Past. Present. Future

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VENKATESH GOVINDARAJAN

Just think of a star to sum up Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, while listing the keywords. Its five sides  stand for 1] technology, 2] politics, 3] despair and hope, 4] truth, and 5] resilience. This needs to be ‘read’ after you have digested his sapiens and before, or after, you have read through his Homo Deus. History may not always help in predicting the future, yes, which is rightfully labelled as a mystery, albeit the present can certainly provide powerful lessons, timely warnings and relevant guidelines to take us into the future. The 21 lessons in Harari’s third book, thus, far are categorised into five sections, depicted in the ‘guiding star’ cited.

Harari warns about the rapid loss of jobs to robots and artificial intelligence [AI] in the not-so-distant future. One may not even be able to expect to have a ‘profession for life,’ leave alone, a ‘job for life.’ Technology which seems to be benefitting millions today may turn out to be starkly Janus-faced in the future, benefitting a few [folks who put in capital into the automated operations in the economies of the world] and rendering the vast majority without work, and on the dole.

Harari writes about Big Data, biotech and biometric sensors which would rob humans of their liberty and privacy and deprive them of the ability to exercise their free will — everything about everyone will be known to everyone who wishes to. ‘Open books,’ we would all become, whether we like it, or not — “tiny chips inside a giant data processing system no one really understands in a digital dictatorship with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers.” Harari wonders if democracy is really the perfect elixir for the years ahead, when people refuse to accept its requirements as a ‘package deal’ and insist on treating it as a buffet they can pick and choose from — a disillusionment which all of us will have to confront. ‘All gain and no pain,’ is what many seek and will do so in the years to come, and risk slipping into ‘all pain and no gain,’ eventually.

Leftists and left-of-centre politicians talk of redistribution of income to restore egalitarianism [the economic sort, which one believes will lead the way to the other sorts]. Inequality emerged owing to the need for order, as evidenced in the caste system in Hinduism, for instance. It was believed that order would lead to chaos —ironically. Over time, egalitarianism became a cherished ideal among philosophers, poets, academics and politicians alike [in economics parlance, a Gini index closer to zero]. Harari fears that artificial intelligence and biotech will obstruct human march towards this cherished ideal, and replace the much-desired equality with redundancy in large numbers; more so, in the highly-populated developing-world countries. Picture this: one hundred richest people in the world own more wealth than the four billion poorest.

Politics may degrade into a mere emotional circus, if we are not careful and opt to cede control of digital dictatorships to whimsical politicians, who thrive on pressing our emotional buttons through nonsensical tweets and claptrap speeches. Can we regulate the ownership of data? Can we sustain our faith in the liberal story instead of being utterly disillusioned? Questions — without, or waiting for answers. Any solution to the technological challenge, writes Harari, has to involve global co-operation [cf. the indispensability of the sustainable development goal — SDG 17 — drawn up by the United Nations in 2015 — by this reviewer in The Integrative Post], but nationalism, religion and culture, threaten to ‘speciate’ humanity, creating horizontal divides just as economic inequality would create vertical entities.

FACEBOOK EXEMPLAR 

Will the ‘centrally-planned social engineering on a global scale’ pioneered by Facebook using artificial intelligence be a foolproof and robust way to promote global co-operation? Readers would surely prefer to sit on the fence and not say an ‘aye,’ or a ‘nay,’ to this. One needs to acknowledge the shortcomings of purely-online global communities for reasons known to all of us. ‘Brick-and-mortar’ has several benefits which ‘purely-online’ cannot offer. Online and offline are like oxygen and water…Disparate civilisations do pose obstacles with their embedded aspects of religion and culture.

However, these disparate man-made entities need to be made subservient to what we may label as a global civilisation. After all, respect for foreign cultures does not entail damaging your own. But, this secularism ought to be universal — if you are tolerant and considerate, you surely have the right to expect [and, demand] that every Homo sapien who crosses your path also is. A global civilisation which needs to overcome global challenges in the years ahead — poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, terrorism, etc., — needs global co-operation.  One, however, may wonder, as many do today, if nationalism [the type being promoted by the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban etc.,] could replace globalism and succeed better in solving these problems. The answer is a Big No.

