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Not being a number does not make you a free man

Having listened last week to futurist Yuval Noah Harari talking at London’s Royal Society of Arts about his new book, Homo Deus, I am wondering how a conversation might go between Harari and The Prisoner. Next year will be the 50th anniversary since the iconic television series first broadcast what has become one of the catchcries of science fiction: “I am not a number: I am a free man!” Five decades on, the Guardian review of Harari’s book is sub-titled “How data will destroy human freedom”.

A fundamental difference between Harari’s hugely successful Sapiens and his new book is that the former involves reflections on how humanity has made it this far, whereas the new title is a speculation on the future. The former is rooted in memory; the latter involves conjectures that shift on the sands of uncertain definitions, as the above-linked Guardian review of Harari’s latest book reveals. “Now just hold on there” moments abound, as for example:

Evolutionary science teaches us that, in one sense, we are nothing but data-processing machines: we too are algorithms. By manipulating the data we can exercise mastery over our fate.”

Without having the peculiarities of that “one sense” explained, it is hard to absorb the meaning of words like “nothing”, “manipulating” and “mastery”. Words matter, of course, and there are perils attendant upon concluding too much about human identity through the links that are implicit in lazily assumed definitions.

What happens to the god-fearing woman when she discovers there is no God? Is the workingman bereft when there is no longer any work? If people refuse to accept the imprisonment of numbers assigned to them by other people, are they thus necessarily free? How much is freedom determined not by actions, but by thoughts? And critically: if our thinking is clearer and more careful, can we be more free?

In the Q&A that concluded the RSA event, Harari missed an opportunity when he was asked about the future prospects of education. What will we teach children in the data-driven future of Super Artificial Intelligence? Interestingly, neither maths nor sciences got a mention, and it seemed we might just have to see when the future arrives. But it must be true that a far higher standard in teaching reasoning and critical skills will be essential unless humanity would contemplate an eternal bedlam of making daisy chains and listening to Donovan.

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