Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

You’ll have to forgive Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century for its title. In our age of listicles and countdowns vying for our attention across the internet, there’s a reasonable amount of skepticism that any reader should take into reading a book that professes to offer answers to societal and global ailments, let alone in our current attention-deprived and answer-seeking culture. However, after an ambitious (and wildly successful) examination of the past million-odd years of human history (Sapiens), as well as a reasonable perspective on the possibilities of next 100 years (Homo Deus), it makes sense that Harari would shift his focus to the present day. By pulling liberally from the central theses of his previous books and drawing on the research and reporting of others, 21 Lessons is a very convincing call to action (and inaction) for the globe, states, corporations, and individuals. However, my fear is that it will almost certainly fall on deaf ears in all of the aforementioned groups, for the very reasons outlined in the book itself.

21 lessons

While the book is neatly organized across 21 chapters spread across 5 parts, the book is principally an exploration of several key ideas, and an application of those core beliefs to subjects of global relevance. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century draws liberally from its two predecessors in these ideas: from Sapiens (the importance of stories / fictions in creating widespread cooperation), and Homo Deus (the looming potential of biological inequality and castes), to try and draw attention to how we find ourselves at an extreme pivot point – faced with global existential challenges yet polarized, factionalized, and looking to build walls and close doors. As Harari explains, the three major stories of early 20th century (liberalism, fascism, and communism) contracted into two with the fall of Hitler, and one following the fall of the Soviet Union leaving us with the Fukuyaman End of History and the triumph of liberalism. However, growing resentment across the world has poked holes in the inevitability of liberalism, and now we’re left with no story. This is the principal context of 21 Lessons.

The first fifth or the book, entitled “The Technological Challenge,” makes a compelling and thought provoking case for the looming confluence between biotech (the ability of computers to assist us in understand our own bodies and biologies) and infotech (the ability of computers to process, interpret, and learn from massive data sets, including algorithms, AÍ machine learning), and how this technological revolution will fundamentally revolutionize society as we know it. As artificial intelligence continues to improve, most jobs will become obsolete, as even so-called “creative” fields like music composition can become the domain of machines. Even more imaginatively, merging the history of music with intimate knowledge of indicators within our own bodies and emotions will create a uber-intelligent DJ tailored to your needs: providing songs and playlists conditioned to your personality and current mood.

While this narrative follows much of the recent discussions on automation and the need for retraining and redistribution, Harari manages to advance the discussion significantly by framing the debate in both political and global terms. As Harari explains, advances in industry beckoned the rise of democracy and communism, creating more equal societies and supplanting monarchies and feudalism, as humans (in masses) were needed to fulfill the demand for labor. However, in the “technology” era, the need for human labor will be significantly diminished, and computers will be able to make the “best” decisions for a given society or state, removing the impetus and need for a decentralized decision-making structure (e.g., democracy).

Solutions like universal basic income, while potentially useful in select states, will no reasonably travel across borders, especially not to places with high levels on unskilled labor and little-to-no natural resources, such as Bangalore or Bangladesh. Tax revenue from corporations at the vanguard of industrial intelligence, such as Google, will have limited taxation in places like this, and there is little reason to expect any sort of generosity on the parts of the tax-levying countries. It will fall to the governments of these states to deal with the fallout of automation, to protect workers rather than trying to impede technological progress by protecting bygone industries and jobs. Even more pressing, Harari is concerned about the human capacity to manage this constant change and need for constant retraining and reimagination, declaring humans as having insufficient “mental stamina.”

Interestingly, Harari sees the Orthodox Jewish sections of Israel as example of a successful ‘post-work’ society. Per Harari, over 50% of Orthodox men never work, and the majority of the population is subsidized by the Israeli state. Despite this abject poverty, Orthodox Israelis are consistently polled as being more satisfied than Israelis with significantly more means, amounting to their purpose (studying biblical texts) and close-knit communities. In recent discussions with Israeli friends, they negate Harari’s ideal of the Orthodox in Israel, who are seen as living in squalor.

Even more bleak, Harari sees the unification of bio- and info-tech as not only leading to an elimination of political power, but also a shift from economic equality to biological inequality. As science continues to advance, the privileged will be able to augment their minds and bodies, and even extend their lives, leading to the Homo Deus moniker employed in Hararis’ second book. While gaps already exist in the health and wellbeing of rich and poor around the world, Harari’s Homo Deus concept would drastically exacerbate these indicators.

As seen in recent debates in Europe and the United States and explained by Harari, humans still have the power to control their destinies, in the form of their personal data. As infotech and biotech expand and improve, the importance of data will increasingly grow. Like human labor before it, the power of data lies in its breadth, as the data of a select few hundred (or even thousand) people is far insufficient to create reasonably successful algorithms. While humans  still maintain the power to control their data, Harari laments that “domesticated” humans are willingly ceding that power to corporations for minimal gains (e.g., Google Maps). Per Harari, this question who owns and is able to regulate data may be the most important question of our era.

The second fifth (“The Political Challenge”) frames the modern history of the world as a battle between competing ideologies and ideas: feudalism, communism, fascism, democracy, capitalism, all vying for supremacy against their respective foes. Harari contends that the world is dramatically more uniform than it has ever been, from a broad agreement on basic assumptions such as currency systems, medicine, and science, and even diplomatic norms, including regarding statehood and participation in international institutions like the United Nations. Even a state like North Korea, considered to be as foreign of a actor as we currently have, engages in bilateral trade with other nations, and even participates in international organizations like the Olympics and submits to nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, despite our growing uniformity, we are far from unified, as Harari lays out in chapters on nationalism, religion, and immigration. These three concepts are principally ones of identity, manufactured fictions by one’s religion or state leadership to drive mass cooperation and consolidate power. Along these lines, Harari contends that without these often-abhorred devices, it is more likely that we would descend into tribal chaos that achieve world peace.

