Yuval Noah Harari. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Spiegel & Grau, 2018. (372 pages)
If a book sits on a shelf and no one reads it, does it make a sound? p. 326
If you want provocation, look no further than Harari. While his previous two books–Sapiens and Homo Deus—looked to the past and the future, respectively, in this installment, he looks to the current human condition, and deconstructs everything we think we know, believe, and live by.
Far from discouragement, however, I considered this read, and the interrogations Harari poses, to be challenges that I am enthusiastic to tackle. As I embark on my first writing project (a religious proposal for how Christianity could rehabilitate itself into what I am unoriginally calling “The Way” of Jesus), the questions of morality, mortality, meaning, economics, community, and suffering are just the sort of issues I wish to address. I audaciously believe that there is still relevance in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to actually speak to the fundamental theses of both story and suffering, the two main categories found in 21 Lessons.
Some in the “religious/spiritual” or even “philosophical/ideological” vocations may not like Harari as he quite aggressively criticizes the validity of these institutions, using words such as “fake” or “fiction” to describe the irrelevance of “stories” and “sacred texts.” I actually believe Harari has done a service to the believing and devoted. Paradoxically, by disassembling the institutions, artifacts, dogmas, and convictions of the faithful, we can get a clearer picture of how they work, the role they play in the human drama, and the areas of weakness, their “shadows” as Harari calls them in chapter 14. It is only from this vantage point that we can then refurbish, remodel, refashion, and rebuild the great frameworks of humanity, perhaps this time with far fewer flaws and defects.
I didn’t agree with everything Harari said, of course, and my critiques are inline below in the Critical Notes.
I commend this to anyone who is not afraid of thinking, not offended at critique, and not satisfied with an unsated curiosity.
…the overarching question remains the same: what is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of these events? (xv)
This global dimension of our personal lives means that it is more important than ever to uncover our religious and political biases, our racial and gender privileges, and our unwitting complicity in institutional oppression. But is that a realistic enterprise? How can I find a firm ethical ground in a world that extends far beyond my horizons, that spins completely out of human control, and that holds all gods and ideologies suspect? (xvi)
I would like to highlight one crucial point. In much of this book I discuss the shortcomings of the liberal worldview and the democratic system. I do so not because I believe liberal democracy is uniquely problematic but rather because I think it is the most successful and most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. (xviii)
Without criticizing the liberal model, we cannot repair its faults or move beyond it. But please note that this book could have been written only when people are still relatively free to think what they like and to express themselves as they wish. If you value this book, you should also value the freedom of expression. (xix)
PART I: THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
Humankind is losing faith in the liberal story that dominated global politics in recent decades, exactly when the merger of biotech and infotech confronts us with the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered.
1. Disillusionment: The End of History Has Been Postponed
Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. …the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. (3)
According to this liberal panacea–accepted, in slight variations, by George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike–if we just continue to liberalize and globalize our political and economic systems, we will produce peace and prosperity for all. (4)
However, since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story. (4)
In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, and in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail. In 2018 we are down to zero. … To have one story is the most reassuring situation of all. Everything is perfectly clear. To be suddenly left without any story is terrifying. Nothing makes any sense. A bit like the Soviet elite in the 1980s, liberals don’t understand how history deviated from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality. Disorientation causes them to think in apocalyptic terms, as if the failure of history to come to its envisioned happy ending can only mean that it is hurtling toward Armageddon. Unable to conduct a reality check, the mind latches onto catastrophic scenarios. (5)
FROM KILLING MOSQUITOES TO KILLING THOUGHTS
Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Human were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely. It is easier to manipulate a river by building a dam than it is to predict all the complex consequences this will have for the wider ecological system. Similarly, it will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what that will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems. (7)
Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation. (9)
THE LIBERAL PHOENIX
The supermarket proved to be far stronger than the gulag. (10)
Russia does offer an alternative model to liberal democracy, but this model is not a coherent political ideology. Rather, it is a political practice in which a number of oligarchs monopolize most of a country’s wealth and power and then use their control of the media to hide their activities and cement their rule. Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” If a government is corrupt and fails to improve people’s lives, enough citizens will eventually realize this and replace the government. But government control of the media undermines Lincoln’s logic, because it prevents citizens from realizing the truth. Through its monopoly over the media, the ruling oligarchy can repeatedly blame all its failures on others and divert attention to external threats, either real or imaginary. (12)
Humans vote with their feet. In my travels around the world I have met numerous people in many countries who wish to immigrate to the United States, Germany, Canada, or Australia. I have met a few who want to move to China or Japan. But I have yet to meet a single person who dreams of immigrating to Russia. (13)
But if both liberalism and communism are now discredited, maybe humans should abandon the very idea of a single global story. … Maybe each country should adopt a different idiosyncratic path, defined by its own ancient traditions. (14)
But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption. Liberalism traditionally relied on economic growth to magically solve difficult social and political conflicts. (16)
We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. (16)
Can liberalism reinvent itself yet again, just as it did in the wake of the 1930s and the 1960s crises, emerging as more attractive than ever before? Can traditional religion and nationalism provide the answers that escape the liberals, and might they use ancient wisdom to fashion an up-to-date worldview? Or perhaps the time has come to make a clean break with the past and craft a completely new story that goes beyond not just the old gods and nations but even the core modern values of liberty and equality. (17)
But before exploring potential solutions to humanity’s predicaments we need a better grasp of the challenge technology poses. (17)
If liberalism, nationalism, Islam, or some novel creed wishes to shape the world of the year 2050, it will need not only to make sense of artificial intelligence, Big Data algorithms, and bioengineering but also to incorporate them into a new and meaningful narrative. (18)
2. Work: When You Grow Up, You Might Not Have a Job
Humans have two types of abilities–physical and cognitive. (19)
AI is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills, including in the understanding of human emotions. We don’t know of any third field of activity–beyond the physical and the cognitive–where humans will always retain a secure edge. (20)
| It is crucial to realize that the AI revolution is not just about computers getting faster and smarter. It is fueled by breakthroughs in the life sciences and the social sciences as well. The better we understand the biochemical mechanisms that underpin human emotions, desires, and choices, the better computers can become in analyzing human behavior, predicting human decisions, and replacing human drivers, bankers, and lawyers. (20)
…”human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition.” (20)
In particular, AI can be better at jobs that demand intuitions about other people. (21)
Two particularly important nonhuman abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updatability. (22)
What we are facing is not the replacement of millions of individual human workers by millions of individual robots and computers; rather, individual humans are likely to be replaced by an integrated network. …we should compare the abilities of a collection of human individuals to the abilities of an integrated network. (22)
THE MOZART IN THE MACHINE
If art is about something deeper than human emotions and should express a truth beyond our biochemical vibrations, biometric algorithms might not make very good artists. But neither do most humans. (28)
[via: But does this point to something deeper that mere biochemical markers/patterns?]
FROM EXPLOITATION TO IRRELEVANCE
Potential solutions fall into three main categories: what to do in order to prevent jobs from being lost; what to do in order to create enough new jobs; and what to do if, despite our best efforts, job losses significantly outstrip job creation. (34)
[via: This is based on a “job” as, A) an income generator, B) a worthy cause, C) an antidote to boredom. Is there possibly another category of human activity?]
…we would have to explore new models for post-work societies, post-work economies, and post-work politics. The first step is to honestly acknowledge that the social, economic, and political models we have inherited from the past are inadequate for dealing with such a challenge. (35)
some might argue that humans could never become economically irrelevant, because even if they cannot compete with AI in the workplace, they will always be needed as consumers. However, it is far from certain that the future economy will need us even as consumers. Machines and computers could do that too. (36)
Algorithms obviously have no consciousness, so unlike human consumers, they cannot enjoy what they buy, and their decisions are not shaped by sensations and emotions. … However, algorithms select things based on their internal calculations and built-in preferences, and these preferences increasingly shape our world. (36)
Maybe we need to flip a switch in our minds and realize that taking care of a child is arguably the most important and challenging job in the world. (37)
Alternatively, governments could subsidize universal basic services rather than income. … This is in fact the utopian vision of communism. (38)
It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise). Both options have advantages and drawbacks. But no matter which paradise you choose, the real problem is in defining what “universal” and “basic” actually mean. (38)
WHAT IS UNIVERSAL?
WHAT IS BASIC?
