Book Review: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Previous week’s post

Some authors are capable of bringing so many disparate ideas to the table that you begin to wonder where the limits of their creativity lie. A few are able to turn the tangle of ideas they introduce into a coherent, compelling synthesis. Yuval Noah Harari has shown in Homo Deus, that he is not only capable of doing this for human history (in his widely appreciated Sapiens), but for the human future as well. Where Homo Deus falters most is perhaps in its repetition. The first two sections do contain several informative strands of thought, but it takes too long to reach the meat of the work: the section concerning the future of humanity. 

Harari’s thesis will certainly be controversial to many readers. He claims that the past has seen the religions of old replaced by the story of humanism: concerned fundamentally with the experiences of human beings themselves. The liberal variety of humanism, which dominated the 20th Century and lives on in democratic societies today, is now under threat by improving technology.

Giving value to individuals makes sense when you need them to fight wars, run factories, and participate in a growing economy. Through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, advanced machines and enhanced humans will likely be capable of these tasks in the future. This will result in the breakdown of the liberal humanist story. Harari suggests two alternatives: a form of techno-humanism, valuing the experiences of technologically modified humans, or Dataism, valuing the free exchange of information above all else.

Concerned more with convincing than assuaging the reader, Harari relies on analogies from the past and present. He starts by chronicling the shift away from the pre-agricultural human worship of animals. Non-coincidentally, this shift occurred precisely when farmers began to domesticate animals. Suddenly, animals were seen either as a means for human gain or ignored completely. 

Furthermore, rulers were often given divine status precisely to justify the unequal value given to them and provide a structure that society could operate under. When capitalism and mass-mobilization required that men perform additional economic and military duties, they were given more inherent value. When mass-mobilization required these men to leave the factories in World War I, the women who replaced them also gained inherent value in the eyes of society.

These and other examples lead Harari to the conclusion that history describes a web of stories that humans tell one another to justify their actions. These stories are not feeble bits of imagination. The stories we tell ourselves about Jesus, capitalism, science, France, and others, direct the lives of billions of people, altering the world in their wake. For readers of Sapiens, this will be a familiar concept. 

When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give humans will certainly change.

Harari makes it clear that the dominant story of our age, liberal humanism, is under threat. When the peaks of intelligence become uncoupled from regular human beings, the value we give huamans will certainly change. There is certainly evidence that technology will profoundly alter the value structures we now cling to. Liberal humanism, which values every person’s experiences enough to allow them to vote and speak their mind, is likely to change.

The question Harari leads the reader to ponder is what story or value structure will come next? Harari suggests that the likeliest successor is Dataism, or the belief in the value of connecting bits of information. I think this is questionable. Harari does little to convince me that we will be walking away from fundamentally valuing certain conscious experiences themselves. Perhaps this is because this work takes the contemporary materialist line on consciousness (which I will critique in a post next week). Regardless, I think the experiences of the most powerful beings around will likely dictate the value structure society operates under. 

I do accept the likelihood that increasing information flow between people, cyborgs, and machines would usually provide net benefits to society at large. But I think every improvement to society will emphasize the amazing states of consciousness and harmony provided by increased information flow (as Harari in fact emphasizes to defend Dataism). This is different from valuing information flow a priori. The quadrillionaire cyborgs of tomorrow (perhaps a future Elon Musk) will likely not be pleased if increased informational flow leads to their suffering and ultimate destruction.

Whether Dataism pans out or gets panned by its cyborg critics, Homo Deus will certainly expand your conception of what the future will look like and where we’re heading as a civilization. It stands as a creative, albeit lengthy, successor to Sapiens.

-Alexander Pasch

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Book Review: One Billion Americans – The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Certain issues with obvious premises are sometimes crucial to lay out in the mainstream simply because of wildly neglected and consequential nature. The connection between America’s population and its relative economic might vis-a-vis China is certainly one. America falling behind in GDP means less global influence, and a relatively stronger China means greater global pressure for illiberal values. One Billion Americans attempts to break the relative silence on this topic and layout paths to reach the title’s ambitious target. 

A few basic factors seem to be fundamental to the continued strength of global superpowers: a strong military; a network of reliable allies; a functioning government; economic prowess; a resilient culture. Yet perhaps the most obvious factor is a population sufficient to produce enough excess wealth to dedicate towards the end of global influence. No matter how innovative the culture and economies of Singapore, Sweden, and New Zealand might be, their smaller populations place firm limits on their global clout. In the 21st Century, they will never hold the global influence that the US and China do.

