Lessons from the Sapiens Series

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Where are we headed?

Do you remember the time in your life when you knew bits and pieces of how the world worked but never understood how they all fit into the bigger picture of the cosmos in a cohesive manner? This was exactly the state I was in before starting the Sapiens series. Growing up I was made aware of different religions, ideologies and how humans in different countries had a different outlook toward traditions, customs, society and scientific improvements. What I did not know was if any single one of them was better or had a bigger impact on human history and progression than the others. Was there an ideology that satisfied my faith in science? Why is it that democracy is hailed as the best form of governance? Why do some countries focus on the individual whereas others place a greater emphasis on a cohort? Sapiens series answered a lot of these questions, but the real beauty of the Sapiens series was to put all of the seemingly disparate important philosophical, lifestyle, societal critical events into one continuum creating an effective story that humans are always fond of. Not everything that Harari says makes sense (or backed by data), but the narrative is compelling and coherent enough to carry the content through. Here are some of the bigger lessons I learned from Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Human Domination — Humans are a unique species on planet Earth. We lord over the planet, turning barren deserts into fertile plains, leveling mountains, transforming forests into urban jungles, depleting the oceans of life and turning the big blue into our backyard. No matter the consequences, these actions are a testament to the collective power of Homo Sapiens. How did we get to rule over the planet when no other animal could? We got here because we could do something no other animal collective could. We found ways of coming together in large numbers and in flexible, often creative, ways. Over time, this large scale creative cooperation (termed intersubjective reality) made it possible to exchange knowledge at an accelerated pace and achieve scientific dominion over the other species on the planet. These intersubjective realities made humans extend their trust to thousands/millions of people and thereby benefit as a species.

Power of Fiction — A lie repeated 1000 times becomes the truth. As mentioned above with intersubjective realities, grand fictions are what brought people together in a reliable manner. The religion you believe in, the company you work for, the nation you associate yourself with, and the value of the currency in your wallet are not tangible. They only exist because you and other people, all, subconsciously acknowledge that they exist. You might be tempted to create artifacts, holy scriptures, flags, legalities to make these virtual entities seem almost real. You might even conduct rituals to get other people’s buy-in to strengthen their belief in your propaganda. But if nobody told you about these fictional realities in the first place, you wouldn’t ever feel part of them by yourself. On the other hand Hunger, Pain, Suffering you feel even if you don’t call them with the same words or if nobody tells you about them. Instead of squabbling over what is real vs fictional, the important takeaway here is that creating a story (fiction!) might be the only way you bring people together. The more believable a story feels the better of a propaganda tool it becomes. The power of fiction is almost always greater than the power of truth so much so that our very social structure might collapse without fiction binding people to each other. It takes a conscious leap of faith (the irony!) to acknowledge that we want to undertake the uncomfortable, perhaps endless, pursuit of truth over the fictional, seemingly real identities we were given since our childhood.

Tides of Change — The world has always been changing. More so now than before. Humans no longer die of starvation or war but instead by overeating and old age. The working population was essential in the past, but now we are on the brink of mass adoption of automation that will replace much of the traditional human employment. Our belief in “free will” and “soul” are about to be questioned as we begin decoding the human brain. Liberty and Equality might become irrelevant as we end up creating mentally and physically superior beings. The information drought of the past has become the current day deluge, so much so that we don’t know what the limits of healthy media consumption are. The ecology is taking a beating, the oceans are rising, the weathers are extreme and with each passing day, this is becoming a battle we should become desperate about not losing. Science in all its disciplines is advancing faster than humans can cope with or comprehend. As we start pumping in more data for AI to make better decisions, the pace of change will only accelerate further.
The tides of change will only become severe (partly because of global warming, ahem-ahem) and we better pay real close attention to where they are taking us. And if we somehow figure out how to control where we are going, common sense dictates us that we take the ride gently alas a bigger wave might careen us into the extinction abyss.

