“We are entering a new colonial era, the era of data colonialism”
- Historian and author of ‘Sapiens’,’ Homo Deus’ and ’21 lessons for the XXI century ‘
- “My hope is to see a strong EU that controls the imperial excesses of both countries”
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari is one of the most influential thinkers of our century. Proof of this is in the long list of world leaders, which includes Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron but also billionaire businessmen of the stature of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who admire or have consulted with this philosopher.
His trilogy Sapiens: From Animals to Gods, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century has become the mainstay of a new movement known as Sapienship. Its main goal is to clarify the global conversation, focus attention on the biggest challenges and support the search for solutions.
A mission that becomes even more important given the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing. For this he has decided to adapt one of his key works, Sapiens, as a graphic novel. “One of my main objectives is to bring accurate scientific information to the widest possible audience,” he confesses to this newspaper. In this way, Harari believes that this format will reach people who cannot read an academic book like Sapiens. “As we are seeing during this pandemic, if you don’t make an effort to bring science to everyone, you leave the ground free for disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories,” he clarifies.
What worries you most about how the world is changing during the pandemic?
Lo que más me preocupa es la total falta de liderazgo político mundial. La batalla contra el Covid-19 ha sido todo un triunfo de la ciencia que ha tenido que aguantar un desastre político enorme. Científicos de todo el globo han cooperado para identificar el nuevo virus, contener su propagación y desarrollar una vacuna. Gracias a este esfuerzo científico conjunto, la humanidad cuenta con mejores herramientas para combatir la pandemia como nunca antes en la historia. Sin embargo, los políticos no han sabido aprovechar estas herramientas. Nos encontramos un año después desde el inicio de la pandemia y aún no hemos sido capaces de encontrar un liderazgo global, un plan mundial para detener el virus o un proyecto conjunto para enfrentarnos a la crisis económica. Esta brecha entre el poder científico de nuestra especie y nuestra incompetencia política es muy preocupante. La lucha contra el coronavirus debería haber sido un proyecto político directo desde el principio. Cualquiera entiende que, si el virus sigue desarrollándose y propagándose, aunque sea en un solo país, ningún país está a salvo. Pero aun así no hemos sido capaces de trabajar juntos de forma eficaz. ¿Qué le va a pasar a la humanidad cuando nos enfrentemos a amenazas más complejas como un colapso ecológico o el auge de la inteligencia artificial?
What should concern us about the way governments have responded to this crisis?
Many leaders around the world right now are making a fundamental mistake. They are acting as if there is a contradiction between national loyalty and global cooperation. But that is not the case. Nationalism does not mean hating foreigners. Nationalism means loving your compatriots. And there are many situations, such as a pandemic, in which the best way to protect the health and safety of your countrymen is by cooperating with foreigners. In these situations, to be a good nationalist you must also be a globalist. Humans are much stronger than any virus, but only if they cooperate effectively. Just look at the scientific research. Many of the key documents on the coronavirus were co-written by researchers working in different laboratories and universities around the world. Imagine if all these scientists had to work only with scientists of their own nationality. We would never have acquired the necessary knowledge to overcome this virus. Our politicians should cooperate in the same way as scientists. Different countries experiment with different containment strategies and economic policies. Instead of each country repeating the same mistakes, if countries share reliable information, they can learn from each other. When the Government of Spain contemplates containment and closure policies, it should observe and learn from the experience and advice of the Government of Korea or Greece. We need a comprehensive plan to combat the virus and ensure that whatever medicines and vaccines we develop are distributed equally to all members of humanity. It would be terrible for some countries to enter a vaccine arms race and try to monopolize or use them to gain political influence over others. We also need a global project to tackle the economic crisis resulting from the epidemic and provide emergency assistance to countries in need. Otherwise, we could see national economies collapse. This could unleash waves of violence and migration that would destabilize the entire world. The best thing for everyone is to prevent this from happening.
Will this pandemic force a readjustment of the concept of capitalism and democracy in the 21st century?
The main idea of capitalism is that economic growth is the most important thing in the world. This belief is now shared by almost all countries. It doesn’t matter if their governments call themselves progressive or conservative or if their inhabitants are mostly Christian or Muslim: their main goal is economic growth. Even China, a self-declared communist country, believes in economic growth far more than social equality. Even with the pandemic, this concept shows no sign of going away anytime soon. Democracy can also be very resistant. One reason for this is that if an elected leader makes a mistake there are other people or institutions with power – including the free press – who can expose the mistake and push for an alternative course of action. Liberal democracies are flexible in this regard. They have the ability to adjust their policies and change course. In a more autocratic society, leaders tend to suppress the news of their mistakes or to blame enemies and traitors. This just maximizes the bug instead of fixing it. The main challenge for both capitalism and liberal democracy comes from the fact that governments and businesses are accumulating unprecedented amounts of computing power, personal data, and biological knowledge. This will create a situation where algorithms know people better than we do. Whoever owns these algorithms will have the power to manipulate humans, and this power could pave the way for digital dictatorships worse than anything seen in the 20th century.
Will the future world order be based on a new Cold War between the West and China or on cooperation between those two forces?
Given that the crisis is accelerating the digitization process and that the United States and China are the world’s digital superpowers, I anticipate that both will benefit economically from the world order after the pandemic. Much depends on the development of the digital arms race. We are already in the middle of a global race to control digital infrastructure like 5G and an equally important race to control global data flows. Those who win the digital arms race will rule the world. We are entering a new colonial era. The era of data colonialism. To dominate a country, it is no longer necessary to send tanks. You just have to get their data. Imagine the situation 20 years from now, when someone in Beijing or San Francisco has all the personal data of every politician, mayor, journalist and judge in the country. Every illness they have had, every sexual encounter, every joke they have told, every bribe they have accepted. Would it remain an independent country, or would it be a data colony? My hope is to see a strong EU that acts as a global balancing power that mediates the growing tensions between the United States and China and that controls the imperial excesses of both. If both confront each other, there is nothing a single country like Spain can do about it. However, if European countries act in unison they can challenge the supremacy of the United States and China in artificial intelligence and other key technologies.
Why adapt ‘Sapiens’ to turn it into a graphic novel? Are we becoming a society in which the attention span is more limited and visually dependent (due to social media, advertising …)?
One of my main goals is to bring accurate scientific information to the widest audience possible. The graphic novel is a way to reach people who cannot read an academic book like Sapiens. However, I don’t see the graphic novel as a less complex format. It is an intellectual and artistic experiment with different ways of telling the story. In one chapter we described the way humans exterminated other animals as if it were a murder mystery. We invented the fictional detective López, who travels the world trying to catch the worst serial killers of all time. In another chapter we describe human evolution as a reality TV show, with different species competing for survival. A third chapter is like a superhero action movie. We invented the superhero Dr. Fiction, who personifies the human superpower to invent and believe all kinds of mythologies. But we are still working very hard to make sure all the historical facts are accurate. If anything, making the graphic novel required even more research. This is because while words can be abstract, images are always concrete.