Advances in human knowledge and technology are rapidly changing our society. What we value and what we believe are all in transition. That’s nothing new, of course. Our concept of the universe and of our place in it has changed throughout time—from trembling in awe at the power of thunder gods to challenging the heavens in rocket ships. In the near future, however, we may not only change how we see ourselves; we may change what we are.
This, I think, is the point Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is trying to make in this book (which, by the way, is beautifully produced, with thick, glossy pages and color pictures). By speeding through history, he attempts to show that people have often shifted their beliefs, priorities, and goals, which he attributes to changes in ‘religion,’ a term that I think he uses far too generically. (He did the same in his previous book, Sapiens). For Harari, ‘religion’ refers to not only theistic religions, but to things that I would call ideology, philosophy, paradigm, or theory. Nazism, fascism, communism, capitalism, humanism…pretty much any overarching idea that provides a template for human understanding is a religion. I think his historical analysis suffers by conflating them. There are important differences, not least of which is how susceptible they are to revision in the minds of their subscribers. Some of these can change far more easily and quickly than can others. It is not until page 182 that he provides his definition: “Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.” Personally, I think he should have used a different word.
He also applies seemingly broad definitions for words such as ‘worship’, ‘spiritual’, ‘dogma’, and ‘divinity’. Whether he uses religious terminology to annoy traditional theists or simply for the shock value, I’m not sure, but it may be a bit of both. What his ultimate (and laudable) goal seems to be is to get readers to question their assumptions.
He eventually describes a new, rising ‘religion’ that he calls Dataism. This one manifests itself as a ‘worship’ of data. We create it, share it, and depend upon it. Under this ‘religion’, the value of data supersedes previous values of privacy and free will. Well, perhaps.
As an analysis of history or as a futurist prediction of things to come, I found this book just so-so. But then I tend to read a fair amount in both subjects, so there wasn’t much new here for me. Harari does close with three questions, though, that I think are worth pondering:
- Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
- What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-sentient conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?
My Review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1252063767