no bibliography, so if one desires to examine or reread some of his sources, those sources must be derived from the notes, a not particularly arduous task. However, I do rather like useful bibliographies. My only other negative comment about this work is that it came, for me at least, to a very abrupt conclusion. Just as his preface put what was to come into context, I would have liked a short afterword of some kind reflecting on what had just been said.

Whether you ultimately agree with Eagleton or not, if you are interested in the whole mind/body dichotomy or in the ethics that our philosophies generate, or if you are simply interested in what Eagleton has been thinking recently, you will appreciate Materialism.

 1I didn’t do so well at resisting the temptation to quote.

 

 

 

 

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Still a Way to Go

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Defining Peace: Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana


Goldsworthy, Adrian. 
Pax Romana. War, Peace, and Conquest in the Roman World. Orion, 2017.

I have to confess I began reading this book in November (!), but life somehow got in the way of my really settling down to it until way after the holiday season. In this case, the title really does say it all: Goldsworthy looks at the Roman world in terms of war and peace and examines what the pax Romana meant for those living within or near the borders of Rome’s empire.

For whatever reason, I am rather fascinated by the Roman world, perhaps for the wrong reasons. I do tend rather to feel that if time travel were possible, we, or at least I, might feel actually more at home in a Roman city in the early decades of the common era than I might actually in, say, Tudor England. Goldsworthy warns his readers against making such faulty comparisons, but in my own defence I say it is very hard not to at times. Certainly, I would argue that as we live in a post-colonial period, attempting to understand how Rome’s imperium waxed and waned and what living under Rome and its understanding of citizenship meant can be instructive. This is not to deny that some aspects of Roman culture, slavery, for example, or gladiatorial combat to the death, appear utterly abhorrent, at least I hope so, to contemporary mores.

Goldsworthy divides the work into two sections: Republic and Principate. Each section is divided into chapters focussing on a particular aspect of Roman life. He also includes maps and photographs, detailed notes, bibliography, and a useful index. While I would not go so far as the Times reviewer Gerard de Groot (quoted before the title page of the book) as to describe the work as “enthralling,” I would say that Goldsworthy’s style is lively and personable without being colloquial. Pax Romana is sufficiently engaging to be of interest to the general reader but also sufficiently reflective and discursive to interest a reader with a more academic interest.

At times, and perhaps this is one of the problems with writing about history, the book seems to be a not much more than a collection of facts. Although the book is organized chronologically in the way Goldsworthy deals first with the republic and then with the emperors, I felt that it didn’t really matter in which order I read the individual chapters within the two sections. This was particularly the case in the second part of the book. At times, I felt the loss of a really strong linear thread, and at others I was glad to be able to read a chapter, put the book and down and pick it up days later without feeling I’d lost a sense of coherence. One thing the book did reinforce in me was the need to fulfil the promise I made to myself ages ago to read Josephus.

I realise the last paragraph may sound a little negative. I don’t intend it to be so. One of the aspects of the work that saves it from being only a presentation of facts is Goldsworthy’s engagement with other historians and his articulation of his own point of view. Further, what I really appreciated were his Preface, “Living in Peace” and his Introduction “A Glory Greater Than War.” These two rather personal essays (I think essays is the best word here) put Goldsworthy’s project into a clear context. He also makes it very clear that while “Lessons can be learned from history, . . .it is wise to take great care to understand a period before drawing any conclusions” (8). The rest of the work is devoted to enabling his readers to understand the Roman period and underscoring just how different the Romans were from us even if they seem similar. He concludes in similar vein reminding us that “Our world is very different from the Roman era, for which we should be grateful” (415). I tend to agree; however, despite those differences between us and the past, I still cannot help but feel that having some understanding of how the Roman world of the past functioned may well contribute to our being able to engage with the post-colonial world we inhabit today and possibly give us some tools to avoid tyranny.

The photos are all my own.

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Surviving the Past-Building the Future: Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London

Taylor, Andrew. The Ashes of London. Harper 2016.

I’m fairly sure this is the first novel I’ve read by Andrew Taylor. I’m wondering how I’ve managed not to have met his work before. The Ashes of London is a who-dunnit set in London during and after the great fire of 1666. It’s a tale of betrayal, self-interest, and politics. And of course, since it is set only six years after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, politics includes religion.

The setting of the story is for the most part the old city of London, much of which has been destroyed by the fire, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the ruins of which is discovered the corpse of a man who is not a victim of the fire. He’s been stabbed through the neck and his thumbs tied behind his back. Another victim similarly disposed of is found a few days later in the Fleet ditch. Could there be a serial killer stalking London’s streets? The task of solving this mystery falls to James Marwood, a young man employed as a Whitehall Clerk. He’s fortunate to have this position, for his father was an ardent supporter of the Commonwealth and in an “act of folly” (18) has chosen not to accept a pardon under the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion.

James’ story is told in the first person. The story of Catherine Lovett is told in the third. Cat is also the child of a puritan. More than a simple Calvinist, Thomas Lovett is a fifth monarchist and a regicide whose whereabouts are unknown. Since her father fled, Cat has been the ward of her father’s brother-in-law and wealthy city merchant, Master Alderley. She lives with him, his second wife, Olivia, his son Edward, and an old servant of her own family, Jem. The Alderleys are arranging a marriage for Cat that is totally repugnant to her. The two story lines at first run parallel and ultimately, as one might expect from a mystery novel, converge to a satisfactory solution.

The Ashes of London is way more than a simple murder mystery, however. As did Ian Pears’in An Incident of the Fingerpost, which I reviewed last month, Taylor leads us into the fraught times immediately following upon the return of Charles II. Despite the euphoria that apparently greeted the king on his return in May 1660, not all of his subjects were overjoyed. While the historical record tells of the punishments dealt to powerful figures of the Cromwellian period, it reveals little about the ordinary people whose beliefs encompassed neither the Anglican Church nor a monarchy. The Ashes of London somewhat remedies that situation. Taylor evokes a time of anxiety, not only about the fire. Some of the glitter of the king’s return has tarnished slightly. In a time of change, Londoners and the country as a whole have to navigate the new political reality, coming to terms with the past and facing a somewhat uncertain future. Individuals have to choose whether to cling to the past or to look ahead.  He also captures the way in which St. Paul’s cathedral stood, then, as many would argue it continues to stand, as a symbol for the city itself. If you are familiar with London you may well find it fascinating to plot the action and imagine the streets and places you know now as they were then.

All in all, The Ashes of London is a highly readable and satisfying book.

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