Homo Deus (sans machina)

It had been a while since I ordered a copy of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari’s second book. I read his first book, Sapiens, sometime in October last year and had reviewed it in a post on my blog. I enjoyed it so much that I was eagerly looking forward to reading Homo Deus. And I kept regretting the fact I had to put it off until I finished reading other books on my bookshelf.

What intrigued me was the title and the note on which he ends his first book. Besides, Homo Deus promised to be the “History of Tomorrow”, so I was expecting a book about recent and future developments in technology that are allowing man to play god.

I have to say I am a tad disappointed. Both with the substance and with the writing style.

The substance, first. It is a large and ambitious theme, there’s no denying that. But instead of picking up where he left off in his first book, Harari ends up covering old ground all over again. Which is such a pity, because he managed to cover such a vast sweep of history (several millennia) in Sapiens that he should have been able to pull off the story of a century of post-modern history, quite easily in Homo Deus. Alas.

The book is divided into three parts: Homo Sapiens Conquers the World, Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World and Homo Sapiens Loses Control. It all seems quite logical at first. The introduction is thoughtful and well-written, creating the right kind of anticipation for the reading that’s to follow. Although it could have done with some good and serious editing. For example, at the start of the book he dwells too much on mankind’s search for happiness and on living longer and healthier lives. And quite suddenly, when you least expect it, there is a section on how lawns as a status symbol were borrowed from the aristocracies of England and France. Incongruous, to say the least.

During the course of the rest of the book, Harari gets so caught up in details and minutiae, and the need to offer several examples to illustrate a single point, that he ends up laboring the point unnecessarily. And sadly, loses the big picture that he’s trying to portray.

From the battle of ideas to the battle for power

The Human Spark chapter is devoted to the ongoing tussle between the skeptics and the humanists, essentially a battle between the creationists and evolutionists. We are taken back several centuries, to discuss old theories and arguments and the battle of ideas. I kept thinking to myself that perhaps he is just trying to build a case for a new argument that is yet to come.

Part I of the book ends on subjective, objective and inter-subjective realities giving Homo Sapiens the unique ability to create meaning through the power of imagination, building up to what he deals with in Part II, which is humans creating meaning. Unfortunately, he starts to give us an interpretation of humanism that is all too cynical. It is obvious that Harari sees the irony in how humanism gives man the right to assert his individual thoughts, feelings and choices and what man has done with his individuality. But unfortunately, he lets his cynicism come in the way of clear judgement, with the result that he turns the sense of irony into cynical commentary to the extent that it doesn’t even provoke the reader to think.

Anyone who has read Hannah Arendt and her thoughts on humanism or other existentialist authors would have serious concerns with Harari’s interpretation of it. In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt clearly delineates the levels of humanist thought and dwells in detail on what she calls “Vita Contemplativa” and “Vita Activa”. Harari talks of three types of humanism and in his categorization, someone like Hannah Arendt would probably fall into the “socialist humanist” slot. Like the rest of the book, the way he deals with humanism is highly simplistic.

When Harari writes of capitalism as the best possible system to date, I am not sure if he is championing its cause because he comes across as too clear-eyed, not to see its defects. And although it is obvious that he is a liberal academic, historian and writer (in the classic definition of a liberal and not in the American sense of the word), one is again not sure from his writings whether he is a believer in unregulated free markets or not.

Like I said earlier, I kept telling myself at the end of each chapter that maybe, just maybe, the next chapter might contain the kernel of his idea. But that was not to be. Not until I reached chapter 6, towards the end of Part II. It is between pages 233-236, which is well halfway into the book, that he even begins to broach the subject.

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You’ll find it toward the end of the book

And it is finally on page 355 of Homo Deus – in the last paragraph of the chapter titled Time Bomb in the Laboratory – that Harari manages to distill the essence of what the entire book should have been about:

“However, once the heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we – or our heirs – will probably require a brand-new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’, but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Will democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?”

The double-game that he is referring to is something he deals with a little earlier in the same chapter. It is about man finding himself in a constant tug-of-war between liberal ideas and the nitty-gritty technological bind in our everyday lives.

What is more ominous is his prognosis for the rest of this century and beyond on page 357 in a Chapter called The Great Decoupling: 1) that humans will lose their economic and military usefulness; 2) that the system will continue to find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals; 3) that it will find value in some unique individuals, a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.

Now, the idea that technology will rule the 21st century is not new. The historian and author, Paul Kennedy, dealt with precisely this subject in his 1993 book, Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, in which he traced the influence that technology has had and will continue to have on man’s life and on countries’ political economies. But the idea that humans will lose their agency or their free will is a frightening thought and surely deserved greater attention than Yuval Noah Harari has given it.

That said, the last four chapters (Part III) of Homo Deus make for riveting reading. His account of all that man is researching and putting out in the market – from robot rats and medical diagnostic algorithms, to 23andMe (a digital DNA testing facility), EMI (a music-composing app using algorithms) and VITAL (an algorithm that sits on the board of Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong based venture capital firm) – is not just fascinating, it is frightening. For, as he says, the technologies of the twenty-first century will all aim to upgrade humans and only the privileged elites who have access to that technology will qualify. Techno-humanism, in his view, will not just destroy liberalism, it will ensure the rise of the already wealthy and privileged, both individuals and powerful corporations. Pity, his entire book isn’t devoted to this subject, which I think merited more of his careful and clear-eyed gaze.

We now come to the writing style. That Harari has an easy, eminently readable style is without doubt. He can also connect unrelated ideas across time and space effortlessly in order to make his point. These are qualities that made Sapiens so enjoyable. In Homo Deus, he tends to talk to his reader rather like a schoolteacher would. And this is compounded by the oversimplification of certain concepts, numerous examples to illustrate a point, the laboring of a point until the reader tires of it and, well, you get the picture. If it wasn’t for the fact that he has a great sense of humour and uses it with restraint, he would have lost me in the first half of the book.

Really unfortunate that Homo Deus is rather like a great human drama unfolding, with no ‘deux ex machina’ in sight. Perhaps, we have to read his third, and much acclaimed book, Twenty-one Lessons for Living in the Twenty-first Century, to really uncover the harsh truths of the century we live in.

Or is he going to continue his history lessons to the millennial generation? Homo Deus does read like it was written for them, not for a wizened old owl like me who has lived through four decades of the previous century and will probably live to see another four decades in this one. God willing.

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