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"Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open." - J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Publication Date: 2017
Finished? Yes, on 02-16-2018
First Edition? No
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Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods. Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda. What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus. With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.
Robert E. Lee In Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, VA
I’m not too concerned about the confederate statues coming down. I don’t have any significant skin in the game one way or another – I’m a white male, so I don’t feel subjugated by some bronze statue looming down at me, reminding me that I was at one time denied my freedom by the institution the statute seemingly represents. I’m also not a native Southerner, imbued with a feeling of historical and cultural significance towards The Confederacy and/or The South, with family and community legacies stretching back to that time.
“…this confederate statue issue is not, in reality, about history whatsoever…”I’ve read a little history – not nearly as much as some, but enough to understand that this confederate statue issue is not, in reality, about history whatsoever, regardless of what each side claims. The vast majority of those in favor of the statues are not in favor of racism, and instead hold a feeling of warmth and pride, of historical significance towards the statues, the same sort of nostalgic feeling one gets for something from childhood. Those opposed view the statues as nothing more than totems representing not just a time when they were persecuted, but that, by their continued existence, an assumed societal acceptance and endorsement of racism and hate… a small (or maybe not so small), persistent thorn in the back of one’s mind.
So the question to be considered is: what do these statues represent? Our natural inclination to this question is to first respond in an emotional way. When someone asks us this question, or makes a definitive statement in opposition to our opinion on the matter, we don’t dispassionately think, ‘this person is wrong because of X, Y, and Z.’ Instead we first feel something, an emotion, and a strong one probably, given the amount of unrest we’re experiencing. This emotional reaction then biases our argument. It puts a filter over our minds that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to objectively debate and, more importantly, see the argument from the perspective of the other party. Empathy becomes a casualty of this state of mind.
Now, I could argue that we should strive to think through our emotions, to not react to our feelings, and instead take a moment to let them subside, only then moving forward with the debate. We should all strive to do this, but I won’t make that argument today. The fact that we’re already embroiled in large-scale demonstrations, protests, vandalism, and even some violence is evidence enough that the time for calm, rational discussion has somewhat passed – there’s too much emotion, too much momentum to turn the tide. It’s become this thing with a life of it’s own. I’m not necessarily condemning this turn of events, i’m just calling it out for what it is – human nature. “…there’s too much emotion, too much momentum to turn the tide. It’s become this thing with a life of it’s own.”
So what we do now is make a decision. Each one of us individually. It’s obvious that the statues will come down. They already are. That’s the direction the tide is taking us. The decision left to us is how to respond to that tide. Is this a battle we should choose to take up? Should we swim with the tide, or against it? That’s obviously a question only you can answer for yourself, but just try, for this one moment, for the next 30 seconds, to put aside your emotions on the subject and think objectively. What is really, truly at stake here? What could the actual, real-life ramifications of the removal of Confederate statues result in? If tomorrow every objectionable statue vanished, in what way would the world be affected?
One group of people within our society would feel less culturally oppressed. It doesn’t matter if slavery has been legally abolished. It doesn’t matter if no one alive today was personally impacted by slavery. It doesn’t matter if ‘history’ teaches us that some Confederate statues are about more than slavery. These statues have become nothing more than symbols of racism and hate in our popular culture. That’s simply all that matters – the court of popular opinion rules supreme.
“But don’t we visit Museums for this very purpose, to be reminded of, and learn about, the past?”What will we lose if the statues come down? Yes, we’ll lose some cultural and historical mementos, some reminders of a time simply different from the ones we live in, for better or for worse. But don’t we visit Museums for this very purpose, to be reminded of, and learn about, the past? How many other publicly-displayed relics representing a different time do we have scattered throughout our society? Not many.
Putting aside all moral arguments, if you want a cold, pragmatic viewpoint of the situation, here it is: the removal of the Confederate statues will eliminate one grievance of a large swath of our society. The removal will eliminate one cultural reminder of division between different factions of our country. The removal will help to cull from our collective consciousness a time when there was a ‘lower class’ of citizen, and may help us as a country to move forward as a more united people.
