BOOK REVIEW: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Our thoughts on the Yuval Noah Harari bestseller
Historian Yuval Noah Harari has adroitly avoided the misfortune of his profession, that of being fobbed off as irrelevant.
He did this, first, by becoming a futurist: his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), charted a future in which elite people transform into god-like superhumans. His latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, focuses on the present; embracing pop psychology and self-help in exploring the seismic shifts occurring in our relationships with each other, our planet, and technology.
A historian, possessing an understanding of revolutions, is precisely the person qualified to explain the state of the world today, and how to adapt to it. Harari’s objective with this book is to navigate a hopeful course against darker days and provide ammunition to face bewildering challenges from new directions.
His explanations are underpinned by the power of stories and the grip of storytellers. Therein lies a danger: people have always been captivated, guided and misled by fictions, causing destructive actions or beliefs. But, as Harari puts it, "the first thing you need to know about yourself is that you are not a story". Our bodies and minds, our physical cocktail of chemicals, are real, and we must bypass the trap of fictional cosmic dramas, explicitly part of religious and nationalist narratives which mythologise the sacrifice and heroism of selected groups.
There are better books explaining our age of anger, the swell of belligerent opposition to liberalism as democracy’s cornerstone, the disillusionment with democracy itself, and why this doesn’t mean — yet — the end of progress. But, overall, Harari’s lessons are entertaining, insightful and valuable. The smaller ones, such as how to acknowledge one’s ignorance to overcome the "knowledge illusion", are entertaining. Others, like the reassurance that we shouldn’t panic about terrorism because it kills infinitely smaller numbers than diabetes or air pollution, are provocative but contextually illuminating.
The end is nigh
More alarming is the book’s extrapolation of the tumult that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are already causing in the workplace. This will ratchet up the ugly side of 20th-century capitalism from exploitation of the majority to a new form of 21st-century tragedy, that of unnecessary people. The schism within humanity, between those who have value and those economically spare and irrelevant, is already under way. Industry 4.0 threatens to trample upon humanism.
Harari teaches us most when he addresses the existential threats that shadow our present: nuclear weaponry capabilities, climate change, and — the book’s focus, threaded throughout — technological disruption.
He’s fearful of the fusion of infotech, including AI, and bio-engineering. Imminently, humanity will confront a power paradigm of governments and corporations being able to read and know our minds. They will understand us better than we do ourselves — a form of control more powerfully pervasive and persuasive than anything before, precipitating an all-knowing, all-seeing "digital dictatorship".
Harari’s seminal lesson is that already, perhaps, "someone has privileged access to your brain, and it’s not you".
He isn’t entirely pessimistic. Progress does not cease, and we are not helpless, because technology’s direction isn’t predetermined. In the 20th century it facilitated Nazism and communism, but also liberal democracy; in the current century it may forge a paradise or trigger a descent into dystopia. Harari believes "it’s still midway, it’s undecided". But we need to act wisely, and urgently, to retain the option to choose the road that veers towards humanism. And, without global co-operation, "the human future is not promising".
The last teaching, in which Harari extols the merits of meditation, initially seems inapt. It’s a revelation of his personal strategy to cope with the pressures and stresses the book describes. Meditation is certainly working for him: he’s expanded his reach and relevance to a universe beyond that of a history lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books have sold over 12-million copies, and news channel CNN has described him as "a global intellectual superstar".
Plus, the point is well made: as a facilitator of calm in a world of turmoil, and to gain greater self-knowledge, meditation may be invaluable. As Harari puts it, "we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make up our minds for us".
Ultimately, the biggest lesson of the book is that we will need to keep our heads, and keep learning. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a fine read, but it won’t ever be enough.