A conversation about the end of work, individualism, and the human species with the historian Yuval Harari
Famine, plague and war. These have been the three scourges of human history. But today, people in most countries are more likely to die from eating too much rather than too little, more likely to die of old age than a great plague, and more likely to commit suicide than to die in war.
With famine, plague and war in their twilight—at least, for now—mankind will turn its focus to achieving immortality and permanent happiness, according to Yuval Harari’s new book "Homo Deus." In other words, to turning ourselves into gods.
Harari’s previous work, "Sapiens," was a swashbuckling history of the human species. His new book is another mind-altering adventure, blending philosophy, history, psychology and futurism. We spoke recently about its most audacious predictions. This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.
Derek Thompson: In "Homo Deus," you predict the end of work, the end of liberal individualism and the end of humanity. Let’s take these one by one.
First, work. You have a smart and scary way of looking at the political implications of mass automation. At the end of the 19th century, France, Germany and Japan offered free health care to their citizens. Their aim was not strictly to make people happy, but to strengthen their army and industrial potential. In other words, welfare was necessary because people were necessary. But you ask the scary question: What happens to welfare in a future where government no longer needs people?
Yuval Harari: It’s a very scary scenario. It’s not science fiction. It’s already happening.
The reason to build all these mass social service systems was to support strong armies and strong economies. Already the most advanced armies don’t need [as many] people. The same might happen in the civilian economy. The problem is motivation: What if the government loses the motivation to help the masses?
In Scandinavia, the tradition of the welfare state is so entrenched that perhaps they’ll continue to provide welfare even for masses of useless people. But what about Nigeria, South Africa and China? They have been encouraged to provide services mostly in the hope of advancing prosperity, [which requires] having a large basis of healthy and smart citizens. But take that away and you might be left with countries with elites who don’t care about the population.
Thompson: The last point is interesting, because, in Europe and the United States, the opposite seems more true: The population doesn’t care about, or think it needs, the elite. That’s a part of how we got Trump and Brexit. Now, you see these radical-right backlashes against the establishment sweeping across Europe. Why is this happening now?
Harari: That’s the big question. I didn’t foresee it coming. It’s not my expertise to look at the political situation in the U.S. or in Europe. But if you look at the objective condition of health and so forth, most people in the U.S. and Western Europe have better conditions than they used to. But they feel like they are being pushed aside and losing power. And they fear their children will have a worse life than they do today. I think these fears may be justified. But I don’t think the antidote will work. Trump will not help Alabama voters regain their power.
Thompson: Americans might be richer and better educated than they used to be a generation ago, with better health care and superior entertainment options. But the fact of progress doesn’t seem to matter. The story is all that matters. And the victorious Trump story was that America’s cities were falling apart and “I alone can fix it.”
Harari: [White Americans without a college degree] are a declining class within a declining power. The U.S. is losing power compared to the rest of the world, and within the U.S., the Trump voters are losing their status. Even though they are experiencing better conditions, the narrative self which is dominant in most people tells a story of decline, which says that the future will be worse than the present. And most people’s happiness depends on their expectations, not their conditions.
Thompson: Let’s say the future for most people is a universal basic income, wonderful psychedelic drugs and virtual reality video games. People don’t starve. They aren’t miserable. But they also stop striving. The Walt Disney virtues—challenge yourself! go on an adventure!—are sacrificed to live permanently inside of Disney-style entertainment. Is that utopia or dystopia?
Harari: Most philosophers will say that your hypothetical is a dystopia. A far worse world.
But you could argue that people already spend most of their lives in virtual games. Most religions are virtual games superimposed on the reality of life. Do this, and there’s a penalty. Do that, and you get extra points. There is nothing in reality that corresponds to these rules. But you have millions of people playing these virtual reality games. So what is the difference between a religion and a virtual reality game?
Recently, I went with my nephew to hunt Pokémon. We were walking down the street and a bunch of kids approached us. They were also hunting Pokémon. My nephew and these children got into a bit of a fight because they were trying to capture the same invisible creatures. It seemed strange to me. But these Pokémon were very real to the children.
And then, it hit me: This is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! You have two sides fighting over something that I cannot see. I look at the stones of buildings in Jerusalem and I just see stones. But Christians, Jews and Muslims who look at the same stones see a holy city. It’s their imagination, but they are willing to kill for it. That’s virtual reality, too.
