Yuval Noah Harari
The follow up to Sapiens, and therefore it arrived with huge expectations. To begin with, while this is a progression from the earlier work, it is also a standalone work. The book has three parts which I would broadly classify as past, present and future. The author spends the first third of the book summarising what he wrote in Sapiens, and if you have read that book, especially recently, you might find yourself muttering “Why doesn’t he get on with it?”
To be fair, he outlines his broad premise right at the beginning – having (relatively) conquered hunger, disease and war, humanity’s next agenda would be to master happiness, immortality and divinity. The path to that is what Yuval Noah Harari slowly but surely proceeds to elaborate on.
The second part of the book is where Harari sets the premise and context for the future by analysing the present. As is his wont, he goes about dissecting the origins of our current belief systems and the occurrences that have led us to what he calls humanism, and our collective belief in man’s central role in the scheme of things.
In the third part, which is easily my favourite, he proceeds to tear down some favourite belief systems, including liberalism. Biochemistry, economics, philosophy and many other ‘sciences’ combine to make a heady cocktail, and I found chapters such as “Who are I?” (what a phrase!) an absolute delight in terms of expanding my scope of thinking. The analysis of “free will”, whether biochemistry is just an algorithm play, and the debate on what’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness (and how we define both) were particularly enlightening to me.
The book left me thinking of sentience (is there some reason why he never uses the word in the book?) and the last question he poses – what will happen to us when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. Why would we even be relevant in the scheme of things?
He himself states that these are not prophecies but possibilities, and the choices we make from now on will define the scope and impact of what lies ahead. That’s always been so historically, but the difference is that this time, we could, through action and/or inaction, cause our own extinction. If you are familiar with Sapiens, the punches to the gut are less damaging, but I think you’ll still feel the pain! A must read indeed.