...but this mil­lion-sell­ing sage who tries to an­swer life’s big questions is not half as clever as he thinks

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - THEATRE -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.