“Somehow I doubt North Korea will take a break while we argue over some statues.”So much of the events in our society today come down to those things I outlined in ‘Charlottesville Unrest’ – we all simply want to feel safe, secure, and included in every facet of our lives – emotionally, financially, culturally. If we can take a step towards providing more of this for more of our citizens, or at least preventing the further spreading of division, then shouldn’t we? Especially when the solution doesn’t require solving any of the really hard problems we face today, such as unemployment, economic division, rising healthcare costs, rising educational costs, and a steadily-warming planet – not to mention the threat of Nuclear War. Somehow I doubt North Korea will take a break while we argue over some statues.
events in Charlottesville and in the days since have brought forth righteous anger from those who oppose the so-called Alt-Right. We’ve all seen our Facebook feeds filled with comments denouncing hatred and bigotry, we’ve read the politician’s tweets in response to the violence… it’s obvious that the vast majority of our fellow citizens do not condone the violent actions that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. I, like many others, have felt reassured somewhat by the level of shock and outrage – it’s as if we’re awash in a safe, comforting sea of like-minded ‘good guys’, driving away the ‘bad guys’ with nothing more than overwhelming indignation and willpower. Truly, this is a sea of individuals that I’m very glad I belong to. But…
“…it’s been with us since the first time 2 humans chose to act one way, and the third another.”…but, there’s a subtle danger swimming through this sea. It’s nothing new – it’s been with us since the first time 2 humans chose to act one way, and the third another. We Americans, if we’re to believe the story we tell ourselves, should be intimately familiar with this danger. It’s name is The Majority. Specifically, it’s the way that being part of a majority can encourage us to think, feel, and act. I argue today that allowing oneself to be mindlessly swept away by the current of The Majority, no matter how righteous of a cry it sends up, like the cry heard after Charlottesville, can strengthen and bolster those The Majority seeks to silence.
When part of a majority, we act differently. Emboldened by the sense of safety in numbers, we lash out at the minority in ways that overstep how we might normally react to the same individual or situation. We make decisions and take actions that might be just a little more extreme or reactionary than is otherwise warranted. These changes in behavior are especially magnified if the majority feels it operates from a position of moral or religious superiority.
If the majority is large enough, and responds to the minority in a swift and decisive enough manner, and if the minorities’ message is murky or ill-defined, it’s adherents lacking enough conviction and passion, then these changes in behavior caused by being a member of a majority don’t matter. The minority will be silenced, it’s members succumbing to feelings of inevitability and resignation, regardless of the methods the majority used to accomplish it’s goals. If those methods were questionable, if they sat squarely in a legal or moralistic ‘gray zone’ – so what? Who is left to complain? Certainly the members of the majority won’t object – they’ve won the day, why would they? And those that do will be severely marginalized, accused of being unpatriotic or sympathetic to the ‘bad guys’. McCarthyism will descend writ-large on those who dare to wonder if what the majority did was entirely on the up-and-up.
“…individuals will start to wonder, in the very back of their minds, if the way the majority seeks to subvert the minority is right.”Many times though this is where it ends. The news cycle moves on, and people quickly forget. But sometimes, if that minority is just strong enough, if it’s able to inflict just enough damage in just the right spots in the armor of the majorities’ cause, the conflict becomes an entirely new situation altogether. Here is where the actions the majority takes to accomplish their goals start to matter immensely. It’s at this point that more individuals will start to wonder, in the very back of their minds, if the way the majority seeks to subvert the minority is right. ‘Are we actually better than the bad guys?’, they’ll wonder. ‘Are we taking actions we can be truly proud of?’ they’ll ask themselves. ‘Decades from now, will history view our actions as just?’ they’ll ask each other, in cautious tones and lowered voices.
At this point in the conflict, If the majority has been operating in any sort of morally or legalistically ambiguous way, they have only one method left with which to accomplish a sure victory – they must shut down any further actions that could possibly be viewed as unjust, and they must do so mercilessly and immediately. To continue acting in any questionable manner – whether those actions include incitement of violence, censorship, or any other actual, or perceived, unfair treatment of the minority – is to risk loosing the moral high-ground and invite doubt, uncertainty, and suspicion to enter the minds of the majority and the general populace as a whole.
The reality is, if the conflict does actually enter this point, the most likely outcome is months, years, and possibly decades of conflict and unrest. Each side’s actions will become just a little more unjust, with each one of those actions becoming a justification for the other side to act in progressively more unjust ways. It becomes a cycle that we’re all familiar with. A cliche even. “We, as the majority, must be hyper-aware of every single action we take and decision we make, and how those actions and decisions could be perceived.”If we’re lucky, there will be practical and concrete sea-changes within a society that renders the conflict a moot point – something as large and unstoppable as the Industrial Revolution, Modernization, or the emergence of a happy, wealthy, and safe, secure and healthy Middle Class. If we’re unlucky, we get war – civil wars, revolutions, uprisings… call them what you will, but the reality will be death and suffering.
Or we may get something in between. We may get this lingering sense of unease, this malaise that underpins our culture, that we’re all vaguely aware of, but that persists because we’re just not sure what to do with it. Usually this malaise grinds on like a slow-growing cancer, until some action or event tips the cancer into accelerated growth. If that happens, then at some point decisions are made and actions are taken; moral, legalistic, and historical consequences be damned. The chips will fall where they fall.
