Yuval Harari on the Paradox of Historical Knowledge and the Real Value of History
I made a terrible mistake.
I tend to ignore bestseller lists because it’s so easy for authors to buy their way to success. There’s so much noise and so little signal.
They’re good. I wish I’d read them sooner.
In this essay, I look at two terrifying yet fascinating ideas from Harari’s Homo Deus.
Good Prophets Never Win
First, let’s look at what Harari calls the “paradox of historical knowledge.”
Let’s say you’re the prophet in a small, rural village. Your magic crystal ball tell you that, in the next few hours, your village will be burned to ash by an all-consuming fire.
Desperate to save your village, you rush out in the village square. “Fire! Fire!” you shout, eyes filled with tears. “There will be fire!”
Hearing your cries, the other villagers extinguish their tobacco pipes, douse the cooking fires, and pour water on the dry wood of their huts. Then, gathered together in the village square, they wait, trembling with fear.
Hours pass. There’s no fire.
One villager, a young teenage hothead, throws his straw hat on the ground. “Liar!” He shouts. “Where’s the fire you prophesized? You’re a sham!”
This is the difference between prophecizing about the weather (also known as forecasting) and prophecizing about people. Clouds don’t care about the weatherman’s opinion. People do.
Successful prophecies never come true — this is a key to Harari’s paradox.
Sure, knowledge can help us to understand the world. But humans also react to knowledge:
“Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.”
The more we know, the faster we change. To understand this change, we accumulate even more knowledge. Then we change even faster.
Instead of a leisurely Sunday morning stroll through Japanese Zen gardens, history is now blindfolded, has its hands tied, and is running at breakneck speed through a technological minefield:
“Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.”
These days, the view that more knowledge equals a better society is so common that I guess you could call it the premiere Western myth. What I love about Harari’s books is that he is not afraid to pull this myth apart.
Knowledge leads to better technologies, but there’s no guarantee that it will always improve the human condition. Knowledge has done great good, but it has caused great evil.
We thought that the Internet would bring us together. It has, in some ways. But it can organize terrorists, make teenagers hyper-self-conscious and afraid of human contact, and isolate us in self-reinforcing bubbles of like-minded thought.
Before the 20th century, humans had no way of systematically wiping themselves out. Now, we can.
“I’m reading Sun Tzu to protect my Facebook account from hackers.”
Now, another interesting idea.
When an annoying student asks, “Teacher, why do we study history?” a common response is to say, “Relax, dear child. We study history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes again.”
This seems sensible to me, but Harari disagrees:
”…historians are asked to examine the actions of our ancestors so that we can repeat their wise decisions and avoid their mistakes. But it almost never works like that because the present is just too different from the past. It is a waste of time to study Hannibal’s tactics in the Second Punic War so as to copy them in the Third World War. What worked well in cavalry battles will not necessarily be of much benefit in cyber warfare.”
I am not sure what to think here.
I understand that the history of war may tell us little about how to deal with Russian cyber terror. But it still seems to me that, if human nature stays somewhat constant over time (which is debatable), then we should be able to extract lessons from history on how to — and how not to — live our lives.
Either way, Harari cites another benefit that he sees as “the best reason to learn history.” History is not just about studying mistakes or predicting the future. Rather, history is also a way “liberating” ourselves:
“Though historians occasionally try their hand at prophecy (without notable success), the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.”
What does Harari mean by “liberation”?
“I’ve got to water my lawn or all my neighbors will think I’m poor.”
Take the American lawn. These days, it seems that everyone in the American suburbia has a lawn, but I rarely see them here in Japan or during my travels through Southeast Asia.
Well, it turns out that lawns, historically, were used by rich Western aristocrats to flaunt their status. Like some of us blow hard-earned money on shiny diamonds, our ancestors blew excess cash on gardeners, water, and exotic plant life just to prove they were well-off enough to do so.
By understanding the history of the lawn, we can say, “Well, maybe I don’t need a lawn after all.”
Here’s a beautiful paragraph from Harari:
“Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.”
Our view of the world is not the way things are or have to be. It’s shaped and biased in ways we will never fully understand.
We shake our heads at the people of past, saying, “Wow, did really put powder in their wigs?” But people of the future (assuming there are any of us left), will look at us and say, “Wow, did those fools really try to put butter in their coffee and upload their brains into the Internet? Hah!”
History isn’t a boring activity done by dusty people in the back rooms of libraries.
It’s a psychological battlefield.
The future is made up of the past. If you want people to imagine a better future, you start with history. And if you want people to not think about the future… you burn all the books.
“Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future. … Only a string of chance events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’ This is why Marxists recount the history of capitalism; why feminists study the formation of patriarchal societies; and why African Americans commemorate the horrors of the slave trade. They aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it.”
In the words of the great economist John Maynard Keynes: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
Ideas are powerful stuff.