Whichever way you choose to define “basic human needs,” once you provide them to everyone free of charge, they will be taken for granted, and then fierce social competitions and political struggles will focus on luxuries–… (41)
If universal basic support is aimed at improving the objective conditions of the average person in 2050, it has a fair chance of succeeding. But if it is aimed at making people subjectively more satisfied with their lot and preventing social discontent, it is likely to fail. (42)
| To really achieve its goals, universal basic support will have to be supplemented with some meaningful pursuits, ranging from ports to religion. (42)
As robots and AI push humans out of the job market, the ultra-Orthodox Jews may come to be seen as the model for the future rather than as a fossil from the past. Not that everyone will become Orthodox Jews and go to yeshivas to study the Talmud. But in the lives of all people, the quest for meaning and community might eclipse the quest for a job. (43)
| If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing. Losing control over our lives, however, is a much scarier scenario. Notwithstanding the danger of mass unemployment, what we should worry about even more is the shift in authority from humans to algorithms, which might destroy any remaining faith in the liberal story and open the way to the rise of digital dictatorships. (43)
3. Liberty: Big Data Is Watching You
The liberal story cherishes human liberty as its number one value. It argues that all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans, as expressed in their feelings, desires, and choices. In politics, liberalism believes that the voter knows best. It therefore upholds democratic elections. In economics, liberalism maintains that the customer is always right. It therefore hails free-market principles. In personal matters, liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and follow their hearts–as long as they do not infringe on the liberties of others. This personal freedom is enshrined in human rights. (44)
Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason tog give all people equal voting rights–or perhaps any voting rights at all. (45)
This reliance on the heart might prove to be the Achilles’ heel of liberal democracy. For once somebody (whether in Beijing or in San Francisco) gains the technological ability to hack and manipulate the human heart, democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show. (46)
[via: Too late. (as of reading this, August, 2018)]
LISTEN TO THE ALGORITHM
…our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality, and they do not reflect any kind of “free will.” Rather, feelings are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction. Feelings aren’t base don intuition, inspiration, or freedom–they are based on calculation. (47)
Feelings are therefore not the opposite of rationality–they embody evolutionary rationality. (48)
For we are now at the confluence of two immense revolutions. Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body, and in particular of the brain and human feelings. At the same time com-(48)peter scientists are giving us unprecedented data-processing power. 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. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now my inaccessible inner realm. (49)
People will enjoy the best healthcare in history, but for precisely this reason they will probably be sick all the time. There is always something wrong somewhere in the body. There is always something that can be improved. (49)
THE DRAMA OF DECISION-MAKING
The word “television” comes from the Greek tele, which means “far,” and Latin visio, “sight.” It was originally conceived as a device that would allow us to see from afar. But soon it might allow us to also be seen from afar. (52)
Hacking human human decision-making not only will make Big Data algorithms more reliable but also will simultaneously make human feelings less reliable. (53)
Once AI makes better decisions that we do about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change. Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision-making. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world (55)
As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer view the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system–then merge into it. (56)
THE PHILOSOPHICAL CAR
Human emotions trump philosophical theories in countless other situations. This makes the ethical and philosophical history of the world a rather depressing tale of wonderful ideals and less-than-ideal behavior. How many Christians actually turn the other cheek, how many Buddhists actually rise above egoistic obsessions, and how many Jews actually love their neighbors as themselves? That’s just the way natural selection has shaped Homo sapiens. Like all mammals, Homo sapiens uses emotions to quickly make life-and-death decisions. We have inherited our anger, our fear, and our lust from millions of ancestors, all of whom passed the most rigorous quality control tests of natural selection. (58)
Computer algorithms, however, have not been shaped by natural selection, and they have neither emotions nor gut instincts. (59)
[via: One of my deep questions is if emotions are truly just calculations, a sophisticated and refined algorithm, given enough calculations, would not an algorithm become, or at least simulate emotion?]
However,r there might be some new openings for philosophers, because their skills–until now avoid of much market value–will suddenly be in very high demand. (60)
……maybe Tesla will just leave it to the market. Tesla could produce two models of the self-driving car: the Tesla Altruist and the Tesla Egoist. (61)
…the real problem with robots is exactly the opposite. We should fear them because they will probably always obey their masters and never rebel. (62)
The real problem with robots is not their own artificial intelligence but rather the natural stupidity and cruelty of their human masters. (63)
In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing. A democracy diffuses the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. (66)
Democ-(66)racy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form or humans will come to live in “digital dictatorships.” (67)
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND NATURAL STUPIDITY
We still don’t know enough about consciousness to be sure. In general, there are three possibilities we need to consider:
- Consciousness is somehow linked to organic biochemistry in such a way that it will never be possible to create consciousness in nonorganic systems.
- Consciousness is not linked to organic biochemistry, but it is linked to intelligence in such a way that computers could develop consciousness, and computers will have to develop consciousness if they are to pass a certain threshold of intelligence.
- There are no essential links between consciousness and either organic biochemistry or high intelligence. Therefore computers might develop consciousness–but not necessarily. They could become superintelligent while still having zero consciousness. (70)
[via: This seems to be an oversimplified set of possibilities complicated by the fact that we don’t know how chemistry became biology.]
The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans. (70)
While science fiction thrillers are drawn to dramatic apocalypses of fire and smoke, in reality we might be facing a banal apocalypse by clicking. (71)
The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentive to expand and diversify my compassion. So I strive to understand the mysteries of the stock exchange while making far less effort to understand the deep causes of suffering. (71)
4. Equality: Those Who Own the Data Own the Future
Following the Agricultural Revolution, property multiple and (73) with it inequality. … Hierarchy was not just ht enormous but also the ideal. How could there be order without a clear hierarchy between aristocrats and commoners, between men and women, or between parents and children? Priests, philosophers, and poets all over the world patiently explained that just as in the human body not all members are equal–the feet must obey the head–so also in human society equality would bring nothing but chaos. (74)
…the rise of AI might eliminate the economic value and political power of most humans. At the same time, improvements in biotechnology might make it possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality.
[via: Already happening.]
Maybe one of our biggest problems is that different human groups have completely different futures. Maybe in some parts of the world you should teach your kids to write computer code, while in others you had better teach them to draw fast and shoot straight. (77)
WHO OWNS THE DATA?
If we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, the key is to regulate the ownership of data. … If data becomes concentrated in too few hands, humankind will split into different species. (77)
If we want to prevent a small elite from monopolizing such godlike powers, and if we want to prevent humankind from splitting into biological castes, the key question is: who owns the data? Does the data about my DNA, my brain, and my life belong to me, to the government, to a corporation, or to the human collective? (79)
[via: All of this, the dilemma that is, is based on an individualistic worldview.]
Politicians are a bit like musicians, and the instrument they play on is the human emotional and biochemical system. They give a speech, and there isa wave of fear in the country. They tweet, and there is an explosion of hatred. I don’t think we should give these musicians a more sophisticated instrument to play on. Once politicians can press our emotional buttons directly, generating anxiety, hatred, joy, and boredom at will, politics will become a mere emotional circus. (80)
[via: I have two main interrogatives. First, is it not too late?! Second, does this give far more credit to the power that politicians have than is perhaps due? There is a subtle “mythology of leadership” that exists in politics, in that political figures do not lead, but follow the body politic. They become the figureheads of the populace’s wishes and desires. Their rhetoric, positions, stances, etc., are then simply an ideological feedback loop which simply reinforces that which is already extant.]
…how do you regulate the ownership of data? This may well be the most important political question of our era. If we cannot answer this question soon, our sociopolitical system might collapse. People are (80) already sensing the coming cataclysm. Perhaps this is why citizens all over the world are losing faith in the liberal story, which just a decade ago seemed irresistible. (81)
| How, then, do we go forward from here, and how do we cope with the immense challenges of the biotech and infotech revolutions? (81)
PART II: THE POLITICAL CHALLENGE
The merger of infotech and biotech threatens the core modern values of liberty and equality. Any solution to the technological challenge has to invoke global cooperation. But nationalism, religion, and culture divide humankind into hostile camps and make it very difficult to cooperate on a global level.
[via: As I embark on my own contribution to this wider conversation, I’m pontificating the possibility that The Way could provide a unifying human set of values and beliefs that could not just heal the fracture of our species, but also set the foundations for a radical [new?] human evolution.]
5. Community: Humans Have Bodies
Building Global Community
To our community,
On our journey to connect the world, we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?
History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.
Today we are close to taking our next step. Our greatest opportunities are now global — like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses — like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.
This is especially important right now. Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.
This is a time when many of us around the world are reflecting on how we can have the most positive impact. I am reminded of my favorite saying about technology: “We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years.” We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today. In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.
For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community — for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.
Bringing us all together as a global community is a project bigger than any one organization or company, but Facebook can help contribute to answering these five important questions:
- How do we help people build supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions in a world where membership in these institutions is declining?
- How do we help people build a safe community that prevents harm, helps during crises and rebuilds afterwards in a world where anyone across the world can affect us?
- How do we help people build an informed community that exposes us to new ideas and builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice?
- How do we help people build a civically-engaged community in a world where participation in voting sometimes includes less than half our population?
- How do we help people build an inclusive community that reflects our collective values and common humanity from local to global levels, spanning cultures, nations and regions in a world with few examples of global communities?
My hope is that more of us will commit our energy to building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together. The answers to these questions won’t all come from Facebook, but I believe we can play a role.
Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation. Facebook is a work in progress, and we are dedicated to learning and improving. We take our responsibility seriously, and today I want to talk about how we plan to do our part to build this global community.
Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs.
Whether they’re churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups, they all share important roles as social infrastructure for our communities. They provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms and accountability; social gatherings, rituals and a way to meet new people; and a way to pass time.
In our society, we have personal relationships with friends and family, and then we have institutional relationships with the governments that set the rules. A healthy society also has many layers of communities between us and government that take care of our needs. When we refer to our “social fabric”, we usually mean the many mediating groups that bring us together and reinforce our values.
However, there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population.
The decline raises deeper questions alongside surveys showing large percentages of our population lack a sense of hope for the future. It is possible many of our challenges are at least as much social as they are economic — related to a lack of community and connection to something greater than ourselves. As one pastor told me: “People feel unsettled. A lot of what was settling in the past doesn’t exist anymore.”
Online communities are a bright spot, and we can strengthen existing physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline. In the same way connecting with friends online strengthens real relationships, developing this infrastructure will strengthen these communities, as well as enable completely new ones to form.
A woman named Christina was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Epidermolysis Bullosa — and now she’s a member of a group that connects 2,400 people around the world so none of them have to suffer alone. A man named Matt was raising his two sons by himself and he started the Black Fathers group to help men share advice and encouragement as they raise their families. In San Diego, more than 4,000 military family members are part of a group that helps them make friends with other spouses. These communities don’t just interact online. They hold get-togethers, organize dinners, and support each other in their daily lives.
