We think of ISIS as anti-human, and we are right to. But what if the greater threat to humanity is not among the barbaric brigades of the Levant, but among the far more sophisticated barbarians at work in Silicon Valley? This discussion between economist Daniel Kahneman and historian Yuval Noah Harari is … illuminating on that question. Excerpt:
KAHNEMAN: What you are doing here, in terms of prediction, is about trends. The trend is clear, what progress means is clear, but when you describe people as superfluous, you are presenting the background for a huge problem. Who decides what to do with the superfluous people. Especially, what are the social implications that you see, the technical or technological development that you foresee?
HARARI: Well, again, I am an historian, I am not a biologist, I’m not a computer scientist, I am not in a position to say whether all these ideas are realizable or not. I can just look from the view of the historian and say what it looks from there. So the social and philosophical and political implications are the things that interest me most. Basically, if any of these trends are going to actually be fulfilled, then the best I can do is quote Marx and say that everything solid melts into air.
Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface … when brains and computers can interact directly, to take just one example, that’s it, that’s the end of history, that’s the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can basically break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, as it’s often referred to, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what’s happening beyond that.
Looking before the point of Singularity, just as the trend is gathering pace, one thing we can say is there may be a repeat of what happened in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, of the opening of huge gaps between different classes and different countries. Generally speaking, the 20th century was a century of closing gaps, fewer gaps between classes, between genders, between ethnic groups, between countries. So maybe we are starting to see the reopening of these gaps with a vengeance, gaps that will be far greater then were between the industrialized and the non-industrialized part of the world, 150 or 200 years ago.
In the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, what humanity basically learned to produce was all kinds of stuff, like textiles and shoes and weapons and vehicles, and this was enough for the very few countries that underwent the revolution to subjugate everybody else. What we’re talking about now is like a second Industrial Revolution, but the product this time will not be textiles or machines or vehicles, or even weapons. The product this time will be humans themselves.
We’re basically learning to produce bodies and minds. Bodies and minds are going to be the two main products of the next wave of all these changes. And if there is a gap between those that know how to produce bodies and minds and those that do not, then this is far greater than anything we saw before in history.
And this time, if you’re not fast enough to become part of the revolution, then you’ll probably become extinct. Countries like China, missed the train for the Industrial Revolution, but 150 years later, they somehow have managed to catch up, largely, speaking in economic terms, thanks to the power of cheap labor. Now, those who miss the train will never get a second chance. If a country, if a people, today are left behind, they will never get a second chance, especially because cheap labor will count for nothing. Once you know how to produce bodies and brains and minds, cheap labor in Africa or South Asia or wherever, it simply counts for nothing. So in geopolitical terms, we might see a repeat of the 19th century, but in a much larger scale.
KAHNEMAN: What I find difficult to imagine is that as people are becoming unnecessary, the translation of that into sort of 20th-century terms is mass unemployment. Mass unemployment means social unrest. And it means there are things going to happen, processes going to happen in society, as a result of people becoming superfluous, and that is a gradual process, people becoming superfluous.
We may be seeing that in the growing inequality now, we may be seeing the beginning of what you’re talking about. But have you thought, in the same way as you’re thinking in interesting and novel ways about technology, have you thought about the social side?
HARARI: Yes, the social side is the more important and more difficult one. I don’t have a solution, and the biggest question maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that.
What to do with all these useless people? Harari says bread and circuses are probably the answer:
The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless. My best guess, which is just a guess, is that food will not be a problem. With that kind of technology, you will be able to produce food to feed everybody. My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.
What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.
What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant.
Harari says that we are returning to a social and political structure that is the norm for human history: the powerless masses dominated by all-powerful elites. It’s already happening now, and it will only grow. We are losing, and may have lost, the ideal of the common good that teaches us that economic progress should be shared.
