Why liberal democracies could devolve into ’digital dictatorships’

Yuval Noah Harari also argues a Trump impeachment would be a ’disaster’—convincing a big chunk of the U.S. population to lose faith in the system

Yuval Noah Harari is modest about his accomplishments—“I tell people what I’ve learned in my first year doing a BA degree in history,” he says—but the Israeli historian is certainly ambitious in his aims. He has sold more than eight million copies of his breakthrough bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (first published in English in 2014) and in excess of four million of its sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). And he says that with his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he tried “to shape the global conversation by drawing attention to what I think are the most important questions.” These questions boil down to: how is humanity going to address the possibility of nuclear war, the reality of climate change and the impact of artificial intelligence and biotechnology? In 21 Lessons, Harari warns, “Never underestimate human stupidity.” Indeed, the long-lens approach that he deployed in previous books tells us that the very reasons humanity has been able to flourish—mainly by co-operating based on shared stories about the way the world works, or should work—can also bring about our downfall. He writes, “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.” And if what we collectively believe turns out to be unmoored in reality, or if it obscures the challenges we face, then essentially we’re screwed.

Running through 21 Lessons’ short chapters on everything from nationalism to immigration to equality to “post-truth” is a thread about liberal democracy, which Harari both praises (as the best political system yet) and castigates for its increasingly apparent flaws. Harari spoke with Maclean’s from a tour stop in Ottawa about how humanity got into this precarious situation, and where we might go from here.

Q:  In your recent onstage talk with the New York Times, the interviewer’s very first question was, “Should I have kids?” How does it feel to be asked about such important matters all the time?

A: I try to tell people that I don’t know the answers. In the title of my new book, the 21 Lessons are “lessons” in the sense of a university seminar, not a school lesson. In a seminar, at least in the history department, you are often supposed to leave with more questions than you had when you entered. By the end, you realize that much of what you took for facts are just myths, and that an issue is much more than you imagined. All around the world, political debates often ignore our most important problems. Even if we manage to prevent nuclear war and climate change, AI and bioengineering are bound to completely disrupt the job market, the global order and even our own bodies and minds. Yet most politicians and voters hardly think about these issues. Thus in 2016, Trump promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, but he never told voters that robots will take their jobs, and he didn’t suggest building a firewall on the border with California. Of course, there is always the danger that people might begin to see me as some kind of guru. It is dangerous to idolize anybody—including scholars. I hope people will see me as a fellow traveller on the road to the truth, rather than an all-knowing seer.

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Q: In 21 Lessons you write, “For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a half-hearted experiment that survived for barely 200 years in a small corner of the Balkans.” How might that historical perspective inform us about how democracy works now?

A: Maybe most importantly, to be less complacent: There is nothing inevitable or eternal about democracy, either for humans in general or for the Western world in particular. Some people say that democracy has always been at the centre of Western civilization; this is not the case, and it will not be in the future. Even though in the last few generations, liberal democracy has been the most successful and beneficial political model in the world, it needs to adapt to the new conditions of the 21st century. The model that developed in the 18th century and went through several developments in the 20th is not going to work given the immense changes that we are now facing in technology and in economics.

Q: You mention that now “We find ourselves in the Trump moment,” where previous historical “moments,” or turning points, included the “Franz Ferdinand Moment,” the “Hitler Moment,” and the “Che Guevara Moment.” Trump, unlike these other historical figures, is a democratically elected president. Is this Moment significantly different?

A: Now, at least some of the challenges to the liberal democratic model are coming from within and not from without. We see people losing faith in the liberal model, and not in a place like Iraq or North Korea. Decades ago, Americans were still trying to force this model, through violence and war, on people on the other side of the world, and suddenly they say, “Well, maybe it’s not such a good idea, even for us.”

Q: At the same time, Trump relies on the idea of American democracy to legitimize himself; he may have wildly exaggerated his margin of victory, but he still asserts how important it is to go out and vote.

A: Trump is certainly a democratically elected leader, and most of his followers, [while] they [may] have misgivings about the “liberal” part of “liberal democracy,” are committed to the democratic ideal. I personally think it would be a disaster if he is impeached. It would cause a large percentage of the American population to completely lose faith in the system: Finally they got somebody in—”one of us,” as they see it—and the system kicked him out. The loss of faith in liberal democracy that we see in the Trump Moment is more about global responsibility and relations with the rest of the world. For quite a long time, the U.S. worked on the assumption that liberal democracy is not just an American peculiarity. What we see with Trump is a retreat. People seem to think, “We don’t care about other countries. We don’t want to shape the entire world in our image. We don’t want to shape the world at all.” He seems to be dismantling friendships that the United States has built for generations. The system of alliances that sustains the liberal global order, over the last few generations, is in danger. Even if Trump loses the 2020 election, it would now be obvious we can no longer just rely on the United States, because who knows who they will elect next in 2024, 2028?