We recently found that more than 100 million people on Facebook are members of what we call “very meaningful” groups. These are groups that upon joining, quickly become the most important part of our social network experience and an important part of our physical support structure. For example, many new parents tell us that joining a parenting group after having a child fits this purpose.
There is a real opportunity to connect more of us with groups that will be meaningful social infrastructure in our lives. More than one billion people are active members of Facebook groups, but most don’t seek out groups on their own — friends send invites or Facebook suggests them. If we can improve our suggestions and help connect one billion people with meaningful communities, that can strengthen our social fabric.
Going forward, we will measure Facebook’s progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall. This will require not only helping people connect with existing meaningful groups, but also enabling community leaders to create more meaningful groups for people to connect with.
The most successful physical communities have engaged leaders, and we’ve seen the same with online groups as well. In Berlin, a man named Monis Bukhari runs a group where he personally helps refugees find homes and jobs. Today, Facebook’s tools for group admins are relatively simple. We plan to build more tools to empower community leaders like Monis to run and grow their groups the way they’d like, similar to what we’ve done with Pages
Most communities are made of many sub-communities, and this is another clear area for developing new tools. A school, for example, is not a single community, but many smaller groups among its classes, dorms and student groups. Just as the social fabric of society is made up of many communities, each community is made of many groups of personal connections. We plan to expand groups to support sub-communities.
We can look at many activities through the lens of building community. Watching video of our favorite sports team or TV show, reading our favorite newspaper, or playing our favorite game are not just entertainment or information but a shared experience and opportunity to bring together people who care about the same things. We can design these experiences not for passive consumption but for strengthening social connections.
Our goal is to strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline, as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location. When we do this, beyond connecting online, we reinforce our physical communities by bringing us together in person to support each other.
A healthy society needs these communities to support our personal, emotional and spiritual needs. In a world where this physical social infrastructure has been declining, we have a real opportunity to help strengthen these communities and the social fabric of our society.
As we build a global community, this is a moment of truth. Our success isn’t just based on whether we can capture videos and share them with friends. It’s about whether we’re building a community that helps keep us safe — that prevents harm, helps during crises, and rebuilds afterwards.
Today’s threats are increasingly global, but the infrastructure to protect us is not. Problems like terrorism, natural disasters, disease, refugee crises, and climate change need coordinated responses from a worldwide vantage point. No nation can solve them alone. A virus in one nation can quickly spread to others. A conflict in one country can create a refugee crisis across continents. Pollution in one place can affect the environment around the world. Humanity’s current systems are insufficient to address these issues.
Many dedicated people join global non-profit organizations to help, but the market often fails to fund or incentivize building the necessary infrastructure. I have long expected more organizations and startups to build health and safety tools using technology, and I have been surprised by how little of what must be built has even been attempted. There is a real opportunity to build global safety infrastructure, and I have directed Facebook to invest more and more resources into serving this need.
For some of these problems, the Facebook community is in a unique position to help prevent harm, assist during a crisis, or come together to rebuild afterwards. This is because of the amount of communication across our network, our ability to quickly reach people worldwide in an emergency, and the vast scale of people’s intrinsic goodness aggregated across our community.
To prevent harm, we can build social infrastructure to help our community identify problems before they happen. When someone is thinking of suicide or hurting themselves, we’ve built infrastructure to give their friends and community tools that could save their life. When a child goes missing, we’ve built infrastructure to show Amber Alerts — and multiple children have been rescued without harm. And we’ve built infrastructure to work with public safety organizations around the world when we become aware of these issues. Going forward, there are even more cases where our community should be able to identify risks related to mental health, disease or crime.
To help during a crisis, we’ve built infrastructure like Safety Check so we can all let our friends know we’re safe and check on friends who might be affected by an attack or natural disaster. Safety Check has been activated almost 500 times in two years and has already notified people that their families and friends are safe more than a billion times. When there is a disaster, governments often call us to make sure Safety Check has been activated in their countries. But there is more to build. We recently added tools to find and offer shelter, food and other resources during emergencies. Over time, our community should be able to help during wars and ongoing issues that are not limited to a single event.
To rebuild after a crisis, we’ve built the world’s largest social infrastructure for collective action. A few years ago, after an earthquake in Nepal, the Facebook community raised $15 million to help people recover and rebuild — which was the largest crowdfunded relief effort in history. We saw a similar effort after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando when people across the country organized blood donations to help victims they had never met. Similarly, we built tools so millions of people could commit to becoming organ donors to save others after accidents, and registries reported larger boosts in sign ups than ever before.
Looking ahead, one of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand more quickly and accurately what is happening across our community.
There are billions of posts, comments and messages across our services each day, and since it’s impossible to review all of them, we review content once it is reported to us. There have been terribly tragic events — like suicides, some live streamed — that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner. There are cases of bullying and harassment every day, that our team must be alerted to before we can help out. These stories show we must find a way to do more.
Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach. We are researching systems that can look at photos and videos to flag content our team should review. This is still very early in development, but we have started to have it look at some content, and it already generates about one-third of all reports to the team that reviews content for our community.
It will take many years to fully develop these systems. Right now, we’re starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda so we can quickly remove anyone trying to use our services to recruit for a terrorist organization. This is technically difficult as it requires building AI that can read and understand news, but we need to work on this to help fight terrorism worldwide.
As we discuss keeping our community safe, it is important to emphasize that part of keeping people safe is protecting individual security and liberty. We are strong advocates of encryption and have built it into the largest messaging platforms in the world — WhatsApp and Messenger. Keeping our community safe does not require compromising privacy. Since building end-to-end encryption into WhatsApp, we have reduced spam and malicious content by more than 75%.
The path forward is to recognize that a global community needs social infrastructure to keep us safe from threats around the world, and that our community is uniquely positioned to prevent disasters, help during crises, and rebuild afterwards. Keeping the global community safe is an important part of our mission — and an important part of how we’ll measure our progress going forward.
The purpose of any community is to bring people together to do things we couldn’t do on our own. To do this, we need ways to share new ideas and share enough common understanding to actually work together.
Giving everyone a voice has historically been a very positive force for public discourse because it increases the diversity of ideas shared. But the past year has also shown it may fragment our shared sense of reality. It is our responsibility to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad — to continue increasing diversity while strengthening our common understanding so our community can create the greatest positive impact on the world.
The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding.
Social media already provides more diverse viewpoints than traditional media ever has. Even if most of our friends are like us, we all know people with different interests, beliefs and backgrounds who expose us to different perspectives. Compared with getting our news from the same two or three TV networks or reading the same newspapers with their consistent editorial views, our networks on Facebook show us more diverse content.
But our goal must be to help people see a more complete picture, not just alternate perspectives. We must be careful how we do this. Research shows that some of the most obvious ideas, like showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepen polarization by framing other perspectives as foreign. A more effective approach is to show a range of perspectives, let people see where their views are on a spectrum and come to a conclusion on what they think is right. Over time, our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more.
Accuracy of information is very important. We know there is misinformation and even outright hoax content on Facebook, and we take this very seriously. We’ve made progress fighting hoaxes the way we fight spam, but we have more work to do. We are proceeding carefully because there is not always a clear line between hoaxes, satire and opinion. In a free society, it’s important that people have the power to share their opinion, even if others think they’re wrong. Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy.
While we have more work to do on information diversity and misinformation, I am even more focused on the impact of sensationalism and polarization, and the idea of building common understanding.
Social media is a short-form medium where resonant messages get amplified many times. This rewards simplicity and discourages nuance. At its best, this focuses messages and exposes people to different ideas. At its worst, it oversimplifies important topics and pushes us towards extremes.
Polarization exists in all areas of discourse, not just social media. It occurs in all groups and communities, including companies, classrooms and juries, and it’s usually unrelated to politics. In the tech community, for example, discussion around AI has been oversimplified to existential fear-mongering. The harm is that sensationalism moves people away from balanced nuanced opinions towards polarized extremes.
If this continues and we lose common understanding, then even if we eliminated all misinformation, people would just emphasize different sets of facts to fit their polarized opinions. That’s why I’m so worried about sensationalism in media.
Fortunately, there are clear steps we can take to correct these effects. For example, we noticed some people share stories based on sensational headlines without ever reading the story. In general, if you become less likely to share a story after reading it, that’s a good sign the headline was sensational. If you’re more likely to share a story after reading it, that’s often a sign of good in-depth content. We recently started reducing sensationalism in News Feed by taking this into account for pieces of content, and going forward signals like this will identify sensational publishers as well. There are many steps like this we have taken and will keep taking to reduce sensationalism and help build a more informed community.
Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do. If we connect with people about what we have in common — sports teams, TV shows, interests — it is easier to have dialogue about what we disagree on. When we do this well, we give billions of people the ability to share new perspectives while mitigating the unwanted effects that come with any new medium.
A strong news industry is also critical to building an informed community. Giving people a voice is not enough without having people dedicated to uncovering new information and analyzing it. There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable — from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organizations rely on.
Connecting everyone to the internet is also necessary for building an informed community. For the majority of people around the world, the debate is not about the quality of public discourse but whether they have access to basic information they need at all, often related to health, education and jobs.
Finally, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of conversations on Facebook are social, not ideological. They’re friends sharing jokes and families staying in touch across cities. They’re people finding groups, whether they’re new parents raising kids or newly diagnosed patients suffering from a disease together. Sometimes it’s for joy, coming together around religion or sports. And sometimes it’s for survival, like refugees communicating to find shelter.
Whatever your situation when you enter our community, our commitment is to continue improving our tools to give you the power to share your experience. By increasing the diversity of our ideas and strengthening our common understanding, our community can have the greatest positive impact on the world.
