21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.
Penguin Random House. 372pp
Oxford-educated lecturer in history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yuval Noah Harari established his credentials with two bestsellers.
Sapiens was a reflection of mankind’s progress through history, from the discovery of fire to the creation of cyborgs. Homo Deus detailed the 21st century uncoupling of human intelligence from consciousness as our burgeoning data-processing networks plot our behaviour to know what we want before we know it ourselves.
Now Harari presents his third book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, as a framework for confronting these fears and giving our lives meaning in the decades and centuries ahead.
He bases this on one big idea – that human beings will change more in the next hundred years than they have in all of their previous existence. This will come about largely through a combination of biotechnology and artificial intelligence. In the process, says the author, we will see our present concepts of life, consciousness, society, laws and morality all upended. Yes, it is scary.
The 21 lessons of the title cover a huge range within the fields of technology, politics, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. They actually comprise a selection of themed articles already published by the author in several international journals.
Professor Harari suggests that as more of the world becomes tailored around individual personality traits and interests, people will become passive recipients of decisions offered by artificial intelligence. Our independence and capacity for free thinking will fade away. Based on casual observations of my fellow Vancouver transit passengers, I suspect this process is already well under way.
It gets discomforting when Harari points out that the individualism on which democracy and capitalism depend may fade away. That would mean changes in the way political leaders are chosen, how inequality is treated and how young people are educated. He plainly says that critical thinking and free will are going to end up enshrined in computer code.
Our machine-learning systems already utilize data to sort out obscure patterns and solve tricky problems. Google, Facebook and Tencent already hold humongous amounts of information on public preferences, intentions and activities. Harari considers this the most important political question of our era, and points out that, unless it is answered soon, “our sociopolitical system might collapse”.
The way to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, says the author, is to regulate the ownership of data. There is nothing in the book which shows us how exactly to do that. Sprinkled throughout the text are many recommendations, including a three-prong strategy for fighting terrorism and a few tips for dealing with fake news. The last item includes this gem: “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion”.
The book correctly identifies climate change as a huge challenge to humanity but, perhaps contrary to prevailing majority opinion, Harari sees this through the lens of nationalism. Says he: “When it comes to climate, countries are just not sovereign”. Despite glowing speeches and podium thumping at UN gatherings, countries act primarily in their own interests. Kiribati has GHG emissions close to zero, yet now has to deal with the impacts of climate change caused by US and Chinese emissions. Russia has few coastline assets and so is much less concerned about sea-level rise and coastal ice thaw than China and, in fact, might even welcome the changes as it opens Arctic sea-lanes and enhances Siberian agricultural productivity.
The book’s essential thesis is that our global problems stem from our dominant ideology which is human liberalism, and that in turn is constructed on the myth of the self. Harari points out that neuroscientists, psychologists, mystics and philosophers all have had a run at describing our core – our fundamental being – and all have come up empty. That is because the self is really only a fabrication, shaped inside by biological processes and from the outside by culture. In Harari’s estimation there isn’t any right or wrong, only mythic cultural belief systems that invariably undergo change.
The book will disappoint many readers more attuned to the quick remedies of the internet and the sugar pills of social media. It offers no high tech solutions to global problems, no silver bullets, no platitudes. If the essential issue is ego then the solution lies in removing it. The wise men of the East taught followers to pay little attention to the grasping, contracted ego and instead put their faith in pure consciousness. In that metaphor the ocean ceases to identify itself as an individual wave, and dissolves back into the unbounded bliss of its true identity.
I’m guessing all this advice will go largely unheeded by my fellow transit passengers and by most readers, but it makes perfect sense to Yuval Harari who is an ardent student of Vedanta. As he admits “ I could not have written this book without the focus, peace and insight gained from practising Vipassana for fifteen years.”
Take that, Techies!
Reviewed by Stan Hirst, 2019