More of the Same

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Harvill Secker, 448pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781910701874

reviewed by Jakob Horstmann

It is hard to miss the fact that Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari is supposed to be a very monumental work indeed. The main title's scarlet letters, each the size of a small fist, on the Terminator-style cover alone might well cause some alarm among more sensitive onlookers. And neither the wilfully mysterious subtitle nor the back blurb does anything to dispel the impression that this here is intended to be a book of major consequence: 'This is the next stage of evolution,' declares the blurb, and 'death is just a technical problem'. No doubt, the stakes are high as Harari attempts to repeat the impact of his previous work, the bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

In that work, Harari showed how it came to be that it was Homo Sapiens, of all species, that now rules the earth. In the tried and tested tradition of Jared Diamond's grand, Darwinist narratives he led the reader with a steady hand from the very beginnings of human consciousness via the agricultural revolution to scientific enlightenment and all which followed – always within the safe boundaries of the evolutionist paradigm. The success of this book turned Harari, who is a professor of history at the University of Jerusalem, into a regular in international bestseller lists and a celebrated public intellectual.

Presumably Harari decided there was no need to change a winning formula. For anyone who has read Sapiens, the majority of the sequel feels like one eerily long déjà-lu. This is disappointing, since Homo Deus purports to pick up exactly where Sapiens left off. As the title suggests, Harari ventures to map the development of humanity from hereon in, predicting our ascent to omnipotent creators of worlds and masters of life and death. This, he contends, will be mainly achieved through groundbreaking IT and biotech innovations, some of which surround us even now.

Thus Harari introduces us to 'super humans', who control the almighty algorithms that will soon decide all of life's decisions, big and small. And he prophesies the end of the individual in favour of a huge, amorphous mass of human data carriers. These, he reports, will believe in new 'data religions', where the human experience is seen as just one of many equally worthwhile processes feeding the ultimate metaphysical cause of information processing.

Is humanity thus destined to become the victim of its own progressive ideals? And is there anything that remains truly 'human' even if in the nearby age of total information everyone and everything can be broken down completely into Harari's much-vaunted algorithms? Although Harari's breathless, goose-bumpy tone is a bit of a turn-off, the ideas he discusses are indeed pretty exciting. Fans of Black Mirror, Star Trek, Asimov/Lem, et al. will feel right at home in these dystopian musings.

Unfortunately one only reaches the interesting stuff after labouring through the first three-quarters of his history of tomorrow – which at 400 pages is perhaps not all that ‘brief’ – which rehearses the exact same material already used in Sapiens, sometimes verbatim. More importantly, what makes Harari’s arguments both predictable and shallow is his steadfast refusal to consider anything outside his narrow worldview. If Team Materialism had a top cheerleader, it would be Harari. As such, what else is there to say about the experience of a human death but: 'What is death if not the end of an information flow?' And why discuss the age-old conundrum of free will at all, seeing that some basic decisions apparently can be called before they reach the agent’s conscious mind by looking at brain scans? Why look for a better criterion for human happiness than the sheer number of per capita suicide attempts? Stuffed to the brim with joyless reductions like this, Homo Deus serves as a good reminder why old-school materialists are not normally the first names on your cocktail party invite lists.

Harari’s book oscillates between the trivial and the dubious, sandwiched between the limitations of biological and information sciences on the one hand, and the highly speculative nature of the future research presented on the other. Little of what he says appears to be outright wrong (although there are some irritatingly benign passages on capitalism – apparently nothing but an amazing success story – and a section on Nazism – which he claims was not that far off the mark in its basic idea of ‘evolutionary humanism’ – that will likely raise some eyebrows); it’s just incomplete, tunnel-visioned and often dull.