The coronavirus is shaking the world, but it is no longer the only global danger: historian Yuval Noah Harari explains in an interview with Chillreport why humanity is now being threatened with total surveillance.
The Corona crisis is turning the world upside down, but perhaps only marks the beginning of a new era: that of total surveillance of all people. Says Yuval Noah Harari, one of the most prominent opinion leaders of our time. What now sounds like science fiction could soon become reality – and it couldn’t stay that way.
The Israeli historian and bestselling author thinks it is conceivable that humanity will split up in the face of dramatic technological advancements: into a privileged few who can use all the wealth and benefits of new technologies, and into a vast ‘useless caste’ of people. which eventually disappears the course of history.
What we can do today to not only face the corona crisis, but also to ward off the dangers of the future, Harari answers in an interview with Chillreport:
Chillreport: Professor Harari, the world has been suffering from the corona pandemic for months. To what extent will this crisis change politics, the economy and also our social life?
Yuval Noah Harari: Historically, this pandemic is not as dangerous as the epidemics of the past. The coronavirus is neither the Black Death of the Middle Ages nor the Spanish flu of 1918, which was much more disastrous from a medical point of view. However, the political and economic consequences of the corona pandemic can be enormous: in the worst case, our world order will collapse. Or at least it will be further destabilized.
So let’s look into the future for a moment: what will people remember when they think back to this epidemic 50 years from now?
In 50 years, people will not remember the epidemic that much. Instead, they will say, this was when the digital revolution became a reality.
Because many people have been working from home via the internet since the start of the Corona crisis, communicating with their friends and spending their free time digitally?
Right, humanity now agrees to spend most of their lives online. This has advantages, but also carries a risk: in the worst case, people will remember in 50 years’ time that ubiquitous state surveillance started in 2020 with the help of digitization.
Yuval Noah Harariborn in 1976, teaches history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is considered one of the foremost intellectuals of our time. His books “A Brief History of Mant “,”Homo Deus“and”21 lessons for the 21st century“are international bestsellers. Harari’s new graphic novel will be released this week”Sapiens. The climbedited by C.H. Beck.
For real? In China, the surveillance of the population by the authorities was well advanced before the outbreak of the Corona crisis. But in Western Europe it looks very different.
You are right, democratic, pluralistic societies, for the time being, are resisting this kind of control over the population. But in the face of the corona epidemic, liberal democracies, too, could cast their dislike of overseeing their citizens. A 24-hour check is no longer a problem in our increasingly digital world. I’m not sure this scenario will happen. But I fear total control could be a result of the Corona crisis. Many things that were unthinkable in the West a year ago have suddenly become acceptable there because of the pandemic.
For example, the storage of health data, specifying names and addresses when you visit a restaurant and arranging how many people you can invite to a private party at your home. Most people currently accept that. Surveillance in itself isn’t a bad thing either.
Where is the danger then?
Surveillance is the best defense against epidemics. In the past, only superficial control of people was possible, but today’s technological possibilities go much further. You can literally look inside people’s bodies and see if someone is sick. This is already being applied in China, where apps store the most important health data of citizens and the state can read and compare them en masse. On the surface, this is practical: the sooner an epidemic is detected, the easier it is to stop it. But we have to be careful: what is tried in one region of the world will eventually penetrate into other regions. Totalitarian temptation is great in the times of Corona.
Yuval Noah Harari: The Israeli historian is a much sought-after interpreter of the future. (Source: Fabian Sommer / dpa)
More specifically, where do you see a totalitarian tendency?
For example in the fact that China considers its strategy against Corona a success. It can therefore be expected that the regime will refine and expand the methods used and also transfer them to other countries. Constant biometric monitoring of the population would make it possible to detect threats other than Covid-19. For example, the annual flu or cancer. This is a positive development from a health policy point of view. The key question is how to deal with this responsibility. After all, full monitoring cannot be used alone to improve healthcare.
But also for full control over people?
Wait, you mean everyone?
Yes, of all people. Today we are able to establish the perfect dictatorship. It would be an authoritarian regime like this planet has never seen. A dictatorship that would be worse than Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin is conceivable today. In the 20th century, any totalitarian regime was still limited by a fundamental technological limit. Per capita, probably no secret service had more people to keep an eye on the population than the East German state security. But even the Stasi did not have enough staff to monitor every GDR citizen around the clock.
Not to mention the gigantic mountain of paper that each security brought with it.
