I restarted Homo Deus this week, as I had been put off by the reviews which claimed it was far less impressive that Sapiens, which I had enjoyed. As it progressed, I became surprisingly ambivalent about whether or not to continue reading. I felt like Harari’s style could work when applied to topics that I’m already interested in such as AI and big data. Yet, Homo Deus quickly fell from being interesting to infuriating, as I learned just how badly it misrepresented one of its main subjects. (See the The Turning Point section below for details).
The Starting Point
The first few pages impressed me, as Harari paints a memorable picture of an improving world. Within the prologue there are some fascinating ideas, and some questions that are worth thinking about. Pages 71-74 go in to the history of garden lawns; this narrative shows how ideas about what an object means travel across countries and over time, and how those ideas become unquestioned assumptions baked into our societies and world-views.
Homo Deus also keeps the same casual and accessible writing style as Sapiens. Harari’s explanations contain bursts of flair, like rhetorical devices, assonance, and pop-cultural references, that make the text engaging and occasionally humorous. It almost reads like fiction, and sometimes that’s a downside; its smooth nature meant I found myself sliding from one chapter to another and then suddenly realising that I hadn’t questioned whether the segues and connections Harari made were logical as a result.
As I kept reading, my opinion of the book kept changing even within pages. There are paragraphs which contain thought-provoking questions, and which make predictions that have to some extent been shown to be correct. For example, Homo Deus contains this description of how targeted algorithms might affect voting:
“in future US presidential elections, Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how those voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven;t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook access this priceless political data? We provide it for free.”
This was written in 2015, before the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal was widely publicised, but its certainly close to what happened. At the same time, Harari makes other predictions that have already been proven false. Talking about Microsoft’s Cortana, first developed just a year before Homo Deus was written, Harari envisions that;
“Next thing I know, a potential employer will tell me not to bother sending a CV, but simply allow his Cortana to grill my Cortana….As Cortanas gain authority, they may begin manipulating each other to further the interests of their masters…”
That’s already wrong, because Cortana is being switched off from most of its planned customer-focused purposes, even on Microsoft’s own devices. Harari’s rush to ascribe world-changing powers to the 12-month-old Cortana is a red flag that should make readers question how many of his other predictions could be similarly over-hyped.