Future proof yourself against the political, economic and cultural challenges of technology … 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

December 31, 2018

Sapiens was an obscure Hebrew-language history of humanity, translated into English in 2014, and then sold more than a million copies when Mark Zuckerberg included it in his 2015 reading list. Ridley Scott now wants to turn it into a TV series, whilst Barack Obama said it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted”. Most dramatically, its sales spiked when it was mentioned on reality TV show Love Island.

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century has become even more successful. Covering everything from war to meditation, fake news to climate change, it seeks to make sense of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. Life in 15th-century China was pretty slow, but now the pace of change feels unstoppable. Religion can be bad, but has its uses. Nationalism can be bad, but has its uses. Factory farming is very, very bad. Liberalism is good, but under threat. Hunter-gathering is a more exciting lifestyle choice than farming, or working in a factory. Technological advances bring big ethical dilemmas.

Harari’s big question is “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?” He contends that collective myths, such as money and laws, have allowed us to build huge, complicated societies far beyond what our biological limitations might suggest is possible. But in the secular west, religion is fading from public life. And in our globalised world, the idea of a coherent nation-state is threatened. What do we have left to believe in?

He uses evolutionary psychology as self-help: the world is a scary, fast-changing place, so it’s no surprise our savannah-trained ape brains struggle to navigate through it. We simply haven’t evolved to cope with automated checkouts and emailing after 7pm. “Why do we fear terrorism more than sugar?” Harari asks at one point. (Answer: terrorism is not delicious on porridge.) “Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality.” (he is nostalgic for the era of berry collection.) “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.” Microsoft “is an intricate legal fiction”.

Occasionally, Harari writes a paragraph that is genuinely mind-expanding. In the chapter on religion he says “Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles.” Cue a hundred military historians dropping their marmalade. Say what? “We know these missiles as the kamikaze.” The willingness of Japanese pilots to die made their military hardware more effective, and “was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shintō”. Humans are endlessly creative, goes the lesson, and sometimes we solve problems by changing the question rather than answering it. Beat that, AI.

Harari groups his 21 lessons, or essays, into five parts:

Part 1: The Technological Challenge

The first part of Harari’s book consists of four chapters, covering the topics of disillusionment, work, liberty, and equality.

The gist of it is stated in the subtitle of the main chapter:

Humankind is losing faith in the liberal story that dominated global politics in recent decades, exactly when the merger of biotech and infotech confronts us with the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered.

The first four lessons are:

#1. The end of history has been postponed
#2. When you grow up, you might not have a job
#3. Big Data is watching you
#4. Those who own the data own the future

Harari is interested here into how and to what extent computer technology is disrupting almost every single sphere of our existence.

His main point is that up to recently, we used computers and robots to automatize some mechanical processes. And that was not bad at all. However, we’re at a stage when automating cognitive processes is not anymore just a possibility, but also an inevitable part of the future.

Modern neuroscience has all but confirmed what we’ve feared for quite some time – namely, that even our brains maybe just machines. Exceptionally complex, but machines nevertheless. And if that is the case, not much time will pass before we build a God-Brain, a supercomputer which will know much more than us.

In that world, human intuition will have no value whatsoever, and all important decisions will be made by AI.

Don’t believe us? Just remember that back in the 1990s, nobody believed that computers will ever beat a human at chess. Nowadays, no chess player is capable of beating a computer. In fact, now computers are teaching humans to play chess.

So, prepare for a world ruled by AI.

Part 2: The Political Challenge

The second part of Harari’s book deals with the political climate of the 21st century, exploring the nature of present-day communities, civilizations, nationalism, religion, and immigration.

Once again, the main lesson is chilling:

The merger of infotech and biotech threatens the core modern values of liberty and equality. Any solution to the technological challenge has to involve global cooperation. But nationalism, religion and culture divide humankind into hostile camps and make it very difficult to cooperate on a global level.

The next 5 lessons are

#5. Humans have bodies
#6. There is just one civilization in the world
#7. Global problems need global answers
#8. God now serves the nation
#9. Some cultures might be better than others

To understand Harari’s analyses and opinions from this very important section of the book, you must first go back to Samuel Huntington and his “clash of civilizations” thesis, according to which, humankind “has always been divided into diverse civilizations whose members view the world in irreconcilable ways.”

In other words, the Western liberals and the Eastern Muslims are as different from each other as wolves and bears. “These incompatible world views make conflicts between civilizations inevitable… and only the fittest have survived to tell the tale.”

The very existence of such cross-cultural creations such as the European Union is evidence enough that this thesis is misleading. However, the current state of affairs unravels the dualistic existence of the modern world.

On one side, the great issues of this century – such as, for example, climate change and nuclear weapons – require a global community; on the other, immigration and nationalism form the basis of the defense mechanism of those threatened by globalization.

Part 3: Despair and Hope

The five essays which comprise the third part of Harari’s book try to answer some of the questions posited in the first two parts of 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury.

Aptly titled, the “Despair and Hope” chapter treats – in five essays – subjects such as terrorism, war, humility, god, and secularism, and ultimately boils down to this:

Though the challenges are unprecedented, and though the disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.

#10. Don’t panic
#11. Never underestimate human stupidity
#12. You are not the center of the world
#13. Don’t take the name of God in vain
#14. Acknowledge your shadow

As far as Harari is concerned, the best way a human being can keep its fears under control and be a bit more humble about his or her views is secularism, something which “can provide us with all the values we need.”

