Yuval Noah Harari is a currently fashionable author and his book Home Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow has generated some buzz among salon intellectuals.
His subtitle suggest some hubris; he can see the future. Yet this is truly a trivial book claiming a portentous message. The author skates over thin slivers of news headlines, pop technology, biology and historical factlets to arrive at a 100% erroneous conclusion.
The end of individualism?
His portentous message is the end of individualism. The author lays out a proposition that authorities such as churches and kings and governments fooled us into believing that we each have individual identities and that life has individual meaning. Why did they do so? Because they could turn these I-believe-in-myself humans into useful workers in a division of labor economy.
But, according to the author, biology tells us that we do not have individual identity, or free will or an individual self. We are merely bundles and sequences of electrical activity and neuronal responses which are directed by some force or other (he doesn’t tell us what) but certainly not by individual free will. There is no individual. We have been fooled into mis-diagnosing our own consciousness.
And now, the institutions who fooled us are going to change their message. They don’t want us to believe we are individuals any more. Because intelligent, but not conscious, software will be preferred to make all decisions in the future – including telling each of us how to think and what to do. Therefore, it will be useless (or possibly dangerous) to have humans going around thinking they are individuals with free will.
Professor Harari wants us to believe that our existence is meaningless, just a temporary flurry of electrical and biological activity in a repurposable body unit. He replaces the idea of mind and individual consciousness with the idea of an algorithm. We are all just bundles of algorithms.
The augmented, interconnected individual.
But, despite Professor Harari, we do exist. Existence means something, and we experience existence through consciousness and the individual self. The mistake he makes with technology is to believe it will replace human functions. But it won’t. It will augment them. The individual will feel more interconnected, will enjoy more access to knowledge, and will be able to utilize tools to process that knowledge in new and better ways. This technological augmentation of individual capacity, combined with new levels of interconnectivity between people and knowledge and machines, will certainly change the economy and society. But it will lead to a higher level of thriving for individuals rather than to the eclipse of individual experience. Individualism is not a concept thrust upon us by institutions to make us productive. Individualism is the engine of emergent order, and whatever new order emerges from the new era of interconnectivity and intelligent software, individuals will be central to it.
Professor Harari, like many intellectuals, forgets that all of civilization’s advances are the product of individual human behavior, not of collective human design.