I recently enjoyed a YouTube video of a Yuval Harari talk titled “Techno-Religions and Silicon Prophets” - have a watch (perhaps sped up). Or if you’re pressed for time, read my synopsis below.
What follows is my interpretation of Harari’s central arguments. Below are Harari’s ideas and beliefs, not mine (necessarily). At times I quote from Harari directly and borrow his phrases generously.
Silicon Valley is where the most important religious ideas of today are originating . The dominant ideology of today is liberal humanism. Here’s a definition of humanism from Google (liberalism, humanism, and liberal humanism are used interchangeably):
an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
Here are some examples that demonstrate why liberal humanism is the dominant ideology of the day:
- Voting: everyone decides for themselves and then a winner is chosen - “the voter knows best, no source or authority higher than the voter.”
- Liberal economics: “the customer is always right”. A product is good if a customer buys it. There is no higher authority. Even if the smartest, wisest people produced what they deemed to be the best car, if nobody buys it, then it is considered a bad car. This is in contrast to communism, where a central unit controls the economy.
- Love & marriage: the individual decides whom to marry based on his/her feelings.
Communism was the first “Techno-Religion” in that it promises a better life here instead of in the afterlife.
As demonstrated by many religious wars throughout history, as well as the Cold War, religion/ideology matters.
As non traditional religions such as liberal humanism and communism gained traction, traditional religions did not disappear but instead became less relevant. They moved from creative to reactive forces. For example, when contraception or the internet was invented, religious leaders needed to determine if it was okay and how to use it. And the reactive nature of traditional religions is not limited to technology. For example, traditional religions are still reacting to feminism.
Further cementing the idea that traditional religions have lost their footing as the dominant ideologies of the day, think about the most important discoveries of the 20th century. In the running: antibiotics, nuclear weapons, the computer, feminism, and so on. In contrast, it is difficult to think of any discovery on that level made by religions that believe in god.
For these reasons, China, radical Islam, and other older ideologies do not challenge liberalism. However, liberalism is not safe - because of what is happening in Silicon Valley.
The key insight to overtake liberalism comes from the life sciences. Liberalism believes in individualism. But according to the life sciences, humans have no soul, essence, or inner core. Instead, we are a collection of biochemical algorithms. And when you peel them away, there is no inner core. There is no individual.
The second key insight undermining liberalism is that these biochemical algorithms are not free. There is no freedom. Instead, they are either deterministic or random.
Taken together, these two ideas lead to the conclusion that an external system can understand humans perfectly, so long as the biochemical algorithms are adequately understood.
A few examples. Feelings (“the holy grail of liberalism”) are just biochemical algorithms calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction to inform our decision making.
Initially, this insight may seem to support liberalism in that it supports using your instinct and feelings - the byproduct of millions of years of evolution and natural selection - instead of the Bible.
But what happens if we create an algorithm that knows me better than I know myself? And this is the key point: when that happens, authority will shift away from me to the algorithms.
Right now, our feelings are still the best algorithms. But they are becoming outdated, and we are now in a position to produce an updated version. When we have better algorithms, the authority shifts to them.
To be clear, this has not happened yet, although it may be starting. Two examples come from medicine and health. Many of the most important decisions about our bodies are not taken by feelings but instead by external algorithms that understand our own internal systems and those of millions of other humans better than we do.
For example, Angelina Jolie had a preventative mastectomy because genetic testing told her that she had a high risk of getting breast cancer.
As this spreads to more and more fields, liberalism will collapse (not violently - it will simply become outdated). This has happened before with the transition from traditional religion to liberalism.
This is not just a matter of ideology, but a very practical matter of how to make decisions. Instead of consulting scripture or a religious leader, listen to your feelings. This represents the shift from religion to liberalism.
The next stage will be listen to a computer program. The supreme source of authority has already shifted from god to humans, and next will shift to data and information.
This may sound extreme, but consider this example on what might happen when you ask a computer whom to marry: (direct quote)
I know you from the moment you were born. I’ve read every email you’ve ever written. I’ve listened to every phone call. I remember every failed date. I can show you graphs of your sugar level and blood pressure for every date and sexual encounter in your life. I also know your potential mates, just as I know you. And based on all this information, and based on databases of millions of successful and unsuccessful relationships, I can recommend… with probability of 86% you go with [person] A instead of [person] B. I know you so well that I know you are disappointed, but you actually prefer B. You make this mistake because you give too much importance to physical appearance. Beauty is important, but you give it too much weight. Beauty counts for 9% of success of relationship, but your old fashioned biochemical algorithms, because of things that happened in African Savanna, give this beauty 27%, which is far too high. So even though you think B, go for A.
Another example might be Amazon’s book recommendations. Through the kindle, perhaps they will capture how quickly we read each book, our facial expressions, emotional reactions, etc., and use this data to become the authority on which books to read.
One might question whether the life sciences are correct about this. But it does not matter, because a religion or ideology does not need to be correct in order for it to spread (as evidenced by the creation story in the Bible, for example). Perhaps the new data algorithms will not be correct, but that will not prevent them from taking over the world.
One of the audience members asks Harari whether he thinks this is good or bad. Harari says in his book A Brief History of Humanity, you can read between the lines, and also wisely says, “If you start with a certain agenda, then very quickly you become blind to much of reality. one thing almost certain about reality is that it’s complex.”
The talk was interesting enough that I am curious to read his book or perhaps take his Coursera course on the same subject.
Fall 2016 Update: Harari’s piece in the New Yorker on the “Trump Moment” is worth a read. Harari argues that the “Trump Moment” signals liberalism’s end, and predicts “ideology that currently takes shape in Silicon Valley” will eventually reign.
 Harari uses ideology and religion interchangeably. He states that sometimes religion is defined as belief in god(s), but that this is too narrow a definition. God plays a small role in religions like Buddhism and Confucianism. Harari defines religion/ideology based on the function it plays in society. A religion gives legitimacy to human laws and norms by hanging on to some superhuman law or power. There are two kinds of superhuman authorities: gods and natural laws.