A Brief History of Tomorrow (review)

In 2019, some of my students read Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind”. Not only was I impressed by their ability (and initiative) to read this book, especially considering they were secondary school students, but I also thought I needed to read it myself. It was quite an eye opener, and no mistake. So when a colleague of mine who habitually makes his reading material available for others to peruse shared the ‘sequel’ to the former book I jumped on it.

This time it’s called “Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow”, published as a paperback in 2017. Boy, did this book fill me with regret that I hadn’t discovered it earlier. Because if there is one thing I could glean from this volume it’s that human development is happening ever faster…and also that this development is not going to be a lot of fun for mankind. Maybe that’s why it has “brief” in the title, whereas I originally reckoned it applied to the size of the book.

If you want to be shocked and surprised by reading the book yourself, do not read any further. Here be spoilers.

So the book quickly dispenses with the thought of the existence of God, although it does mention that some overarching belief system appears to have been (and most likely will continue to be) necessary to allow huge numbers of people to work together. It is this ability to work together that really sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Not a soul, not free will, not conscience. Harari even continues to deconstruct the principle of there being individuals. Each of us consists of a narrating and experiecing self, neither of which are perfect (in fact they have different agendas that are often at loggerheads). Our memories are highly imperfect without us knowing. Even our feelings can fool us. Feelings are nothing but algorithms, anyway. And literally everything involving algorithms can be done better by computers – if not now, then somewhere in the nearer-than-you-think future. A core thought here was, “Computers don’t need to be perfect, they only need to be better than humans.” And they are. And if they’re not yet, they will be, probably sooner than you think. Some algorithms are more difficult, so it may take more time. But computers can already pretty much do anything, including activities that were hitherto considered uniquely part of the human domain such as painting and composing music. Humans will, by and large, become economically superfluous once computers can take over their tasks (thankfully, I looked up that teacher have a less than 2% chance to be taken over by computers). And once humans are superfluous…well…why care for them? And what are they going to do with their lives all day? Rich people will some day make the cross-over to immortality, perpetual happiness, perhaps awareness within a computer.

The book left me with the the ambivalent feeling of having had my intelligence tickled and made irrelevant at the same time. Not a nice feeling, but it was quite a roller coaster ride with a truly mind-melting or eye-opening concept on just about any page. The truth may be unpleasant (and I harbour a deep hope that these developments will take place quite a bit slower than Harari predicts), but I do feel that I am now perhaps a little better equipped to sense (and perhaps cope with) whatever is coming. The next war efforts will not be like what Putin’s attempting, but entirely cyber-based.

Sixth Day at Home: Positive things to Covid19

Remember when I said I had to do something to consciously resist dark and depressing thoughts about the whole Covid crisis? Well, I have decided to concentrate on a variety of positive aspects and that works. Here’s a list that I will probably extend in due course. Maybe it will inspire you too.

  • There may be more of a feeling of global solidarity
  • Cash payments may become obsolete, indeed maybe all of them will be contact-less
  • We stay in contact with our elders more
  • We learn to work together and stay in touch with colleagues better
  • We wash our hands more, which is always a good thing
  • Anti-vaccers may now finally shut up (alternatively, millions of people will get autism after summer 2021)
  • The ultra-rich may be a lot less rich – it may be needed to tax them a whole lot more more to enable countries to emerge from this crisis economically
  • Carbon emissions have temporarily decreased a lot
  • The Chinese may stop eating exotic animals (while they’re at it, maybe also rhino horns and other things that supposedly make boners ease to achieve) and licking bats
  • Wet markets may be banned globally
  • Pharmaceutical companies are going to invest into research towards more general vaccines that may work against as-yet-unknown viral strains, or maybe entirely different ways to kill viruses (sound waves? radiation? just thinking out loud)
  • There will be ways to filter fake news from social media much more efficiently
  • Trump and Johnson may conceivably no longer be in a leadership position
  • Romantic consumerism (travelling to distant places) may become socially unacceptable (which includes a lot less CO2 emissions from airplanes)
  • There may be better quality TV shows as shitty new ones can’t be made and they’ll have to resort to reruns of The A-Team, The Knight Rider, Airwolf, Miami Vice and Friends
  • Even Trump can’t avoid non-re-election now (please please let this be true!)
  • Scum birds (seagulls, crows, magpies) are less prevalent in the cities and towns, probably due to much less edible human waste

There are also some things that may change in the near future that I am neutral about, I just think we’ll notice them…

  • Shaking hands may become a thing of the past

Last updated 16 April 2020

Third Day at Home

So the Dutch government has decided to go for the “herd immunity” option, where gradual spread of the virus will eventually prevent the virus from propagating exponentially. What really bothers me, though, is that herd immunity might be attained after several months…or years. Around half the population will need to have gone through a Covid19 infection, meaning a lot of people will need to have gone through the health system. How on earth can that be spread out over a period long enough so we don’t go through the oft-cited maximum capacity limit of the health system? And how is the world going to survive, financially, if nobody is really producing, importing or exporting anything at a large scale for such an extended period of time?
These thoughts irrecovably suck my thoughts into a dark well of despair. I understand climate change deniers ever more – it’s so much nicer to believe that things will really be OK and that no shit has hit any fans, rather than to know the full extent of any bad situation. That’s probably a basic psychological trait of human survival. But I surely hope no important policy makers fall into that category of people.

I read that the EU is investing 80 million euros in the German company that Trump was thinking of buying a few days ago. Reading such a news item gives me something positive to focus on.