Your hypothetical also raises a deep philosophical question: What is the meaning of life? Historically philosophers investigated questions that were interesting to only half a percentage of humankind.
Thompson: Right. “What is ideal way to seek happiness?” isn’t a useful inquiry when the entire countryside is dying of plague.
Harari: Yes, but once you are free from considerations of famine and plague, this becomes a much more practical question: What is the meaning of life? If you design a self-driving car, you must design ethical algorithms in the case that it’s about to hit a child. Do you risk injury to the pedestrian, or the passenger? That is suddenly a very practical question. Philosophy, once an archaic system, becomes central once we take care of widespread death and misery.
Thompson: Alright, let’s move from the end of work to the end of individualism.
You have a beautiful way of summarizing human beings’ relationship with authority. First, we believed that authority came from the gods. But that belief has yielded to modern liberalism, which tells us that authority comes from individuals. Democracy says power comes from the voters, not the divine. Capitalism says the consumer is always right, not the Bible. Marketers say beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, not in platonic forms.
But you have a ominous prediction that humans will merge with the computers, algorithms, and biochemical devices that make our lives better. We will yield our authority and identity to data and artificial intelligence. What invention or innovation in the world right now is the best example of this future?
Harari: I like to begin with the simple things. Look at GPS applications, like Waze and Google Maps. Five years ago, you went somewhere in your car or on foot. You navigated based on your own knowledge and intuition. But today everybody is blindly following what Waze is telling them. They’ve lost the basic ability to navigate by themselves. If something happens to the application, they are completely lost.
That’s not the most important example. But it is the direction we’re talking about. You reach a juncture on the road, and you trust the algorithm. Maybe the junction is your career. Maybe it’s the decision to get married. But you trust the algorithm rather than your own intuition.
The most important invention that’s spreading now is biometric sensors. They may become ubiquitous. Humans will consult their biometric data to determine how to live. That is really interesting and scary stuff, because we will no longer be in charge of our identity. We will outsource our executive decisions to biometric readings of our neurochemical signals to decide how to live.
Thompson: Here is how I understand this idea. It’s the future, and I’m hungry on a Friday night. I think, “I’d like fried chicken.” Then I consult my AI daemon, which can read by biochemical signals and predict my future emotions, and it says to me: “Actually, Derek, a chicken salad will make you happier.” So I eat salad.
On a case-by-case basis, this technology seems wonderful. It’s making me so much healthier and happier. Technology is rescuing me from the natural errors of misreading my future wants and needs. But over time, “I” have disappeared, because I have outsourced my identity to a biochemical analyst.
Harari: Yes, exactly.
In this scenario, we will come to see that decisions don’t come from a mystical soul but from biological processes in the brain. In the past we couldn’t gather the data and analyze it. So you could imagine that there is a mystical, transcendental soul inside you making these decisions. From a practical perspective that was a good enough estimation. But once you combine a better understanding of the biochemical processes in the body with the computational power of big data, then you have a real revolution, because this traditional notion of free will no longer make practical sense and you can have algorithm that make better decisions than an individual human.
Thompson: That’s fascinating, because I now think of these algorithms as bringing me closer to myself. If a fitness tracker encourages me to run more, or an entertainment algorithm discovers a song I love, I’m happier. And I prefer myself happy.
But over time, my decisions have been reduced to brain signals and brain signal readers. “I” am not special, or sacred, or even individual. I’m just a vessel for a bunch of signals that are best read by a computer. There is no room for “me” in that arrangement.
Harari: What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.
Have you seen "Inside Out"? For me, this was the tipping point in popular culture’s understanding of the mind. For decades Disney sold us the liberal individualistic fantasy: Don’t listen to your neighbors or government, just follow your own heart. But then in "Inside Out," you go inside this little girl Riley, and you don’t encounter a self or a core identity. What the movie shows to children and their parents is that Riley is a robot being manipulated by chemical processes inside her brain. The cataclysmic point in the story is your realize that none of the sources inside her are her true self. In the beginning, you identify with Joy, but the critical moment comes when you realize none of these emotions are Riley’s true self. It’s a balance between different sources.
And I think this is what will happen more and more on a general level. The very idea of an individual that exists, which has been so precious to us, is in danger.