Summary of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari – the third book by 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/parts: Part I: The Technological Challenge, Part I: The Political Challenge, Part III: Despair and Hope, Part IV: Truth and, finally and Part V: Resilience — and has tips on how to navigate the future we face – with the power of clarity. Some critics may argue that we’ve heard all this before but hopefully this time we’ll listen to the present-day voice of Cassandra.
368 pages and Kindle typical time of non-speed reading of it is 7 hours and 6 minutes but with this in-depth summary, you’ll be up to speed on it in minutes (especially if you just read the micro-summary of this summary at the end of the blog or watch Harari talk about his new book).
On your future career prospect: soon you might not have one
“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. The revolution of automation and AI will make humans redundant from all sorts of fields from truck-drivers to lawyers to accountants to teachers and so on.
“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: change is the only constant and learning to learn is the top skill to master
“The now century-old model of production-line school education is bankrupt.” AI the ultimate master machine learning 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.”
This chapter on education is most interesting to me because of my interest in accelerated learning and education. In it, Harari charts the past and future of the education and what we should be doing now to ensure that the quality of education, information and knowledge is enhanced as opposed to degraded. The advice he gives to a 15-year old is: “don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world.” What should you rely on then? Technology? Not really. Biotechnology, machine learning and the algorithms? No. Should you rely on yourself then? If you know yourself, maybe – by most people don’t know themselves and are products of external influences because we’re living in the era of hacking humans. “To succeed in such a daunting task, you need to work hard on getting to know your operating system better.” But hurry, because your competition (Google, Amazon, Coca-cola, Facebook, Baidu, Netflix, Match or eHarmony, governments, religions, etc) is racing to hack you first.
Learning to learn or self-learning is the most important skill you’ll be relying on in order to reinvent yourself and face uncertainty and unknown leading to 2040.
The world today: boiling
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”.
“Unfortunately history gives no discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids – you and they will not be exempt from the consequences.”
Climate change, technological disruption, bioengineering and AI – real threats to humanity
Harari suggests that the conversation should be about real threats to humanity such as climate change, technological disruption, bioengineering (DNA editing) 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. “We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.” The real threat of AI – shared by modern Cassandras such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jennifer Doudna, Stephen Hawking, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Google and others as well as Yuval Noah Harari – is that AI with machine learning algorithms can write an algorithm that will help it to become self-conscious, like humans, and will start writing encrypted software that is beyond human understanding, which already has been happening according to Google where they don’t fully understand how their ML (machine learning) is doing what it’s doing. A prophetic and quite scary quote from Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous (a 70-year old book) comes to mind: “When a machine knows itself it is then no longer a machine, at least, not such a machine as it was before. It already begins to be responsible for its actions.” If you’re thinking of simplistic preventive solutions to AI taking over the world such as just unplugging the computer and adding some safeguards – think twice – AI is learning how to lie and deceive like humans which are key essential qualities in any warfare. So, if AI can beat anyone in tactical games such as chess or go in seconds…and everything is online connected… what then, when artificial intelligence becomes conscious? Will humans lose control of the infrastructure of society? Or will AI decide it doesn’t need humans at all (like we’ve been doing to many species for a long time without fully understanding the consequences ie the ecological collapse).
On nationalism: global politics needed
Another issue Harari 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. Harari 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.
“We need a new global identity because national institutions are incapable of handling a set of unprecedented global predicaments.”
On ownership and data: who owns the data owns the future
“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.” and “entire countries and continents might become irrelevant”, not to mention classes of people as suggested in his previous book (inevitable automation and AI will create in a new “useless class” of people, unemployable in a post-work world). Data about people will be the most valuable thing, especially in politics but it’s probably too late since we have given it away already “in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. It is a bit like African and Native American tribes who unwittingly sold entire countries to European imperialists in exchange for colourful beads and cheap trinkets.”
On humanity: story-making machine
“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 highlights, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Humanity is evolving from magic/mythic stages of development to the rational, world-centric and pluralistic phase and seeing what those myths are and how they work is part of the process.
On immigration: some cultures might be better than others
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.
On terrorism: no need to panic
Harari explains and puts it all in perspective 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. Fear is a contagious and immobilising emotion and that is what the terrorists want us to feel – and overreact. He suggests shifting from panic and prophecies of doom to bewilderment which is more clear-sighted. (In 1973, an MIT computer predicted the end of civilization by 2040 and so far, it’s on target).