Our society will reflect our collective values only if we engage in the civic process and participate in self-governance. There are two distinct types of social infrastructure that must be built:
The first encourages engagement in existing political processes: voting, engaging with issues and representatives, speaking out, and sometimes organizing. Only through dramatically greater engagement can we ensure these political processes reflect our values.
The second is establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in collective decision-making. Our world is more connected than ever, and we face global problems that span national boundaries. As the largest global community, Facebook can explore examples of how community governance might work at scale.
The starting point for civic engagement in the existing political process is to support voting across the world. It is striking that only about half of Americans eligible to vote participate in elections. This is low compared to other countries, but democracy is receding in many countries and there is a large opportunity across the world to encourage civic participation.
In the United States election last year, we helped more than 2 million people register to vote and then go vote. This was among the largest voter turnout efforts in history, and larger than those of both major parties combined. In every election around the world, we keep improving our tools to help more people register and vote, and we hope to eventually enable hundreds of millions of more people to vote in elections than do today, in every democratic country around the world.
Local civic engagement is a big opportunity as well as national. Today, most of us do not even know who our local representatives are, but many policies impacting our lives are local, and this is where our participation has the greatest influence. Research suggests reading local news is directly correlated with local civic engagement. This shows how building an informed community, supportive local communities, and a civically-engaged community are all related.
Beyond voting, the greatest opportunity is helping people stay engaged with the issues that matter to them every day, not just every few years at the ballot box. We can help establish direct dialogue and accountability between people and our elected leaders. In India, Prime Minister Modi has asked his ministers to share their meetings and information on Facebook so they can hear direct feedback from citizens. In Kenya, whole villages are in WhatsApp groups together, including their representatives. In recent campaigns around the world — from India and Indonesia across Europe to the United States — we’ve seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins. Just as TV became the primary medium for civic communication in the 1960s, social media is becoming this in the 21st century.
This creates an opportunity for us to connect with our representatives at all levels. In the last few months, we have already helped our community double the number of connections between people and our representatives by making it easier to connect with all our representatives in one click. When we connect, we can engage directly in comments and messages. For example, in Iceland, it’s common to tag politicians in group discussions so they can take community issues to parliament.
Sometimes people must speak out and demonstrate for what they believe is right. From Tahrir Square to the Tea Party — our community organizes these demonstrations using our infrastructure for events and groups. On a daily basis, people use their voices to share their views in ways that can spread around the world and grow into movements. The Women’s March is an example of this, where a grandmother with an internet connection wrote a post that led her friends to start a Facebook event that eventually turned into millions of people marching in cities around the world.
Giving people a voice is a principle our community has been committed to since we began. As we look ahead to building the social infrastructure for a global community, we will work on building new tools that encourage thoughtful civic engagement. Empowering us to use our voices will only become more important.
Building an inclusive global community requires establishing a new process for citizens worldwide to participate in community governance. I hope that we can explore examples of how collective decision-making might work at scale.
Facebook is not just technology or media, but a community of people. That means we need Community Standards that reflect our collective values for what should and should not be allowed.
In the last year, the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community. We saw this in errors taking down newsworthy videos related to Black Lives Matter and police violence, and in removing the historical Terror of War photo from Vietnam. We’ve seen this in misclassifying hate speech in political debates in both directions — taking down accounts and content that should be left up and leaving up content that was hateful and should be taken down. Both the number of issues and their cultural importance has increased recently.
This has been painful for me because I often agree with those criticizing us that we’re making mistakes. These mistakes are almost never because we hold ideological positions at odds with the community, but instead are operational scaling issues. Our guiding philosophy for the Community Standards is to try to reflect the cultural norms of our community. When in doubt, we always favor giving people the power to share more.
There are a few reasons for the increase in issues we’ve seen: cultural norms are shifting, cultures are different around the world, and people are sensitive to different things.
First, our community is evolving from its origin connecting us with family and friends to now becoming a source of news and public discourse as well. With this cultural shift, our Community Standards must adapt to permit more newsworthy and historical content, even if some is objectionable. For example, an extremely violent video of someone dying would have been marked as disturbing and taken down. However, now that we use Live to capture the news and we post videos to protest violence, our standards must adapt. Similarly, a photo depicting any child nudity would have always been taken down — and for good reason — but we’ve now adapted our standards to allow historically important content like the Terror of War photo. These issues reflect a need to update our standards to meet evolving expectations from our community.
Second, our community spans many countries and cultures, and the norms are different in each region. It’s not surprising that Europeans more frequently find fault with taking down images depicting nudity, since some European cultures are more accepting of nudity than, for example, many communities in the Middle East or Asia. With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.
Third, even within a given culture, we have different opinions on what we want to see and what is objectionable. I may be okay with more politically charged speech but not want to see anything sexually suggestive, while you may be okay with nudity but not want to see offensive speech. Similarly, you may want to share a violent video in a protest without worrying that you’re going to bother friends who don’t want to see it. And just as it’s a bad experience to see objectionable content, it’s also a terrible experience to be told we can’t share something we feel is important. This suggests we need to evolve towards a system of personal control over our experience.
Fourth, we’re operating at such a large scale that even a small percent of errors causes a large number of bad experiences. We review over one hundred million pieces of content every month, and even if our reviewers get 99% of the calls right, that’s still millions of errors over time. Any system will always have some mistakes, but I believe we can do better than we are today.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year reflecting on how we can improve our community governance. Sitting here in California, we’re not best positioned to identify the cultural norms around the world. Instead, we need a system where we can all contribute to setting the standards. Although this system is not fully developed, I want to share an idea of how this might work.
The guiding principles are that the Community Standards should reflect the cultural norms of our community, that each person should see as little objectionable content as possible, and each person should be able to share what they want while being told they cannot share something as little as possible. The approach is to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them.
The idea is to give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves. Where is your line on nudity? On violence? On graphic content? On profanity? What you decide will be your personal settings. We will periodically ask you these questions to increase participation and so you don’t need to dig around to find them. For those who don’t make a decision, the default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum. Of course you will always be free to update your personal settings anytime.
With a broader range of controls, content will only be taken down if it is more objectionable than the most permissive options allow. Within that range, content should simply not be shown to anyone whose personal controls suggest they would not want to see it, or at least they should see a warning first. Although we will still block content based on standards and local laws, our hope is that this system of personal controls and democratic referenda should minimize restrictions on what we can share.
It’s worth noting that major advances in AI are required to understand text, photos and videos to judge whether they contain hate speech, graphic violence, sexually explicit content, and more. At our current pace of research, we hope to begin handling some of these cases in 2017, but others will not be possible for many years.
Overall, it is important that the governance of our community scales with the complexity and demands of its people. We are committed to always doing better, even if that involves building a worldwide voting system to give you more voice and control. Our hope is that this model provides examples of how collective decision-making may work in other aspects of the global community.
This is an important time in the development of our global community, and it’s a time when many of us around the world are reflecting on how we can have the most positive impact.
History has had many moments like today. As we’ve made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations, we have always had to build social infrastructure like communities, media and governments for us to thrive and reach the next level. At each step we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone. We have done it before and we will do it again.
I am reminded of President Lincoln’s remarks during the American Civil War: “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew.”
There are many of us who stand for bringing people together and connecting the world. I hope we have the focus to take the long view and build the new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.
It’s an honor to be on this journey with you. Thank you for being part of this community, and thanks for everything you do to make the world more open and connected.
Though in the twenty-first century humans might be upgraded into gods, as of 2018 we are still Stone Age animals. In order to flourish we still need to ground ourselves in intimate communities. (86)
Unfortunately, over the past to centuries intimate communities have been disintegrating. The attempt to replace small groups of people who actually know one another with the imagined communities of nations and political parties will never succeed in full. … Consequently, people live ever more lonely lives in an ever more connected planet. Many of the social and political disruptions of our time can be traced back to this malaise. (87)
ONLINE VERSUS OFFLINE
A community may begin as an online gathering, but in order to truly flourish it will have to put down roots in the offline world too. (88)
Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot match, at least not in the near future. (88)
Humans have bodies. (89)
[via: cf. John 14:6; 1 John 1]
People estranged from their bodies, senses, and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented. Pundits often blame such feelings of alienation on the decline of religious and national bonds, but losing touch with your body is probably more important. Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations; they can probably live happily without them in the twenty-first century too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world. (90)
Unfortunately, intimate relations probably are a zero-sum game. Beyond a certain point, the time and energy you spend on getting to know your online friends from Iran or Nigeria will come at the expense of your ability to know your next-door neighbors. (91)
6. Civilization: There Is Just One Civilization in the World
The “clash of civilizations” thesis has far-reaching political implications. (94)
Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. (95)
In truth, European civilization is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make out of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into single yarn. (96)
People often refuse to recognize these changes, especially when it comes to core political and religious values. We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this is that our ancestors are long dead and cannot speak for themselves. (97)
GERMANS AND GORILLAS
Species often split, but they never merge. (98)
[via: Is that true? What about Homo sapiens‘ evolution mixed with Neanderthal?]
