The Cost of Modernity
Excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus
Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love and how we pass away.
The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Until modern times most cultures believed that humans played a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. Humans cannot live forever, they cannot escape all diseases, and they cannot do as they please. It's not in the script.
In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbour. This of course created some inconveniences, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters… even this terrible war, plague and drought have their place in the greater scheme of things. Furthermore, we can count on the playwright that the story surely has a good and meaningful ending.
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury by signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.
Since there is no script, and since humans fulfil no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us or give meaning to our suffering. Things just happen, one after the other. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not confined to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death but we can create paradise here on earth and live in it for ever, if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.
With each passing decade we will enjoy more food, faster vehicles and better medicines. One day our knowledge will be so vast and our technology so advanced that we shall distil the elixir of eternal youth, the elixir of true happiness, and any other drug we might possibly desire and no god will stop us.
The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.
See also Life Like This, In a Tribe and, of course, The Gifts of Modernity.