Nationalist fortresses will cave in to the three main challenges of our times — ecological [‘vague and protracted’], technological [simultaneously the basis of our prosperity and also a threat to our existence] and that of nuclear warfare. The author recommends “complementing local loyalties with a substantial obligation towards a global community.”’ He avers that a good nationalist is also a globalist in our times. If this conflict between nationalism and globalism cannot be resolved and it turns out to be well-nigh impossible to conflate one with the other, then can Homo sapiens go back to the Godhead as they say and look for solutions in religion?  Dangerous, thinks Harari, as this is, like technology, both a solution and also a part of the problem it is purported to solve. Yet, he does not decry religion and says that one can, of course, take recourse to it, but certainly not at the total expense of science. You’d recall the wise words of Albert Einstein, pronto: “Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame.”

NATIONALISM AHOY

Back to nationalism and the anti-immigration stance that it takes. A nationalist may pick and choose some elements of globalisation — free trade which benefits their national economy, for instance, but be opposed to the free movement of foreigners into their country — especially of those who may wish to stay on. It is, indeed, tough to determine if a pro-immigration policy is a duty or favour; but, be that what it may, immigrants ought not to take the host country for granted. It will increasingly become mandatory to learn to be more tolerant and respect other cultures and religions, as global co-operation and acknowledging our ‘ethical responsibilities’ are a sine qua non for the solution of global challenges confronting humankind. Harari points out that we are now living in a world where racism [often imagined to exist as it used to], has been gradually supplanted by what he calls ‘culturism’ — the reason why many skilled and deserving immigrants fail to understand why success eludes them in foreign lands they have adopted as home.

One of the recommendations, the author gives, en passant is, that, “[even] though the challenges humankind faces are unprecedented and disagreements are intense, as long as we all can keep our fears under control and be humble about our views and not despair, hope will enable us all to endure and overcome.” Among the fears we need to control, terrorism comes uppermost, but the author helps us to understand that terrorism is a mind game in which a handful of bad eggs seek control over the thoughts and feelings of millions of law-abiding human beings. If we all co-operate and understand that terrorists are common enemies, we would be able to disempower them slowly, but surely.

While wars were the means for empire building and economic prosperity for victors until the mid-20th-century, humankind is now wise enough to realise that it can no longer be so. Of course, the said wisdom also has a dark lining to it — a manipulative side as displayed by Kim Jong-Un who preys on the fears of other world leaders, or a ‘sit-on-the-fence-and-let-others-do-the-proxy-war-for-you’ credo which has become so commonplace.

Despite the existence of international organisations like the United Nations and World Trade Organisation, faith in, and respect for them have been eroded markedly over the years, and wars [be they of the bloodletting type, or the ones waged in cyberspace] do not seem entirely improbable. While terrorism and war induce an unending sense of despair and drains all hope for a better world in the future, there is one vital quality which if universalised — not, of course, by coercion, or force, but by appeals and requests and subsequent realisations on the part of a vast majority of Homo sapiens — will, according to Harari, kindle the flame of hope again. Easier said than done, easier typed-down than implemented, easier visualised than observed humility. He ridicules the claims of his own religion — Judaism. He also believes that the world was a more peaceful place in the days of polytheistic paganism; blaming intolerant monotheism for all conflicts is initiated and sustained by bigots. And, of all forms of humility, Harari stresses on humility before god; and, when a person is a true believer, according to the author, their humility and faith will make them desist from ‘lording it over his brethren.’

BEYOND CHUTZPAH

We often see abominable humans these days that flock to temples, churches and mosques and talk about god, but when they interact with fellow human beings, all that is displayed is detestable arrogance and chutzpah. Indeed, as we all have heard at least once in our lifetimes, from theists, one must never take god’s name in vain.

This reviewer recalls an article in The Economist, in which a survey of South Americans showed that when faith in the economy [jobs], technology, politics [the government] and the law-enforcing bodies [police and judiciary] seemed to be dwindling, people often found solace in god and His benevolence. However, we need to try to understand if we are referring to god, the Cosmic Mystery or god, the Worldly Law-Giver… and appreciate agnosticism which is of the view that it is not possible to know anything precise about the nature of god.