For many patriotic Americans, the benefit of having America play a leading role in the world is a no-brainer. To them, acknowledging our international mistakes doesn’t refute our greatness by any means. Yet understandingly, many others resist the notion that America need play a leading role at all. For them, wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are echoed as examples suggesting that the right amount of international involvement is little to none at all.

Yet, as so often occurs in such discussions, there is an absence of counterfactual reasoning. America does not act in a vacuum, and if you consider what other actors will do in America’s absence, the conversation becomes muddied and the cry for America to back off rings hollow. Here, a common Churchill quote is effectively employed, albeit in modified form. As “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, perhaps America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others. Assuming the EU is unable to foster cooperation of the sort that will provide credible protection to South Korea while promoting its liberal influence across the world, the only other realistic world leader in the next 50-100 years is China. For those with a liberal and democratic mindset, this should be a terrifying future.

America has been the worst global superpower, except for all the others

Yglesias notes that the way we have been able to lead up to now isn’t by dominating the population metrics. We can’t rely on, and shouldn’t hope that less wealthy countries stay poor. He hammers down on this point repeatedly. Despite the threats associated with climate change, stalling poorer countries’ growth is profoundly immoral, even if it would reduce emissions. This results in an acknowledgment that the only moral future available is one where poorer countries with larger populations follow our economic growth and challenge our dominance in gross GDP statistics.

Meanwhile, pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is one of the few areas Democrats and Republicans often agree on in the Trump (and likely post-Trump) era. While the exact nature of the pushback is up for debate, both sides are certainly rooting for team USA and against team CCP. Noting this, Yglesias attempts to engender a set of proposals compatible with further bi-partisan action. 

He introduces numerous ideas to foster population growth in both of the two possible avenues: immigration and babies. Here, Yglesias demonstrates himself to be a competent and wide-read interlocutor on the subjects of pro-family and pro-immigration policy. Comparing us to Canada and Australia, he shows how accepting more immigrants in a points-based system could bring us hundreds of millions of people over the next century. Such a points-based system could value skills like knowledge of English and the ability to immediately get a job, making integration of immigrants swifter and less prone to conservative pushback.

On the family side, he suggests the Family Fun Pack, a collection of proposals including a baby box of items for newborns, universal child medical care, and other family-friendly policies. Following in the footsteps of most other wealthy nations, he suggests we adopt parental leave, more holidays, universal daycare, and create a more friendly culture for families with children. This is sensible. The lack of such policies makes childrearing in the United States much more arduous than in many parts of Europe and East Asia. 

Yet the connection between such policies and population growth is limited at best. Yglesias doesn’t take this fact seriously enough. He would likely respond that this would still likely marginally increase childbirth, but acknowledge that it would really take increased immigration to lead to massive population growth. I think this is a serious fact worthy of greater consideration. Relatedly, he fails to seriously examine the connection between religion and childbirth, which might not directly affect policy in America, but obviously still matters in considerations of population growth.

Yglesias addresses numerous objections to his proposal, including which cities residents will go to, housing shortages, and transportation woes. As he points out, we have more than enough space to accommodate massive population growth. One billion Americans would make us about as dense as France and half as dense as Germany. In addition, many American cities are shrinking, especially in the midwest. Greater immigration and federal government relocation of jobs to these areas could foster revitalization of these areas. 

Problems of housing shortages can be alleviated by making zoning regulations and housing policy decisions at a higher level of government with more sensible incentive structures. This would allow more duplexes and residencies that accommodate greater numbers of people to be built. Congestion will go up, but policies like fixing roads, reducing cars on the road via taxes, and investing in smart urban transit (like S-trains) can alleviate much of this issue. Except for some odd takes, including how it would be a waste to go to Mars (which certainly doesn’t fit with the theme of the book) this section is replete with sensible analyses of urban policy. 

All in all, I admire Yglesias’ patriotic and direct perspective. This is an important and timely book, especially in an era of divided government seemingly perpetually bereft of unity itself. We need to rediscover a healthy variety of patriotism and love of fellow countryman and woman. We need to remember that the alternative to American leadership is not leadership by the UN or the EU. Currently, the alternative is leadership by a government that fully believes in its fusion of Maoist political totalitarianism with state capitalist economic policy. Pushing America to be larger can curb this dark vision. To this end, I would be happy to welcome a future with one billion Americans.

Review by Alexander Pasch