Amid fomenting nationalism and religious fervor, Harari paints a picture of the three principal challenges of the near-term: the nuclear risk of existential elimination, the ecological challenge borne of climate change, and the aforementioned technological challenge. In all three cases, nationalism either prevents or runs counter to productive action, which require solutions on a global scale and widespread cooperation. In this way, nationalists around the world are clutching to an outdated and insufficient mode of thinking that moves us further away from answers to these massive problems.

The third fifth (“Despair and Hope”) continues along the lines of the second (I’d contend that the chapter on ‘Immigration’ actually belongs in this section), touching on war and terrorism, God, and ultimately, our need for humility. The book drags a bit in this section, and reads more so as one-off philosophical proofs or debate club arguments seeking to further outline Harari’s worldview rather than advance the aforementioned discussions. Each chapter reads as a short essay on a specific topic: why terrorism is massively effective in its impact, but mostly under control, why wars fought over land and power are mostly of the past, why claims in the name of “God” are biased towards the behavior of its devotees, and finally, why secularism’s key tenets of minimizing pain and doubt are compatible with other ideologies, push the reader to change their minds, or at least their conception of these concept. However, they are all arguments that are convincingly made elsewhere, and do not substantively add to the book’s central premises.

Where the does succeed is in its last two fifths, entitled “Truth” and “Resilience,” which seek to provide answers to some of the presented problems, or at least the tools to pursue them head-first. Harari offers scant, but useful solutions that should be heeded, including paying money for the information you consume (otherwise you are submitting yourself to data collection and manipulation), engaging with the scientific literature behind the issues that are important to you, and most captivatingly, encouraging scientists to write science fiction (to be adapted into popular films) that contend with the aforementioned questions of AÍ, bioengineering, and climate change in order to raise popular awareness of these looming crises.

However, Harari doesn’t portend to have the answers for what’s to come, and explains the need for humility and ignorance in talking the challenges to come. Harari’s ignorance is worn like a badge of honor: as he mentions regarding his conception of the near future: “if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably false. But then again, if somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction it is certainly false: change itself is the only certainty.”

For a book this massive in scope and intention, it does feel like Harari’s inclination is to shrug in the face of it all: humans are creatures programmed by their emotions that naturally cling to their communities and identities to preserve meaning, and are unlikely to change their behavior if faced with facts. As mentioned throughout, Harari doubts our capacity as humans trapped in the matrixes of our own minds as capable of contending with this world of “discontinuity,” and recommends that we seek out pharmaceutical and psychological innovations, as well as more timeworn solutions (more on that below) to contend with these changes. In discussing “meaning,” he rejects any notion that the universe has any design or plans for us as individuals, rather emphasizing the need for us as individuals to construct our own meaning from the universe itself.

21 Lessons is a much more personal book than relatively straightforward histories of Sapiens and Homo Deus, touching on his identity to illustrate his points. For example, the chapter on humility (again, I’m choosing to include this in the Truth section – maybe the book could’ve used a better division?) on “Humility” deals with his Jewish identity to illustrate the false superiority and overstated importance that we place on our “tribe’s” importance in human history, and our to ascribe our own individual superiority by association. In the case of the Jews, despite his formative education otherwise, Harari capably explains that the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment” and the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes won by Jews were the result of the groundwork laid by “Gentile thinkers” laying the groundwork, and more broadly engagement with secular ideals. It’s an effective case study that I believe is even more credible by bringing his experience into the picture, though then again, maybe as a Jew myself, I’m just identifying with the specific line of argument due to my knowledge of the subject.

In addition, there’s an expectation on Harari’s part maybe that the book is meant for open minds, the types of people who are overly likely to be among the last to succumb to these massive societal shifts. Harari himself acknowledges himself “checking his privilege” and attempting to widen his scope to address the issues of the most needy and first impacted. However, many of his solutions seem directed at this privileged class: the business, civic, and societal leaders. In this way, 21 Lessons almost be interpreted as an exercise in empathy, sympathy, and (maybe) action in the face of massive change.

Harari ends the book with a personal essay on his experiences with meditation, which he initially began as a 24-year-old graduate student frustrated by the narrow focuses of the University and a lack of answers for questions of mortality. As Harari explains, he has become a devotee of meditation in the years since, committing to two hours of meditation daily and one-to-two months of retreat a year. Reading this chapter last, it’s clear that his worldview, of focus on the infinitesimal, the individual, and the calm presented in the face of these imminent and longer-term catastrophes, as well as his solutions for these issues (“de-domesticating” as humans, developing mental fortitude) is informed by his study of meditation. However, I don’t see this as discrediting whatsoever, and in fact just a further endorsement of the powerful of mindfulness to those who commit themselves to a lifelong practice void of expectations.

It’s not a book that was necessarily asked for (in fact, in the acknowledgements Harari admits that his Penguin Random House UK editor “first came up with the idea for this book”), but amid our current age of identity-based politics and internecine conflicts – between religions, nations, races, classes, ages, etc – it’s a worthy call for unity and a call collective embrace of the futility of many of these fights,

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