Liberty, solidarity, and a new world dawning

Chains of infection: Biometric data could be hoarded by governments. © Reuters

Could the choices we make now, change our lives for years to come? The historian and modern seer, Yuval Noah Harari, believes the shape of our economy, politics, and culture is up for grabs.

Imagine life 10 years from now.

You are looking at your phone. A politician you don’t particularly like is making a speech.

What they say makes you angry, so your hand shakes a tiny bit, your fingers grip tighter. The phone notices these small changes. A few minutes later, there’s a knock on your door. It’s the police. They have come to check whether you still support the country’s leader.

According to Yuval Noah Harari’s latest essay, published this weekend, some government responses to the coronavirus pandemic are making that frightening future a little more likely.

Harari is a philosopher, historian, and one of the planet’s most influential intellectuals. He is the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus. These best-selling works trace the story of our species and civilisation, from grain-planting apes to graph-plotting sophisticates.

He believes that “history began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods”.

Today, he believes every government in the world has two choices to make: “The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”

In China, where there have been no new internal cases of the virus for several days, the government closely monitors people’s smartphones, and uses facial recognition to track citizens.

Harari’s country, Israel, is looking to use similar powers. He is especially scared of biometric measurements being used to control populations. In the battle between health and privacy, Harari fears “health will win”.

The alternative to this increase in surveillance would be more citizen empowerment. If everyone knew the facts, they could behave responsibly and use technology to hold their representatives to account.

When it comes to the question of isolation versus cooperation, Harari is adamant that only through international unity – sharing information and medical resources, coordinating policy responses – can we effectively protect ourselves from pandemics and other threats.

Harari hopes the outbreak will remind us to value our individual freedoms and learn to trust one another on a global scale. The alternatives are disaster or dictatorship.

So, could the choices we make now really change our lives for years to come?

Big brother?

Yes. This is a critical moment in the history of civilisation. Once emergency measures are put in place, they are difficult to remove. The relationship between the state and the individual will forever be altered. Whether we choose protection over freedom or cooperation over isolation, things will not be the same. Crucially, it is up to us to choose the direction we want this uncertain future to take.

Don’t be so dramatic. Though viruses can mutate rapidly, human nature does not. Indeed, after being locked down and heavily monitored for a few months, most people will be more than eager to return to life as it was before. Current events are all being framed within the context of the Covid-19 outbreak. As with the end of a war, once the enemy is defeated, life swiftly returns to normal.

You Decide

  1. Would you wear a biometric bracelet, feeding constant data to the government, if it meant you were treated for disease more quickly?
  2. What do you think: will global cooperation improve during this crisis? Or will societies retreat into isolation and suspicion?

Activities

  1. Set a timer to one hour. Leave your phone and your computer. Design a poster that attempts to shock people into obeying the official advice to keep two metres away from each other.
  2. Using whatever social media you prefer, such as Instagram, Snapchat or Houseparty, pick a powerful quote from Harari’s article and ask your friends to react to it. See if you can start a debate.

Some People Say...

“In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian, philosopher, and author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Stanford University’s classics professor Ian Morris has made the case in his book, War! What Is It Good For?, that wars throughout history have made life safer and better organised. Rome, ancient Persia, Venice, Holland, France, Great Britain, and the US have all fostered, more or less, human development through various kinds of imperialist or imperial-like enterprises. And they have all done so in significant measure through war. In other words, the more that states get involved in shaping our future, the more progressive it tends to be.
What do we not know?
Whether the repeated image of the fight to contain the coronavirus as a “war” against an “invisible enemy” will turn out to follow the same general rule. Will the huge global effort to keep the virus at bay and cajole/enforce preventative behaviour in human society, lead eventually to a safer and better world where we are less likely to die of dangerous infections? It is certainly a credible outcome. But we simply can’t know at this stage.

Word Watch

Sophisticates
High-brow, cultured; people with much worldly experience.
Internal cases
New cases of Covid-19 that have been caught from people in the same country. China’s recent cases have all been people who caught the infection abroad.
Facial recognition
Technology capable of identifying or verifying a person from a digital image or a video frame. Some governments use it to find and watch specific people.
Surveillance
The act of watching and monitoring other people often with a view to controlling their behaviour.
Representatives
Politicians or people elected to create policies in our best interest.
Adamant
Refusing to be persuaded or to change one’s mind.
Mutate
Change in form or nature.

Subjects

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