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Q: At the same time, Trump’s regime is constantly referring to a notional point in its history where everything was fantastic. Your work seems designed to encourage people to look at the past with a more critical eye.

A: Yeah, this is the same thing that Erdogan is saying in Turkey and Modi in India—and in Hungary, Poland, Russia and Israel. The Trump Moment globally is characterized by political systems and political leaders who are unable to formulate any meaningful vision for the future of humanity, and they are therefore retreating into nostalgic fantasies about the past. The danger with this kind of thinking is that in most cases, they are unlikely ever to admit that they have failed. If they are unable to resurrect the golden age, they will never say, “OK, we tried; let’s do something else.” They will say, “We failed because of enemies outside or traitors from within, so we need to fight against them even harder.” The only way to formulate a meaningful vision for the future of humanity is on the global level, because the three big challenges we face, which are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption—you can’t really do anything about any of these challenges on the level of the nation, of a single government. We need to start the debate. Whether we succeed in convincing enough people and countries to change the way they think and join this global effort, I don’t know. Humans have been known to do things against their best interests.

Q; You’ve written, “Like Einstein and Dawkins, an illiterate maid also has free will, and therefore, on election day, her feelings, represented by her vote, count just as much as anybody else’s.” The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley commented on this passage: “Argh, those pesky voters! Always voting with their gut rather than with Harari’s massive brain.” How do you respond to the criticism that you are underestimating what the common person has to think or to offer?

A: I think my point was the opposite, that we shouldn’t overestimate how even people like Einstein or Dawkins or myself vote. The main point is that elections are not really about rationality at all. To put it in another way, if there is an agreement about what we want to achieve, then there is absolutely no need of a referendum or an election; you just need to go to the experts. For example, if you know that you have cancer and you want to get rid of it, you don’t go around asking random people for their opinions. In the case of Brexit, you need to decide the basic aims of the whole system, and here, usually, rationality fails us: “How do we decide whether we need to be an independent country or part of the European Union?” It’s not really a question about rationality. It’s much more a question about how you define your identity. Who do you think you are? What are your core values and aims in life? And when it comes to that, there shouldn’t be an advantage to the expert—whether a physician or an economist or a historian—over anybody else. That’s the idea of democracy. Politically, we haven’t found yet a process to decide about such things in a completely rational manner. We do unite around the core value of compromising: I have my world view and you have your world view, and maybe we’ll never be able to convince one another to adopt each other’s values, but we need some working arrangement in order to live together. Democracy is an attempt to create such a working arrangement. At its core, it’s about compromise, not about reaching definitive solutions [about] who is right and who is wrong.

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Q: Bill Gates reviewed your new book in the New York Times, and he took issue with your contention that in the future, as you have written, “data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset.” Gates writes, “Land will always be hugely important, especially as the global population nears 10 billion.” What are your thoughts on this?

A: If you look at the richest people in the world, it’s Bill Gates, for example, who made his money from data, not from being this aristocratic landowner who raises sheep and wheat on his estate. If you go back, say, to late medieval England, the richest people are not those who produce data in Oxford’s archives. I come from Israel, so I know how land and territory still are very important in politics and in life. But I think that data will nevertheless be more important. It will determine how people use land. To give a current example, the Palestinians control some of the land in the occupied territories, but control of the data, of cyberspace, of the sky, is almost completely in the hands of the Israelis. One reason why the Israeli occupation is so successful—I don’t mean in an ethical sense; I mean in an effective sense—is not because of massive deployment of Israeli soldiers, but because of the control of the data flows. It’s so easy for those who monitor what’s happening there to keep down attempts at organized resistance.

Q: You write in 21 Lessons that democracy will either “successfully reinvent itself… or humans will come to live in ‘digital dictatorships.’ ” Do you foresee that we might come to rely so much on AI-based algorithms that harvest our data and make recommendations based on it that we would rely on them entirely to decide our direction and our values?

A: Exactly. There is a point when, if an algorithm knows you better than you know yourself and understands the world in a way that you simply can’t, then the authority shifts from you to the algorithm. Then there is very little sense of talking about democracy any more. You can still try and have some values like human rights, but democracy is a process to make decisions. It doesn’t make much sense in such a situation. We’re talking about two related problems: on the one hand, if an algorithm can predict your choices and decisions, there is no point in going to you. At the same time, the complexity of the questions that we are facing might reach a point when people have absolutely no idea what the questions and the options are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.