Employment Skills — Until probably 30 years ago, human skill timeline could be divided into two phases. The first is the skill assimilation phase. This is where the farmer learned how to grow crops, possibly from his father. There is very little expectation in this stage for a person to stand on his own feet. The second phase is the skill usage phase. Now that you have become skilled in something, you find work, produce goods and sustain your family. Traditionally this has more or less applied to modern education as well — you are enrolled in school for the first 20 years of life after which you are expected to get a job and take care of yourself and your family. With the onset of AI, these phases might eventually be phased out. What happens when you are trained to be a pharmacist but automation replaces the pharmacist in your country? That would mean you would have to get retrained in another domain. How do you plan on sustaining yourself when you hope to get retrained? What guarantee do you have that this new field will not leave you in a similar fate?
There are very few fields that automation does not threaten to overhaul in the near long term and as AI gets better our confidence in predicting them will decline. As a general rule of thumb, it might be a better idea to gear up for having to switch fields every decade. We will no longer be able to afford being trained and then hoping to capitalize on the training for long. Although stressful, this loop of constant learning and working is here to stay and we better get used to it. So, this is a really good time to take a look at the expensive school program you are interested in and decide if that is really worth it.

Data — We are well on our way transitioning into a digital world from an analog world. The amount of data we produce per second is staggering but in a not so surprising turn, data has officially replaced oil as the most valuable resource. As long as the purchasing power is in the hands of humans, it is easy to see why data is so coveted. The more I know about you, the more I can make you trust me and the better I can sell to you. The more I can sell to you, the more I can control your lifestyle and behavior. Today, if you live in an online world, it is almost impossible to avoid being tracked by Amazon, Facebook, Google.

The present-day data collection will become more aggressive. Corporate companies will start hoarding data, justifying the need with utilitarian good and in the process also commoditize us to make more money. The promise will most likely begin with a company announcing that they can add more to your lifespan or make you live healthy if they can monitor you all the while. A seemingly harmless trade-off, you feel! They probably will deliver on the promise eventually but as part of getting there, you will be watched to understand what makes you, you. Do you cry when you see a malnourished kid in Africa? Do you feel more attracted to women than men? If so, what kind of women? Does your pulse rate go up every time you watch Charlize Theron? What about other blondes? Do your buying preferences indicate that you buy locally? Does your purchase history indicate that you buy more when you are alone? How do you care about the appeal of the product? What type of branding makes you want to buy more? How do these preferences map across your family? Would it be possible to get your kids to buy more from an early age? Would showing picture-perfect women to your wife make her feel self-conscious and force her to buy beauty products that she does not otherwise need? I am not going on a rant here and claiming that the data companies are evil. That may or may not be the case, but what these companies definitely are, are corporate structures that care about shareholders and revenue. The yardstick for measuring success is primarily money. How many companies would willingly let go of a cornucopia of this scale for not wanting to influence humans or distort reality? Maybe, all humans need is just an illusion of control. This apparent “utopia” is reminiscent of Netflix’s Black Mirror episode — Fifteen Million Merits. Sure, we might usher in a world where our material, psychological needs are met but certainly not before companies completely commoditize us.

My primary takeaway here is that we really need to understand the importance of data, implications of sharing it for services in exchange, even bring this awareness to schools to educate children about why protecting their data is beneficial. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against collecting data rather only using it for unspecified or unintended purposes. If Google wants to make me immortal through Calico, I will be willing to part with my physiology data as long as Google doesn’t use it to sell me more or make money out of it. Having realized the threat data possesses to my influences and choices, I would be glad to pay a subscription fee for such a service too.

