Harari 2018 Jonathan Cape

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Harari YN (2018) 21 lessons for the 21st century. Jonathan Cape London:352 pp.

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Harari YN (2018) Jonathan Cape

Abstract: In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. In theory, anybody can join the debate about the future of humanity, but it is so hard to maintain a clear vision. Frequently, we don't even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are. .. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids - you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is very unfair; but who said history was fair? As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes - but I can try and offer some clarity, thereby helping to level the global playing field.


Bioblast editor: Gnaiger E

Some selected quotes

  • Reality is composed of many threads.
  • Big data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most poeple suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse - irrelevance.
Disillusionment
  • Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.
  • Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.
  • The revolutions in biotech and infotech are made by engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists who are hardly aware of the political implications of their decisions, and who certainly don't represent anyone.
  • In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant.
  • It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.
  • .. the liberal story learned from communism to expand the circle of empathy and to value equality alongside liberty.
  • Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln's principle that 'you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time'.
  • But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption.
Work
  • Some believe that within a mere decade or two, billions of people will become economically redundant.
  • Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability. .. individual humans are likely to be replaced by an integrated network.
  • Today close to 1.25 million people are killed annually in traffic accidents (twice the number killed by war, crime and terrorism combined).
  • After all, what we ultimately ought to protect is humans - not jobs.
  • Homo sapiens is just not built for satisfaction. Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations.
Liberty
  • People will enjoy the best healthcare in history, but for precisely this reason they will probably be sick all the time. There is always something wrong somewhere in the body. There is always something that can be improved.
  • We no longer search for information. Instead, we google. And as we increasingly rely on Google for answers, so our ability to search for information by ourselves diminishes. Already today, 'truth' is defined by the top results of the Google search.
  • As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer see the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe than humanity's cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system - and then merge into it.
  • Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love and anger. We confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness.
Equality
  • Yet the data-giants probably aim far higher than any previous attention merchant. Their true business isn't to sell advertisements at all. Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue. We arent't their customers - we are their product.
Civilisation
  • Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked (having read Darwin's On the Origin of Species) that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human.
  • People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners.
  • Even countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo have adopted Western muscial conventions for their anthems. Most of them sound like something composed by Beethoven on a rather mediocre day.
  • In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and several other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, from car accidents, or from suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times. Unfortunately, by now we are so used to this achievement, that we take it for granted.
  • Zealous nationalists who cry 'Our country first!' should ask themselves whether their country by itself, without a robust system of international cooperation, can protect the world - or even itself - from nuclear distruction.
  • For thousands of years Homo sapiens behaved as an ecological serial killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer.
  • Unlike nuclear war - which is a future potential - climate change is a present reality.
  • A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has a least three such enemies - nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If despite these common threats humans choose to privilege their particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.
  • Even on a united planet there will be plenty of room for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community. A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation - why not add humankind and planet Earth to the list? True, when you have multiple loyalties, conflicts are somethimes inevitable. But then who said life was simple? Deal with it.
Immigration
  • The two key issues of this debate are the disagreement about immigrant intolerance and the disagremment about European identity. If immigrants are indeed guilty of incurable intolerance, many liberal Europeans who currently favour immigration will sooner or later come round to oppose it bitterly. Conversely, if most immigrants prove to be liberal and broad-minded in their attitude to religion, gender and politics, this will disarm some of the most effective arguments against immigration.
  • .. the gap between personal timesacale and collective timescale. From the viewpoint of human collectives, forty years is a short time. It is hard to expect society to fully absorb foreign groups within a few decades. Past civilisations that assimilated foreigners and made them equal citizens - such as Imperial Rome, the Muslim caliphate, the Chinese empires and the United States - all took centuries rather than decades to accomplish the transformation. From a personal viewpoint, however, forty years can be an eternity.
  • As long as we don't know whether absorption is a duty or a favour; what level of assimilation is required from immigrants; and how quickly host countries should treat them as equal citizens - we cannot judge whether the two sides are fulfilling their obligations.