So how do we prevent this? We, as the majority, must be hyper-aware of every single action we take and decision we make, and how those actions and decisions could be perceived. Even if the situation is one in which the majority is 100%, without a doubt the ‘good-guy’, and the minority truly is the evil ‘bad-guy’, the very moment the majority takes one action that oversteps moral or legalistic grounds, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, we lose the moral high-ground and invite doubt, suspicion, and uncertainty to enter the minds of our members, thus strengthening the position of the minority, and irrevocably changing the situation from clear-cut to clouded and blurred.
“Had I still lived there on August 12th, 2017, I have no doubt I would have been at that rally. I could have been the one killed.”In the context of Charlottesville, this means no retaliatory violence against White Supremacist groups. This means no inflammatory insults, taunts, or rhetoric lobbed their way whatsoever. This means no censorship of the ‘Alt-right’, no matter how easy it would be for the tech giants to do so (and some already have). We must in no way be seen as infringing on their rights whatsoever. And make no mistake, they do have rights. They have the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully and to live their lives in a manner they feel is appropriate, as long as that does not conflict with the rule of law in America.
Some of you will have just had a deep-seated, gut reaction of revulsion to the paragraph above. Of course these people have no rights, they’re horrible people, they should all be punished! Of course Google should just block all their websites! We should wage absolute warfare against them at every turn, and win the day no matter what it takes to do so. Of course the means justify the ends! I get it. You’re very angry. You’re way beyond very angry. You are sickened that things like Charlottesville exist in our world. I get it because I lived in Charlottesville, and I loved that town. I loved the vibrant, intellectual culture facilitated by The University of Virginia. I loved the gorgeous countryside, the surrounding wineries, the diversity. I have stood and walked through the exact spot that Heather D. Heyer was mowed down by a car many, many times before. I’ve eaten dinner with my family on the downtown mall mere feet from that very site of violence. Had I still lived their on August 12th, 2017, I have no doubt I would have been at that rally. I could have been the one killed. “To be a cog in the machinery of the majority is fine. To be a mindless cog is not.”
So I share your goal. But to accomplish that goal we cannot, we must not, let our initial reactions and our powerful emotions overrule our reason. To be a cog in the machinery of the majority is fine. To be a mindless cog is not. We must take measured, carefully considered actions, being fully aware that we have a responsibility to ourselves and those who share our goal to not give any kind of ammunition whatsoever to the bad guys. We must allow them their freedoms, the same freedoms we ourselves enjoy, else they immediately obtain a legitimate place from which they can argue for their own viewpoints and launch their own attacks.
walked the exact spot this car plowed through quite a few times. I definitely second those that say this incident is in no way reflective of Charlottesville in general – it’s actually a great town, surrounded by beautiful countryside, with a diverse, inclusive, tolerant, and intellectual culture. This one incident does however perfectly highlight the larger divide in the Country as a whole – the divide between uber-conservative and uber-liberal, between rural and ‘cosmopolitan’, between those that want one type of America over another.
I think it’s important to remember that everyone’s opinions and beliefs are formed by nothing more than the sum of their experiences – by their upbringing, their community, their education, their family and friends, their co-workers, and the myriad other influences in their lives. It’s only natural – we all like to think we’re free from the sway of others, that we make our own decisions based on our own free will, and we’re certainly capable of this, but I would argue that very often, we simply don’t take the required time and effort to truly ask ourselves, ‘why do I believe this?’“I think it’s important to remember that everyone’s opinions and beliefs are formed by nothing more than the sum of their experiences” And that’s just step one – step two requires some emotional courage to face the answer to that question – the true answer (and deep down, you know if you’re being honest with yourself) – regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Regardless of how it might throw some fundamental assumptions about our lives and beliefs into question. Regardless of how it might radically challenge our very identities.
Of course, the above paragraph can be viewed as pointless navel-gazing… the product of having enough wealth and privilege to be afforded the time and education required for such reflection. The midwestern farmer or factory worker could care less about this ‘mushy-feely’ crap – they simply want something done about the fact that it’s harder and harder to make a living. But I think approaching every situation involving people, whether you’re a blue-collar worker or a Wall-Street millionaire – with the knowledge that we all truly want the same things – financial and emotional security, a sense of belonging, the knowledge that one’s way of life is solid and stable, the hope of a brighter future and a better day to come – provides us with a common foundation from which to base all our conversations and decisions on.
Don’t mistake me – none of this excuses any real-world actions taken by individuals whatsoever. We all must be held fully responsible for our actions. It’s one thing to hold certain beliefs – it’s another thing entirely to act on them. The man who drove his car into the Charlottesville crowd should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, along with any other violent protestors. I’m simply saying this way of thinking about people is a useful framework from which to try and understand one another and to build empathy for our fellow human beings. “We all simply want to feel safe, secure, loved, and included, and become frightened, combative, and angry when those things are threatened” The beauty of this ‘framework’ is that it applies to every person in the world, from that Wall-Street millionaire to a 9-year-old Afghani child to a taxi driver in Europe. We all simply want to feel safe, secure, loved, and included, and become frightened, combative, and angry when those things are threatened – or simply if we feel they’re being threatened. That’s it.
