The “great ideas” hype machine

Published by marco on

I recently read the following citation in the review Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so’ by Andrew Anthony (The Guardian):

“It’s one of those books that can’t help but make you feel smarter for having read it. Barack Obama and Bill Gates have undergone that experience, as have many others in the Davos crowd and Silicon Valley. The irony, perhaps, is that one of the book’s warnings is that we are in danger of becoming an elite-dominated global society.”

Ugh. This in no way makes me want to scurry to Amazon and order this book. I’d already read another review of it—The Future of Humans? One Forecaster Calls for Obsolescence by Siddhartha Mukherjee (New York Times)—which admitted that the author Yuval Noah Hariri is extrapolating considerably in his presentation. In the middle, Mukherjee writes that “Harari has, for my taste, a tendency to overstate the reach of such technological “fixes.””, which goes a long way toward explaining why Bill Gates and Silicon Valley like it (Obama as well, who is a technocrat above all else). Celebrity endorsements are never a good reason to read a book.

This doesn’t make the book a bad thing, but … ugh, I can’t stand this adulation of the rich and powerful. Is the book any good? Does it stand on its own? That is, what if I don’t care what Bill Gates and Barack Obama think—at all—can you give me other reasons to read it?

Well, I read that his prose is “grippingly lucid”, he is “dazzlingly bold”. He tells his tale “marvelously” with “breezy prose”. Is this an actually, honest review or is it marketing? Where is the dividing line? My suspicions increase when I read that a personage no less intellectual than Arianna Huffington posed questions to the author in the same review.

I feel like this book will be a futurist vision akin to good science fiction. But in that case, why are we supposed to be so excited about it? There are thousands of similar visions of the future—written by masters of the genre—-that I could read. Why should I read this one? Are all of the people so excited about this book—most of whom are names I don’t recognize—just people who have never read any good science fiction before? The obsolescence of humanity in the near term isn’t exactly a giant leap in deductive reasoning. There is a strong trend around discussing the singularity (when humans can extend their lives more quickly than they age) or the takeover of AI. Silicon Valley—our intellectual and moral betters in every way, if you believe their press agents—adores all of this.

This obsession with eschatology strikes me as a way for the elites to absolve themselves of fixing a world strongly plagued by problems engendered by them, that their position in society has engendered. They’re all rich as Gods and want a pat on the back when they give back a crumb or two. Naturally, they’re going to want to tell us just how to run things in exchange for those crumbs—but why shouldn’t they? Didn’t you hear that they’re smarter than all of the rest of us put together? That’s why they “won”, isn’t it?

The argument goes: Well, things are pretty shitty for everyone now—and things look to get a lot shittier—but we’re not going to be around for that long anyway, so let’s just enjoy the ride, right? No-one need get upset, we’ll all be dead and replaced with an improved version soon enough. And, above all, we don’t need to fix anything—or redistribute anything—because … why bother?

I personally don’t see how a great evolutionary leap forward will happen with climate change and possible nuclear holocaust rearing its ugly head, but that’s the way these prognostications by so-called “sages” work: they ignore the inconvenient stuff and tell us what we want to hear. I read The Next 100 Years (2009) by George Friedman a few years back—also touted as a game-changing book that predicted the new 100 years—and it was bullshit. It just flat-out ignored obvious trends, making them disappear without even a puff of smoke.

I don’t doubt that this is a good book, but wonder for whom is it good? Is it actually science-based? Or is it mumbo-jumbo written to soothe rich, elitist liberal souls? I admit to a certain curiosity. But I’m highly skeptical despite the glowing reviews. Humanity has shown—especially in its current ultra-capitalistic incarnation, which Harari says will consolidate as the only ideology soon (hat-tip to Fukuyama)—that it will sully and cheapen everything it touches. Maybe the ones that come after will be better, but I don’t see any evidence of that.