THE MEDIEVAL OLYMPICS
Today, in contrast, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about two hundred sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. (101)
The world may be peppered with various types of “failed states,” but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state failed in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political packages. (101)
So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents and astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal an their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organizing such an event. (105)
ONE DOLLAR TO RULE THEM ALL
A thousand years ago every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time, and space. (108)
People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff–how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb–almost all of us belong to the same civilization. (108)
The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreement. (109)
Whatever changes await us in the future, they are likely to involve a fraternal struggle within a single civilization rather than a clash between alien civilizations. The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend life spans? No doubt we will have huge arguments and bitter conflicts over these questions. But these arguments and conflicts are unlikely to isolate us from one another. Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent. Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilization. (109)
7. Nationalism: Global Problems Need Global Answers
Does a return to nationalism offer real solutions to the unprecedented problems of our global world, or is it an escapist indulgence that may doom humankind and the entire biosphere to disaster? (110)
| In order to answer this question, we should first dispel a widespread myth. Contrary to common wisdom, nationalism is not a natural and eternal part of the human psyche, and it is not rooted in human biology. True, humans are social animals through and through, with group loyalty imprinted in their genes. However, for hundreds of thousands of years Homo sapiens and its hominid ancestors lived in small intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Humans easily develop loyalty to small intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company, or a family business, but it is hardly natural for humans to be loyal to millions of (110) utter strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the last few thousand years–yesterday morning, in evolutionary terms–and they require immense efforts of social construction. (111)
Will we make a world in which all humans can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Do Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and their colleagues save the world by fanning our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face? (114)
THE NUCLEAR CHALLENGE
As long as humans know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival depends on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. (115)
THE ECOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
For thousands of years Homo sapiens behaved as an ecological serial killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer. (116)
We need to enter rehab today. Not next year or next month, but today. “Hello, I am Homo sapiens, and I am a fossil-fuel addict.” (118)
cf. Clean Meat
Nationalist isolationism is probably even more dangerous in the context of climate change than nuclear war. An all-out nuclear war threatens to destroy all nations, so all nations have an equal stake in preventing it. Global warming, in contrast, will probably have different impacts on different nations. Some countries, most notably Russia, might actually benefit from it. (119)
Since there is no national answer to the problem of global warming, some nationalist politicians prefer to believe the problem does not exist. (121)
THE TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGE
In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty. (121)
| Moreover, whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with humans’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. (121)
Within a century or two, the combination of biotechnology and AI might result in physical and mental traits that completely break free of the hominid mold. Some believe that consciousness might even be severed from any organic structure and could surf cyberspace free of all biological and physical constraints. On the other hand, we might witness the complete decoupling of intelligence from consciousness, and the development of AI might result in a world dominated by superintelligent but completely nonconscious entities. (122)
Each of these three problems–nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption–is enough to threaten the future of human civilization. But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound one another. (123)
We need a new global identity because national institutions are incapable of handling a set of unprecedented global predicaments. We now have a global ecology, a global economy, and a global science–but we are still stuck with only national politics. …to globalize politics means that political dynamics within countries and even cities should give far more weight to global problems and interests. (126)
8. Religion: God Now Serves the Nation
So far, modern ideologies, scientific experts, and national governments have failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity. Can such a vision be drawn from the deep wells of human religious traditions? (127)
To understand the role of traditional religions in the world of the (127) twenty-first century, we need to distinguish between three types of problems:
- Technical problems. For example, how should farmers in arid countries deal with severe droughts caused by global warming?
- Policy problems. For example, what measures should government adopt to prevent global warming in the first place?
- Identity problems. For example, should I even care about the problems of farmers on the other side of the world, or should I care only about problems of people from my own tribe and country?
As we shall see in the following pages, traditional relations are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems. In contrast, they are extremely relevant to identity problems–but in most cases they constitute a major part of the problem rather than a potential solution. (128)
TECHNICAL PROBLEMS: CHRISTIAN AGRICULTURE
The victory of science has been so complete that our very idea of religion has changed. We no longer associate religion with farming and medicine. (129)
Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good at farming or healthcare. (129)
Yet it is precisely their genius for interpretation that puts religious leaders at a disadvantage when they compete against scientists. Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and (129) try a different tack. That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. (130)
POLICY PROBLEMS: MUSLIM ECONOMICS
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian thinkers railed against modern materialism, soulless capitalism, and the excesses of the bureaucratic state. They promised that if only they were given a chance, they would solve all the ills of modernity and establish a completely different socioeconomic system based on the eternal spiritual values of their creed. Well, they have been given quite a few chances, and the only noticeable change they have made to the edifice of modern economies is to redo the paint and place a huge crescent, cross, Star of David, or om on the roof. (131)
| Just as in the case of rainmaking, so also when it comes to economics: it is the long-honed expertise of religious scholars in reinterpreting texts that makes religion irrelevant. (131)
[via: Harari’s tone demeans religion at this juncture, and fascinatingly recognizes its value at the same time. It’s a perplexing balance. Regarding the “ills of modernity,” I think it is valid to say that–at least for the Christian story–Jesus does promise an overhaul of the socioeconomics experienced by humans, but it isn’t about upending the system so much as the people who engage in the system, whatever system it may happen to be. Last, it is here we are getting a glimpse into the truth that values are, to use Harari’s term, “inter-subjective.” Values are not objective, but neither are they relativistic.]
From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer. (133)
IDENTITY PROBLEMS: THE LINES IN THE SAND
Even if Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity is just a set of colorful decorations over a modern economic structure, people often identify with the decor, and people’s identities are a crucial historical force. Human power depends on mass cooperation, and mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities–and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities. (134)
The kamikaze thus relied on combing state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination. (137)
| Knowingly or not, numerous governments today follow the Japanese example. They adopt the universal tools and structures of modernity while relying on traditional religions to preserve a unique national identity. The role of state Shinto in Japan is fulfilled to a lesser ore greater degree by Orthodox Christianity in Russia, Catholicism in Poland, Shiite Islam in Iran, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and Judaism in Israel. No matter how archaic a religion might look, with a bit of imagination and reinterpretation it can almost always be marred to the latest technological gadgets and the most sophisticated modern institutions. (137)
THE HANDMAID OF NATIONALISM
Religions, rites, and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions. (138)
| Unfortunately, all of this really makes traditional religions part of humanity’s problem, not part of the remedy. Religions still have a lot of political power, inasmuch as they can cement national identities and even ignite the Third World War. But when it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, they don’t seem to offer much. Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism, whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran, or Israel. They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. (138)
[via: First, the United States needs to be listed among these countries, even if it is portion of the country, and not the country as a whole. Second, what if there was a “global” religion?]
9.Immigration: Some Cultures Might Be Better than Others
The European Union was built on the promise of transcending the cultural differences between French, Germans, Spaniards, and Greeks. It might collapse due to its inability to contain the cultural differences between Europeans and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Ironically, it has been Europe’s very success in building a prosperous multicultural system (140) that drew so many migrants in the first place. (141)
…it would perhaps be helpful to view immigration as a deal with three basic conditions or terms:
TERM 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.
TERM 2: In return, the immigrants must embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country, even if that means giving up some of their traditional norms and values.
TERM 3: If the immigrants assimilate to a sufficient degree, over time they become equal and full members of the host country. “They” become “us.”
[via: And here is where The Way of Jesus may offer a different path, in which “they” are already “us.”]
A fourth debate concerns the fulfillment of the terms. When people argue about immigration, they often confuse the four debates, so that nobody understands what the argument is really about. (141)
…underneath all these debates lurks a far more fundamental question, which concerns our understanding of human culture. DO we enter the immigration debate with the assumption that all cultures are inherently equal, or do we think that some culture might well be superior to others? (148)
FROM RACISM TO CULTURALISM
Life (148) scientists, and in particular geneticists, have produced very strong scientific evidence that the biological differences between Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Native Americans are negligible. (149)
| At the same time, however, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, behavioral economists, and even brain scientists have accumulated a wealth of data for the existence of significant differences between human cultures. (149)
People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against traditional racism without noticing that (151) the battlefront has shifted. Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of “culturists.” (152)
The shift from biology to culture is not just a meaningless change of jargon. It is a profound shift with far-reaching practical consequences, some good, some bad. For starters, culture is more malleable than biology. (153)
A second key difference between talking about biology and talk-(153)ing about culture is that unlike traditional racist bigotry, culturist arguments might occasionally make good sense, as in the case of Warmland and Coldia. (154)
Anthropologists, sociologists, and historians feel extremely uneasy about this issue. On one hand, it all sounds dangerously close to racism. On the other hand, culturism has a much firmer scientific basis than racism, and particularly scholars in the humanities and social sciences cannot deny the existence and importance of cultural differences. (154)
Many culturist claims suffer from three common flaws. First, culturists often confuse local superiority with objective superiority. (154)
Second, when you clearly define a yardstick, a time, a place, culturist claims may well be empirically sound. But all too often people adopt very general culturist claims that make little sense. (154)
Yet the worst problem with culturist claims is that despite their statistical nature they are all too often used to prejudge individuals. (155)
PART III: DESPAIR AND HOPE
Though the challenges are unprecedented, and though the disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.