Ok, so what then? How do we take actual concrete steps to resolve the glaringly-obvious real-world problems that plague America today? I think first we cultivate the ‘framework’ I described above in ourselves, then we acknowledge that life is messy and that the one and only constant in the world is change. At any given point in time, there’s some amount of change occurring. Right now I would argue the amount of change we’re experiencing is significant. Economic change mostly, a widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots, or at least the perception of a widening gap, which, at the end of the day, is almost equivalent to actual change taking place. After all, we’re emotional and irrational beings at heart – to a large extent we act based on how we feel, not based on facts, unless we take the time to reflect. Acknowledging change, understanding and accepting that much of it is out of our control, and attempting to work with it, instead of against it, no matter how uncomfortable, is, in my view, a healthy and productive way to handle things.
I’m not suggesting we simply tell people to ‘get with the program’, take out huge loans to go to college, get a tech-related career, and move to a big city, although, to actively fight against what is very much a steamroll-type trend in our society akin to the industrial revolution might not be the most stress-free path to choose in life – rather I think a more balanced approach is appropriate. I’m suggesting those who know deep down their way of life is eventually coming to an end (the coal miner, the rural farmer, the oil-rig worker), take small steps to prepare themselves for the ‘new world’. This could mean taking a few Community College courses, reading a book on a subject they know nothing about, or taking 5 minutes to learn something – anything – about the culture of an immigrant. These small actions could result in positive, tangible outcomes for that individual’s future, as well as having a significant psychological benefit – actually doing something about the thing you’re worried about tends to make one feel better. On the other side of the coin, these individuals can, at the same time, advocate for their way of life – I know it’s a cliche, but they can get involved in the political process with local, state, and national elections. Simply attending a town-hall meeting, sitting in the back and not saying a word, is a huge positive step. “accept that some of this change is coming no matter what, and spend some of your resources on preparing for it. Pick and choose your battles… hedge your bets” Donating 5 bucks a month to a cause you believe in is a huge positive step. Trying to become more educated about issues is a huge positive step (although this only helps if you’ve learned a little about how to discern objective facts from what is simply someone’s opinion, but that’s a topic for another post). The point is, those whose way of life is changing need to accept this change to a certain extent – I’m not saying lay down and give up without a fight – but accept that some of this change is coming no matter what, and spend some of your resources on preparing for it. Pick and choose your battles… hedge your bets.
Conversely, those who enjoy economic and career security, and who feel they will for quite some time to come, have a bit of a responsibility to make the road to that lifestyle easier to traverse. This means advocating for policies that would accomplish things like lowering college tuitions, better healthcare for all, and removing other socio-economic barriers (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), in all aspects of American life. Again, small steps can work wonders here, such as attending that town-hall meeting, learning the objective facts about the issues we face, and donating time and other resources to the cause, whatever that may be.
I know this is all pie-in-the-sky talk to some. Probably to most. The reality is that the vast majority of people whose way of life is threatened right now will bitterly cling tooth-and-nail to a bygone era, one that will certainly never return. They will actively choose to bury their heads in the comforting sands of ignorance. Most of those who enjoy privilege in life will continue to look down their snouts at the other half with barely-concealed (sometimes outright blatant) contempt and derision, maybe even actively participating in systems and constructs that further ensure their societal positions, and that make the path to success harder for those without. These are facts of human nature, things that have been with us since day one and that show no real sign of being eliminated anytime soon. And again, these behaviors and actions are a result of those individual’s experiences throughout life. But the shining ray of hope we can all cling to, regardless of which side you’re on, is that there is that small majority, on both sides, who continue to fight to change things for the better and create a new world for all. This isn’t just inspirational rhetoric I’m spouting, but rather something based on concrete evidence; history is full of examples of the minority (sometimes even the individual) affecting great change in the world.
I know it’s easy to think your small efforts don’t matter, that the deck is so stacked against you and your cause that you shouldn’t bother. The thing is, simply placing a sustained, continued pressure against that stacked deck, chipping away at it card by card, is all that’s required. Your efforts don’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a ‘winner-take-all’ battle… life is messy and nothing is ever perfect or black-and-white. And that’s ok. As long as some of us continue to try, with honest, sincere efforts, then in the long run, things will be better. History has shown us that the overall trajectory of the human experience only improves, with horrible and tragic setbacks to be sure, but nonetheless, a happy ending is in store. It’s up to us to always try and make that happy ending all the more happy, for as many people as possible.