Friday, 4 May 2018

HOMO DEUS by Yuval Noah Harari @harari_yuval

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Amazon browse; I'd listened to some of it on audio book and read the brilliant Sapiens, so this was the logical next step.

Genre: non-fiction, anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, etc etc....

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

Something to think about, for sure.  If Sapiens is how we got to where we are now, Homo Deus is about where we are (possibly) going.  Now that we can cure most ills and prolong life, now that the nuclear age has removed the threat of war on the scale of those of the first half of the 20th century, man is now engaged in the pursuit of ultimate happiness that will remain forever out of our reach, for we are biologically wired never to be satisfied. Harari slips in the Buddhist viewpoint, that in order to attain happiness we actually need to slow down the relentless pursuit of pleasant sensations (via food, drink, drugs, new cars, great holidays, more sex, etc., etc.).  The following paragraph, however, is the idea around which much of this book is based:

For 4 billion years natural selection has been tweaking and tinkering with {our} bodies, so that we have gone from amoeba to reptiles to mammals to Sapiens.  Yet there is no reason to think that Sapiens is the last station.  Relatively small changes  in genes, hormones and neutrons were enough to transform Homo Erectus - who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives - into Homo Sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers.  Who knows what might be the outcome of a few more changes to our DNA, hormonal system or brain structure?

Homo Deus discusses the collapse of theist and monotheist religions and the principals of humanism at some length, explores the religion of the future (Dataism), and discusses at an even greater length whether the 'self' actually exists or if all organisms are nothing more than algorithms, and if we might, eventually, produce the 'super-human', as technology advances at a speed so great that already a thirty-year-old can say to a child that the world was a different place when he was young.  There are some areas of the book I found fascinating and gave me much upon which to ponder, but in other areas I found it a little repetitive, with laboured points, and, once or twice, thought that Harari had shown a one-sided view of instances just to enforce his argument.

I read a novel a couple of months back called The Happy Chip, about a chip inserted into the brain that would assess what experience/item of food, etc., the individual needed to attain most pleasure (the pursuit of happiness).  In my review I remarked that I was sure this technology already existed.  After reading Home Deus, I now know that it is but a drop in the ocean.  Facebook possesses an algorithm that can correctly assess a user's needs and desires more accurately than his or her own family and friends (proven in tests), simply by viewing all the user's 'likes' on the site.  This information can be sold to retail companies and even politicians; the latter can then learn how best to influence the undecided.  Scary, huh?  Google predicts trends from the keywords picked up in our emails.  In a time when a large proportion of jobs can be done by automaton (and a frightening amount of them have a more than 80% chance of this happening within the next ten years), 'our personal data is probably the most valuable resource humans still have to offer, and we are giving it away to the tech giants in exhange for email services and funny cat videos'.

'The result will not be an Orwellian police state... The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within'.  The question is what will happen to all those people whose jobs can be done a hundred times more efficiently and cheaply by robots or computer programmes.  In the twentieth century, heads of nations needed soldiers and workers for wars and industry, so they improved living conditions and medicine for the masses, but what will happen when the masses are no longer needed?  

Years ago, I read somewhere that to be born in Western society in the second half of the 20th century made us the luckiest people in the history of the world.  If Harari's suggestions (and he does say they are possibilities, not prophecies) come to pass, I think that will remain the case.  My reaction to all I read is the one displayed by many when they learn these possibilities: I'm glad I won't be around to see it.

There's a section that discusses whether or not animals have a similar consciousness to humans, details tests that have proved that their emotional needs are very much like our own, and describes many of the abhorrent practices of the animal agriculture industry in such a way that I imagine many will consider changing to a plant-based diet once they've read it.  It was worth reading the book just for this reminder, but it's definitely worth reading anyway, even though it's repetitive to the point of being slightly rambling in a few areas, and not as well-structured as Sapiens.

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