Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, October 17, 2016

John Gray and the human future

So many things I wish I could write about; so little time to do anything but work on those darn books. But at least I can call your attention to a few of those provocations. I’ll do one today, others later this week.

John Gray’s review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus makes some vital distinctions that enthusiastic futurists like Harari almost never make. See this key passage:

Harari is right in thinking of human development as a process that no one could have planned or intended. He fails to see that the same is true of the post-human future. If such new species appear, they will be created by governments and powerful corporations, and used by any group that can get its hands on them – criminal cartels, terrorist networks, religious cults, and so on. Over time, these new species will be modified and redesigned, first by their human controllers, then by the new species themselves. It won’t be too long ­before some of them slip free from their human creators. One type may come out on top, at least for a while, but there is nothing to suggest this process will end in a godlike being that is supreme over all the rest. Like the evolution of human beings, post-human evolution will be a process of drift, with no direction or endpoint.

It is interesting how closely Gray’s argument tracks with the one C. S. Lewis made in The Abolition of Man, especially the third chapter, on the Conditioners and the rest of us. And of course — of course — there’s no question which group Harari identifies with, because futurists always assume the position of power — they always think of themselves as sitting comfortably among the Conditioners: “Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.” To which John Gray rightly replies,

Yet who are “we”, exactly? An elite of benevolent scientists, perhaps? If choice is an illusion, however, those who do the manipulating will be no freer than those who are being manipulated.

That point about free will is also Lewis’s. But Gray raises a possibility that Lewis didn't explore in Abolition, though he hints at it in the fictional counterpart to that book, That Hideous Strength: What if the Controllers don't agree with one another? “If it ever comes about, a post-human world won’t be one in which the human species has deified itself. More like the cosmos as imagined by the Greeks, it will be ruled by a warring pantheon of gods.” And so John Gray’s recommendation to those of us who want to understand what such a world would be like? “Read Homer.”


  • ...and possibly Simmons?

  • Alan, it's always a pleasure to come back to Text Patterns and find a crop of new posts since I was last here. And this one makes me think -- despite being a Very Serious Person, I occasionally read comic books, and I find that some comic books are far better than most other forms of literature at casting an unprejudiced imaginative eye towards the future. I would especially reccomend anything, including non-comic book non-fiction, by Warren Ellis (who I would call an "unenthusiastic futurist", and an exception to your rule that futurists always assume the position of power), and the newish series "The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw" by Kurt Busiek, which very explicitly creates a post-human world "ruled by a warring pantheon of gods".

  • Obviously I'm coming to this thread a little late, but, if you haven't read it, you might be interested in Peter Watts' novel Blindsight. As the title might imply, it and its sequel Echopraxia lean a lot on neuroscience, (especially the "darker" parts that seem (to many) to pose a challenge to our notions of free-will/identity/etc (it's pretty dark in general)). They take place in a future that is on the brink of the "abolition of man". Echopraxia especially shows a world of reckless factions, from governments to terrorists, with no regard for collateral damage to people or the environment. For a while, I've thought it's one of the most "New Atlantis" novels I've read, regarding its depiction of a semi-post-human future (not so much in its views on free-will). Also, it's the only hard SF (and it is Hard SF) novel I know of with "vampires", so, Bonus!

  • Please read Homo Deus. It is a user friendly version of John Gray's thought (as written in Straw Dogs and The Soul of the Marionette). highly recommended!

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