The end of liberal democracy and humanism? (Part 1)

According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” there is new challenge to liberal democracy. It’s primary roots lie not in ideology but in bioscience and information technology. He sugesrs that in the 21st Century “the train of progress is pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. Those left behind face extinction. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand 21st century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms.”

“The main products of the 21st century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be wider than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Madhi’s Sudan. The defining features of the liberal democratic order is likely to be upended by the astonishing knowledge and tools that we have produced in the last half-century”.

For most of human history, Harari argues, humans believed in a cosmic order. Their world was ruled by omnipotent gods who exercised their power in capricious and incomprehensible ways. Then came science and, in some parts of the world at least, science has triumphed and belief in a transcendental order has been relegated to the sidelines. We have acquired powers that in pre-modern times were supposed to be possessed only by gods. With belief in god dying where will humans find meaning? “The modern world,” writes Harari, “promised us unprecedented power – and the promise has been kept. What about the price? In exchange for power, we are expected to give up on meaning of life”.

Humans are handling this at present by turning towards humanism (and its less dry and clinical version: modern Epicureanism, a belief that “sanctifies life, happiness, kindness and respect for others). Harari, however, argues that bioscience and information technology will ultimately destroy the foundations on which humanism is built. And since liberal democracy is constructed on the worship of humanist goals (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” by citizens who are “created equal”), then the new technologies are going to tear liberal democracy apart.

How come? He says fhat the life sciences are undermining humanist individualism, suggesting that “the free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms”. Likewise it is denying human free will. People may have freedom to choose between alternatives but the range of possibilies are increasingly determined by external algorithms as the “surveillance capitalism” practised by Google, Amazon etc becomes ubiquitous – to the point where internet companies will eventually know what your desires are before you do. ( A summary of a review by John Naughton, The Guardian, 28 August 2016).

My comment: Do you think human beings, once they understand what is being done to them, will tolerate being treated like ciphers? I don’t. These huge tech companies have to be put back where they belong – serving humanity. Because something can technically be done doesn’t mean that it is either necessary or wise. We have to fight back – these changes are harmful and unnecessary.

Tomorrow, in part 2, I will address what Hariri thinks will happen to human beings.