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This Is Why We’re Using Harari’s Book Homo Deus To Teach Students About The Future

I was on a flight from Sao Paulo to Toronto. Passengers were boarding in a long-tail line as I was getting comfortable in my seat. I looked over and saw a man with a book under his arm. I sharpened my focus—I make it my business to see what books people are reading. In big red letters were the words Homo Deus. I had heard of this book by that guy . . . that guy . . . what’s his name again? . . .

“Harari!” a voice shot out three seats to my left. “Great book man!” 

(That’s it—Harari, I thought snapping my fingers. I cued up my ears to hear more.)

“You’ve read it?” the man with the book under his arm replied with excitement brimming on his face.

“Ya man—great book! It’s bizarre stuff.” 

“I totally agree—” came another voice, this time to the immediate right of the man holding the book in his arm—a veritable triangle of dudes reading this book!

“You’ve read it too?” 

“Ya—read both of ‘em.” (He was referring here to the prequel, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.) “Very insightful,” the man continued, “I’m in tech, so I’ve got to keep up on all this stuff unfolding in the future.”

The man with the book kept filing down the aisle turning his neck and chuckling with the other two in budding solidarity around the importance and excitement of this book. 

I swiftly jotted the title down in my notebook. “I must read this book,” I thought to myself, “Three guys on a trip from Sao Paulo to Toronto can’t be wrong!”

How Do You Teach The Future?

Schools teach history, but rarely the future. So how do you teach it? 

I asked a group of students one day if they had studied history before. They all raised their hands. Then I asked if they had ever been taught the future before. They looked at me with blank stares and beleaguered head shakes as if I were nuts (probably a similar look one would get if asking an adult the same question). 

There are actually a number of ways you can teach students about the future, but one way that we find important is through the use of scenarios. Scenarios are really nothing new among large companies and think tanks. In my work at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, planning grand global strategies was all about scenarios. 

Scenario planning is an excellent way to teach the future because it provides a safe place for testing theories, analyzing possibilities, and coming up with strategies and responsible action plans. And instead of implementing something and then reacting to the consequences, you can play with future possibilities and have plans and back-up plans ready to hand. That’s why world leaders like them so much.

Learning From The Future

I returned from Sao Paulo and immediately ordered the book from Amazon. I’ve been assigned to a group of Grade 11 teachers to help them with what we’re calling the Imaginal Bold Challenge. Inspired by Peter Diamandis and the X-Prize, the Imaginal Bold Challenge is a real, monetized challenge put forth to students to come up with solutions to real-world problems.

But how do you come up with solutions the world hasn’t seen before? 

You have to learn from the future. You have to project out into the future, see where the world is going, and design your ideas and strategies accordingly. 

The way this plays out in a classroom environment is students are given opportunity to play in the future with a series of scenarios, learn from those scenarios, and then use their new knowledge to decide what project they want to work on. 

One of the main questions that the students will be asked is ‘What body of work will have impact on the challenges facing humanity in the next 20-50 years?’ 

Students will only be able to answer this and other such questions if they’ve been able to learn from the future.

Back to Homo Deus

Harari’s book came to my desk here at Master’s with some other gems, such as Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and Tim Ferriss’ Tools For Titans. But it was that moment on the plane from Sao Paulo to Toronto that had me salivating for Homo Deus! What could this book be about? How did it create so much passion among these three dudes in the plane? Why is it so relevant? I had to find out!

I demolished the book, reading it in a few hours. I liked it in parts, hated it in others, thought it was well-written in parts, and poorly written in others. I found Harari’s incessant claims against organized religion to be fatuous and reactionary. But overall, the scenario was an interesting one, though not entirely different from the movie Elysium for example.

And how did I read the book? Of course I read it as a body of information; but more importantly, I engaged the book in a creative way: as a possible scenario to prepare students for the Imaginal Bold Challenge. And it was here where I found some ideas students could sink their teeth into.

What I Found In The Book

The world of Homo Deus (what I call ‘Harari’s World’) has a number of key elements to it: 

  1. The world of the near future is a two-tiered system: The Homo Sapiens are the common folk; the Homo Deus are humans who have access to technology that has radically altered their bodies and brains to the point of being almost gods. The Homo Deus are gods, and the Homo Sapiens feed off the scraps, which is essentially 24/7 pleasure.
  2. Machine Labour: Machines have replaced human labour across the board. There is nothing more for humans to do but to look after themselves and engage in 24/7 pleasure. 
  3. The world continues to be impacted by rapid technological change and complexity. This is something we haven’t solved, but have pretty much given ourselves over to—it’s a reality as it was in 2018, but more intense.
  4. War, famine, and plagues are done: Through technology we have solved some of the major challenges of the 21st Century, but now we face others: a growing sense of restlessness, homo sapiens who are disgruntled, and always wanting to usurp power, the super intelligence of AI and how to control machines,  and the lingering ennui of not having a whole lot to do. 

Yes—this scenario is perfect, I thought. It asks the questions: What if we solved every major problem of the 21st Century? What if we became gods—what then? Is this even the kind of future we want?

The Scenario: Harari’s World

So as a scenario designer I started asking a bunch of questions: How do we tell the story of having solved many of the plaguing problems of the 21st Century? Looking back, how did we do it? And how did this two-tiered system come about? Who’s running it? And what of the many Homo Sapiens who are hooked up to pleasure devices all day? Where is their sense of meaning and value? And for those who are super-enhanced, what is their value and meaning? Is there something greater, bigger, that humanity can connect with? And Harari’s stand against religion actually opened up an opportunity for students to look at the deeper aspects of being human and questions of God and faith and hope. 

I put as much as I could into a robust scenario for students to engage in and learn from. Their task is now to build Harari’s World by choosing an area of passion and telling the story from that vantage point—Future of Humanity, Nanomedicine, Biodiversity, and Human Rights are just a few of almost twenty topics to choose from. 

Once students have built Harari’s World and uncovered all kinds of new insights, tough questions, and further areas of passion, they will be in a better position to build a solution for the future. 

The end game? 

To see, learn from, and create the future.

Homo Deus: Thumb Up or Thumb Down?

So after all this, what do I actually think about the book?

I give it a thumbs up. It’s an engaging book that is written in lay-person’s language. While the scenario isn’t anything all that new, Harari has put it on the map in an effective way that makes it all the more relevant for us to read.

And in reading the book, I confirmed one other thing . . .

Three dudes on a plane from Toronto to Sao Paulo (and now a fourth who came to the book later) indeed can’t be wrong!

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