Reviewing _Homo Deus_, alas

In my work I have to track various attempts to predict or model possible futures.  Partly this is so I can follow methodological and professional developments.  Partly it’s to improve my thinking about the ways humanity could change.

Sometimes this research can be very disappointing.  For example, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.

_Homo Deus_ coverI enjoyed the first half of Harari’s first book, Sapiens (2011), and honestly looked forward to this one. I hoped his wry sense of humor would reappear, and perhaps his ability to quickly summarize complex developments would be useful.  Alas.

To begin with, the bulk of Homo Deus is not about the future of humanity. Instead it’s a breezy tour of some aspects of human history and culture – i.e., mostly the past, as a kind of rerun of its predecessor. The reason for that digression (which last for more than one half of the book!) is to ground two scenarios about the future… but it doesn’t work well, and ultimately wastes a lot of time. The actual kernel of Homo Deus is just over one hundred pages (start with chapter 9).

At best that digressive tour is potted history, reminding us that liberal democracy appeared in the late 1700s, that industrialism changed civilization, that secularization is a thing, etc. It’s akin to clicking through history articles in Wikipedia, or speed reading Larry Gonnick’s brilliant Cartoon History of the Universe. At worst Harari offers bad snap judgments on complex phenomena. For example, he brutalizes Marxism in typical ways (it’s a religion, it’s really a form of therapy, etc). There’s also a long and very basic digression about animal rights which turns out to play no meaningful role in the rest of the book. After the first 100 pages of this I stopped taking notes, because it was growing tiresome, and my note word count was building up in the direction of a new book.    And I’m busy starting to write a very different book.

When Homo Deus finally gets around to addressing its purpose (subtitle: “A Brief History of Tomorrow”) (and that part really is brief), the text is entirely drawn from current events and popular discussion. Readers can extract the highlights from any number of bloggers or articles. Automation’s becoming big? Check. Biological sciences are advancing rapidly? Check. Data is increasingly important? Yup. The internet of things looms large? Uh huh.

So what’s useful in it?

The author offers several visions of the future wherein human civilization experiences a major transformation. A key step is the decline of “liberalism” (a rough grab-bag for representative democracy, some kinds of individualism, some form of capitalism, a touch of pluralism) in the face of biology and technology. The life sciences and computation have shifted us towards a new notion of people driven by genetic forces and best apprehended through data. Side effects include some loss of privacy, a setting aside of democracy (maybe? this isn’t developed, hilariously), and increasing class divides. Interestingly, Harari backs away from the singularity idea.

Even more interesting, and, for me, more depressing, is the book’s refusal to take inequality seriously. That is, Homo Deus is very interested in how technology and life sciences could expand socio-economic inequality, and how some cultural responses could happen, but isn’t concerned with actual economics or politics. There’s no sense of business being interested in keeping compensation low, of regulatory capture by the financial sector, or of why unionization might have declined. Similarly the book isn’t concerned about national security states; it prefers to wonder about Facebook rather than the NSA.

I admit to enjoying some instances of Harari’s humor. I like his paralleling of gods, states, and businesses, for instance. It’s not a new idea, but I’m always glad to see anarchist concepts in the mainstream. I appreciate his thorough skepticism about religions, too.

Yet overall this is one of those books which becomes easier to bear the more quickly you read it. It might be a fun read for secondary school students who haven’t been excited about history. Otherwise, skip the thing.

(earlier version posted to Goodreads)

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