Brain and Mind — Let’s get this straight. The brain is not the same as the mind. Brain constitutes the physical part- the neurons, electrochemical signals, fluids etc. Our feelings, emotions, consciousness seem to be originating from the interaction of the billions of neurons and different parts of our brain and we term the result of this interaction, mind. Expectedly, decoding the brain has been relatively straight forward than decoding the mind. By taking MRI scans of several individuals focused on writing tasks you can figure out the part of the brain responsible for writing in humans. What inspires them to write the way they write, or how they end up choosing a particular word over another tends to be, in my understanding, the working of the mind. Nobody knows how these things happen, but we know those actions occur magically as billions of neurons communicate with each other in a certain way.
As you would come to expect, you can try understanding the mind through brain but the brain is a fuzzy proxy at best. We need a better tool to understand the mind and I am convinced (by my other readings as well) that this tool is meditation. Meditation is the art of being aware of everything that happens within you by tethering focus to your breath. You are a dandelion seed floating in the air; understand that your mind will take you in different directions, gently refocus on your breath and observe your mind. This is the only way we understand what we are and how our mind works.

Meaning of Life — Humans hate mysteries. Our curiosity has gotten the best of us and we have trouble accepting that some questions do not have answers or rather, do not need answers. Meaning of life is one of our grandest mysteries. Why do we exist? What is cosmos? What is my place in cosmos? What is death? How selfless should I be to call myself a good person? How do I know I am leading a meaningful life? Even better, how do I lead a better life than my miserable neighbor? You get the idea. The two salient points of a good story that answers these questions specify the role of an individual and specify how this role affects the bigger picture than just the individuals’ life. Well, our forefathers were busy spinning up several narratives in the last few millennia that we can possibly subscribe to.

Communism- Your life mission is to speed up global revolution by raising class consciousness by organizing strikes and demonstrations. You are contributing to a fair society where each person works according to his abilities and gets according to his needs.
- You were brought to this world to serve your countries interests the best. Serving your country, no matter what its consequences are on the rest of the world, is the most honorable thing you could do. By doing this, you are remembered a hero for eternity. You can have other identities while being a nationalist and though you are expected to always support your country in conflicting interests, it is up to you to use your judgment to make the best
Fascism- Extremist form of Nationalism which demands absolute allegiance to your country no matter the circumstances.
Religion- There is a God or several Gods and they brought you here for a purpose. This purpose, depending on the religion, could either be doing good only to your own people or to all people or to all sentient beings (animals included) or making sure the other false religions are squashed. By doing so, you will have fulfilled God’s word and you are treated to eternal bliss in heaven, essentially insuring you for the after-life.
Socialism- Essentially the same context as nationalism; the state knows best about you. The promise is to pledge your loyalty to your state, owe your allegiance and belong to a brotherhood.
Liberalism- This is slightly different than the other narratives partly because this was recently formulated than the others. Liberalism claims that you would not find meaning through any external entities rather only from within you. Listen to your feelings, identify what your “soul/free will” wants, create meaning in life and be whoever you want to be, it says. Through the Liberalism lens, the outside world is made of meaningless abstractions and the origin for generating meaning in life should come from within you.

If you could subscribe to any of the above narratives and stay without overthinking about it in the long term, you will be lucky and likely have a content life, albeit a few sacrifices as a cost for subscribing. But if you are still like me gnawing about what you tried taking a bite of, it is probably because each of these narratives come with loopholes — cracks small enough to be overlooked when you skim through but big enough for science or careful observation to identify and be dissatisfied about.
One callout that Harari makes is that Buddhism, centuries ago, proclaimed that meaning of life comes from neither external entities nor from within. The world is meaningless, so are human feelings and all we are, are transient entities producing ephemeral vibrations. There is no grand story here and we have to learn to deal with it. This realization, although borrowed, is bittersweet to me, because it is the same as having an empty canvas in front of me and a paint palette in my hand but I am also told that no matter what I paint it wouldn’t really make a dent in the cosmos. On one hand I feel I am relieved of this constant pressure to make good use of my life but on the other hand, I don’t have anything to look forward to. So how is it you could stay cheerful in life? From my understanding, for Harari, the answer is to meditate to understand more about the mind, its mysteries and get to the bottom of who we are.
What about me, you ask? I am still thinking.

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