Is the geologic epoch of our time — the Anthropocene — the stage for another sweeping biological extinction or will it be an exhilarating prelude to an era during which evolving science and technology bestow upon humankind an astonishing beneficence of progress, peace and prosperity?
First the bad news: Incontrovertible evidence shows Earth’s land, air and water under unprecedented assault. Particularly in developed nations human beings immersed in a culture of consumerism have been deeply complicit in the escalation of ecocide. Steadily warming temperatures are pervasive. Atmospheric changes result in weather patterns precipitating storms of massive destruction. Such events occur with greater regularity. While certain regions are deluged, other environs endure prolonged drought. There are undeniable impacts on our oceans, rivers and forests, on animals and insects, farming and food production. In our immediate locality, a recent Seattle Times headline trumpeted: “4 of Seattle’s 5 hottest years have come this decade.”
Writer Yuval Noah Harari’s first big seller “Sapiens” was an expansive look at evolutionary history. Published in English in 2014 the book won kudos from Barack Obama and other luminaries. Harari has followed that opus with the provocative “Homo Deus” — or “Man the God.” Therein he joins the long procession of scientists, novelists, philosophers and techno-futurists who have attempted to prognosticate what lies on humanity’s horizon. Harari’s contribution is filled with musing on astounding scientific and high-tech wonders already happening or likely to be manifested soon. He foresees advancements in multiple fields that will result in the extension of the human lifespan. “The war against death,” he writes, “is still likely to be the flagship project of the coming century.”
Observing the leaps in artificial intelligence permeating facets of existence, Harari invokes techno-humanism: “Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.” By employing “the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces” an impressive new model of humanity —physically and intellectually enhanced — can be contemplated.
The problem is that given present economic and social stratification the fruits of life extension and upgraded intelligence are likely to be granted to an exclusive class. The bulk of humanity, especially the poor need not apply.
Harari acknowledges the abounding risks: “The real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse. Both scientific progress and economic growth take place within a brittle biosphere, and as they gather steam, so the shock waves destabilize the ecology. In order to provide every person in the world with the same standard of living as affluent Americans, we would need a few more planets — but we have only this one … An ecological meltdown will cause economic ruin, political turmoil, a fall in human standards of living, and might threaten the very existence of human civilization.” So as Harari ponders refined innovations that could transform what it means to be human, he does not ignore the threat of ecocatastrophe.
Now consider the good news: Humanity has finally slipped the perilous grip of the three most destructive events that have undermined the wellbeing of Homo Sapiens. According to Harari the perennial threats of war, plague and hunger have been almost vanquished in our current time. All three persist but by all measurements their danger to humankind continues to diminish. In this observation, he is joined by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
Pinker’s challenging work entitled “Enlightenment Now” is a paean to science, reason and humanism. Interpretations of data pertaining to a range of crucial concerns demonstrate that many aspects of human life have improved markedly. Pinker is confident that progress in various technologies will contain the keys to resolving the dangers of climate change. But it will be imperative to “disassociate empirical issues from political baggage” if universally beneficial momentum is to be achieved. Effusive in his praise for Pinker’s optimistic analysis Bill Gates has pronounced the tome his “new favorite book of all time.”
Kristof has written that “2018 was actually the best year in human history.” He admits this may be hard to grasp. Too often discomforting global developments are given broader coverage. Yet there are numerous instances of disease mitigation worldwide, increased living standards are evident in many places, and extreme poverty is slowly receding. “Never before has such a large portion of humanity been literate, enjoyed a middle-class cushion, lived such long lives, had access to family planning or been confident that their children would survive. Let’s hit pause on our fears and frustrations and share a nanosecond of celebration at the backdrop of progress.” OK, nanosecond over.
Oxfam has just issued a new report on the crisis of growing global disparity between the ultra-rich and vast echelons of the world’s marginalized people. Throughout the United States the New Poor Peoples Campaign percolates and continues its campaign for social, racial, environmental and economic justice. In spite of the positive trends cited by Harari, Pinker and Kristof, the unease felt by many is rooted in realistic perceptions of volatility and impermanence. It is not incomprehensible that numerous persons experience a sense of becoming rootless cyphers as sophisticated systems of surveillance, robotics and self-driving vehicles proliferate. Economic and cultural ground may be secure for the opulent and well educated. Uncertain masses must attempt to find purchase on unstable ground. As evolving technical virtuosity accelerates causing perpetual disruption Harari admits the possible coming of an economically and technologically irrelevant “useless class.”
Indeed what becomes of people here and abroad who no longer find a harbor amidst the tumult of a kaleidoscopic technosphere? History is punctuated with horrors visited upon classes, races and ethnicities deemed disposable. Or are they allowed a life by sufferance, afforded a guaranteed basic income and given living space at society’s margins? Are the growing numbers of today’s homeless harbingers of this useless class? Surely this need not be considered inevitable.
Home Deus is a controversial, albeit important, meditation on marvelous developments already affecting our world. Will it be the best of times or the worst of times?
Read the full Feb. 13 - 19 issue.
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