Historian Yuval Noah Harari made a name for himself with his successful non-fiction book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. A very readable and easy to understand view of the rise of humanity, yet also brimming with fresh perspectives. Then Harari showed great interest in the future of our species and wrote Homo Deus, in which he conceived of new technologies, new politics and beliefs; the philosophies of the future. That book remained rather abstract; a bundle of educated guesses about what might or might not come to pass, and were hard to connect to the current age. Harari now connects the whole story with a book about our present times. 21 lessons for the 21st Century fills in the dots between Sapiens and Homo Deus and offers balanced ideas about what is happening in 2018, what might happen in the near future and how we can prepare ourselves.
I’d like to contrast this book with Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, because Pinker is insistent that everything keeps going better and better and the world is getting saver and saver, all on average of course, with the occasional blips and not evenly spread around the planet. He points to the ideals of enlightenment thinking, which found its way into the politics of liberalism, and he maintains that as long as we hold fast to those enlightenment ideals, particularly rights and liberty, the world will continue to improve for everyone.
Harari starts his perspective from a different place. Looking at the political upheavals of the 20th century, he sees that liberalism came out as victorious against fascism and communism and seemed the only global political vision left in the 1990s, the “end of history”. But liberalism as it exists today seems unable to deal with two major crises of our current time: that of rapid technological disruptions and ecological collapse. Things went well as long as everyone could hope for a slice of an ever-expanding pie, but we have reached the limits of what the planet can handle, and technological disruption such as by IT is going to turn the world upside down. Harari addresses 21 challenges that our current political systems are not prepared for and argues that we need new beliefs, new movements, to deal with them.
A couple of challenges relate to technological disruptions. Imagine a world of automation and AI taking over millions or billions of jobs. Imagine that these millions or billions of people become economically irrelevant, and that algorithms can not only perfectly predict but mold and influence their opinions. And then every little tidbit of information about you, down to biological sensors, is collected. The main question then becomes: how will data, the power and currency of the future, be regulated? Will there be digital dictatorships, like China expanding its social control? And imagine that medical treatments for longevity and greater intelligence are available too, but expensive. Will the upper class, already in control of data, form a distinct biological caste, racing ahead from the masses of humanity in an ever-widening split?
The first chapters are full of doomsday scenarios, which is inevitable if your book is about “lessons”. IT and AI might lead to Big Brother scenarios; strong nationalism spells doom for dealing with nuclear and ecological challenges. These are not predictions but warnings, and I have a feeling that this is not such a balanced view of the future. In fact, I think the average person gets enough doomsday scenarios through daily reading on the internet and in that sense I am not sure how useful this book is, besides making us all even more depressed.
With some technological developments, I think Harari has his head in the clouds. For example, he makes a valid point that nationalism is not a useful framework to deal with world-spanning technological changes of the coming decades, but he contrasts nationalism with a cosmic view of the transformation and disappearance of our entire species, artificial life, Frankenstein creatures and technological singularities. Which may happen eventually, but are rather vague and unconvincing reasons today to push back against nationalist isolationism.
Overall, most of Harari’s chapters – the 21 lessons – are not as fresh and new as many of his ideas in Sapiens and Homo Deus. He repeats a lot, not only his own ideas but also those of many other writers working today, and his short essays on issues such as war, terrorism and religion are very general in outlook and even while his perspective is sometimes interesting – such as that it is so much harder today to wage a successful war – the essays resolve themselves to simple views such as “war exists because humans are stupid”. Many chapters feel like extended blog posts about barely connected topics, and hardly feel relevant for the focus of the book: the 21st century.
The second half of the book is stronger in quality. Once Harari starts tackling more abstract concepts such as truth, justice and finding meaning in your life, the book feels less scattered and the chapters are less like summaries. I finally begin to understand what he means with a cosmic perspective and why he keeps bringing it up, but I don’t fully share his starry-eyed expectations of singularity-style futurism with cyborgs and super smart AI. He sounds like a writer from the 50s saying that we will all live on Mars in the year 2000. And part of his discussion, the urgency behind some of his lessons, depend on you sharing his expectations. So, I didn’t always agree with him, but that’s all right.
His strongest arguments are about trying to rise above the stories that divide peoples, mainly nationalism and religions, and about calls for self knowledge and emotional resilience in the face of a constantly and quickly changing world. We might need to keep learning and keep reinventing ourselves throughout our lives just to stay economically and socially relevant.