The author of Sapiens, has written another gem. He attempts to tackle the impossible question of, ‘What does the future look like?’. Though he appears to do it with the requisite amount of modesty, saying “We cannot really predict the future. All the scenarios outlined in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies.” The book delves deep into all of the possible moral debates that arise as humans continue to technologically prosper. How many years in the future should our current decisions be based on? Will our current government systems be able to compete with the speed of the future? Does individual ‘freedom’ have still have a place in the future?
During the last hundred years, technological, economic and political developments have created an increasingly robust safety net separating humankind from the biological poverty line. Mass famines still strike some areas from time to time, but they are exceptional, and they are almost always caused by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes.
Even when wars, earthquakes or tsunamis devastate entire countries, international efforts usually succeed in preventing famine. Though hundreds of millions still go hungry almost every day, in most countries very few people actually starve to death.
In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030.
Yet in the race against medicine, pathogens ultimately depend on the blind hand of fortune. It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it.
When the moment comes to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, politicians, CEOs and voters almost always prefer growth. In the twenty-first century, we shall have to do better if we are to avoid catastrophe.
If traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over.
We mortals daily take chances with our lives, because we know they are going to end anyhow. So we go on treks in the Himalayas, swim in the sea, and do many other dangerous things like crossing the street or eating out. But if you believe you can live for ever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.
The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones.
In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.
To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate.
With regard to other animals, humans have long since become gods. We don’t like to reflect on this too deeply, because we have not been particularly just or merciful gods.
‘Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world. If we want to understand our life and our future, we should make every effort to understand what an algorithm is, and how algorithms are connected with emotions.
In the twenty-first century it sounds childish to compare the human psyche to a steam engine. Today we know of a far more sophisticated technology – the computer – so we explain the human psyche as if it were a computer processing data rather than a steam engine regulating pressure. But this new analogy may turn out to be just as naïve. After all, computers have no minds. They don’t crave anything even when they have a bug, and the Internet doesn’t feel pain even when authoritarian regimes sever entire countries from the Web. So why use computers as a model for understanding the mind?
As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behaviour of strangers and to organise mass-cooperation networks. Sapiens often use visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’. Our chimpanzee cousins cannot invent and spread such stories, which is why they cannot cooperate in large numbers.
Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention, and not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks. In particular, human networks built in the name of imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations normally judge their success from the viewpoint of the imaginary entity. A religion is successful if it follows divine commandments to the letter; a nation is glorious if it promotes the national interest; and a corporation thrives if it makes a lot of money.
No doubt, when some people specialise in software engineering while others spend their time taking care of the elderly, we can produce more software and give old people more professional care. Yet is economic growth more important than family bonds? By daring to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science to that of religion.
Yet can the economy actually keep growing for ever? Won’t it eventually run out of resources – and grind to a halt? In order to ensure perpetual growth, we must somehow discover an inexhaustible store of resources.
Science has provided modernity with the alternative. The fox economy cannot grow, because foxes don’t know how to produce more rabbits. The rabbit economy stagnates, because rabbits cannot make the grass grow faster. But the human economy can grow because humans can discover new materials and sources of energy.
As of 2016, humankind indeed manages to hold the stick at both ends. Not only do we possess far more power than ever before, but against all expectations, God’s death did not lead to social collapse. Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans. God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the atheist Netherlands.
Modern artists seek to get in touch with themselves and their feelings, rather than with God. No wonder then that when we come to evaluate art, we no longer believe in any objective yardsticks. Instead, we again turn to our subjective feelings. In ethics, the humanist motto is ‘if it feels good – do it’. In politics, humanism instructs us that ‘the voter knows best’. In aesthetics, humanism says that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder
To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, an empty term that carries no discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.
Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.
Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority.
However, in the twenty-first century the majority of both men and women might lose their military and economic value. Gone is the mass conscription of the two world wars. The most advanced armies of the twenty-first century rely far more on cutting-edge technology. Instead of limitless cannon fodder, you now need only small numbers of highly trained soldiers, even smaller numbers of special forces super-warriors and a handful of experts who know how to produce and use sophisticated technology.
The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.
In the high days of European imperialism, conquistadors and merchants bought entire islands and countries in exchange for coloured beads. In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.
Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy. Healing the sick was an egalitarian project, because it assumed that there is a normative standard of physical and mental health that everyone can and should enjoy. If someone fell below the norm, it was the job of doctors to fix the problem and help him or her ‘be like everyone’. In contrast, upgrading the healthy is an elitist project, because it rejects the idea of a universal standard applicable to all, and seeks to give some individuals an edge over others. People want superior memories, above-average intelligence and first-class sexual abilities. If some form of upgrade becomes so cheap and common that everyone enjoys it, it will simply be considered the new baseline, which the next generation of treatments will strive to surpass.
(the joke is that in the Kalahari Desert, the typical hunter-gatherer band consists of twenty hunters, twenty gatherers and fifty anthropologists).
The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they would possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hamper the system and slow it down. As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the herd that stirs up the greatest trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animal mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution dreamed up by techno-humanists might do the same to us.
This implies that as data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they don’t process data efficiently enough. These institutions evolved in an era when politics moved faster than technology. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Industrial Revolution unfolded slowly enough for politicians and voters to remain one step ahead of it and regulate and manipulate its course. Yet whereas the rhythm of politics has not changed much since the days of steam, technology has switched from first gear to fourth. Technological revolutions now outpace political processes, causing MPs and voters alike to lose control.
When you read the Bible, you get advice from a few priests and rabbis who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality tests of natural selection. Your feelings are the voice of millions of ancestors, each of whom managed to survive and reproduce in an unforgiving environment.
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