The “useless class” and a new quest for purpose

I was so impressed by Yuval Harari’s latest book it took me three blog posts to event touch on a few of his big ideas. In an article in The Guardian, he expands on a couple of (related) ideas: Basic Income and religion-as-virtual reality. He wrote at length about both of these in Homo Deus but I think the Guardian piece is new (not excerpts from his book).

I agree with Professor Harari that some kind of Basic Income is inevitable. It’ll happen because the wealthy will see it as the best (only?) way to protect all their shit. And what will we all do when we don’t have to have a job? One possibility is virtual reality.

For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.” […] What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

I really can’t see a flaw in that comparison. Unless you count, “Yeah, but Heaven and Hell are real and Grand Theft Auto Six is not.”

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

Whoa. The two big holy books as VR devices. And how about a game we all play?

Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game. You might object that people really enjoy their cars and vacations. That’s certainly true. But the religious really enjoy praying and performing ceremonies, and my nephew really enjoys hunting Pokémon. In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain.

What does it all mean?

The end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles.

As one who has not worked for the the last four-and-a-half years, I’m here to tell you it is not necessary to give your life meaning.

Homo Deus: Dataism

This is the third of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The second post, free will and consciousness. The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on new religions that might replace the old.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.


The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. […] Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.

These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values […] but concludes we should use technology to create Homo deus — a much superior model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. (With the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? Information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism.

Data (has been) seen as only the first step in a long chain of intellectual activity. Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data.

Dataism is most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines: computer science and biology.

As data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete — not because they are unethical, but because the can’t process data efficiently enough.

In the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were ‘good’. In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a genuinely novel value: freedom of information.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.


Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

Homo Deus: Religion

One measure of a good (non-fiction) book is how much highlighting and underlining I do. The new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) filled seven pages so I won’t include all of the excerpts here. The link above will take you to a Google Doc that has them all.

Like his previous book (Sapiens), Homo Deus made me think about a lot of Big Ideas in fresh, new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. He makes some bold predictions but presents them more in terms of trends and in this regard the book reminded me of Kevin Kelley’s The Inevitable. Dr. Harari specializes in World History and macro-historical processes. (Wikipedia)

And the “macro-historical” perspective is what really grabbed in this book. It was good to be jolted out of my ‘election cycle’ time frame. I’ll probably do two or three posts on this book just to keep them from getting impossible long.

I came away with a new — and much broader — understanding of religion which Harari defines as: “any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.”

He includes Liberalism, Communism and other modern creeds but one quickly understand from context that he’s not talking about “liberals vs. conservatives” in the narrow sense of American politics.

“Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you’re accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but humans must nevertheless obey.”

This topic gets really interesting in the final chapter of the book but we’ll save that for another post.


The communist laws of history are similar to the commandments of the Christian God, inasmuch as they are superhuman forces that humans cannot change at will. According to Marx, we cannot change the laws of history.

Religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation. […] Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. […] If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. […] Spiritual journeys take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations (Who am I?). […] For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat.

Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power (e.g. to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.)

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. The revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.

Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. […] Hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.

In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably be the last train to ever leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. […] If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or Google?

The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The new book by Yuval Noah Harari sounds like just what I need.

“For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.” Amazon

Mr. (Doctor?) Harari wrote the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


From a brief interview (WIRED) interview with the author:

Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.

Will tech companies become our new rulers, even gods?

When you talk about God and religion, in the end it’s all a question of authority. What is the highest source of authority that you turn to when you have a problem in your life? A thousand years ago you’d turn to the church. Today, we expect algorithms to provide us with the answer—who to date, where to live, how to deal with an economic problem. So more and more authority is shifting to these (technology) corporations.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sapiens-book-coverAmazon: “Most books about the history of humanity pursue either a historical or a biological approach, but Dr. Yuval Noah Harari breaks the mold with this highly original book that begins about 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. From examining the role evolving humans have played in the global ecosystem to charting the rise of empires, Sapiens integrates history and science to reconsider accepted narratives, connect past developments with contemporary concerns, and examine specific events within the context of larger ideas.”

You can scan my favorite nuggets after the jump: Continue reading

A different level of consciousness

“Today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens . If our successors indeed function on a different level of consciousness (or perhaps possess something beyond consciousness that we cannot even conceive), it seems doubtful that Christianity or Islam will be of interest to them, that their social organisation could be Communist or capitalist, or that their genders could be male or female.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Money talks. Bullshit walks.

From Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

“Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”

This is why you can buy off a Taliban war lord or a United States Congressman. Money talks and bull shit walks. And for the most part, money doesn’t really exist:

“The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. 7 More than 90 per cent of all money – more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts – exists only on computer servers.”

It’s mostly in our heads. Or our collective consciousness, if you prefer. Packed in there with all the other imaginary concepts so many are willing to kill and die for.

The age of the masses is over

I’ve long suffered from the romantic notion that when things get “bad enough,” the people, the masses, will rise up and change things. That if enough people took to the streets, they could effect change. And while that pretty much held true in the 20th century, it might not in the 21st. Historian Yuval Noah Harari:

“Generally speaking, when you look at the 20th century, it’s the era of the masses, mass politics, mass economics. Every human being has value, has political, economic, and military value, simply because he or she is a human being, and this goes back to the structures of the military and of the economy, where every human being is valuable as a soldier in the trenches and as a worker in the factory.”

“But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy.”

Professor Harari expands on this in his conversation with Daniel Kahneman (and in his book). Another idea that really stopped me in my tracks:

“Looking from the perspective of 2015, I don’t think we now have the knowledge to solve the social problems of 2050, or the problems that will emerge as a result of all these new developments. We should be looking for new knowledge and new solutions, and starting with the realization that in all probability, nothing that exists at present offers a solution to these problems.”

Professor Harari’s book made me really consider — for the first time — that humans won’t always be around.

“It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years from now.”

But whatever comes next will be and I’m cool with that.

Silicon Valley is more important than the Middle East

I’m a few chapters into Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a really interesting book by Yuval Noah Harari. He’s an Oxford Ph.D. whose current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

Today I found a link to a conversation between Harari and Daniel Kahneman that was packed with interesting ideas. Here’s one:

“In terms of history, the events in Middle East, of ISIS and all of that, is just a speed bump on history’s highway. The Middle East is not very important. Silicon Valley is much more important. It’s the world of the 21st century … I’m not speaking only about technology. In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.”