Coming off a wildly popular book is one of the most difficult things for an author to do. While the first book was a surprise, taking the world by storm, expectations have now been set, the author has been typecast and any deviation from that perception and style of writing will be seen as a let-down by the very audience that put him on the pedestal. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, avoids that hurdle by writing his sequel, Homo Deus, in the same way as the former and trying to build on the same content as he has shared with the world before.
While Sapiens is the story – Harari’s story – of how the human race got to the point we find ourselves at today, Homo Deus is the story of where we might possibly go from here. Possibly. My main gripe with Sapiens was that Harari presented a lot of his theories as facts and that gave the impression that there could be but one road by which we arrived in the 21st century, with science & technology as our weapons. That’s not true, of course. Sapiens gave one hypothesis. There could be others, just as plausible. Homo Deus, however, makes no such claim. Right at the outset, Harari clarifies that what follows in the book is merely one possibility, which may or may not occur. The implication here is that we have a long way to go, not only in terms of technology but also in terms of accepting it on a mass level, before we can arrive at the utopian world of the Jetsons!
Homo Deus is essentially Harari’s attempt to prove to the world that human beings, and all animals, are nothing but advanced algorithms and clusters of data. The underlying rationale here is that human beings enable data flow through interaction, and the evolution of how we interact, starting with small tribes to big cities to the modern global world connected by social media, is nothing but an exercise to build increasingly sophisticated systems to enable more efficient flow of data. Today, we have reached a stage where we absolutely need to post everything we do on the internet and let the world know about it. We are less bothered about privacy than ever before, gladly giving up personal data to corporations so that we will be able to apply an additional filter on a random selfie. The author classifies this as our contribution to the data system. In other words, as Harari himself put it, connecting to this vast data system is how we give meaning to our lives today. He goes so far as to postulate that communism failed as an economic model because it was less efficient for data flow as compared to capitalism.
In order to prove this hypothesis, Homo Deus delves into social, theological and economic systems, past and present, so as to trace a journey of man’s evolution in terms of how we give meaning to our lives. This inevitably entails a dive into the meaning of God and why the traditional religions were necessary. We also get a glimpse into why liberalism suddenly might have taken over from the conservative religions and how that was because of the way capitalism became the predominant economic model of the past century. At some points, it feels like the book is exploring too many themes and connecting too many dots. But in Harari’s defence, the world is exactly that complex. There is a multitude of systems, connected in a million intricate ways. To disturb one string in one system would have a substantial butterfly effect on a system which is unconnected at first glance. Harari has the rare ability to see and comprehend these connections, and even rarer is the ability to put those observations on paper in a way that the layman can glimpse them too.
While the book is too small to really delve into aspects like the meaning of life, which would by themselves command volumes upon volumes by the best philosophers history has known, Homo Deus does allow us a scratch on the surface and entices the reader to go a bit deeper than he normally would. The 21st-century human being would intuitively agree with a lot of what Harari says because we are in the process of doing what he postulates. We do post everything for the world to see, we rely increasingly on technology even for the smallest of tasks and we already see a world where jobs get wiped out in droves because of increasingly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence being able to do 90% of the work a human being does in 10% of the time. Throughout history, we have lived under the illusion that human beings are special (and indeed, that is the basis for most of what religion taught us), but the 21st century has been about realizing that we may be just as replaceable as donkeys were on the farming field. It’s only a question of the right technology coming along. If what Harari says is true – that emotions and feelings are nothing but pre-programmed neurological processes – then those processes can be replicated, and that data can be handled much more effectively and efficiently than human beings have been doing. If this is true, every profession we currently have is in danger of being made obsolete.
However, while Harari has his way of sensationalizing observations and giving them catchy names, there is always a caveat to them. There are a million decisions to be taken, both economic and moral before any such reality can truly exist. Unlike in Sapiens, Harari acknowledges this caveat in Homo Deus. For all his claim of human intelligence becoming extinct, the moral implication of advancing technology is one area he remains quiet upon. In my personal opinion, this is one area which might go against all he hypotheses postulated in the book.
Throughout history, human beings have always taken decisions which may not make economic or even evolutionary sense, but have been taken nevertheless basis the prevalent morality of the age. These decisions have often slowed down progress or relegated it to a particular aspect of human life, rather than letting it take over suddenly. Religion has carried out this role in the past, a little too ruthlessly, and modern governments do the same, even if they are under the influence of corporates with economic agendas. This may not be enough to prevent the Homo Sapiens from being taken over by the Homo Deus or from Dataism (as Harari christens it) from becoming the new dominant religion of the world. But it is an aspect which is crucial, and Harari should have certainly gone into it too.
The book, in the end, leaves a lot to be desired. Homo Deus, like its predecessor, is definitely worth a read. It’s an incredibly well-written book, taking a topic which could very easily have become muddled and messy, but somehow keeps it straight and lucid. In its simplicity, it does not aim to confuse readers with the difficult and technical themes it deals with, but rather handhold them through each of them, making clear the many threads that run through our history and future.
But just like its predecessor, it would be best to keep an open mind and a pinch of salt ready while reading it.
Reviewed by: Aniruddha Rege