  • When Germans argue over the absorption of a million Syrian refugees, can they ever be justified in thinking that German culture is in some way better than Syrian culture?
  • .. we see that the European debate about immigration is far from being a clear-cut battle between good and evil. It would be wrong to tar all anti-immigrationists as 'fascists', just as it would be wrong to depict all pro-immigrationists as committed to 'cultural suicide'. Therefore, the debate about immigration should not be conducted as an uncompromising struggle about some non-negotiable moral imperative. It is a discussion between two legitimate political positions, which should be decided through standard democratic procedures. At present, it is far from clear whether Europe can find a middle path that would enable it to keep its gates open to strangers without being destabilised by people who don't share its values. If Europe succeeds in finding such a path, perhaps its formula could be copied on the global level. If the European project fails, however, it would indicate that belief in the liberal values of freedom and tolerance is not enough to resolve the cultural conflicts of the world and to unite humankind in the face of nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption. If Greeks and Germans cannot agree on a common destiny, and if 500 million affluent Europeans cannot absorb a few million impoverished refugees, what chances do humans have of overcoming the far deeper conflicts that beset our global civilisation?
Terrorism
  • Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria). In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people alltogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?
  • So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.
  • A regime can withstand terrible catastrophes, and even ignore them, provided its legitimacy is not based on preventing them. On the other hand, a regime may collapse due to a minor problem, if it is seen as undermining its legitimacy.
  • In order to assuage these fears, the state is driven to respond to the theatre of terror with its own theatre of security. .. The citizens have seen the terrorist drama of the World Trade Center collapsing. The state feels compelled to stage an equally spectacular counter-drama, with even more fire and smoke. .. which not infrequently fulfils the terrorists' most cherished dreams.
  • Unfortunately, the media all too often provides this publicity for free. It obsessivley reports terror attacks and greatly inflates their danger, because reports on terrorism sell newspapers much better than reports on diabetes and air pollution.
  • The success or failure of terrorism thus depends on us. If we allow our imagination to be captured by the terrorists, and then overreact to our own fears - terrorism will succeed. If we free our imagination from the terrorists, and react in a balanced and cool way terrorism will fail.
  • It is hard to set priorities in real time, while it is all too easy to second-guess priorities with hindsight. We accuse leaders of failing to prevent the catatrophes that happened, while remaining blissfully unaware of the disasters that never materialised.
War
  • In particular, in 1914 war had great appeal to elites across the world because they had many concrete examples of how successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. In contrast, in 2018 succesful wars seem to be an endangered species.
  • We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities.
Secularism
  • Hence though secular people acknowledge their special duties towards their nation and their country, they don't think these duties are exclusive, and they simultaneously acknowledge their duties towards humanity as a whole.
  • Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
Justice
  • Most of the injustices in the contemporary world result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices, and our hunter-gatherer brains did not evolve to detect structural biases.
  • In one noteworthy experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a poor seven-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia. Many were moved by her story, and opened their hearts and purses. However, when in addition to Rokia's personal story the researchers also presented people with statistics about the broader problem of poverty in Africa, respondents suddenly became less willing to help. In another study, scholars solicited donations to help either one sick child or eight sick children. People gave more money to the single child than to the group of eight.
Post-truth
  • As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
  • I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that's exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month - that's fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years - that's religion, and we are admonished not to call it 'fake news' in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).
  • Branding often involves retelling the same fictional story again and again, until people become convinced it is the truth.
  • In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth.
  • The difference between holy books and money, for example, is far smaller than it may seem at first sight. When most people see a dollar bill, they see it is as something valuable in and of itself. They hardly ever remind themselves 'Actually, this is a worthless piece of paper, but because other people view it as valuable, I can make use of it'.
  • If you really focus, you realise that money is fiction. But usually you don't focus.
  • The most powerful scholarly establishments - whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues - placed unity above truth. That's why they were so powerful. As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it - and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.
  • Does that mean that scientists should start writing science fiction? That is actually not such a bad idea.
Science fiction
  • Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions. Poets, painters and playwrights are therefore at least as important as soldiers and engineers.
Education
  • .. the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, poeple need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
  • Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.
Meaning
  • Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings.
  • "Hoc est corpus!" got garbled into "Hocus pocus!".
  • .. some neurons are just not on speaking terms with one another.