Upon finishing Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, I found an unwelcome kink in my otherwise comfortably adjusted frame of reference. It brought with it the slight nausea of a hangover, a lingering whiff of jet exhaust from a hard night, possibly involving rough psychedelics.
I’m usually content with my (admittedly incomplete) understanding of the role humanity plays in the universe, and in particular, with the role that technology plays as that narrative builds. And lately that technology story is getting pretty damn interesting — I’d argue that our society’s creation of and reaction to digital technologies is pretty much the most important narrative in the world at present.
But as you consider that phrase “digital technologies,” are you conjuring images of computers and iPhones? Of “the cloud” and Google? Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Slack, Uber? I’ve always felt that this group of artifacts — the “things” that we claim as digital — the companies and the devices, the pained metaphors (cloud?!) and the juvenile apps — these are only the most prominent geographic features of a vaster and more tectonic landscape, one we’ve only begun to explore.
Harari would ask us to explore that landscape with a new state of mind — to abandon our human-centered biases — our Humanism — and consider what our embrace of technology may augur for our species. Yet through most of the book, he failed to push me from my easy chair. It was comforting to nod along as Harari argued that the devices — the computers, the platforms and the networks — are nothing more than the transit layer in humanity’s inevitable evolution to a more god-like species. And cognizant of the inescapable baggage of the “digital technologies” tag, Harari has gifted his new state of mind with a name: Dataism. More on that in a minute.
Homo Deus is the possibly too-clever-by-half continuation of the author’s masterstroke bestseller Sapiens, which the New York Times, despite crowning it as a runaway hit, acidly derided as “tailor-made for the thought-leader industrial complex.” If that made you snort the literary milk out your erudite nose, just wait for the other whiteshoe to drop: The same Times review charitably credited Homo Deus with having “the easy charms of potted history.”
And look, the decidedly humanist Times is right to be offended by Harari’s assertions. For they are utterly unsettling, in particular to those most content in the warm embrace of Humanism, which Harari dismisses as a state of mind already past its prime. Dataism is its replacement — a reductive religion of algorithms, both biological and digital, driven by intelligence but decoupled from consciousness. It is therefore unconcerned with experience, the very bread which feeds humanist mythos. Net net: Let’s just say Dataism could really give a fuck about people in the long run. Harari’s money quote? “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.”
So yeah, the ideas prosecuted in the pages of these two works, which run collectively just under 900 pages, are unsettling. But unlike the Times reviewer, I’m not ready to dismiss them as so much armchair pottery. It’s not often a work of literary merit (and this is certainly that) forces our vaunted industry to consider itself.
And did our industry consider it? After all, this is the follow on to Sapiens, a book celebrated by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Barak Obama, for goodness sakes.
Turns out, our industry has pretty much ignored Homo Deus. Ezra Klein did have a thing or two to say about it in a podcast, but…crickets from most everywhere else.
Technology is having a crisis of self reflection. It’s understandable — we’re not the types to think too hard about the impact of our actions, because we’ve already anticipated them, after all. Creating new behaviors is the business we’re in, so we’re not surprised when they actually happen. We’ve developed a super-fast creative process on top of digital technologies — we come up with new plans as quickly as the old ones fail, and the act of doing this just proves our world view correct: We have a thesis, we prosecute it, and as we collect more data — including and especially data about our failure — we stare at it all, we rethink our approach, and we deftly devise a new algorithm to navigate around the damn problem. The better the acuity of our data, the more responsive our tools, the better the outcomes. Even when most of us lose, we’re always winning! Failure is just more data to fuel an eventual, inevitable victory.
This approach to life and business doesn’t reward deep reflection. And we know it. That’s why we’re so damn obsessed with meditation, with yoga (guilty), with flying to South America and doing strange psychedelic drugs. But so far all those reflections center on the me, and not on the us, on the society we are building. How often do we — the Royal Technology We — consider the butterfly effects of our work? And don’t tell me Zuck did it for us with that manifesto. That thing could have used a touch more psilocybin, amiright?
Perhaps Harari strikes us as a lecturing harridan — we know we have more homework to do. We understand we now rule the world, but we are reluctant leaders, because our industry has forever been in opposition, forever carrying a torch for a future state of humankind that the noobs and the squares and the company men didn’t get.
Only, we’ve won. So now what?
Well, that gets us to purpose. Why are we here? Why are you here? Why am I here? What are we here for?
Remember when you were a kid, in that kid-like state of mind, when you whispered to a friend, a confidante — “Where’s the wall at the end of universe?” And if they bit, if they acknowledged there might be an end to it all, a place where the universe ebbs to finality, you ask them this: “Well, then, what’s on the other side of the wall!?”
Remember that little pre-adolescent mind hack? Yeah, we’re about at that point now, Technology Industry. It’s time for us to come up with a better answer.
My favorite response to this paradox is: “The unimaginable.” That’s what’s on the other side of the wall. The only boundary in the universe, for Homo sapiens anyway, is the fact that we need a boundary in the first place. We understand so much, but at the end of that understanding we face the unimaginable. In that dark gravity we first populated gods, then God Himself, then Science and its attendant Humanism, and now….well, Harari makes the case that our digital technologies have hastened our transition us to a new era — one in which we “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.”
OK, I’m out of my armchair now. If all biology is algorithms, and science certainly believes this is so, then our fate is to join the church of pure information processing, driven by the inescapable end game of evolution.
Checkmate! Humanity exists because algorithms exist, algorithms that predate us, algorithms that will outlive us, and algorithms that exist for one reason: to solve problems. If we embrace this, then perhaps we stand at the cusp of solving our biggest problem ever: ourselves.
I”m not sure I buy all this — and even Harari, at the very end of his book, admits he’s not sure either (that felt like quite a hedge, to be honest). But the issues he raises are worthy of deeper debate — in particular inside our own industry, where self-reflection is far too absent.