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The age of disorder: why technology is the greatest threat to humankind

Disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity – and no nation can fight on its own.

Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

During the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international politics, and when the Cold War ended, globalisation seemed to be the irresistible wave of the future. It was expected that humankind would leave nationalistic politics behind, as a relic of more primitive times that might appeal at most to the ill-informed inhabitants of a few under­developed countries. Events in 2016 proved, however, that nationalism still has a powerful hold even on the citizens of Europe and the United States, not to mention Russia, India and China. Alienated by the impersonal forces of global capitalism, and fearing for the fate of national systems of health, education and welfare, people all over the world seek reassurance and meaning in the bosom of the nation.

Yet the question raised by Johnson in the Daisy advertisement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1964. Will we make a world in which all human beings can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Can Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their like save the world by appealing to our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?

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Let’s start with nuclear war. When the Daisy advert aired, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear annihilation was a palpable threat. Pundits and laypeople alike feared that humankind did not have the wisdom to avert destruction, and that it was only a matter of time before the Cold War turned scorching hot. In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics had been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945, surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased to use war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, car accidents or suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

Unfortunately, we are so used to this achievement that we take it for granted. This is partly why people allow themselves to play with fire, and that includes not only the latest Russian adventures in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also the choices made by European and American voters.

The Brexit debate in Britain revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the EU’s vital contribution to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, the French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a wrench into the miracle machine. Meanwhile, Donald Trump mixes calls for US isolationism with plans to strengthen the country’s nuclear arsenal and reignite a nuclear arms race, thereby threatening to undo the hard-won gains of the past decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It was extremely difficult to construct the internationalist regime that prevented nuclear war and safeguarded global peace. No doubt we need to adapt this regime to changing conditions in the world: for example, by relying less on the United States and giving a greater role to non-Western powers such as China and India. But abandoning this regime altogether and reverting to nationalist power politics would be an ­irresponsible gamble.

True, in the past, countries played the ­nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. No matter whom American voters elect to the presidency, the atom bomb is still there and E still equals MC². As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. Zealous nationalists should ask themselves whether their nation by itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new threat to its existence that hardly registered on the political radar in 1964: climate change. If we continue with our present course it is likely that global warming, ocean acidification and ecological degradation will result in unprecedented economic, political and social problems, and might well destroy the foundations of human prosperity. What is the nationalist answer to climate change? How can any nation, however powerful, stop global warming on its own? Will the US build a wall against rising oceans?

When it comes to climate, countries are not sovereign, but are at the mercy of actions taken by governments on the other side of the planet. As long as 200 governments pursue 200 different ecological strategies, shaped by their unique needs and interests, none is likely to succeed. With present-day technology, any serious measures to stop global warming are likely to slow down economic growth. Such a policy carries an unbearable political price if it is undertaken by a single country while others continue with business as usual. Any US administration that deliberately slowed down economic growth for environmental reasons would be bound to lose the next election; a Chinese administration that does so courts revolution tomorrow morning. In a nationalist and xenophobic world no government will sacrifice itself for the greater good of humanity, as Trump’s actions show.

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Indeed, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change than that of nuclear war. An atomic bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that even the most ardent nationalist cannot ignore it. Global warming, by contrast, is a much more vague and protracted menace. Hence, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, as in the case of Trump, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

The same dynamics are likely to spoil any nationalist antidote to the third large threat to human existence in the 21st century: technological disruption. New technologies, particularly in the fields of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, will soon give humankind unprecedented, godlike powers. Whereas previously human beings learned to produce food, weapons and vehicles, in the coming decades our main products will probably be bodies, brains and minds. However, it is extremely difficult to foresee the potential impact of such technologies. They open the door to an entire supermarket of doomsday scenarios.

If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences. In addition, as AI outperforms human beings in ever more tasks, it might push billions of us out of the job market, creating a new “useless class” of people, devoid of both economic value and political power. Meanwhile, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, mani­pulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

On the bioengineering front, breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology and direct brain/computer interfaces could unleash deadly new epidemics or disturb our internal mental balance. In past centuries we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might disrupt our mental system. In addition, bioengineering might for the first time in history translate economic inequality into biological inequality, creating an upper caste of enhanced superhumans, and relegating the poor to the dustbin of evolution.

What is the nationalist answer to these menaces? As in the case of global warming, so, too, with technological disruption: the nation state is the wrong framework to address the threat. Given that research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower such as the US or China cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids the genetic engineering of human embryos, it won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing such work. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial economic or military advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. Particularly in a xenophobic, dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with human beings’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. Although everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely differing opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade human beings and to create new life forms. If we fail to cobble together globally accepted ethical guidelines, it will be open season for Dr Frankenstein.

When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, whereas the technological revolutions of the 21st century should be understood in cosmic terms. Ever since its appearance on Earth, four billion years ago, life has been governed by the laws of natural selection. During those aeons, whether you were a virus or a dinosaur, you evolved according to the principles of natural selection. No matter what strange shapes life took, it remained confined to the organic realm. Whether a cactus or a whale, you were made of organic compounds. Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, science is ushering in an era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this? In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a much wider perspective.

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The nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and disruptive technology. If, despite these threats, we choose to privilege our particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

A much better path is the one outlined in the EU’s constitution, which states that “while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny”. There is still plenty of room in the world for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet, if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.

In previous centuries national identities were forged because human beings faced problems and discovered opportunities that went far beyond the scope of ­local tribes, and which only countrywide co-operation could hope to handle. In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes.

We need a new global identity, because national institutions are incapable of managing a set of unprecedented global challenges. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics. This mismatch prevents the political system from countering our main problems effectively.

To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics. As it is impossible to ­de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and as the cost of de-globalising the economy will probably be ruinous, the only solution is to globalise politics.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder