Having read, and been depressed by, Yuval Harari’s brilliant book Homo Deus, I have sought and partly found an antidote in Tom Hodgkinson’s books “How to be Idle” and “How to be Free” kindly lent to me by Jane Whitehouse, Head of Drama at the British School in Brussels.
Harari uses the remarkable understanding of human history he demonstrated in his book “Sapiens” to project into the future. He foresees a post-humanist world where consciousness is separated from intelligence as life is determined by and dependent on algorithms. Whilst he includes caveats that his analysis may prove false, he provides plenty of evidence that we are, as a species, already past a turning point in our history: the speed with which work is being automated is hard to ignore.
Humans used to participate in and define themselves through war and work. On the news this morning, there is a debate about ‘war robots’ highlighting the fact that people are no longer needed on the battlefield. Further, in peacetime our jobs are so specialised that we are easily replaceable in the workplace. Harari’s ideas are there for us to ponder now. We do not have to wait to see if some of his arguments prove true.
Harari perceives religion’s role in history as enabling people to see suffering in war, famine and plague as part of a cosmic plan. Whilst those three elements continue to haunt the poorest parts of our world, as a species, Harari points out, we are now more likely to commit suicide than be killed in war and more likely to be die from obesity than starvation. Long ago we stopped needing a God to explain events because, thanks to the industrial revolution, we have the capacity to control and overcome them. Harari provides ample evidence that in the biological sciences there is no cosmic plan just algorithms.
Humanism has focused on the feelings and experiences of humans as the ultimate justification for actions and those actions as a species, Harari argues, seek continuous pleasure and immortality. Whilst the latter is unobtainable, we may end up living for far longer as diseases are overcome. In this situation where committing suicide, being run over by a bus or killed by a family member are the likely ways of dying, we will become even more risk averse because we have a far longer life to lose. Within a longer lifespan, our pursuit of continuous pleasure will be through drugs rather than the restraint to the senses suggested by ancient wisdom.
Longevity and bliss (the things of the Greek Gods) will not be for all. Those who write the algorithms that have the greatest impact will have the wealth. The rest of humanity, once useful for war and industry, will find themselves with nothing to offer the world other than data already harvested through our use of Internet search engines and social media. Politically, there will be no imperative to keep people healthy and educated.
As we allow technology to merge with our minds in order to participate in the “Internet of things” where algorithms know us better than we do ourselves, we cease to be Sapiens and evolve into a new species.
There are criticisms to made of Harari. He views humanity from a detached, neutral distance and describes us in sweeping historical statements that lack nuance but the quality of his writing and use of evidence makes his overall argument difficult to resist. By the end of the book, I was in equal measure impressed, exhausted and depressed.
That I’d been lent two books that provided another way of viewing the future was both fortunate and coincidental. If Harari is right in arguing humanity will have little value in the AI future then books that promote finding value outside of work may gain in relevance. The author of the “How to be Idle” and “How to be Free”, Tom Hodgkinson, has held the role of editor of the Idler and this has given him many years to develop and live out a coherent philosophy which seeks to help him avoid drudgery and dependence. His books provide a defence of minimisation of work and practical advice on how to live more freely. The books invite the reader to stop and think about how life is lived and the small steps needed to be taken now as well as see positive signs for the longer term future. The passages that resonate strongly with me are those on living in isolation. For Hodgkinson, the answer to many issues is a more communal way of living where we open our doors and share food, alcohol, conversation, work, childcare etc. The growth of Twitter and Facebook evidences a far more isolated existence, than promoted by Hodgkinson, where we want to share our lives at a distance. Twitter has become an emotional crutch for many of us as we seek affirmation for ourselves through constant virtue signalling without the need to engage in face-to-face interactions.
Like Harari, Hodgkinson draws his evidence for future possibilities from history. He is very positive about the mediaeval city states, the lives of Victorian artists, as well as the examples of modern day figures such as Keith Allen, Joe Strummer and Penny Rimbaud (the anarchist group CRASS and their Essex commune get a number of favourable mentions).
The medieval city states brought together relatively large numbers of people in cooperative relationships that Hodgkinson argues worked well to meet needs without enslaving anyone. He acknowledges the importance of the Catholic world view and culture that dominated Europe in promoting balance, freedom and enjoyment. Eamonn Duffy’s excellent work The Stripping of the Altars makes an argument for pre-Reformation Catholicism providing a coherent way of life that fitted the rhythms and rituals of agrarian England. For Hodgkinson, an atheist, Henry XIII’s destruction of Catholic culture combined with the industrial revolution is the root of our current overworked, stressed and depressed society. A return to religion does not hold the answer for either Harari or Hodgkinson. The former dismisses religion as having, since the industrial revolution, been merely reactive in the development of the species whereas before it had driven science and culture (one of his claims that doesn’t actually stand up as it was the Catholic Church that provided the Big Bang theory). Hodgkinson likes the idea of public holidays and enjoyment that were part of Catholicism but is at heart a humanist looking to improve our experience of life.
Harari would have no problem with any of Hodgkinson’s arguments for a return to a simpler life but from his detached viewpoint would see the tide of history taking us in the opposite direction with increasing speed. The individuals cited by Hodgkinson are just individuals. Although Harari argues history is determined by small numbers of well-organised people and not the masses, the Penny Rimbauds and Joe Strummes of this world do not seek revolution beyond their communes and campfires.
Harari acknowledges the arts as potentially providing meaning to human existence but promotes the possibility, even here, of algorithms doing it better. Hodgkinson sees creativity in everyday life as the way out of drudgery. His examples of people who experience greater freedom are drawn from the arts. This is one of the strongest parts of his argument.
Both Harari and Hodgkinson give some time to the issues of sex in humanist thought. Harari points to the problem infidelity poses when the human pursues pleasure judged only through the criteria of personal experience, enjoyment and feelings. The pain caused to others through an act of personal pleasure creates tension for humanist theory. For Hodgkinson the answer lies in occasional festivals where the bonds of monogamous human relations are temporarily suspended; it seems to me a very male solution.
Most of the people cited by Hodgkinson are male. Many led lives of relative privilege from which the decision not to conform to the Protestant work ethic was cushioned by circumstance. Whilst Hodgkinson’s argument can stand on the evidence he provides, consideration of the gendered nature of drudgery and the impact of male pursuit of freedom on women would enhance the books. The musician Kim Deal provides a better example of living without constraints. Pursuing her existentialist and feminist philosophy, Deal has been lambasted for producing music so infrequently (her band The Breeders have managed 4 albums in 27 years) yet has lived a full life away from dependence on others including her more successful band The Pixies whilst being a carer to her mother who has dementia. One of her songs provides the title of this post: a song she used on two separate albums as it saved time. If, in future, creativity becomes more important in providing meaning and value to our lives, Deal is a better an artistic example to inspire alternative living than many of the men in the books.
As a teacher, the implications for education of Harari and Hodgkinson’s books are worth considering. The argument about whether education should provide young people with “21st Century skills” looks pointless. Whether the jobs of the future do or do not yet exist is irrelevant if the jobs are mostly undertaken by artificial intelligence. If we are to be creative, we need a broad and balanced curriculum that allows us to live fulfilling lives outside of work. Harari sees the specialised teacher being relatively simple to replace by interactive computers but there are aspects of the learning relationship within a broad concept of education that may still require human input.
Persuading governments to invest in such a model of education when the state requires only that people are connected to the Internet of things will be a challenge but the possibility remains of developing alternative forms of education within new ways of living.
I recommend Harari and Hodgkinson without any hesitation. They challenge their readers to think about the coherence between values, attitudes and lifestyle in the context of a world changing before your eyes.