Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, has been telling anyone who will listen that the technological and biological revolutions that we are living through will be the most important events in human history. As a historian and an Israeli, he is well suited to be a spokesperson for the times we live in. He brings sweeping narratives to his assertions along with that Israeli penchant to never sugarcoat anything. He bluntly describes the future of our species while challenging his audience to accept as fact that our world is changing and that they need to start thinking about how to live in the world we are creating.
Yet his greatest contribution seems to be attracting the least amount of attention. If you follow science and technology news it starts to seem like everyday giant leaps are made that propel us further and further down the road. Innovation is exploding in all directions and the pace of progress seems to be accelerating exponentially. However what is missing in all that noise is a coherent ideology to ground it. What is going to replace the mythologies, religious doctrines and political ideologies that brought us together, that were the basis for much of our decision making, and that defined us a species for so long?
Attempts have been made to build an ideological framework around these new times that we are living in. The most prominent among them is a radical new movement called Transhumanism that sees the technological revolution as the next step in human evolution. Proponents of this movement want to merge man and machine to ensure our survival and allow us to fulfill what they believe is our biological destiny. Already it has gone from an ideology to a political movement with several transhumanist parties forming around the world, most notably the Transhumanist Party of America that was formed by the aptly named Zoltan Istvan.
Prof. Harari has put forward a slightly different philosophy. In a talk at Google titled “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets”, he highlighted a new ideology emerging out of Silicon Valley that largely removes human agency. He asserts that humans are not that good at making decisions, we are biased, emotional creatures that are limited in how much information we can process. Also the world has become too complex for any individual, or even group, to accurately make sense of it all. For those reasons we will need to cede decision making to algorithms that will be able to take in the mountains of data that we are creating and analyze the world far better than we ever could.
Some go as far as to say this won’t be a choice we make, it will just happen…
Another book, Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, delves into the unseen algorithms that shape our lives and our decision making. The authors highlight the hyper-rational savants whose algorithmic based way of seeing the world allowed them to uncover truths that have reshaped how we live…“When Charles Darwin was trying to decide whether he should propose to his cousin Emma Wedgwood, he got out a pencil and paper and weighed every possible consequence. In favor of marriage he listed children, companionship, and the ‘charms of music and female chit-chat.’ Against marriage he listed the ‘terrible loss of time,’ lack of freedom to go where he wished, the burden of visiting relatives, the expense and anxiety provoked by children, the concern that ‘perhaps my wife won’t like London,’ and having less money to spend on books. Weighing one column against the other produced a narrow margin of victory, and at the bottom Darwin scrawled, ‘Marry—Marry—Marry Q.E.D.’ Quod erat demonstrandum, the mathematical sign-off that Darwin himself restated in English: ‘It being proved necessary to Marry.”
It can be difficult to see the value in this kind of extreme rationalism when making personal decisions about our own lives. But when applied to decisions that affect all of society it makes sense to factor in as much information as possible to base our decisions on. In the past we were limited to taking in as much information as humanly possible, now we are able to extend that limit to include as much information as computationally possible. If Darwin had access to the right algorithm it seems like he would have asked it to factor in what effect sun exposure on that particular day was having on his psyche along with all other possible variables.
There are places in our history where ideas emerged that gave birth to new religions, new cultures and new ideologies. These ideas were born out of stories that surrounded themselves with a system of belief that formed the backbones of entire civilizations. What started in Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Qufu, or Lumbini, spread, and as they spread they encountered new peoples that had their own ideas of the world. An ideological struggle ensued and those that survived were usually the ideologies that proved to be more powerful and more persuasive.
The same thing is happening today in Silicon Valley. Not only is nearly every country on earth trying to establish their own centers for innovation to try and mimic what happened in Silicon Valley, but the set of values that is being created there is also rapidly being exported and replacing old belief systems. This ideology has at its core a dogma shaped by libertarian atheism, a place with no need for old ideas like religion and tradition, where youth is prized, where aesthetic values come second to the need for open sterile environments, where innovation is all that matters and where algorithms and technology are believed to be able to solve all the world’s problems.
This culture has spread rapidly, thanks in large part to the most powerful weapon in human history, the internet. Nothing we have ever created has done more to influence the lives and the minds of as many people as the internet. Some are quick to point out all the problems that the internet has created, but we can’t blame the internet or technology for how people choose to use it, just like we can’t blame fire for some people using it to burn down villages. Regardless, it’s not going anywhere, if anything its reach and influence is only going to continue to get more and more pervasive.
But Silicon Valley is now facing its biggest threat yet, Donald Trump. A clash is brewing between what the American political system has created and the world that Silicon Valley is trying to build. This has forced Silicon Valley to become political. The irony is that they are in large part responsible for Donald Trump’s victory.
The battleground is set, on one side we have the old entrenched system currently represented by the Donald wielding the presidency like a child who finally got his hands on that assault rifle he always wanted, and on the other side the new techno-elite of Silicon Valley who seem determined to continue their digital take over of the world.
And at the heart of this struggle is a debate between what values the modern world should have, particularly the tug-of-war emerging between nationalism and globalism. For more on this clash of ideas that will dominate the 21st century, watch this talk by Prof. Harari…