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Chapter 18: Science Fiction (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Escaping the Matrix

Science fiction today commits a grave error, it conflates intelligence for consciousness. This is why most works in this genre imagine a future war between man and machine. But the real fear should be of a conflict between a small superhuman elite who have privileged access to technology and a vast underclass of relatively powerless humans.

The Matrix and The Truman Show envision a life where humans are trapped within a matrix but do have an authentic self. They assume that the human being can survive the manipulations of technology and that an authentic reality truly exists. Both heroes in these movies finally succeed in transcending these difficulties and discover their authentic selves.

When Neo swallows the red pill, thereby getting out of the matrix, he discovers that the external world is no different. Both worlds contain violent conflicts and fearful, lustful, and greedy people.

The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras, but rather that authenticity is a myth.

Harari argues that human beings are irrationally apprehensive of being trapped in a box – being manipulated by technology, not realizing that they are already in a box.

when you begin to explore the manifold ways the world manipulates you, in the end you realise that your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.

Mind Over Matter

The old story that is propagated by most science fiction movies is the victory of mind over matter. The mind that conceived of stone tools, was able to defeat the mammoth. But people gained control over the world not by inventing tools, but by manipulating their fellow humans. The mind does not shape history and biology, it is shaped by them.

Even our most cherished ideals – freedom, love, creativity – are like a stone knife that somebody else shaped in order to kill some mammoth. According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.

There is no way to empty your brain of countless hours of Hollywood programming. We take pride in our ability to build stone knives but find it hard to accept that too are stone knives.

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written almost a century ago, becomes increasingly relevant today, and is one of the greatest products of science fiction. Huxley wrote the novel at a time when communism, fascism, and nazism were prominent, in a world that was devasted by the Great Depression. Yet he saw past all of that and imagined a future with no wars and no disease, a consumerist society where sex and drugs were in abundant supply, and happiness was the most cherished value. But this society was only made possible through our newfound ability to effectively hack human biology.

In this world, the World Government controls people’s emotions using advanced biotechnology and social engineering. There is no reason for a secret police or Orwell’s Ministry of Love, it is possible to peacefully and securely control people through love and pleasure.

Orwell’s 1984 is a terrifying nightmare world that clearly should be avoided. But Brave New World does not offer us such a straightforward conclusion. It is difficult to point to exactly what makes it dystopian. The world is wealthy and peaceful, and everyone is always happy. What is there to criticize?  

This question is addressed in the climactic scene where the World Controller, Mustapha Mond and John the Savage, who lived in a native Reservation in New Mexico. Savage was the only other person in London who knew about Shakespeare or God.

John the Savage tried to incite a rebellion but receives no support. The police arrest him and take him to Mustapha Mond. A pleasant chat takes place. Mond tells John to live like a hermit in seclusion if he refuses to be social, John argues that the World Government, in its attempt to make the world a happy place, has eliminated truth, beauty, and all that is noble and heroic in life.

After this conversation, John retired to the wilderness by himself and livesd as a hermit for years. This led to him being brainwashed by Shakespeare and religion and reject all the boons of modernity. But news of this strange man spread, and soon enough, he became a celebrity. He finally hung himself to escape the matrix. There was no red pill.

The creators of the Matrix and The Truman Show thought it was possible to escape, but Huxley wasn’t convinced. Since your brain and your sense of self are a part of the matrix, it is only possible to escape the matrix by abandoning your self.

Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

4 replies on “Chapter 18: Science Fiction (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)”

You won’t find critical analysis in chapter summaries. The point of chapter summaries is to represent the ideas of the author. Keep a look out on a post I will be writing on the “self” in the near future where I will be giving my critique on hararis ideas and many others.

Harari is trying to convince us that the “self” is an illusion. You are either manipulated by media or biology, but you are never free. The only remedy is to get rid of the illusion of the self, presumably through meditation..

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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