Unlike dogmatic stories – political or religious – secularism presupposes doubt and critical mindset, as well as a coherent set of values, such as equality, compassion, freedom, truth, courage, and responsibility. It also allows us to make these kinds of analyses.

During the past 17 years – meaning: since the 9/11 attacks – no more than 50 people are killed by terrorists in the European Union on a yearly basis. During that same period, 80,000 Europeans have died in traffic accidents.

So why are we talking so much about terrorism? Simply put, because we’re stupid and we’re playing the game terrorists want us to play. They are proverbially nothing more than flies on the bulls in a china shop. Unable to cause much damage themselves, they merely create a buzz so that the bulls cause it in their stead.

Part 4: Truth

If you ask us, this fourth part may be the most important one of the whole book, encompassing four enlightening essays on ignorance, justice, post-truth and science fiction.

The main lesson:

If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?

The four lessons here are:

#15. You know less than you think
#16. Our sense of justice might be out of date
#17. Some fake news lasts forever
#18. The future is not what you see in the movies

Harari’s starting point is one he has already analyzed in detail in Sapiens. Namely, that much of what we do and have accomplished is the result of our capacity to believe in fictions.

Comparing religion to what Donald Trump named “fake news,” Harari notes sarcastically that, “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, and we are admonished not to call it fake news in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).”

The point is simple: it is difficult nowadays to distinguish between facts and fiction, because every single aspect of our existence is so intricate and complex that not many people are able to understand it. Embracing our ignorance is the only road towards salvation. Because you’re helping nobody if you are talking about the war in Ukraine or climate change even though you are not that interested into politics and don’t know a single thing about meteorology.

Part 5: Resilience

The fifth part of Harari’s book is the shortest one, comprising only three essays on education, meaning, and meditation.

And instead of a lesson, it is framed by a very thought-provoking question:

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?

The final 3 lessons:

#19. Change is the only constant
#20. Life is not a story
#21. Just observe

What lies beneath them is an exploration of Harari’s personal understanding of how should one act in this age of bewilderment.

“Having criticized so many stories, religions and ideologies,” he writes, “it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so skeptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning.”

Completely aware of the fact that what works for him might not work for everybody, Harari shares his love of meditation and advocates it as an antidote to the chaotic world of today. In his eyes, there are no more over-arching stories to guide us through our day, but there have always been – and always will be – feelings that define our experience. And they stream through us. And it’s about time that we get to know them.

Our systems of education should mirror this thirst for self-discovery and teach us to critically analyze the world instead of merely teaching us to memorize facts and trivial data. The man of the future is the Skeptic, an always curious Socrates aware of his ignorance and ready to get to the bottom of it.

Key Lessons?

1.      The World Is Changing Faster Than Ever, and We’re Failing to Acknowledge This
2.      The Age of Bewilderment: Do We Have a Story?
3.      The 22nd Lesson: Be a Socrates

Change

The book tries to make sense of many political, social, and technological changes humankind faces at the moment. In the opinion of Harari, many of these changes are as inevitable as death and taxes, and yet very few people acknowledge that they are happening.

For example, automation all but guarantees a very recent future in which many people will be left without jobs, and, for some reason, neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton discussed this problem during the 2016 presidential campaign.

What they chose to talk about most was, say, terrorism, even though, essentially, this is basically unimportant topic and is, in fact, what terrorists want to achieve.

They are much more marginal than hundreds of groups of people, and yet, fighting against terrorism is the focus of American – nay, world – foreign policy ever since September 11.

In the meantime, Facebook has gathered data of just about everybody on the planet, automated cars are on the verge of eliminating the need of human drivers altogether, and religion has stopped being an important part of the lives of most Europeans.

So why are we still talking about free will, open jobs, and God?

Story

As stated above, the subtitle of the fifth part of Harari’s book posits a very important question: “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?” As Harari explained all too well in Sapiens, our species exists precisely because of these stories, fiction being “among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit.”

Everything – from money to religion to laws – is, in its essence, a big lie; but since these lies come with a story, and we are storytelling chimpanzees by our very nature, we’ve chosen to believe them. And we’ve made a good choice, since this has helped us create communities and civilization itself.

However, at present, we have a fairly serious problem: a large number of people are uninterested in believing these stories. Considering the fact that some of them – be that fascism or communism, nationalism or almost every single religion – have wreaked havoc on the world for millennia, this, according to Harari, may not be such a bad thing after all. “So,” he notes something Jordan Peterson would probably sign as well, “if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.”

“The answer is not a story,” he adds.

Socrates

So, what is it? Of course, Harari’s book doesn’t include a 22nd lesson; however, inspired by the Guardian review quoted at the very beginning of our summary, we felt compelled to add it, meshing a few of Harari’s insights into one very actionable advice.

And we feel that it’s good if we start explaining Harari’s point by quoting this passage from the 18thchapter of the book:

Unlike the creators of The Matrix and The Truman Show, Huxley doubted the possibility of escape, because he questioned whether there was anybody to make the escape.
Since your brain and your ‘self’ are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

In other words, we are our brains and it is impossible for us to escape them. So, in order to not be brainwashed, doubt everything! Admit your ignorance before yourself and be skeptical. Listen to each and every story – coming from many different people – and try to find cracks as often as you can. Understand your mind before the algorithms of tomorrow start making your mind up for you.

Contemplate, reflect, ruminate, muse, meditate.

Be a Socrates.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is for the 21-year-old recent graduate, who’s just starting her life as an adult in this century, the 53-year-old father, who feels lost amid all this new technology, and anyone who’s worried about our future. One reviewer said “I’d rather read one book like this each year than consume any news.”