...but this million-selling sage who tries to answer life’s big questions is not half as clever as he thinks
On the dustjacket of this, Yuval Noah Harari’s third book, his publisher declares that his previous two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, ‘have become global phenomenons [sic]’. Harari’s own website is similarly boastful. Apparently, his last book, Homo Deus, which explored the future, sold four million copies and was ‘translated into nearly 50 languages’ while his first, Sapiens, which explored the past, sold eight million copies ‘and was recommended by Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’.
What next? ‘In this new book I want to zoom in on the here and now,’ he announces in its introduction. He then lists some of the questions he aims to answer, including ‘What is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of events?’, ‘Is God back?, ‘Is a new world war coming?’, ‘Can nationalism solve the problems of inequality and climate change?’ and ‘What should we do about terrorism?’
You might have thought this list would be more than enough for an author to tackle, but he doesn’t stop there. As the introduction goes on, the questions he aims to solve grow bigger and bigger. ‘Who are we? What should we do in life? What kind of skills do we need? Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion – what can we say about the meaning of life today?’
Phew! By the end of the introduction, Harari (above right) has listed just about every question known to man, apart from whether Monday or Tuesday is the best day to put the bins out. ‘My agenda here is global,’ he declares, confidently.
He doesn’t dither. In the first paragraph of the first chapter, he tells us that ‘during the 20th century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story’. First fascism collapsed, then communism, and now, ‘people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story’. This is admirably clear and far-reaching, but isn’t it also babyishly simplistic? At times, you have to remind yourself that it is the entire world he is talking about, in all its complexity, and not just Teletubbyland.
The second chapter is called ‘Work’. ‘We have no idea what the job market will look like in 2050,’ it begins. But this doesn’t stop him from coming up with ideas galore. Artificial Intelligence will, he says, be ‘a real game changer’, and he is soon busy speculating about a future full of self-driving vehicles, AI doctors, and even algorithms slotted into your ears designed to produce ‘personalised melodies, which you alone in the entire universe would appreciate’. He even suggests that, in future, humans might become economically irrelevant. ‘Theoretically, you can have an economy in which a mining corporation produces and sells iron to a robotics corporation, the robotics corporation produces and sells robots to the mining corporation, which mines more iron, which is used to produce more robots, and so on.’ So much for this book being only about the here and now! As it goes on, Harari becomes increasingly Mystic Meg-ish, peppering each chapter with lots of ‘mights’ and ‘coulds’, until by page 263 he is boldly announcing that ‘by 2048, people might have to cope with migrations to cyberspace, with fluid gender identities, and with new sensory experiences generated by computer implants’.
Or they might not. The trouble with all such predictions is that, more often than not, time renders them nonsensical. History teaches us that the certainty with which a prediction is made stands in inverse proportion to the likelihood of it coming to pass.
In 1981, the number one bestseller in the USA was The Book Of Predictions, in which leading experts predicted what would happen over the coming decades. Now that this future has passed, we are able to see how totally off-target their predictions were. A foreign policy analyst for the