Yes, but the new technologies of the 21st century now make it possible. You don’t need a spy on the street to watch people. Instead, there are cameras, microphones or sensors. The analysis of the data volumes can be performed by an artificial intelligence that can even calculate how a person being monitored is likely to behave in the future. For the first time in history, total surveillance is possible. You can learn more about people than they know about themselves. That’s the real danger posed by the current crisis: That digital surveillance technology will be legitimized worldwide by the health crisis – even in democratic societies that previously opposed surveillance.
But countries like Germany have strict data protection laws.
Yes, but nothing is irrevocable. It depends on the scale of the crisis. In the field of tension between health and privacy, people will almost always be willing to sacrifice the latter.
That sounds so abstract, please make it more specific.
Let’s assume the corona situation is now getting worse. Or at some point, another dangerous pandemic will come. Governments and citizens could then be made a choice: either shut down again, the economy suffers greatly, and in the worst case scenario, you will lose your job like thousands of other people. Or, you agree that the state may take full control of you with immediate effect to take immediate action if you come into contact with an infected person. How would you choose?
We suspect that many people would choose the second option.
In fact, it is very likely. Both in Western Europe and in China. That is threatening! I am in no way against improving health prevention through surveillance. But it must always be balanced and bound by democratic rules. As a result, if the government increases the surveillance of the citizens, the citizens must tighten the control of the government. All health data collected should therefore be made available only to authorities committed to fighting epidemics. Everyone else must not see or use them – otherwise the temptation is too great to use them for other purposes. Human history has shown that we humans have a tendency to do everything we can.
Yuval Noah Harari: In his new book, the historian explains the history of humanity. (Source: excerpt from “Sapiens”: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Casanave, David Vandermeulen, Verlag C.H. Beck)
This thesis can also be found in your new book that you are publishing nowadays: In your graphic novel, a kind of historical comic, you discuss the rise of Homo sapiens. What is your verdict, have we learned anything from the experiences of our ancestors?
Above all, we can learn from history what long-term mistakes we have made. It started at the very beginning. To this day, many people consider the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago, when humans evolved from hunters and gatherers to farmers, as a great improvement. In fact, it has made most people’s lives much, much worse. The life of the average farmer in ancient Egypt or later in medieval Germany was much more difficult than that of a hunter and gatherer about 300,000 years ago. Because the enormous prosperity generated by settlement and agriculture only benefited a small elite. They made themselves comfortable in palaces, while the rest of the people were starving and plagued with disease and conflict. It was not until the 20th century that “normal” people experienced a noticeable improvement in their standard of living and an increase in their life expectancy.
Are we at a crossroads again today? Digital change and automation can also divide humanity into profiteers and those left behind.
It is indeed a danger. It is not self-evident that everyone benefits from the benefits of digitization and automation.
In our last interview two years ago, you described the risk that biotechnology could produce a caste of “superhumans” while the rest of humanity would be relegated to a “useless” caste.
In the worst case, parts of humanity will even disappear. In my new book I explain: 50,000 years ago there were at least five other human species on Earth besides Homo sapiens. But as our ancestors spread across the planet, all these other types of people disappeared. Did we obliterate them during the first ethnic cleansing in history? Or did they gradually disappear because Homo sapiens was superior to them? We are not sure. But what we do know: today there is a new type of entity in the world: artificial intelligence. This AI could do to us what we did to Neanderthals.
In a video conversation with Yuval Noah Harari: The historian warns of the danger of total surveillance. (Source: Chillreport)
Artificial intelligence can eventually wipe us out?
I’m not a prophet, but it is possible. It depends on the decisions we make in the coming months and years. Everything is possible. The corona crisis can be used to stir up hatred between states, as US President Trump is doing. Likewise, some countries developing a vaccine at an early stage may use this advantage to gain political dominance over states that do not yet have a serum. On the other hand, the crisis may lead to states working better together to combat the virus. Corona definitely has the potential to make the world a better place – if we actively choose it. It would wake up humanity that working together helps everyone and that we can learn to deal better with future crises.
We humans call ourselves Homo sapiens, a “wise person”. Shouldn’t we have realized for a long time that collaboration is better than conflict?
In fact, people’s relationships with each other are better today than they have been in the past 10,000 years – despite all the wars and conflicts, despite fake news and populism.
So is there hope?
There is always hope. Today, more people around the world die from overeating than from undereating. More people die from aging symptoms than from infectious diseases. We humans have learned to work together efficiently, we exchange ideas and knowledge. We must not always look only at the negative in the world, but we must recognize that if every individual behaves better, the world will be better. It is not a law of nature that we have to fight against. When there is a conflict, it is solely because of our behavior – and the way we use technology.
So are new technologies the key to our happiness?
Technologies can save our lives and they can destroy us. Today is no different from thousands of years ago. Do you know which tool really broke through thousands of years ago?
The hand ax?