First Day at Home

My wife looked up whether schools were ever closed, nation-wide, in the history of education in the Netherlands. They last were in World War II. And that was primarily because of lack of heating, not national policy. We were curious because, as of today, all schools in the Netherlands are closed due to #covid19. And we’re teachers.

I am not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse, but it’s reality at the moment. I have 4 exam classes that will somehow need to be guided towards the pinnacle of their highschool careers, but I don’t think anyone can even predict whether the exams are even going to happen in the usual month of May. Like Yoda said, “Difficult to see the future is.”

A select group of colleagues (I reckon management and middle management) have been asked to go to work today, probably to make plans for the near future. I already have a OneNote page titled “When school starts again”, full of miscellaneous thoughts of what to do then. How can we determine if children have enough skills/qualities to flow through to their next year, even if they have missed up to 4 months of school? How heavy can next school year’s curriculum be made to allow them to catch up? How can we prevent less autonomous children from falling by the wayside? I have one rather less autonomous stepchild at home, who instead of realising he may need to do something himself now, thinks the summer holiday sure started early this year. Netflix yay!
And even before school starts: How can we replace colleagues who may fall ill, without ourselves toppling over? How can the less tech-savvy colleagues be educated to help students at a distance? How can I do a ‘classical instruction’ for the exam classes? These students would normally have had another 5 weeks of regular school time. We use Microsoft Teams with Skype for Business, but what are the limits?

Still, I am good at seeing the silver lining of any cloud, no matter how big and thunder-laden it may be. When our government communicated these crisis measures, they released a list of ‘crucial professionals’. Teachers – despite decades of below-inflation pay rises and dwindling social status – are on that list. Youtubers, pastors, account managers, advertisement execs, wellness instructors and influencers weren’t 🙂 Also, CO2 emissions in China have virtually disappeared. And there’s a lot less traffic on the road: This morning, there was 13 kilometres of traffic congestion in the whole country. I think that’s the lowest since what is reckoned to be the first official one, on 29 May 1955 (not counting the ‘autoloze zondagen’ – Car-free Sundays – which we had in the 1970s).

Because I am basically a black-souled pessimist, however, I’d like to round this bit off with what I consider is an absolute lowpoint of the whole Corona virus crisis: That harmful White House halfwit, Donald Trump. He even outdid Boris “take it on the chin” Johnson. After first suppressing Corona infection statistics to increase his chances in the oncoming presidential election, the Orange One recently proposed to buy a German company that is allegedly making headway in the creation of a Corona vaccin. If there is any such thing as karma, he and his family will suffer before their time is out.

These are times for great leaders to grow to their full potential. I hope ours have what it takes.

The Good Side to Trump?

When I still used Facebook, I used to get a lot of posts involving US president Donald Trump. I constantly saw memes, videos and Tweets that ranged from embarrassing to disgraceful. I lived through the 2016 elections as if I were an American, as if the outcome would affect my life. I rooted for Hillary – a flawed and unsympathetic person but anything is better than Trump – though I would have preferred to root for Bernie Sanders. My mind reeled at everything that became known about Trump (the pussy grabbing thing, the countless boasts and lies) even before the election. These are things that would have disqualified any presidential candidate…but not Trump, because “he says it like it is”. The entire sub-college-education electorate voted for him because this megalomaniacal turd who literally takes a shit on a gold toilet was going to “stick it to da man”. Add to that the countless lies and revelations after he had utterly unexpectedly won the election (Stormy Daniels, the inaugural speech attendance crowd size, his crazy-lying press secretaries, the list goes on and on). All the racist insects are crawling out from under the stones, scum comes to the surface. They feel emboldened now their bigot president is, like his followers, more in touch with the reptilian part of his brain. Breeding fear. Sowing dissent. Flaunting bigotry.

As a result, though, I have become more interested in politics. I have read my first non-linguistic non-fiction in the past year. Michael Wolff’s “Fire & Fury” and James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” are fascinating page-turners that showcase the ins and outs of American politics and, of course, this cluster-fuck of a current presidential situation. I say it is fascinating but it is also somehow dirty, kindof like wanting to know everything about the oddball eccentricities of Michael Jackson. The desire to know stuff about celebrities is, I guess, a human character trait that I don’t understand, don’t like, but am also somewhat  helpless to resist. And these books have an unmistakable message: With Trump at the helm, it’s only a matter of time until we (the US, maybe the world) hit some rocks. It’s not a question when it’ll happen, but how big the rocks will be.

I follow Trump on Twitter. At the moment he has nearly 52 million followers, who get a constant barrage of pro-Trump talk, tweets about how America is being made great again, and how For God’s Sakes Nothing Happened With Russia No Collusion! I have learned to treat those tweets as if generated by a lie machine. I don’t know why I read them – probably the same human character trait I mentioned above. If you want to know whether UFOs have ever landed on planet earth, all you need to do is wait until Trump tweets they never have. Then you know they did.

So why “The Good Side to Trump”, then? I guess, on a very small scale, it has caused me to become more interested in world politics. That might be a good side. Not that I really benefit from that, because world politics usually just fill me with a lurking feeling of dread. But Trump is also doing something good on a bigger scale. Like Comey writes in his epilogue, something better will come to replace this. Maybe this is something that needs to happen before big reforms and improvements can happen (I am paraphrasing him). It is always darkest before the dawn, right?

I am hoping for dawn to come as soon as possible. But while it’s still night, pick up those two books I mentioned, or at least Comey’s.