This is undeniably difficult for those of us who pin our faith on Him… when the going gets tough and follow the advice of our god-fearing parents who tell us to put in our best and let god do the rest. Irrespective of whether He is the former, or the latter, we want Him to listen to our prayers and bless us and protect us. Reconciling many gods and religions is necessary peaceful co-existence within a country, region, or for that matter in this globalised world. This is where secularism helps. Not to be mistaken for godlessness and atheism en masse, it beautifully integrates one and all, under the banners of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility — qualities and virtues, which according to Harari, can easily be extracted by well-meaning spiritual interpreters from any or all the religious texts.

A riveting observation made by the author needs to be mentioned here as one of several ‘quotable quotes’ from the book. Questions you cannot answer are far better than answers you cannot question; and, a secular set up makes it possible to have the former [the cosmic mystery], accept our ignorance in our quest for Truth, and do away with the latter [rigidities enforced vertically, or horizontally in society]. But, if we are happy with our ignorance, when are we supposed to find out what is right and what is wrong, what is justice and what is injustice, what is moral and what is immoral. Would it be just to live a peaceful contented life in blissful ignorance, without realising that our comforts may well have originated in [or, been the cause of] the miseries and persecutions of other living beings [the fauna included] at the antipodes?

THE BLIND SIDE  

Yes, ignorance is bliss… as Einstein observed, even though it may be dangerous, as it may make us unaware of the sizes of our adverse/evil footprints, it pushes us into a ‘NIMBY comfort zone,’ or ‘Domesticist,’ if such a term could be coined, inspired by ‘nationalists.’ Kind of, ‘Make America great again,’ by being blind to what happens in the other 200-odd countries around the world.  Too much knowledge, said the Nobel laureate, is also dangerous, as it may either lead one to misuse it for selfish ends, or may make one utterly cynical and depressed and hopeless about progress and prosperity.

In the former instance, the danger is for everyone other than the knower; in the latter, the danger is for the knower themselves. So, if the quest for truth is doomed, must one resign gracefully and forget about it, while submitting to the power of the diabolical lies and fiction, fake news and manipulative stories of the so-called post-truth era? Must we unwittingly trust and believe anyone who is a clever orator/writer/teacher with sharp manipulative skills [for that may, perhaps, give us some sense of relief, even if that would make us sheep following a wolf in sheep’s clothing more often than not], or disbelieve just about everyone in the aforenamed era, refrain from biased groupthink and accept individual ignorance and a frustrated quest for truth as the reality? Of course, the answer cannot be a simple, yes, or no; no guru can emerge in this era to give us the right advice, unless, of course, one believes in the Second-Coming of Christ, or the Tenth Incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In the post-truth era, if scientists who are genuine pursuers of truth [gathered by making an attempt to understand nature; and, often used sadly by Homo sapiens, in general, to gain control over it], need to fight the peddlers of fake news and manipulative fictitious stories, they cannot just rely on peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals to publicise the truth [as that would connect them to a minuscule number of experts and no one else]. Harari urges scientists to broaden their canvas and disseminate truth through popular science magazines and also through unconventional modes of science communication — science fiction [which the author labels as the most important and powerful artistic genre of the 21st century], art, films, and poetry, for instance [This reviewer was happy to read this particular passage… considering that all these three approaches are being utilised him with all humility to communicate scientific truth to a wide swathe of readers].

If you are thrown into the sea, you have to swim. If you are in the midst of a battlefield, you need to fight — unless, of course, you are committing hara-kiri. This is what is called resilience — countering opposing forces, getting up again, and moving on. Post-modern man and woman can imbue oneself with this quality through education, finding meaning and purpose to their existence, no matter how challenging that would be [forget about fulfilling the purpose, which would follow], and meditation. Here is where the reviewer recalls one of the most inspirational and purposeful poems ever written — If, by Rudyard Kipling.   

The take-home message is this. Change is the only constant and its rate is just going to get maddeningly extraordinary. So, be humble, resilient, compassionate, and more, because this will make you a man [woman], and son [daughter], ready to take on anything hurled at you — in the years to come.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari
Jonathan Cape
pp: 368
Price: ₹320.00

 

[Yuval Noah Harari: Photo, Courtesy: THE JAKARTA POST]

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