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سرفصل: ۲۱ درس برای قرن ۲۱ / سرفصل 1

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Introduction

In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. In theory, anybody can join the debate about the future of humanity, but it is so hard to maintain a clear vision. Frequently, we don’t even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are. Billions of us can hardly afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history gives no discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids – you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is very unfair; but who said history was fair?

As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity, thereby helping to level the global playing field. If this empowers even a handful of additional people to join the debate about the future of our species, I have done my job.

My first book, Sapiens, surveyed the human past, examining how an insignificant ape became the ruler of planet Earth.

Homo Deus, my second book, explored the long-term future of life, contemplating how humans might eventually become gods, and what might be the ultimate destiny of intelligence and consciousness.

In this book I want to zoom in on the here and now. My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?

Of course, 7 billion people have 7 billion agendas, and as already noted, thinking about the big picture is a relatively rare luxury. A single mother struggling to raise two children in a Mumbai slum is focused on the next meal; refugees in a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean scan the horizon for any sign of land; and a dying man in an overcrowded London hospital gathers all his remaining strength to take in one more breath. They all have far more urgent problems than global warming or the crisis of liberal democracy. No book can do justice to all of that, and I don’t have lessons to teach people in such situations. I can only hope to learn from them.

My agenda here is global. I look at the major forces that shape societies all over the world, and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole. Climate change may be far beyond the concerns of people in the midst of a life-and-death emergency, but it might eventually make the Mumbai slums uninhabitable, send enormous new waves of refugees across the Mediterranean, and lead to a worldwide crisis in healthcare.

Reality is composed of many threads, and this book tries to cover different aspects of our global predicament, without claiming to be exhaustive. Unlike Sapiens and Homo Deus, this book is not intended as a historical narrative, but rather as a selection of lessons. These lessons do not conclude with simple answers. They aim to stimulate further thinking, and help readers participate in some of the major conversations of our time.

The book was actually written in conversation with the public. Many of the chapters were composed in response to questions I was asked by readers, journalists and colleagues. Earlier versions of some segments were already published in different forms, which gave me the opportunity to receive feedback and hone my arguments. Some sections focus on technology, some on politics, some on religion, and some on art. Certain chapters celebrate human wisdom, others highlight the crucial role of human stupidity. But the overarching question remains the same: what is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of events?

What does the rise of Donald Trump signify? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news? Why is liberal democracy in crisis? Is God back? Is a new world war coming? Which civilisation dominates the world – the West, China, Islam? Should Europe keep its doors open to immigrants? Can nationalism solve the problems of inequality and climate change? What should we do about terrorism?

Though this book takes a global perspective, I do not neglect the personal level. On the contrary, I want to emphasise the connections between the great revolutions of our era and the internal lives of individuals. For example, terrorism is both a global political problem and an internal psychological mechanism. Terrorism works by pressing the fear button deep in our minds and hijacking the private imagination of millions of individuals. Similarly, the crisis of liberal democracy is played out not just in parliaments and polling stations, but also in neurons and synapses. It is a cliché to note that the personal is the political. But in an era when scientists, corporations and governments are learning to hack the human brain, this truism is more sinister than ever. Accordingly, this book offers observations about the conduct of individuals as well as entire societies.

A global world puts unprecedented pressure on our personal conduct and morality. Each of us is ensnared within numerous all-encompassing spider webs, which on the one hand restrict our movements, but at the same time transmit our tiniest jiggle to faraway destinations. Our daily routines influence the lives of people and animals halfway across the world, and some personal gestures can unexpectedly set the entire world ablaze, as happened with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring, and with the women who shared their stories of sexual harassment and sparked the MeToo movement.

This global dimension of our personal lives means that it is more important than ever to uncover our religious and political biases, our racial and gender privileges, and our unwitting complicity in institutional oppression. But is that a realistic enterprise? How can I find a firm ethical ground in a world that extends far beyond my horizons, that spins completely out of human control, and that holds all gods and ideologies suspect?

The book begins by surveying the current political and technological predicament. At the close of the twentieth century it appeared that the great ideological battles between fascism, communism and liberalism resulted in the overwhelming victory of liberalism. Democratic politics, human rights and free-market capitalism seemed destined to conquer the entire world. But as usual, history took an unexpected turn, and after fascism and communism collapsed, now liberalism is in a jam. So where are we heading?