Harari points out that the pace of technological change is so fast now that nobody can say for sure what is going to happen to the family, and to our ideas of community. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution smashed the traditional family, replacing many of its functions with the state and the market. Harari:
And you can say that maybe life today is in some ways worse than in 1700, because we have lost much of the connection to the community around us … it’s a big argument … but it happened. People today actually manage to live, many people, as isolated, alienated individuals. In the most advanced societies, people live as alienated individuals, with no community to speak about, with a very small family. It’s no longer the big extended family. It’s now a very small family, maybe just a spouse, maybe one or two children, and even they, they might live in a different city, in a different country, and you see them maybe once in every few months, and that’s it. And the amazing thing is that people live with that. And that’s just 200 years.
What might happen in the next hundred years on that level of daily life, of intimate relationships? Anything is possible. You look at Japan today, and Japan is maybe 20 years ahead of the world in everything. And you see these new social phenomena of people having relationships with virtual spouses. And you have people who never leave the house and just live through computers. And I don’t know, maybe it’s the future, maybe it isn’t, but for me, the amazing thing is that you’d have thought, given the biological background of humankind, that this is impossible, yet we see that it is possible. Apparently, Homo Sapiens is even more malleable than we tend to think.
A side note: I was recently having a conversation with a teacher friend, and we were talking about how no education policy makers are talking about the role intact, functioning families play in the education process. I told my friend that listening to my late sister’s stories about her classroom experiences, as well as those of other teacher friends, had led me to conclude that kids with intact families are in a far better position to succeed academically than kids who are not — and that this gap cannot be bridged by technical solutions. Education is an organic process, not a mechanical one. So many of these kids who, through no fault of their own, live with single moms, and/or in family situations where they don’t get the care, attention, and culture of educational mission that many (most?) kids from intact families do, are going to fall further and further behind. Put in a way that Harari might make sense of, the lack of a family structure produces 21st-century serfs. Far from liberating people by trashing tradition, academics and activists who seek to normalize all kinds of families as equally legitimate are in fact making it more likely that children acculturated by irregular families will lack the knowledge and the skills enabling them to resist the economic and political forces that seek to control them.
Harari, once more:
In terms of history, the events in Middle East, of ISIS and all of that, is just a speed bump on history’s highway. The Middle East is not very important. Silicon Valley is much more important. It’s the world of the 21st century … I’m not speaking only about technology.
In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.
Really and truly, read the whole thing. It’s important. Cosimanian Orthodoxy really is the religion of the future. Note well that Harari is not saying he wants these things to happen (though he might). He is saying that current trends are leading in this direction.
Will you people who sneer at the Benedict Option and think that it’s only about trying to get away from the queers finally understand that this stuff Harari is talking about is the kind of thing I say we must prepare to resist? As I wrote here, same-sex marriage is not the heart of the challenge to Christianity, but rather an especially potent manifestation of the essential challenge, which is metaphysical — and which Harari has deftly explained in this interview (though he never once mentions gay marriage).
At issue is what it means to be authentically human. Is our humanity something we discover, or is it something we manufacture? If it’s the latter, and if human nature is malleable, as Harari and many others believe it is, then the future belongs to those elites who, in Harari’s chilling phrase, have learned “to produce bodies and minds.”
These are the new Dark Ages, and their darkness consists in large part of the belief that they are, in fact, an age of enlightenment, of progress.
The mainstream Left and the mainstream Right are collaborating to bring this new world into being. They both see progress in what technology can do to liberate the individual will from any obligations beyond those he chooses. On the Left, it generally has to do with social norms and beliefs; on the Right, it has to do with market forces. The symbol of this alliance is David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who is signing a SCOTUS friend of the court brief in favor of same-sex marriage. What Koch stands for is the future of mainstream liberalism and conservatism both.
I hope Christians will read the Kahneman-Harari interview closely. This is the future. If you are not part of a church community that is consciously resisting this vision, then your children, or at best your children’s children, will be lost to the faith. There is no thought more corrupting to the human soul than the Serpent’s promise in Eden: “Ye shall be as gods.”
This is the religion of the future. Slavery will come to us disguised as the light of liberty and progress. These are the barbarians coming to rule us — and the masses will welcome them. This is why we must have the Benedict Option, for those with eyes to see.