Tech CEOs are in love with their doomsayer
The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari worries about a lot.
He worries that Silicon Valley is undermining democracy and ushering in a dystopian hellscape in which voting is obsolete. He worries that by creating powerful influence machines to control billions of minds, the big tech companies are destroying the idea of a sovereign individual with free will. He worries that because the technological revolution’s work requires so few laborers, Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class and a teeming, furious “useless class.”
But lately, Harari is anxious about something much more personal. If this is his harrowing warning, then why do Silicon Valley C.E.O.s love him so?
“One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it?” a puzzled Harari said one afternoon in October. “For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”
When Harari toured the Bay Area this fall to promote his latest book, the reception was incongruously joyful. Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, threw him a dinner party. The leaders of X, Alphabet’s secretive research division, invited Harari over. Bill Gates reviewed the book (“Fascinating” and “such a stimulating writer”) in The New York Times.
“I’m interested in how Silicon Valley can be so infatuated with Yuval, which they are — it’s insane he’s so popular, they’re all inviting him to campus — yet what Yuval is saying undermines the premise of the advertising- and engagement-based model of their products,” said Tristan Harris, Google’s former inhouse design ethicist and the co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.
Part of the reason might be that Silicon Valley, at a certain level, is not optimistic on the future of democracy. The more of a mess Washington becomes, the more interested the tech world is in creating something else, and it might not look like elected representation. Rank-and-file coders have long been wary of regulation and curious about alternative forms of government. A separatist streak runs through the place: Venture capitalists periodically call for California to secede or shatter, or for the creation of corporate nationstates. And this summer, Mark Zuckerberg, who has recommended Mr. Harari to his book club, acknowledged a fixation with the autocrat Caesar Augustus. “Basically,” Zuckerberg told The New Yorker, “through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”
Harari, thinking about all this, puts it this way: “Utopia and dystopia depends on your values.”
Harari, who has a PhD from Oxford, is a 42-year-old Israeli philosopher and a history professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The story of his current fame begins in 2011, when he published a book of notable ambition: to survey the whole of human existence. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, first released in Hebrew, did not break new ground in terms of historical research. Nor did its premise — that humans are animals and our dominance is an accident — seem a likely commercial hit. But the casual tone and smooth way Harari tied together existing knowledge across fields made it a deeply pleasing read, even as the tome ended on the notion that the process of human evolution might be over. Translated into English in 2014, the book went on to sell more than eight million copies and made Harari a celebrity intellectual.
He followed up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which outlined his vision of what comes after human evolution. In it, he describes Dataism, a new faith based around the power of algorithms. Harari’s future is one in which big data is worshiped, artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, and some humans develop Godlike abilities. Now, he has written a book about the present and how it could lead to that future: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It is meant to be read as a series of warnings. His recent TED Talk was called “Why fascism is so tempting — and how your data could power it.”
Author Yuval Noah Harari