Existential questions are intrinsic to the human condition, grappling with the essence of existence, consciousness, and the future. In the context of contemporary society, these questions often intersect with our understanding of history, technology, and the nature of being.

Three seminal works published during the past 14 years—Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Ways of Being by James Bridle, and What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly—provide a comprehensive exploration of these themes, each from a distinct perspective. This article will delve into how these books holistically address key existential questions of today, drawing specific points from each to illustrate their interconnectedness and relevance.

Historical and Biological Foundations: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind presents a sweeping narrative of human history, tracing the evolution of Homo sapiens from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. Harari’s exploration into the cognitive revolution underscores how our unique ability to believe in shared myths and collective fictions—such as money, religion, and nation-states—has enabled unprecedented cooperation and societal development. This cognitive leap is fundamental to understanding the existential questions of identity and purpose.

Harari argues that the Agricultural Revolution, while boosting human population and societal complexity, also led to increased suffering for many individuals, as it resulted in harder work, disease, and social stratification (Harari, 2015). This perspective invites us to question whether technological and societal progress necessarily leads to human happiness and fulfillment, a theme that resonates deeply in the context of today’s technological advancements and their impact on human well-being.

The Nature of Consciousness and Other Beings: Ways of Being by James Bridle

James Bridle’s Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence expands the discourse on existential questions by exploring the nature of intelligence and consciousness beyond the human species. Bridle challenges the anthropocentric view by examining intelligence in animals, plants, and machines, advocating for a broader, more inclusive understanding of consciousness.

Bridle’s work is particularly relevant in the context of environmental crises and technological advancements. He explores how recognizing the intelligence in non-human entities can foster a deeper connection with the natural world and promote sustainable living. This aligns with Harari’s discussions on the consequences of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, emphasizing the need to reconsider our relationship with the environment (Bridle, 2022).

Bridle also delves into the concept of machine intelligence, raising critical questions about the future of artificial intelligence and its implications for human identity and agency. This theme intersects with Kevin Kelly’s exploration of technology’s role in shaping human destiny, highlighting the potential for AI to either augment human capabilities or challenge our supremacy.

The Evolutionary Perspective on Technology: What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants offers a unique perspective on the existential role of technology, framing it as a natural extension of evolutionary processes. Kelly posits that technology follows its own evolutionary path, much like biological organisms, driven by a collective “technium” that encompasses all technological systems and processes (Kelly, 2010).

Kelly’s theory suggests that technology is not merely a collection of human-made tools but a living system with its own needs and desires. This perspective invites a reevaluation of our relationship with technology, emphasizing that it is both a product of human creativity and an autonomous force that shapes our future. This view aligns with Harari’s discussion on the Industrial Revolution, where technology radically transformed societies and economies, leading to both unprecedented growth and new forms of exploitation and inequality.

Kelly’s idea of the technium also intersects with Bridle’s exploration of machine intelligence, raising questions about the ethical implications of creating autonomous systems and the potential for technology to develop beyond human control. This highlights the importance of understanding technology not just as a tool but as an integral part of the ecosystem that influences and is influenced by human actions and decisions.

Interconnected Themes and Contemporary Relevance

Together, these three books provide a comprehensive framework for addressing existential questions in the modern era. Harari’s historical and biological analysis sets the stage by examining the roots of human civilization and the impact of cognitive and technological revolutions.

Bridle’s exploration of non-human intelligence broadens the discourse to include the environment and artificial entities, challenging us to rethink the boundaries of consciousness and agency. Kelly’s evolutionary perspective on technology offers a forward-looking view, emphasizing the dynamic interplay between humans and technology.

These perspectives are particularly relevant in the context of contemporary challenges such as climate change, technological disruption, and the quest for sustainable development. Harari’s insights into the unintended consequences of agricultural and industrial progress underscore the need for a more holistic and inclusive approach to development.

Bridle’s advocacy for recognizing non-human intelligence highlights the importance of ecological sustainability and ethical considerations in technological advancements. Kelly’s view of technology as an evolving system invites us to engage more thoughtfully with the tools and systems we create, ensuring they align with our broader goals for humanity and the planet.

The holistic approach provided by Sapiens, Ways of Being, and What Technology Wants offers valuable insights into the existential questions of today. By integrating historical, biological, ecological, and technological perspectives, these works encourage a more nuanced understanding of human identity, purpose, and the future. They remind us that addressing existential questions requires not only looking inward at human nature but also outward at our relationships with other beings and the systems we create.

This integrated approach is essential for navigating the complexities of the modern world and ensuring a sustainable and fulfilling future for all.

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References

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper, 2015.

Bridle, James. Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Viking, 2010.