10. Terrorism: Don’t Panic
Terrorists are masters of mind control. … Since September 11, 2001, each year terrorists have killed about 50 people in the European Union, about 10 people int he United States, about 7 people in China, and up to 25,000 people elsewhere in the globe (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria). In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people per year. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terrorist attacks but not because of chronic air pollution? (161)
As the literal meaning of the word indicates, terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. (161)
…the terrorists hope that even though they can barely make a dent in the enemy’s material power, fear and confusion will cause the enemy to misuse his intact strength and overreact. Terrorists calculate that when the enraged enemy uses his massive power against them, he will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. (163)
In this respect, terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. … And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world. (163)
RESHUFFLING THE CARDS
Terrorism is a very unattractive military strategy, because it leaves all the important decisions in the hands of the enemy. (163)
…we intuitively understand that terrorism is theater, www judge it by its emotional rather than material impact. (165)
| Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theater producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively, we must realize that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to their provocations. (165)
| Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power through violence, despite having no army. To achieve their aim, they present the state with an impossible challenge of its own: to prove that it can protect all of its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime. (165)
A terrorist is like a gambler who is holding a particularly bad hand and (165) tries to convince his rivals to reshuffle the cards. he cannot lose anything, and he could win everything. (166)
A SMALL COIN IN A BIG EMPTY JAR
Why should the state agree to reshuffle the cards? … Why are states so sensitive to terrorist provocations? (166)
States find it difficult to withstand these provocations because the legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence. (166)
This is why the theater of terrorism is so successful. The state has created a huge space empty of political violence, which now acts as a sounding board, amplifying the impact of any armed attack, however small. The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. … Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism. (168)
How then should the state deal with terrorism? A successful counterterrorism struggle should be conducted on three fronts. First, governments should focus on clandestine actions against the terrorist networks. Second, the media should keep things in perspective and avoid hysteria. The theater of terror cannot succeed without publicity. Unfortunately, the media all too often provides this publicity for free. (169)
The third front is the imagination of each and every one of us. … It is the responsibility of all citizens to liberate our imagination from the terrorists and to remind ourselves of the true dimensions of the threat. It is our own inner terror that prompts the media to obsess about terrorism and the government to overreact. (169)
TERRORISM GOES NUCLEAR
…we should be very careful to differentiate such hypothetical future scenarios from the actual terrorist attacks we have so far witnessed. (170)
It is hard to set priorities in real time, while it is all too easy to second-guess priorities with hindsight. (171)
11. War: Never Underestimate Human Stupidity
For all its military prowess and for all the hawkish rhetoric of Israeli politicians, Israel knows there is little to be won from war. Like the United States, China, Germany, Japan, and Iran, Israel seems to understand that in the twenty-first century the most successful strategy is to sit on the fence and let others do the fighting for you. (176)
THE VIEW FROM THE KREMLIN
Authoritarian nationalism may indeed be spreading int he world, but by its very nature it is not conducive to the establishment of cohesive international blocs. (179)
THE LOST ART OF WINNING WARS
Why is it so difficult for major powers to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century? One reason is the change in the nature of the economy. In the past, economic assets were mostly material; therefore, it was relatively straightforward to enrich yourself by conquest. (179)
Today the main economic asset consists of technical and institutional knowledge rather than wheat fields, gold mines, or even oil fields, and you just cannot conquer knowledge through war. (180)
THE MARCH OF FOLLY
Alas, even if it remains impossible to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century, that would not give us an absolute guarantee of peace. We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities. (182)
Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often tend to discount it. … The problem is that the world is far more complicated than a chessboard, and human rationality is not up to the task of really understanding it. For that reason even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things. (182)
One potential remedy for human stupidity is a dose of humility. … How can we make nations, religions, and cultures a bit more realistic and modest about their true place in the world? (183)
12. Humility: You Are Not the Center of the World
Most people tend to believe they are the center of the world, and their culture is the linchpin of human history. (184)
All these claims are false. They combine a willful ignorance of history with more than a hint of racism. None of the religions or nations of today existed when humans colonized the world, domesticated plants and animals, built the first cities, or invented writing and money. Morality, art, spirituality, and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA. Their genesis was in Stone Age Africa. It is therefore crass egotism to ascribe to them a more recent place and time, be it China in the age of the Yellow Emperor, Greece in the age of Plato, or Arabia in the age of Muhammad. (185)
What my people lack in numbers and real influence, they more than compensate for in chutzpah. (186)
[via: Harari discusses Jewish contributions to the world, stating that Jews have an “astonishing history” and “disproportionate impact” given their numbers. But overall, their contributions have been “very limited.” I noted, in my reading, “then what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” And why does that saying (by the early church father Tertullian) exist? Also, by what rationale do we only use material rubrics for judging a people’s contribution to the world? For consideration.]
ETHICS BEFORE THE BIBLE
Scientists nowadays point out that morality in fact has deep evolutionary roots predating the appearance of humankind by millions of years. All social mammals, such as wolves, dolphins, and monkeys, have ethical codes, adapted by evolution to promote group cooperation. (190)
It was only the Christians who selected some choice morsels of the Jewish moral code, turned them into universal commandments, and spread them throughout the world. Indeed, Christianity split from Judaism precisely on this account. (193)
[via: Harari’s religious history is extremely oversimplified. Granted, this is not a book on the history of religion, much less Judaism and Christianity. However, it is in the attempt to distill complex history into easily digestible morsels that misunderstandings occur and nuances are lost.]
It therefore makes absolutely no sense to credit Judaism and its Christian and Muslim offspring with the creation of human morality. (194)
[via: Agreed, however, the points made to get to this conclusion were dubious. Again, Harari’s religious and philosophical history leaves much to be desired.]
THE BIRTH OF BIGOTRY
But the real problem with the idea that Judaism contributed monotheism to the world is that this is hardly something to be proud of. From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history. (194)
What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people worshipped different gods and performed diverse rites and (194) rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs. (195)
[via: Harari is just wrong. Polytheism, particularly the hierarchies that characterize the theistic battle, was brutally violent and oppressive. Monotheism brought the pantheon under one roof, attributing the entire cosmos to one god, and according to the Abrahamic faiths, a god of justice, love, compassion, and mercy. Abram, the father of this faith, was to be the earthly representative of this “blessing” to the world. This is in stark contrast to the brutal world of Tiamat, Marduk, Zeus, Cybele, Baal, and Molech. cf. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not In God’s Name.
On page 196, Harari continues his description of monotheisms reign, specifically Christianity, by stating that “one could be executed even for worshipping Jupiter or Mithras…” This argument is weak as it is more about imperialism than it is about monotheism. The Flavian family was also notoriously brutal, and they were polytheists.]
..by insisting that “there is no god but our God,” the monotheist idea tended to encourage bigotry. Jews would do well to downplay their part in disseminating this dangerous meme and let the Christians and Muslims carry the blame for it. (196)
JEWISH PHYSICS, CHRISTIAN BIOLOGY
I would like to emphasize that I am not saying Judaism is a particularly evil or benighted religion. All I am saying is that it wasn’t particularly important to the history of humankind. (199)
Jews may be a very interesting people, but when you look at the big picture, you must realize that they have had a very limited impact on the world. (199)
Many religions praise the value of humility but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously. (199)
| And among all forms of humility, perhaps the most important is to have humility before God. Whenever they talk of God, humans all too often profess abject self-effacement, but then use the name of God to lord it over their brethren. (199)
[via: Regardless of my philosophical and historical critiques, I concur with this anthropological observation.]
13. God: Don’t Take the Name of God in Vain
Does God exist? That depend son which God you have in mind: the cosmic mystery, or the worldly lawgiver? Sometimes when people talk about God, they talk about a grand and awesome enigma, about which we know absolutely nothing. We invoke this mysterious God to explain the deepest riddles of the cosmos. Why sit here something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from? We do not know the answers to these questions, and we give our ignorance the grand name of GOd. The most fundamental characteristic of this mysterious God is that we cannot say anything concrete about Him. This is the God of the philosophers, the God we talk about when we sit around a campfire late at night and wonder what life is all about. (200)
When the faithful are asked whether God really exists, they often begin by talking about the enigmatic mysteries of the universe and the limits of human understanding. … Yet like magicians fooling an audience by imperceptibly replacing one card with another, the faithful quickly replace the cosmic mystery with the worldly lawgiver. After giving the name of “God” to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorce. “We do not understand the Big Bang–therefore you must cover your hair in public and vote against gay marriage.” Not only is there no logical connection between the two, but they are in fact contradictory. The deeper the mysteries of the universe, the less likely it is that whatever is responsible for them gives a damn about female dress codes or human sexual behavior. (201)
[via: This is a slight over-characterization. Harari seems to be arguing with a popular theism, rather than the more intellectually and philosophically grounded theism that also exists.]
Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions, or our personal hatreds. People hate somebody and say, “God hates him”; people covet a piece of land and say, “God wants it.” The world would be a much better place if we followed the third commandment more devotedly. You want to wage war on your neighbors and steal their land? Leave God out of it and find yourself some other excuse. (202)
The idea that we need a supernatural being to make us act morally assumes that there is something unnatural about morality. (203)
[via: Two things. This is akin to the Euthyphro Dilemma. Second, this is not the fundamental apologetic argument, which is that a supernatural being provides the basis and source for an objective morality. It is an argument about moral ontology.]
Morality doesn’t mean “following divine commands.” It means “reducing suffering.” Therefore in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering. (204)
14. Secularism: Acknowledge Your Shadow
Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active worldview, defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. In fact, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, they view morality and wisdom as the natur-(207)al legacy of all humans. Therefore it is only to be expected that at least some values would pop up in human societies all over the world and would be common to Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and atheists. (208)
| Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/or choice–either you are a Muslim or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple, hybrid identities. … This ethical code–which is in fact accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians, and Hindues as well as by atheists–enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions. (208)
| Like all ethical codes, the secular cod is an ideal to aspire to rather than a social reality. (208)
THE SECULAR IDEAL
What then is the secular idea? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence (208) rather than on mere faith. Secularists strive not to confuse truth with belief. (209)
In addition, secularists do not sanctify any group, person, or book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth. (209)
The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. (209)
This is the deep reason secular people cherish scientific truth: not in order to satisfy their curiosity, but in order to know how best to reduce the suffering in the world. (210)
[via: Why? For that, we need “humanism.”]
The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality. (210)
…secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. (211)
We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. For that reason secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution, or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. (211)
Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. (211)
People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question. (212)
| Finally, secular people cherish responsibility. … Instead of praying for miracles, we need to ask what we can do to help. (212)
…secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief, to develop compassion for all suffering beings, to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens, to think freely without fearing the unknown, and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole (213)
WAS STALIN SECULAR?
