First Book of the New Year: Yuval Noah Harari’s “Lessons for the 21st Century”

Yuval Noah Harari is among my very favorite public intellectuals, even though some of his prophesies are terrifying! Listening to a talk he gave in India this last year, about the capacity of future algorithms and reach of AI, I was struck by just how close the future he describes seems.

Indeed, it is already upon us.

Consider the phenomenon of New Years resolutions and self improvement in general, and the way our consumerist society is driven by the idea of ‘hacking ourselves’ to re-program and ‘get free’ from prior conditioning. Should a company like Amazon develop an Alexa type AI, that offers to monitor all our behaviors (input and output), over the course of a period of time, so that we can have all the information we need to “live our best life”, would we give permission?

Instead of taking that next marketing or time-management course, or hiring a life coach to help us, would we sign off on a ‘more perfect than a human could construct’ optimal life, which would then be aided by various products and services? Would it be like plastic surgery for the total ‘self’ and ‘life’?

Would we hand over that kind of information to a company (with all the “rights” of a human being)? We may think we wouldn’t, but we’ve moved forward pretty swiftly with new tech, regardless of disturbing revelations. My scenario posits permission asking, but companies like Facebook seem more about apologizing later. Mere humans are already lagging.

What Harari is describing is “3.0”, at least. One big question is, CAN you get a read on the inside of a human being, by a ‘full’ evaluation of the outside?

Will this shape up to be a new morality? What’s the template? Who’s is it? Is there any such thing as control over one’s destiny in a scenario where we’re so practically outmatched? Certainly, we don’t seem to be getting better at compromising and cooperating, if you look at our current methods.

One disturbing trend has been a bizarre equating of wealth with being responsible and good… a reasserting of caste system, in a way, and a failure of people to relate to those at the opposite ends of the resource spectrum. I like that Harari is thoughtful about these things too, and I like that he presents meditation and “seeing things as they are” as important in a tangible way, facing what we’re facing.

I believe that, too.

Some of the most interesting ideas Harari has, center around global identity (going beyond nationalism), which has the most practical ends imaginable: collaborative addressing of climate change, prevention of nuclear war, and management of disasters and planetary shortages.

We have no choice but to grapple with these questions together.

Here’s the talk:

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