Death is Optional: An Interview to Ponder

ponder

Death is optional [Kahneman interviews Harari]

A lot of quotable pieces; excerpts below, but do read the whole thing. HT Kling.

Needless to say, I will buy the book.

K: 

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, “The Discovery of Ignorance”. It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

H:

I often tell my students at the University that my aim is that after three years, you basically know less than when you first got here. When you first got here, you thought you knew what the world is like and what is war and what is a state, and so forth. After three years, my hope is that you will understand that you actually know far, far less, and you come out with a much broader view of the present and of the future.

H:

And this opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between the rich and the poor, bigger than ever existed before in history. And many people say no, it will not happen, because we have the experience of the 20th century, that we had many medical advances, beginning with the rich or with the most advanced countries, and gradually they trickled down to everybody, and now everybody enjoys antibiotics or vaccinations or whatever, so this will happen again.

And as a historian, my main task is to say no, there were peculiar reasons why medicine in the 20th century was egalitarian, why the discoveries trickled down to everybody. These unique conditions may not repeat themselves in the 21st century, so you should broaden your thinking, and you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. And you cannot just trust a process of trickling down to solve this problem.

H:

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

H:

Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.

H:

And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us. To build a robot that could function effectively as a hunter-gatherer is extremely complex. You need to know so many different things. But to build a self-driving car, or to build a “Watson-bot” that can diagnose disease better than my doctor, this is relatively easy.

H:

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.

H:

Once you have the revolution we are undergoing in the military in which the number of soldiers simply becomes irrelevant in comparison with factors like technology, you still need people, but you don’t need the millions of soldiers, each with a rifle. You need much smaller numbers of experts, who know how to produce and how to use the new technologies. Against such military powers, the masses, even if they somehow organize themselves, don’t stand much of a chance. We are not in Russia of 1917, or in 19th century Europe.

H:

If you were, say, an evolutionary psychologist back in 1800, and you saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, you could have very confidently said all these changes in technology are well and good, but they won’t change the basic structure of human society. Human society is built from these small building blocks, the family and intimate community, because this is kind of an evolutionary given. Humans must have this. They cannot live in any other way.

And you look at the last 200 years, and you see them collapse after millions of years of evolution. Suddenly, within 200 years, the family and the intimate community break, they collapse. Most of the roles filled by the family and by the intimate community for thousands and tens of thousands of years, are transferred very quickly to new networks provided by the state and the market. You don’t need children, you can have a pension fund. You don’t need somebody to take care of you. You don’t need neighbors and sisters or brothers to take care of you when you’re sick. The state takes care of you. The state provides you with police, with education, with health, with everything.

H:

We can also learn something from the Agricultural Revolution. Some experts think that agriculture was the biggest mistake in human history, in terms of what it did to the individual. It’s obvious that on the collective level, agriculture enhanced the power of humankind in an amazing way. Without agriculture, you could not have cities and kingdoms and empires and so forth, but if you look at it from the viewpoint of the individual, then for many individuals, life was probably much worse as peasants in ancient Egypt then as hunter gatherers 20,000, 30,000 years earlier. You had to work much harder. The body and mind of Homo Sapiens evolved for millions of years in adaptation to climbing trees and picking fruits and to running after gazelles and looking for mushrooms. And suddenly you start all day digging canals and carrying water buckets from the river and harvesting the corn, and grinding the corn, this is much more difficult for the body, and also much more boring to the mind.

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