Tech CEOs are in love with their doom­sayer

Business Standard - - WORLD - NELLIE BOWLES

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

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