as you get older – 35, 45 – it becomes harder. You have invested so much in your identity, in your skills, in your environment, your family, your business, whatever, the real hard thing is to let go. If you let go and create a new space, a new vacuum then yes, you can fill it again with new stuff. But the harder you’ve worked on building something, the more difficult it is to just let go of it. You can make small changes – you still like to experiment and experience new things – but it becomes more and more difficult to change the deep structures of our identity, our story, our personality: we just get too attached to it.
RP: Say you want to get a part (in a film) and the part is someone with a different background to yours. If you go into the audition saying you are that person it would be much more convincing than just doing the mannerisms. Just by changing your outward behaviour you can influence real change.
YNH: For an actor, it is basically what your profession demands you to do: to reinvent yourself again and again and again. There are of course a lot of sociological and philosophical theories about how all people are, to some extent at least, actors who are just taking up a role. But because they don’t ‘film a new movie’, so to speak, every year they go on filming the same movie throughout their lives. Eventually they become indistinguishable from the part they are playing.
RP: A lot of the ideas in Good Time are about the nature of freedom. How would you define freedom?
YNH: I think the basic realisation is that people don’t have free will in the traditional Christian, Western sense of the idea; you don’t get to choose your desire. If you have a desire, you might be free to actually realise it depending on external conditions. So you can talk about more free societies and less free societies in the sense that if I desire something, can I do it or not? But the deeper question about freedom is whether I can choose my desires in the first place, and the deeper kind of slavery is the way in which your desires are being dictated by something outside your control, and you don’t even realise it. The deeper kind of freedom is the freedom that comes with not mistaking these thoughts with your true self or your authentic identity. The main message we constantly get from the dominant ideology of capitalism and consumerism is that desire is good in almost all cases: identify your desires, identify with them and then try to realise them, whatever they are.
RP: So how do you establish what your true desires are?
YNH: It’s really about getting to know yourself, not on an intellectual level, not on a level of thought but above all on the level of the body and the level of the sensations. Really being aware of the simple reality of what’s happening in your stomach; of what’s happening in your chest; of what’s happening to your breath coming in and out of the nostrils. We are in this sense, biological machines and we are just like the other animals, controlled or activated through the feelings or sensations in our body. Our understanding of human biology proves the more we understand the internal mechanism of the body and the brain, the more efficient the spin doctors or the propaganda becomes in pushing our emotional buttons. We are very, very close to the point in time where it can be individualised. In the past, propaganda and art worked on the masses, on the lowest common denominator. Now in 20 or 30 years, you can tailor the message exactly to each individual person, you don’t have to give the same speech to 20 million people. You give messages to individuals based on their life history, their brain, their biology. This is another fallacy of the science fiction movies. In these kind of scenarios, the hero always gets out because there is something the machines don’t understand, usually love. Which is ridiculous because it’s one of the crudest emotions; it’s not so sophisticated like guilt.
RP: How is love not a sophisticated emotion?
YNH: It leads to very sophisticated results, but the basic neurological infrastructure of love is much less complicated than that of guilt. You can see it from the fact that in the Western sense of love, it is very close to sexual attraction which is something you find in many animals, whereas guilt you don’t find in many animals, if at all, besides humans.
RP: Do you think you can find guilt through love, or love through guilt?
YNH: The way that the movie industry pushes the emotional buttons of the viewers, anything that has to do with sexual attraction is usually far easier to manipulate than anything that has to do with something complicated like guilt. Good manipulation is when you don’t realise you’re being manipulated.
RP: Sometimes even when it’s revealed to a person that they were being manipulated, they don’t want to accept it anyway. I find that when you show someone something that’s out of their immediate realm of understanding, they’ll reject it with such a fury and try to destroy it. I don’t really understand why that is.
YNH: It’s hard work. People ignore it, they are just lazy. Intellectual laziness. Let’s go back to Hollywood: the idea of romantic love is propagated by Hollywood. Millions of people spend years and shape their entire lives in view of this idea. Now how much of that is reality and how much is fantasy? To what extent would somebody who chased the idea of romantic love be able to confront the possibility that that is just another mythology?
RP: Do you think there’s a reason why your books feel incredibly relevant right now?
YNH: I think it has more to do with the moment than the quality of the books. There are many good books in the world and many of them you never hear about and they don’t succeed. It’s also about the timing of when the book is released. I think that we are now reaching a crucial turning point in the history of humankind, so the kind of books that have a global vision, on where are we coming from and where we are going from here, have a special resonance. Of course, the other thing is that we now live in a state of information explosion: there is just too much information. People are flooded by immense amounts so they can’t make sense of it all. But they are attracted to a book or a movie or anything that will kind of provide them with a map for reality.
RP: Where do you get your news from? What kind of thinkers and writers are you interested in at the moment?
YNH: I’m very eclectic in what I read. My basic method is that I start reading or listening – I listen to a lot of audiobooks – I start many books in all kinds of directions, economics, history, biology, religion, anything that comes to my head. But my rule is, I read five pages and if I learn something important I continue. If not, I move to the next book. It’s five pages and you’re out! I like old books, I very rarely watch the news on television, I hardly read the newspapers, I don’t follow Twitter. I think that in the time of information flood, you need to read long stories.
RP: You don’t watch the news at all?
YNH: Hardly ever. It’s out of context, the incentive structure of the news business is such that as a scientist, I find it very problematic. I wouldn’t say to all people “don’t”, I mean it’s also a question of personality. Most people don’t like to read long books. If I want to understand what’s happening in Syria, then I would like to have a 500-page book which discusses the history of Syria and the sociology of Syrian society and so forth. I don’t want to get half the page.
