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Humanity is on 'the highway to digital dictatorship', says Yuval Noah Harari

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The author of worldwide bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus says our free will is at stake. We talk to Yuval Noah Harari about his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Here’s a little party game to play at cultured gatherings. Ask your cleverest friend, who was it who wrote Renaissance Military Memoirs? If you get a blank look, try the same question with Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry. If the vacant expression turns into head-shaking bafflement, then add The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture. You can be confident it won’t help.

The answer in all the above cases is Yuval Noah Harari, a name that five years ago was known in the English-speaking world only to a handful of fellow academics. Then, in 2014, the English translation of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published and quickly became an international bestseller that has been translated into 45 languages. The book emerged from a course on world history at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University that Harari helped teach as a junior academic because no senior professor wanted to take part. It was originally turned down by four publishers in Israel because, apparently, history doesn’t sell well in that most history-laden of lands.

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Sapiens was one of those rare books that combined scholarly erudition with immense popular appeal. It outlined the distant history of early human life, and how much of what and who we are today is determined by the evolutionary demands of being hunter-gatherers on the African plains. In particular, it focused on our ability to disseminate fictions or unifying myths – like religion, tribalism, even money – that enabled humans to co-operate on a mass scale unmatched by any other animals.

It was sharp, lucid, packed with fascinating information and provocative ideas, and it won a number of high-profile fans, among them Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama – in September, Harari is appearing in conversation with Natalie Portman. The same formula was used again in his follow-up Homo Deus, which explored how humans are likely to develop to become part organic, part machine. That, too, became a global must-read.

“It’s strange,” acknowledged Harari, when I speak to him on the phone during a trip he’s on to the US, “just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor specialising in medieval military history, of all things. And my audience was about five people around the world.”

He speaks as he writes, in a string of perfectly weighted sentences, gleaming with clear-eyed logic. Now, he says, he spends a great deal of time travelling, attending conferences, and giving interviews. All of the attention has eaten into his research time, yet he’s still managed to produce another book, entitled 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It’s a kind of synthesis of some of the ideas found in the previous two books, and is specifically aimed at addressing the major challenges of our age.

Yuval Noah Harari. Photo/Olivier Middendorp

Not your father’s headaches

For Harari, these challenges are not nuclear proliferation or climate change, although he acknowledges the importance of such issues. Rather, he’s concerned with the moral and ethical implications that stem from the convergence of information technology and biotechnology. Advances in both sciences are moving so swiftly, Harari writes, that when “the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce big data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers”.

The book is full of such stark sentences, which pull you up abruptly and make you wonder where we’re heading. That, of course, is Harari’s intention. He wants to stir up debate on the profound changes under way, about which most of us are either passive or ignorant or both. But it’s not his style to scaremonger or make frightening predictions for the sake of it. Indeed, almost every question he raises is couched in moderating language, so that he continually acknowledges the role of assumption and educated guesswork.

However, his writing is so crystalline and his arguments so compelling that the reader can easily get the impression that he or she is in the company of a great seer. Is he concerned that people will look to him as the man with all the answers?

“Yes,” he says emphatically, “especially as I don’t have the answers – at least most of the answers. I am familiar with the human tendency to want there to be somebody with all the answers and just to do what he or she says. And I’m definitely not that person.”

Harari is 42, slim, balding and gay. He was born into a secular Jewish family in Kiryat Ata, a town near Haifa, Israel’s most mixed Jewish and Arab city. When he was 21, he writes, he “finally realised” his sexuality, after what he calls several years of “denial”. He now lives with his husband, Itzik, a theatre producer who has become Harari’s manager. They married in Canada, because same-sex marriages are not performed in Israel.

They live on a moshav, an agricultural co-operative between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hariri, who meditates for two hours a day, is also a vegan. His lifestyle makes him sound like the quintessential liberal. However, liberalism comes in for quite a bashing in 21 Lessons. Time and again he notes that the liberal order that has dominated international politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and arguably long before, is no longer up to the job.

The problem, he contends, is that liberalism is founded on a conception of individual free will that is fast becoming out of date. As we’ve seen in the recent controversy surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it’s already possible to target people’s feelings, opinions or prejudices and nudge them in the direction you want by feeding them a particular diet of news stories (real or fake). Harari believes this development will become increasingly widespread, subtle and insidious.

“Liberalism is based on the assumption that you have privileged access to your own inner world of feelings and thoughts and choices, and nobody outside you can really understand you. This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life, and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in brain science, and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process it effectively, means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you.”

Grappling with data

Data has become a vital asset and, as Harari notes, we’re giving it up for free, and the consequences of that are as yet unknown, but they’re not looking entirely rosy. In the hands of an unscrupulous corporation or an authoritarian government, the control and exploitation of data begin to take on Orwellian overtones.

“How do you regulate data?” Harari asks. “We have thousands of years of experience in regulating the ownership of land and a couple of centuries of regulating industrial production, but we don’t know how to regulate data.”

He says it’s a priority for politicians because centralised data-processing systems are “the highway to digital dictatorship”. It’s for this reason that he points the finger at the weaknesses of the liberal order. But he does so, he tells me, with a heavy heart.

“I had a big dilemma writing this book. On the one hand, I don’t think the liberal order is up to the task of confronting the big challenges of the 21st century. We need to go beyond it and understand its flaws. At the same time, you have all these nostalgic attacks on the liberal order from the direction of nationalism and religion and so forth. They come from people who don’t want to go forward but back. So the issue was how do I write in such a way that I don’t end up giving ammunition to religious fanatics and nationalist extremists who want to destroy the liberal order.”

The answer is, very carefully. It’s clear that Harari’s sympathies are progressive, in favour of freedom of expression, liberty of movement and effective regulation of powerful organisations and governments. But all of that is easier said than done when technology with the potential to transform society is becoming pervasive.

For example, if a government forced its citizens to supply extensive personal medical data or risk being excluded from social benefits and health coverage, then that government could crunch the data to provide an advanced picture of the nation’s well-being. That could in turn be used to greatly improve health outcomes, or it could be used to discriminate against the genetically unhealthy. Either way, individual rights, as understood in traditional liberalism, wouldn’t get much of a look-in.

Most politicians are so ill-informed about technology that they are in no position to govern data distribution, which lets monopolising companies off the hook and paves the way for the abuse of power. It’s a bleak and rather despairing picture when put in those terms. And given, as Harari has made a name for himself pointing out, that humans are vulnerable to lies and distorting fictions, what hope is there for rerouting the march of history?

“Well, none of this is inevitable,” he says, suddenly eager to sound a note of optimism. “We can do things on the level of global co-operation, such as an agreement against producing autonomous weapons systems. We can do things on the level of individual government, for example laws to govern the ownership and use of data. And we can do things on the level of the individual. Each of us makes daily choices that have some impact. What control do you have over your own data, on your smartphone, for example?”

Perhaps the most vital thing we can do is to get informed. Harari is not, as he’s keen to point out, an “infallible guide to living in the 21st century”. He has his preoccupations and prejudices, like anyone else, although he at least attempts to acknowledge his biases. But he’s not a bad place to start.

“I don’t think reading a single book can clarify these issues,” he says, stating an obvious but necessary proviso. But as he also says, most people are not aware of many of the most important questions that face us.

“You can’t have answers before you have a debate,” says the expert in the venerable art of winning battles. “So we first need to start a debate.”

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.