By Neelam Raaj,
From the epidemic of fake news to the rise of Trump and the shortcomings of liberalism, the book makes quite a sweep. In an email interview with Neelam Raaj, Harari discusses why he thinks Simba in The Lion King is a stand-in for Arjuna, and how religion is also fake news.
You contend that the truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. From religion to business, everything is based on fake news. So should we stop blaming WhatsApp and Facebook and start pointing fingers at ourselves?
Fake news is a huge problem — but it isn’t a new problem. Humans have conquered the world thanks to our unique ability to cooperate in large numbers — and all large-scale cooperation is based on believing in shared fictional stories about imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations. Even religious people will agree that all religions except one are fictional stories. Thus devout Hindus will say that “our religion is true, of course, but Christianity and Islam are based on fake news”.
In every age, the problem of telling the difference between fiction and reality manifests itself in a different way. In past centuries, people suffered from a severe lack of information, which made it difficult to verify what’s true. Today we suffer from too much information, so people are too distracted to investigate the truth. There are so many things competing for our attention that our attention itself becomes a scarce resource. The struggle to capture people’s attention has resulted in a destructive model for the news industry: “exciting news that cost you nothing — in exchange for your attention”. Our attention is captured by sensational headlines, and is then sold to advertisers and politicians. In this battle for attention, there is little incentive to safeguard the truth.
You might think that you are nevertheless getting a good bargain here. You don’t have to pay anything, and you are entertained with interesting stories. But, in fact, you are not the customer at all, you are the product. You are being sold. You are giving up your most valuable asset — your attention — and you allow powerful corporations and politicians to brainwash you. That’s crazy.
A far better model for the news market would be “high-quality news that cost you a lot of money, but does not abuse your attention”. If you are willing to pay for high-quality food, clothes and cars, why aren’t you willing to pay for high-quality information?
You’ve said people should worry less about losing their jobs to robots and more about algorithms, which will decide everything from what we study to who we marry. How worried are you about the rise of digital dictatorships? Is Zuckerberg going to rule our lives?
It does not matter whether it is Zuckerberg, or Amazon, or the government. Whoever accumulates enough data about us might come to rule our lives. In the past, nobody had enough biological knowledge and enough computing power to hack people. Even if the KGB followed you around all day, they did not know what you were feeling and thinking. In the future, by combining our increasing biological knowledge with advanced artificial intelligence, external systems could know you better than you know yourself. Such systems could then control and manipulate people with unprecedented efficiency. And it is easiest to manipulate people who believe that their opinions and choices reflect their own free will. We should come to terms with the fact that humans are now hackable.
The Aadhaar scheme has sparked off a big debate in India. Critics argue that it breaches the right to privacy while government says it will help deliver targeted welfare. How do you weigh in?
Every technology has both positive and negative potential — the question is how to use it. You can use nuclear energy to provide cheap electricity, and you can use it to kill millions of people. It is the same with information technology. You can use it to provide the best healthcare and welfare services in history — or to create the most totalitarian dictatorship ever. There is no simple way to regulate data. The first step is for people to realise that the ownership of data is the most important political question of our era.
In ancient times, land was the most important asset in the world, politics was a struggle to control land, and dictatorship meant that too much land was concentrated in the hands of a single emperor or a small aristocracy. In the last 200 years, machines and factories became more important than land, and political struggles focused on controlling machinery. Dictatorship meant that all the machines were concentrated in the hands of the government or a small oligarchy. In the 21st century, however, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, and politics will be a struggle to control the flow of data. If too much of data is controlled by the government or by a few corporations, the result will be digital dictatorships. Unfortunately, while we have centuries of experience in regulating ownership of land and machinery, we have very little experience in regulating the ownership of data. We need to start a serious political debate about this before it is too late.
The book has quite a few references to Hindu mythology. In fact, you describe the Disney classic The Lion King as a repackaging of the Gita with Simba as a stand-in for Arjuna. What do you feel about the Gita’s lesson that human beings have a fixed destiny or dharma? It does make things simpler, doesn’t it?
The idea that humans have a fixed dharma indeed makes things simpler, but it is also very dangerous. It can easily be used to justify oppressive social and political systems. The poor are poor because it is their dharma; women lack equal rights because it is their dharma, etc. I would advise people that if they want to understand their dharma — their true nature — they should explore it themselves instead of blindly believing the stories other people tell. Some people say “it is not natural for women to run a business — nature wants women to stay at home and raise kids”; other people say “it is not natural for men to love other men — gay people violate the laws of nature”. This is nonsense. Nobody can ever break the laws of nature. Whatever exists, is by definition natural.
You still see a place for religion in a world where we’re increasingly slaves to the god called tech?
I make a distinction between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is about questions; religion is about answers. Spirituality sends you on a quest to understand yourself and the world better; religion demands that you believe in a particular sacred story, without daring to doubt or question it. I think religion is not very relevant to the big questions of the 21st century, but spirituality is more important than ever before. Indeed, spiritual questions are now becoming practical questions of engineering. We are learning how to create artificial intelligence and how to use biotechnology in order to redesign animals and humans. The engineers working on such projects need to address the deepest questions of all, such as “what is consciousness?”, “is there free will?”, and “what is humanity?”.
You’ve got a line in the book saying that those in love don’t spend their time worrying about the meaning of life. Is romance the answer to all our philosophical dilemmas? Should we spend more time on Tinder than Facebook?
My husband may not like me saying this, but Hollywood and Bollywood sell us a myth about love, which is as far from the truth as the ancient myths of religion. When you are in love, nothing else matters. But even the most blissful romance does not last forever. Feelings change, or jealousy arises, or perhaps your loved one dies. All phenomena are impermanent, including romantic love.