No, the needle, perhaps the most underestimated object Homo sapiens ever created. With the help of the needle, our ancestors, who came from Africa, were able to colonize the northern parts of Europe and Asia and drive out the Neanderthals, even in the area where Germany now lies. With the help of this small instrument, they could sew protective clothing from fur and animal skins in cold regions. This is how Homo sapiens reached America – something the Neanderthals and the other human species never did.
Depiction of the hunt: For Yuval Noah Harari, Homo sapiens is a deadly species. (Source: excerpt from “Sapiens”: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Casanave, David Vandermeulen, Verlag C.H. Beck)
We state: we should be happy that our ancestors invented the needle.
The needle was an extremely useful invention, but at the same time enabled enormous carnage.
Excuse me, the needle?
The needle. When Homo sapiens reached America about 15,000 years ago – thanks in part to the warm clothes they sewed themselves – it triggered one of the greatest ecological disasters in recent geological history. There was another remarkable megafauna in America at the time: mammoths, giant beavers and all kinds of other creatures. Humans exterminated them all within a few thousand years. They did the same in the Australian continent and everywhere else. Man is the worst serial killer ever. So whether a new technology is good or bad is in the eyes of the beholder: are you one of the surviving winners or one of the exterminated?
But it wasn’t just the needle that made Homo sapiens ruler over the planet.
No, another human invention was even more powerful: storytelling. Not the Neanderthals, not chimpanzees or other species rule this world, but us. That’s because we can work together in much greater numbers than others. This allowed us to build cathedrals and conduct crusades. This form of collaboration is based on fictional stories, and religions are the best example of this. You will never be able to convince a million chimpanzees to wage a holy war against other ‘bad’ chimpanzees on the other side of the world – with the vague prospect of receiving a bunch of bananas in the event of their untimely death in Heaven. It’s different for us humans. We make up stories and use them to bind other people to us and convince them of our ideas.
So do we need a new story to save our civilization in the face of the climate crisis that threatens existence?
Yes, and our human history teaches us that. In our past we have wiped out all other human species – and now we are even in the process of destroying ourselves. So we urgently need a new story. One that in its power of persuasion equals the greatest human story.
With skill, Homo sapiens subdued the Earth: using the natural sciences for its own purposes. (Source: excerpt from “Sapiens”: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Casanave, David Vandermeulen, Verlag C.H. Beck)
Which one is it?
The money. People believe in nothing more than money. The best storytellers in the world are not Nobel laureates in literature, but in economics. They convince billions of people around the world to work hard for a month just to get a few scraps of paper in their hands or to have a few numbers in their accounts. Why do we humans do such unreasonable things? Because we believe what the bankers tell us.
At the moment we have the impression that quite a few people also believe all kinds of conspiracy theories.
No wonder. In times of crisis, people want even more simple certainties. Understanding exactly what a virus is, how it reproduces and how it spreads is very complicated. Conspiracy theories are a useful way for many people to supposedly understand the problem without having to dig deeper into it: they believe some governments or billionaires had this virus developed in the lab to usurp world domination. . Absurd! Conspiracy theories suggest that the entire world can be controlled by a small elite, but that is completely unrealistic. If you look at human history, you can clearly see that even the most powerful governments often have no idea what is happening. You make plans – but the exact opposite happens.
Can you give an example?
Take the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and attacked it: with the strongest military force in the world, supported by numerous secret services with the most modern technology, including satellites. In Baghdad, no one could drink coffee on the patio without the CIA noticing. Yet the American plan to democratize Iraq in a Western sense has completely failed. Countless American soldiers were injured or killed, the USA world power was humiliated and today Iran controls large parts of the neighboring country. From that point of view, it was a real historical conspiracy that failed completely. Complex energy plans are rarely hidden, and they are rarely successful. Now to think that a few power-hungry billionaires could take over the world with the help of a virus is ridiculous.
Finally, back to your new book: As a historian, you have only communicated with your readers in words. Her graphic novel is mainly based on images. A big challenge for you as an author?
It was the best thing I have ever done in my academic career. And it was very complicated. Fortunately, I had two very talented colleagues by my side: Daniel Casanave and David Vandermeulen. Together we have broken all academic conventions. We explain the competition between the different human species in the book with the help of a reality TV show. We borrow from the superhero genre and detective stories. However, some decisions were very difficult to make.
Take our photo of the early Homo sapiens: in previous images in books and movies, this person almost always looks like a modern Western European man. But he came from Africa. And women played a very important role. So we broke down the common stereotypes. We have tried to portray humanity’s past as excitingly as possible, but objectively and free from prejudice. I hope we succeeded.
Professor Harari, thank you for your conversation.