Summary of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Another book by Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. This time he focuses on the present time and the problems and issues we’re facing (terrorism, fake news and immigration) and offers some solutions. 21 chapters/lessons are organised into five categories: The Technological Challenge, The Political Challenge, Despair and Hope, Truth and, finally and Resilience — and has tips on how to navigate the future we face – with the power of clarity but some critics may argue that we’ve heard all this before.
On your future career prospects
“No remaining human job will ever be safe from the threat of future automation.” Critics or sceptics will say to this, that there has always been a talk of amazing futuristic innovations that haven’t really actualised yet. Say that to all candle makers who missed the memo that electricity was going to disrupt their business.
“Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change.”
On future education
“The now century-old model of production-line school education is bankrupt.” AI the ultimate master algorithm will be able to do everything. Forget teaching kids programming, the best skill you can teach them is reinvention. “So what else should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that school should be switched to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.” And how to deal with constant change in the constantly changing world. “To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and a great reserves of emotional balance.”
The world today
Harari in his new book examines “some of the world’s most urgent issues, including terrorism, fake news and immigration” and also looks at individual concerns such as humility, reason, mental stability, resilience and even meditation. The publisher says that the book “help us to grapple with a world that is increasingly hard to comprehend, encouraging us to focus our minds on the essential questions we should be asking ourselves today”.
Climate change, technological disruption, bioengineering and AI
Harari suggests that the conversation should be about climate change, technological disruption, bioengineering and about AI. We need to ensure that the artificial intelligence and biotechnology which are creating new capabilities will enhance what it is to be human and not threaten it. Already, a machine learning or deep learning algorithms can analyse the biometric data streaming from body sensor and can determine your personality type, your health issues and even your mood.
Global politics needed
Another issue Harrari points out is that we have a global economy, global science, global technology, global ecology but we don’t have global politics. To take humanity to the next level, we need to have effective global politics and policies that will ensure the survival of the human race. Harrari is not against nationalism as such (if it didn’t develop we would be living in tribal wars) but he thinks, nationalism (including Brexit) is a distraction.
“By 2100, the richest one per cent might own not merely most of the world’s wealth, but also most of the world’s beauty, creativity and health.”
“Humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.”
“Your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks.” We make decisions through feelings but these feelings do not amount to any kind of free will. “Rather, feelings are biochemical mechanisms… algorithms honed through millions of years of evolution.” In other words, we have no authentic self and there is no free will. If people believe in free will and that their thoughts and feelings are part of some kind of spiritual capacity – it will be easier to manipulate them because they won’t know that these thoughts and feelings have been produced and manipulated in the first place by some external system.
Harari sees this complex situation in three superficial “debates”: 1) the receiving country must be ready and willing, 2) the immigrants must be prepared to embrace “at least the core norms and values” of the new country and 3) if immigrants integrate, they become “us” rather than “them” and need be seen as first-class citizens.
Harari explains how few people are killed by terrorists as compared to traffic deaths, war fatalities and illness. So, why then are we so frightened by terrorists, he asks.
He concludes that we’ve pretty much done away with global wars. He says countries don’t want to risk starting new wars (except Russia against Ukraine and a few others). He misses the point that only 11 countries (out of the 162 studied) today are free from conflict of one kind or another according to Institute of Economics and Peace latest study.
On fake news and post-truth
Fake news is much older than Facebook and fundamentally, humans’ ability to create and spread fiction is to gain power. A quick look at history reveals that disinformation and propaganda are nothing new and humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. “In 1931 the Japanese army staged mock attacks on itself to justify its invasion of China” is one of many examples he quotes. Homo sapiens’ basic instinct depends firstly on creating and then believing fictions. Then he points out that religious texts are fake news. “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s a fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it fake news in order not to hurt the feelings of faithful (or incur their wrath).”
“A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age.
The difference nowadays is that you can tailor the story to particular individuals because you know how they operate, their beliefs and prejudices, etc. He says, “You cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology.” as Brexit and US elections have demonstrated. And there is no penalty or accountability for creating a story that is not true. Actually, in the field of normalised lies, telling the truth is illegal now as many whistleblowers have discovered. “As species, humans prefer power to truth.”
“The most up-to-date nuclear missiles and cyber bombs might well be employed to settle a doctrinal argument about medieval texts.” Despite three main threats to humanity ie nuclear war, climate change and technological/biological disruption, another general threat is religion mostly Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism as well. Harari criticises all religions as pretentious, full of inconsistencies and fundamentally as negative forces.
Harari voices his fear of whether humanity has a psychological resilience to face the level and speed of change which has been accelerating for the past two centuries. As the rate of mental illness is exploding, more resources need to be invested to boost psychological resilience in people. Mediation can help people to cope with the stress related to change and uncertainty.
“How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?” Yuval suggests meditating as a way of decoding and making sense of our lives (he meditates for a couple of hours daily).
“Clarity is power.” Meditate to get more clarity. “Mediation is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality.” and it a way of understanding reality.
In a nutshell: the summary of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari thinks that there are three main threats to mankind: nuclear war, climate change and technological/biological disruption.
The key lessons are to start the conversation about all the above threats because these global problems can have only global solutions, throw off the false faiths of institutional religions and meditate. Is it tough enough to navigate the 21st century?
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.