On war: human stupidity is a powerful force
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). Having said 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 and the real threat of a nuclear war is still there because of human stupidity (and if terrorists get hold of it). The future of war is AI arms race and whoever will win it will rule the world.
On Brexit: “after centuries of terrible bloodshed, French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony only to have the British public throw a spanner in the miracle machine” — and warning that if “humans choose to privilege national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.”
On truth: post-truth and fake news, not that new
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.”
On religions: God now serves the nation
“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. “To the best of our scientific knowledge, all these sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo sapiens. They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures.” He suggests to see what they are and throw off the false faiths of institutional religions.
On resilience: can’t be learnt from a book
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. He believes that emotional intelligence, mental resilience will be needed more than anything else, especially in the new education system that needs to emerge as a result of all the changes that are happening. The old education system is not adequate for the challenges facing us up to 2040. He senses that the future of education is more about learning to learn than learning specific skills or collecting knowledge as such because we’ll have to reinvent ourselves all the time. And that’s where resilience comes in – the ability to bounce back from any challenge or crisis that might come our way.
He mentions that studying philosophy can help with mental resilience because philosophy teaches us how to think better and how to imagine possible and unknown scenarios. Having said that, he believes that we’re approaching a point in the history of humanity when we won’t be able to imagine the future worlds beyond the next 20-50-100 years because of the singularity when our biology and technology will merge. Once the technology will re-engineer human imagination, by definition we won’t be able to imagine what will happen after that.
On meditation: just observe what’s going on
“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 and goes to meditation retreats). “Clarity is power.” Meditate to get more clarity and a broader long-term perspective. “Mediation is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality.” and it a way of understanding reality and a way of understanding yourself and “your operating system”.
Mediation also helps to have a big picture and broad perspective on life (right brain approach) as well as focus on details (left hemisphere approach). Having a big picture is very important now, especially in the times when the left-brain approach has dominated the western thought and culture and we’re losing our peripheral vision. This echoes what Dr Iain McGilchrist is saying in his monumental book ‘The Divided Brain – Asymmetry of the Brain and Human Meaning’
And on the meaning of life… subscribe to a story/myth/faith or just make up your own (humans are meaning-making machines)
Who am I? What should I do in life? What is the meaning of (my) life? It is entirely up to you. Life is about discovering yourself and creating yourself.
“A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.’”
In a nutshell: the micro-summary of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Harari thinks that there are three main threats to human civilisation:
1) nuclear war,
2) climate change/ecological collapse and
3) technological/biological disruption.
Harari’s key suggestions are:
• to start the conversation about all the above threats because these global problems can have only global solutions (and stop nuclear and climate threats),
• get real – throw off the false faiths of institutional religions and
Is it tough enough to navigate the 21st century? Well, it’s a start. Harari hopes that 21 lessons will help people to have more clarity and more awareness about what’s going on in the world today and what urgent and relevant questions and discussions we need to focus on now as well as choices and consequences Homo Sapiens can take for the new directions that humanity is facing.
About Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari is one of the world’s leading public intellectuals and voices for rationality and reason as well as an important present-day Cassandra worth listening to. Yuval is an Israeli historian and a tenured professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he was teaching an introductory course on world history which he took because no other professor was keen to do it (probably they regret that now) which resulted in the bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Key chapters of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Part I: The Technological Challenge
1. DISILLUSIONMENT The end of history has been postponed
2. WORK When you grow up, you might not have a job
3. LIBERTY Big Data is watching you
4. EQUALITY Those who own the data own the future
Part II: The Political Challenge
5. COMMUNITY Humans have bodies
6. CIVILISATION There is just one civilisation in the world
7. NATIONALISM Global problems need global answers
8. RELIGION God now serves the nation
9. IMMIGRATION Some cultures might be better than others
Part III: Despair and Hope
10. TERRORISM Don’t panic
11. WAR Never underestimate human stupidity
12. HUMILITY You are not the centre of the world
13. GOD Don’t take the name of God in vain
14. SECULARISM Acknowledge your shadow
Part IV: Truth
15. IGNORANCE You know less than you think
16. JUSTICE Our sense of justice might be out of date
17. POST-TRUTH Some fake news lasts for ever
18. SCIENCE FICTION The future is not what you see in the movies
Part V: Resilience
19. EDUCATION Change is the only constant
20. MEANING Life is not a story
21. MEDITATION Just observe