Since it is difficult to send soldiers into battle or impose radical economic reforms in the name of doubtful conjectures, secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds. (214)
Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism. (214)
[via: So, this segment of the book falls short on several accounts. First, claiming that virtues like searching for the truth, humility, compassion, thinking freely, and taking responsibility are the very definitions of secularism is simply wrong. According to the National Secular Society, the first principle underpinning secularism is a “separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.” Secularism posits itself in contradistinction to religious domination. It is not, fundamentally, a philosophy that posits a set of values or ethics. Second, the very virtues that Harari posits are actually “religious,” or at the very least, “humanistic,” emerging from a religious/philosophical framework. I concur with the value of these principles and ethics. I am simply saying that they are not, by definition, “secular.” Last, by simply positing that there is an option for how we define “secular,” as in the note from p.214 above, we are garbling common parlance for the sake of a rhetorical argument. This is disingenuous to the terms, their definitions, and the other ideologies that deserve at least some credit.]
ACKNOWLEDGING THE SHADOW
Christians appalled by the Inquisition and by the Crusades cannot just wash their hands of these atrocities; they should rather ask themselves some very tough questions. How exactly did their “religion of love” allow itself to be distorted in such a way, and not once but numerous times? Protestants who try to blame it all on Catholic fanaticism are advised to read a book about the behavior of Protestant colonists in Ireland or in North America. Similarly, Marxists should ask themselves what it was about the teachings of Marx that paved the way to the gulag, scientists should consider how the scientific project lent itself so easily to destabilizing the global ecosystem, and geneticists in particular should take warning from the way the Nazis hijacked Darwinian theories. (217)
| Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naive reassurance that “it cannot happen to us.” (217)
As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility. If you want your religion, ideology, or worldview to lead the world, my first question to you is: “What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology, or worldview committed? What did it get wrong?” If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you. (218)
[via: I feel compelled to say–in light of my critique above–that Harari is right when it comes to every ideology/religion having a shadow. I concur with his test for contributing to the decisions in the history of life.]
PART IV: TRUTH
If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?
15. Ignorance: You Know Less than You Think
…while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with life in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age. (222)
| Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. …we think in groups. … What gave Homo sapiens an egg over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups. (222)
| Individual humans know embarrassingly little about the world, and as history has progressed, they have come to know less and less. (22)
Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we hold on to these views due to group loyalty. Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire. Most people don’t like too many facts, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid. (223)
Similarly the liberal belief in individual rationality may itself be the product of liberal groupthink. … Modern democracies are full of crowds shouting in unison, “Yes, the voter knows best! Yes, the customer is always right!” (224)
THE BLACK HOLE OF POWER
Great power thus acts like a black hole that warps the very space around it. The closer you get to it, the more twisted everything becomes. (225)
If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the center, because the center is built on existing knowledge. … That’s why you need to waste so much time in the periphery: while it might contain some brilliant revolutionary insights, it is mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas, and ridiculous conspiracy theories. (226)
| Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they remain at the center of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. (226)
16. Justice: Our Sense of Justice Might Be Out of Date
Whether secular or religious, citizens of the twenty-first century have plenty of values. The problem is with implementing these values in a complex global world. It’s all the fault of numbers. The foragers’ sense of justice was structured to cope with dilemmas relating to the lives of a few dozen people in an area of a few dozen square miles. When we try to comprehend relationships between millions of people across entire continents, our moral sense is overwhelmed. (229)
Unfortunately, an inherent feature of our modern global world is that its casual relations are highly ramified and complex. I can live at home peacefully, never raising a finger to harm anyone, and yet according to left-wing activists, I am a full partner to the wrongs inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. According to the socialists, my comfortable life is based on child labor in dismal Third World sweatshops. Animal-welfare advocates remind me that my life is interwoven with one of the most appalling crimes in history–the subjugation of billions of farm animals to a brutal regime of exploitation. (229)
| Am I really to blame for all that? It’s not easy to say. (229)
It doesn’t matter whether you judge actions by their consequences (it is wrong to steal because it makes the victims miserable) or believe in categorical duties that should be followed irrespective of consequences (it is wrong to steal because God said so). The problem is that it has become extremely complicated to grasp what we are actually doing. (230)
One can try to evade the problem by adopting a “morality of intentions.” What’s important is what I intend, not what I actually do or the outcome of what I do. However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. (231)
DOWNSIZE OR DENY?
In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas of this scale, people often resort to one of four methods. The first is to downsize the issue. (234)
The second method is to focus on a touching human story that ostensibly stands for the whole conflict. (234)
The third method of dealing with large-scale moral dilemmas is to weave conspiracy theories. (234)
The fourth and ultimate method is to create a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution, or chief, and follow it wherever it leads us. Religious and ideological dogmas are still highly attractive in our scientific age precisely because they offer us a safe haven from the frustrating complexity of reality. … While such doctrines provide people with intellectual comfort and moral certainty, it is debatable whether they provide justice. (235)
| What should we do? Should we adopt the liberal dogma and trust the aggregate of individual voters and customers? Or perhaps we should reject the individualist approach and, like many previous cultures in history, empower communities to make sense of the world together? Such a solution, however,r only takes us from the frying pan of individual ignorance into the fire of biased groupthink. … All existing human tribes are absorbed din advancing their particular interests rather than in understanding the global truth. (235)
17. Post-Truth: Some Fake News Lasts Forever
…if this is the era of post-truth, when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? … And what triggered our transition to the post-truth era? (237)
A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new, and even the habit of denying entire nations and creating fake countries has a long pedigree. (237)
[via: While Harari’s historical context is valid, I would suggest that the socio-political descriptor that we are using is a moniker for expressing how many are feeling during these times, not necessarily a historically intended observation. Second, I would posit that our “post-truth” era exists because we do know what truth is and we–collectively, individually, nationally–have decided to reject it, consciously or subconsciously. Third, I would posit that those who embody the leadership of this post-truth era know it. There is an intentionality that, yes, can be adjudicated in the court of public opinion, and ascertained by a broad assessment of the leader’s words, reasoning–public and private,– agenda, and core values and convictions.]
THE POST-TRUTH SPECIES
In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. (238)
[via: This is where I depart from Harari. I agree in the creating and believing in fictions. This is far different from what we are talking about when we say “post-truth.”]
We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or the the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries a Dalit–yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts forever. (239)
| I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly my point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one moth, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). (239)
[via: The problem with this moral equivalency is in Harari’s own writings. In Sapiens, this “fake news” (i.e., “religion,” “politics,” “money,” etc.) is a “feature” of Homo sapiens‘ ability to act and live corporately and cooperatively, to create games, and to abstract. True, some people may be upset at this comparison, as he states. But this critique is not about feelings. My point is that Harari’s own work deems this comparison invalid. The “fake news” of stating blatant untruths is categorically different from the “fictions” we have created around religion, politics, and company brands, according to Harari himself.]
Again, some people might be offended by my comparison of the Bible to Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically minded Christian, you might explain away all the errors, myths, and contradictions in (239) the Bible by arguing that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of the Harry Potter stories too?
[via: Okay, so, first, there is a difference between a “myth” and a “fiction.” Second, some portions of the Bible were meant to be read as a factual account, and other portions were meant to be read as myths, metaphors, or stories.]
ONCE A LIE, ALWAYS THE TRUTH
A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth. – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
…commercial firms also rely on fiction and fake news. Branding often involves retelling the same fictional story again and again, until people become convinced it is the truth. What images come to mind when you think about Coca-Cola? Do you think about healthy young people engaging in sports and having fun together? Or do you think about overweight diabetes patients lying in a hospital bed? Drinking lots of Coca-Cola will not make you young, will not make you healthy, and will not make you athletic–rather, it will increase your chances of suffering from obesity and diabetes. Yet for decades Coca-Cola has invested billions of dollars in linking itself to youth, health, and sports–and billions of humans subconsciously believe in this linkage. (243)
| The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo (243) sapiens. … In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. (244)
If you distort reality too much, it will indeed weaken you by making you act in unrealistic ways. (244)
On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. (244)
In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. (244)
If you observed a human brain in an fMRI scanner, you would see that as someone is presented with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills, the parts of the brain that start buzzing with excitement are not the skeptical parts (“other people believe this is valuable”) but rather the greedy parts (“Holy shit! I want this!”). Conversely, in the vast majority of cases people begin to sanctify the Bible or the Vedas or the Book of mormon only after long and repeated exposure to other people who view it as sacred. We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect paper currency. (245)
| For this reason there is no strict division in practice between (245) knowing that something is just a human convention and believing that something is inherently valuable. … Yet 99 percent of the time, we aren’t engaged in deep philosophical discussions, and we treat corporations as if they are real entities in the world, just like tigers or humans. (246)
| Blurring the line between fiction and reality can be done for many purposes, starting with “having fun” and going all the way to “survival.” You cannot play games or read novels unless you suspend disbelief at least for a little while. (246)
Humans have a remarkable ability to know and not know at the same time. Or, more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know. (246)
Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. … Scholars throughout history have faced this dilemma: Do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making our everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? (247)
[via: This reminds me of Dacher Keltner’s The Power Paradox.]
As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it–and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect form Homo sapiens. Better to try your luck with chimps. (247)
[via: This is why, as my knowledge grows, I become even more disheartened with how to behave in this world.]
