I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens a while ago and it put me in a mild state of panic. Most of the facts and many of the insights are not new, but Harari bundles them in a succinct, neat package. The result is an eureka moment of sheer terror.
His analysis and the logical build up to the final argument is brilliant. 70 000 years of human evolution has brought us to a place where scientific development cannot be stopped and is poised to deliver us to the end of humans as we know ourselves. A new creature will arise, one we cannot imagine yet.
I will not try to retell the book — it is brilliant and considering all the history it packs, 400+ pages are surprisingly few. I am just picking up the concluding questions — Who do we want to become? and What do we want to want?
First, let’s consider what resources we possess to have any idea of an authentic self or desires.
Who we become is a product of what we believe. We are constantly fed targeted messages and sponsored posts, and placed in social echo rooms where our beliefs, no matter a result of research or ignorance — are repeated back to us to the point they become a single truth. The liberal values that have created the modern world constantly tell us to empower the individual, to believe in ourselves, to put individual choice above social reproach. In the post-post-modern world, individual action, informed by aforementioned self-perpetuating truths, affects all in an immediate and absolute way. The filed has been levelled and we need to ask ourselves if we can hope that the individual will every time take the decision, which benefits the whole or if the sum total of individual action will, more often than not, prove irresponsible, selfish, short-sighted, biased and unethical.
What we want is what we are being sold. To support the growth of the economy, we are forced to consume. Do we even have authentic fulfilling desires, or are we waiting for the Super Bowl commercials to get some?
Any discussion of the post-post-modern future inevitably uses George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a reference point for our shared imagination. Both books predict a dystopian world — one of surveillance and subjugation, and another where everyone is in a state of chemically-induced happiness and passivity. Harari asks an exciting question: If everyone in it is happy, why is Huxley’s brave new world so much creepier than Big Brother?
Living in a bubble is more harmful to our future than ever and yet our bubbles have never been so irresistible. Social media causes addiction in the same way alcohol, drugs and gambling do. We are already seeing its long-term effect on our willpower, ability to focus, social norms, decision-making, even on our political systems. It is a behemoth, combining Big Brother’s all-seeing eye with the complacency of Huxley’s world. While we are browsing, developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence are crossing boundaries at an exponential pace. The next revolution is here and we all need to take part, to have a say. According to Harari, it might be the last one humans witness.
The silver lining is that we can change course. Not to affect much of today, but to lay a better foundation for tomorrow. We are still the creators, the designers of future values. Who do we want to become?
Let us all start paying attention.The number of likes on that beach photo is inconsequential, stop refreshing. Get over smart design patterns, that make you scroll and interact. Overcome the short attention span.
Let us all question stereotypes. Stop being judgmental and vengeful — educate yourself. Stop reinforcing prejudice — break the cycle. Stop dismissing feminism as aggressive man-hate because you lack information — get some. And if you have rejected scientific evidence for climate change — well, lost cause, or are you?
We can accept we are a dying species, that brought upon its own end and start thinking what we are leaving for those coming after us.
P.S. Dare I hope that Homo Deus ends with “And they lived happily ever after…”?