This question is particularly poignant, because liberalism is losing credibility exactly when the twin revolutions in information technology and biotechnology confront us with the biggest challenges our species has ever encountered. The merger of infotech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of the job market and undermine both liberty and equality. Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse – irrelevance.

I discussed the merger of infotech and biotech at length in my previous book Homo Deus. But whereas that book focused on the long-term prospects – taking the perspective of centuries and even millennia – this book concentrates on the more immediate social, economic and political crises. My interest here is less in the eventual creation of inorganic life, and more in the threat to the welfare state and to particular institutions such as the European Union.

The book does not attempt to cover all the impacts of the new technologies. In particular, though technology holds many wonderful promises, my intention here is to highlight mainly the threats and dangers. Since the corporations and entrepreneurs who lead the technological revolution naturally tend to sing the praises of their creations, it falls to sociologists, philosophers and historians like myself to sound the alarm and explain all the ways things can go terribly wrong.

After sketching the challenges we face, in the second part of the book we examine a wide range of potential responses. Could Facebook engineers use AI to create a global community that will safeguard human liberty and equality? Perhaps the answer is to reverse the process of globalisation, and re-empower the nation state? Maybe we need to go back even further, and draw hope and wisdom from the wellsprings of ancient religious traditions?

In the third part of the book we see that though the technological challenges are unprecedented, and though the political disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and are a bit more humble about our views. This part investigates what can be done about the menace of terrorism, about the danger of global war, and about the biases and hatreds that spark such conflicts.

The fourth part engages with the notion of post-truth, and asks to what extent we can still understand global developments and distinguish wrongdoing from justice. Is Homo sapiens capable of making sense of the world it has created? Is there still a clear border separating reality from fiction?

In the fifth and final part I gather together the different threads and take a more general look at life in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has emerged so far to replace them. Who are we? What should we do in life? What kinds of skills do we need? Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion – what can we say about the meaning of life today?

This may sound overambitious, but Homo sapiens cannot wait. Philosophy, religion and science are all running out of time. People have debated the meaning of life for thousands of years. We cannot continue this debate indefinitely. The looming ecological crisis, the growing threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of new disruptive technologies will not allow it. Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence and biotechnology are giving humanity the power to reshape and re-engineer life. Very soon somebody will have to decide how to use this power – based on some implicit or explicit story about the meaning of life. Philosophers are very patient people, but engineers are far less patient, and investors are the least patient of all. If you don’t know what to do with the power to engineer life, market forces will not wait a thousand years for you to come up with an answer. The invisible hand of the market will force upon you its own blind reply. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.

In the final chapter I indulge in a few personal remarks, talking as one Sapiens to another, just before the curtain goes down on our species and a completely different drama begins.

Before embarking on this intellectual journey, I would like to highlight one crucial point. Much of the book discusses the shortcomings of the liberal world view and of the democratic system. I do so not because I believe liberal democracy is uniquely problematic, but rather because I think it is the most successful and most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While it may not be appropriate for every society in every stage of development, it has proved its worth in more societies and in more situations than any of the alternatives. Therefore, when examining the new challenges that lie ahead of us, it is necessary to understand the limitations of liberal democracy, and to explore how we can adapt and improve its current institutions.

Unfortunately, in the present political climate any critical thinking about liberalism and democracy might be hijacked by autocrats and various illiberal movements, whose sole interest is to discredit liberal democracy rather than to engage in an open discussion about the future of humanity. While they are more than happy to debate the problems of liberal democracy, they have almost no tolerance of any criticism directed at them.

As an author, I was therefore required to make a difficult choice. Should I speak my mind openly, risking that my words could be taken out of context and used to justify burgeoning autocracies? Or should I censor myself? It is a mark of illiberal regimes that they make free speech more difficult even outside their borders. Due to the spread of such regimes, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to think critically about the future of our species.

After some soul searching, I chose free discussion over self-censorship. Without criticising the liberal model, we cannot repair its faults or go beyond it. But please note that this book could have been written only when people are still relatively free to think what they like and to express themselves as they wish. If you value this book, you should also value the freedom of expression.

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