RP: Do you think there’s a problematic aspect of the news now that it encourages a groupthink mentality? In the last few years it seems like people are much more aware of political news, but at the same time I’m not really sure if we have any deeper of an understanding.
YNH: This was always the case. If anything, things now are better than in the early 20th century or in the Middle Ages. The problem is this situation of a flood of information which our minds are just incapable of processing. In the past, the main way that censorship worked was by blocking information. Information was scarce and powerful institutions would hold the information and allow very little to flow freely. Today it’s just the opposite. Censorship works by flooding people with immense amounts of information so they are unable to make sense of the big picture and even make the basic judgements. Not about what’s true and what’s false, but what’s important and what’s unimportant. They can spend all their time researching and debating and investigating side issues but never see the more important aspect. Power today is not access to information, it’s not the ability to gain information, it’s really the ability to block and knowing what to ignore.
RP: I’m always trying to look for a movie that captures some kind of zeitgeist but I don’t think there are really clear central tenets of our society at the moment. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen something which feels like it represents on a macro level how we live now.
YNH: Again, the suspicion is that maybe we’re close to the limit of what homo sapiens are really capable of understanding. There are always many things – we didn’t understand quantum physics a thousand years ago either, but the difference now is the pace of events and economic, political and technological change is so fast that it’s completely out of our control. My impression, also based on talking with people in government and the economy and so forth, is that nobody has any idea what’s happening in the world.
RP: Do you think people used to?
YNH: Yes. People had a much better grasp of the big processes going on around them. In the 19th, 20th centuries you have the Industrial Revolution, you have European Imperialism. Of course, nobody can control everything but at least the understanding of what’s happening was relatively – not easy to understand – but it was within the capability of the human mind to make sense of the world of 1880. Now you can make sense of a particular field, like if you’re an expert on geopolitics you can make sense of what’s happening, but then you take this basic geopolitical story and start bombarding it with developments on other fronts like global warming and artificial developments in bioengineering and nobody has any idea even what the options are and where the world will be in 20 or 30 years. Today, you look to the future and nobody has any idea what the job market will look like or what the most important skill of a person will be except for the one skill already discussed, which is to reinvent yourself. What you’re doing as an actor – every year or few years reinventing your entire personality – is the kind of thing that everybody will have to do in 30 or 40 years if they want to stay in the game.
RP: How do you think the criminal mind has manifested itself in humans?
YNH: It’s a difficult question because the definition of criminality has changed so much. The character you play in the movie, if you were in the Middle Ages, is the perfect knight. If you think about the chivalric knights, all the Lancelots and Galahads and so forth, that was real life. What would make somebody a criminal psychopath in the 20th century could make him an admirable knight in the 11th or 12th centuries. These are people who admired violence – you cannot be a knight without violence, it’s essential to who you are and your achievement. There is a famous saying that criminals kill one or two people, to kill millions you need an ideology. The biggest crimes in human history were not the result of criminal minds; at least not your petty robber or murderer. They were the work of ideologues and priests and leaders and millions of ordinary people: ‘nice’, ‘good’ people who were just fulfilling their part in the big machine.
RP: But somehow an individual becomes the system, obviously with a ton of people behind them, but why do you think a system generally tends to put a figurehead at the forefront if the system doesn’t work like that?
YNH: Some systems need a figurehead, some systems don’t. The systems that need a figurehead will produce it – him/her, and in that case the personality of the figurehead can have a lot of influence over the direction it is going. It makes a huge difference what the personality is of the US President, or of the Roman Emperor, because the system is built in such a way that it can magnify the good and bad qualities of this single individual. But it’s never this individual who built the system in the first place.
RP: I loved what you said about the picture of Obama compared to the picture of Louis XIV [in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind]. What did you say about that?
YNH: How male fashion has changed so much. What is feminine dress and what is masculine dress changes so much in history. Wearing a wig and high heels and things like that, this was very masculine in 17th or 18th century Europe. Today maybe it’s a bit different, but for most of the 20th and 21st centuries masculine dress, at least in the West, is very low-key and grey and women are the flamboyant gender and men are much more reserved. This is actually an abnormality for much of history: men dressed in a much more flamboyant way than the women and certainly in the animal kingdom, in most mammals and birds, the males are far more colourful and flamboyant than the females.
RP: What do you think predicated that in the 20th century then?
YNH: I’m not an expert in fashion history! One of my best guesses would be that this is partly to do with the Industrial Revolution and new ideals. You have for example the socialist ideals of equality coming up in the 19th and 20th century and what you see is that the working outfits of lower classes are becoming the status symbols. Jeans were invented as the working outfit for working class people because of their strong material. Today we are still there basically. Even the richest people in the world, if you go to Silicon Valley and look at Elon Musk and Bill Gates, they are very, very low-key. They wear simple T-shirts and flip-flops.
RP: Do you think there’s an element of shame there? Not wanting to lord it over everyone else?
YNH: That’s liberalism and socialism. It isn’t just shame, that’s for your safety. You saw what happened to all the kings in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, you don’t want to be like that! So even if you have billions of dollars stashed away in Switzerland or somewhere, you still go to the masses and look like a man of the people and say “I’m just like you! I’m not a king or emperor!” Gaddafi was very original in his taste in men’s clothes and he ended up rather poorly!