In ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, with its sweeping set of topics, Yuval Noah Harari attempts to describe the core developments that have brought humanity to where it is today, and begins to ponder where it might go. It’s essentially a list of the challenges and future choices we, on a global level, are being confronted with and should be paying attention to. The topics are thought-provoking, some even contentious, such as the possibility that the wealthiest amongst us could use DNA-editing to create a distinct race of superhumans, something the English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has previously espoused upon.
An Israeli, Professor Harari made his name with the book ‘Sapiens’, first written in Hebrew in 2011. It was translated into English in 2014 and became a world-wide best-seller, featured on the influential reading lists of prominent figures such as US President Barack Obama, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
As a caveat, Prof. Harari is a firm-believer in evolutionary biology. This frames the book. To Prof. Harari, Religion, Nations, economic models such as Capitalism, Legal Entities and so much more, are constructs of our collective imagination. This ‘Cognitive Revolution’, as he called it in ‘Sapiens’, additionally frames the book. It’s what has made Humans unique (or Homo Sapiens specifically), this ability to collectively believe in shared myths that create trust between strangers and allow civilizations to rise.
While there are 21 chapters, each with a specific topic, many of these overlap within broader themes. Prof. Harari sees these as the Technological Challenge, Political Challenge, Despair and Hope (e.g. Terrorism and War), Trust (Ignorance and Fake News), and Resilience (Education and Meaning). Some of his conclusions – or possible future outcomes – can be somewhat frightening. In the wrong hands, for example, Big Data could be used to create what Prof. Harari calls Digital Dictatorships, where Artificial Intelligence knows more about us than we do, and is used to concentrate all wealth and power into the hands of a small elite. This small elite may go on to use technologies, such as CRISPR, to create a new race of superhumans. While this sounds like Science Fiction, Prof. Harari is capable of walking the reader through the various decisions and choices we could collectively make, or collectively ignore, that lead to these possibilities.
Very few of his other challenging topics necessarily have positive outcomes either. The rise of Nationalism, the intense disagreements amongst the various Religions and Cultures, only serve to divide us. Fake news and propaganda exacerbate potential confrontations. Where many of our problems need global solutions, we seem to be drifting further away from the ability to resolve those differences effectively.
Prof. Harari, unfortunately, provides very few solutions himself. Perhaps there aren’t many. He does offer hope, or perhaps more of a coping mechanism, in the final chapter entitled ‘Meditation’. It details Prof. Harari’s use of Vipassana meditation and how it has helped him to throw off the need to believe in stories, theories and mythologies and simply observe. Observe himself and observe humans, in general. In the very first sentence in the introduction to the book, Prof. Harari makes the statement that “clarity is power”, referencing one’s ability to wade through the deluge of irrelevant information we are faced with. Bill Gates, in his own review of the book, summarized that final chapter well. His belief is that ‘Mindfulness’, the observing of ourselves and how we contribute to suffering, while not a solution in itself, may at least help prepare us for the crucial conversations needed to tackle these global challenges.
As a recommendation, read that last chapter first, I found it will put the rest of the book in a better context.
Featured Images: Book Cover on Yuval Noah Harari’s website; Chapter Headings Graphic by the New York Times; Movie Still from ‘The Matrix’ by Markus Spiske;