GETTING OUT OF THE BRAINWASHING MACHINE
Here I would like to offer two simple rules of thumb. (248)
| First, if you want reliable information, pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product. (248)
The second rule of thumb is that if some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the relevant scientific literature. (249)
18. Science Fiction: The Future Is Not What You See in the Movies
Whenever you see a movie about an AI in which the AI is female and the scientist is male, it’s probably a movie about feminism rather than cybernetics. (251)
LIVING IN A BOX
The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras but rather that authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realize that they are already trapped inside a box–their brain–which is locked within the bigger box of human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix. …when you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realize that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks. (253)
Most science-fiction movies actually tell a very old story: the victory of mind over matter. … But the truth is that humans gained control of the world not so much by inventing knives and killing mammoths as by manipulating human minds. … According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell. (254)
| Do you have any idea how many movies, novels, and poems you have consumed over the years, and how these artifacts have shaped and sharpened your idea of love? Romantic comedies are to love as porn is to sex and Rambo is to war. And if you think you can press some delete button and wipe out all trace of Hollywood from your subconscious and your limbic system, you are deluding yourself. (254)
DISNEY LOSES FAITH IN FREE WILL
Since your brain and your “self” are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century. (259)
PART V: RESILIENCE
How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?
19. Education: Change Is the Only Constant
In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world. (265)
| In truth, this has been the ideal of Western liberal education for centuries, but up till now even many Western schools have been rather slack in fulfilling it. Teachers allowed themselves to focus on imparting data while encouraging students “to think for themselves.” Due to their fear of authoritarianism, liberal schools have (265) had a particular horror of grand narratives. … We have now run out of time. The decisions we will make in the next few decades will shape the future of life itself, and we can make these decisions based only on our present worldview. If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random. (266)
THE HEAT IS ON
So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs”–critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. More broadly, they believe, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasize general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again. (266)
If somebody describes the (267) world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics: change itself is the only certainty. (268)
How do you live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug but a feature? (269)
| To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. (269)
so the best advice I can give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India, or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Because of the increasing pace of change, you can never be certain (270) whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias. (271)
| So on what can you rely instead? (271)
You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’ snot even half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans. (272)
[via: cf. Robert Lustig, The Hacking of the American Mind.]
The algorithms are watching you right now. They are watching where you go, what you buy, whom you meet. Soon they will monitor all your steps, all your breaths, all your heartbeats. They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. And once these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they can control and manipulate you, and you won’t be able to do much about it. You will live in the matrix, or in The Truman Show. In the end, it’s a simple empirical matter: if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it yourself, authority will shift to them. (272)
| Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms and trusting them to decide things for you and for the rest of the world. If so, just relax and enjoy the ride. You don’t need to do anything about it. The algorithms will take care of everything. If, however, you want to retain some control over your personal existence and the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much baggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy. (272)
20. Meaning: Life Is Not a Story
All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions. First, it must give me some role to play. (280)
Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story must provide me with an identity and give meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. (280)
Most successful stories remain open-ended. They never need to explain where meaning ultimately comes from, because they are so good at capturing people’s attention and keeping it inside a safe zone. (281)
This theory of life as a never-ending epic is extremely attractive and common, but it suffers from two main problems. First, by lengthening my personal story I don’t really make it more meaningful. I just make it longer. (282)
The second problem with this theory is the paucity of supporting evidence. (283)
People who doubt that some kind of soul or spirit really survives their death therefore strive to leave behind something a bit more tangible. That “something tangible” could take one of two forms: cultural or biological. (283)
If we cannot leave something tangible behind, such as a gene or a poem, might it be enough if we just make the world a little better? … A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. “Well,” he answered, “I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.” 9284)
If you are really in love with someone, you never worry about the meaning of life. (285)
THE WEIGHT OF THE ROOF
Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story. (285)
| So why do people believe in these fictions? One reason is that their personal identity is built on the story. (286)
Second, not only are our personal identities built on the story, but so are our collective institutions. (286)
Most stories are held together by the weight of their roof rather than by the strength of their foundations. (286)
HOCUS-POCUS AND THE INDUSTRY OF BELIEF
It’s obvious why humans want to believe the story, but how doe they actually believe? How do we make the story feel real? Priests and shamans discovered the answer to this question thousands of years ago: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real. (287)
“Hoc est corpus!” [“This is the body!”] got garbled into “Hocus-pocus!” (287)
If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. (291)
…most people don’t like to admit that they are fools. Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice. In order to bring us under his power, the sacrificing priest need not give us anything at all–not rain, or money, or victory in war. Rather, he needs to take away something. (291)
It works in the commercial world too. If you buy a secondhand Fiat for $2,000, you are likely to complain about it to anyone willing to listen to you. But if you buy a brand-new Ferrari for $200,000, you will sing its praises far and wide, not because it is such a good car but because you have paid so much money for it that you have to believe it is the most wonderful thing in the world. (291)
Why do you think women ask their lovers for diamond rings? Once the lover makes such a huge financial sacrifice, he must convince himself that it was for a worthy cause. (292)
Few gods, nations, or revolutions can sustain themselves without martyrs. (292)
Alternatively, if martyrs are scarce and people are unwilling to sacrifice themselves, the sacrificing priest might get them to sacrifice somebody else instead. … Once you do this, a slightly different alchemy of sacrifice begins to work its magic on you. When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: “Either the story is true or I am a gullible fool.” When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given choice: “Either the story is true or I am a cruel villain.” And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains. We prefer to believe that the story is true. (293)
[via: This is classic Rene Girard, specifically Violence and the Sacred.]
Sacrifice not only strengthens your faith in the story but also often substitutes for all your other obligations toward it. Most of the great stories of humankind have set up ideals that most people cannot fulfill. (295)
Unable to live up to the ideal, people turn to sacrifice as a solution. (295)
THE IDENTITY PORTFOLIO
Hardly anyone has just one identity. (296)
The problem with evil is that in real life it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful. (298)
The word “fascism” comes from the Latin fascis, meaning “a bundle of rods.” … A single rod is very weak, and you can easily snap it in two. However, once you bundle many rods together into a fascis, it becomes almost impossible to break them. This implies that the individual is a thing of no consequence, but as long as the collective sticks together, it is very powerful. Fascists therefore believe in privileging the interests of the collective over those of any individual, and demand that no single rod ever dare break the unity of the bundle. (298)
| Of course, it is never clear where one human “bundle of rods” ends and another begins. (298)
…some neurons are just not on speaking terms with one another. (300)
THE SUPERMARKET AT ELSINORE
Throughout history almost all humans believed in several stories at the same and were never absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. This uncertainty rattled most religions, which therefore considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be among the worst sins possible–as if there were something intrinsically good about believing things without evidence. With the rise of modern culture, however, the tables were turned. Faith began to look increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom. (301)
Modernity didn’t reject the plethora of stories it inherited from the past. Instead, it opened a supermarket for them. The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining whatever fits his or her taste. (301)
According to liberal mythology, if you spend long enough time in that big supermarket, sooner or later you will experience the liberal epiphany and realize the true meaning of life: all the stories on the supermarket shelves are fakes. The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script, and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life. It is I who imbue everything with meaning through my free choices and through my own feelings. (302)
In itself, the universe is only a meaningless hodgepodge of atoms. Nothing is inherently beautiful, sacred, or sexy; human feelings make it so. It is only human feelings that make a red apple seductive and a piece of turd disgusting. Take away human feelings, and you are left with a bunch of molecules. (303)
The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe. (303)
In practical terms, those who believe in the liberal story live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty. Creativity can manifest itself in writing a poem, exploring your sexuality, inventing a new app, or discovering a previously unknown chemical. (303)
Liberalism has a particularly confused notion of “free will.” Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfill their desires. If by “free will” you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by “free will” you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will. (304)
Realizing this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, and about our desires. We don’t have free will, but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will. … It is better to understand ourselves, our minds, and our desires than to try to realize whatever fantasy pops into our heads. (305)
People ask “Who am I?” and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself is that you are not a story. (306)
THE TEST OF REALITY
The big question facing humans isn’t “what is the meaning of life?” but rather “how do we stop suffering?” When you give up all the fictional stories, you can observe reality with far greater clarity than before, and if you really know the truth about yourself and about the world, nothing can make you miserable. But that is of course much easier said than done. (311)
So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. | The answer isn’t a story. (313)
[via: Something about Harari’s thesis leaves me dissatisfied, but I haven’t been able to really fully articulate why. Is it that I find the dichotomy between “meaning” and “reducing suffering” to be false? Is it because I don’t believe meaning can come from within, that by its very nature, meaning must be contextualized from outside of myself? Is it because Harari doesn’t take the positive role of religion seriously enough? Perhaps it’s the entire dissecting of virtually every worldview that holds humans together, and Harari declaring them “false?” Maybe it’s that Harari has no thesis at all?]
21. Meditation: Just Observe
Now that I have criticized so many stories, religions, and ideologies, it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so skeptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning. I hesitate to do so, partly for fear of self-indulgence and partly because I don’t want to give the wrong impression that what works for me will work for everybody. I am very aware that the quirks of my genes, neurons, personal history, and dharma are not shared by everyone. But readers should probably know which hues color the glasses through which I see the world, thereby distorting my vision and my writing. (214)
[via: This is quite fair.]
Our nation feels nothing, but our body really hurts. (317)
I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general by observing my sensations for those ten days than I had learned in my whole life up to that point. And to do so I didn’t have to accept any story, theory, or mythology. I just had to observe reality as it is. The most important thing I realized was that the deepest source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step toward ceasing to generate more suffering. (318)
DIGGING FROM BOTH ENDS
Many people, including many scientists, tend to confuse the mind with the brain, but they are really very different things. The brain is immaterial network of neurons, synapses, and biochemicals. The mind is a flow of subjective experiences, such as pain, pleasure, anger, and love. Biologists assume that the brain somehow produces the mind and that biochemical reactions in billions of neurons somehow produce experiences such as pain and love. However, so far we have absolutely no explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain. (318)
If we are willing to make such efforts in order to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us. (323)