Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century // Yuval Noah Harari

How do seven billion humans co-exist in the world today? How can we live, as individuals and as communities, as nations and as part of belief systems, in a world that seems at a tipping point? Yuval Noah Harari breaks down many of these questions in his 2018 essay collection 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. In the three years since it was published, I was expecting the book to have dated: politics, ideas, and culture all move so fast that things become irrelevant within months.

I was totally wrong. Harari captures the pace of change through a focus on the immediate future, which is still out of sight for us all. He gives ideas as to what he thinks 2050 may look like, but more importantly, acknowledges that he’s probably wrong. He counsels for open thinking over direct and single-minded perspectives, countering his own arguments and dutifully trying to provide criticisms and positives to a variety of different belief systems.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is centred around the questions I raised earlier: how do we co-exist as a human race, as individuals, as communities, and as societies? Harari’s answer is through stories.

Many millennia ago, homo sapiens became the dominant species over the biologically superior Neanderthals because homo sapiens were able to coordinate in groups larger than their immediate acquaintances. Scientific studies have proven that our brains can’t cope with more than about 150 friends and acquaintances; but through stories, we can become part of a community on a much larger scale.

Stories give us an identity: both as individuals, and as part of a community. And we, as humans, need both in order to live.

And as we watched Brexit, we watched Trump, as we watch the news of anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, we see the stories that are holding together communities faltering and flailing.

Harari writes: “We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced new ones.”

This sums up our current moment well. As much as it’s become cliché, it seems as though we’re in a liminal moment, at a crossroads, and the decisions we’re having to take are simply too big and require too much coordination for the stories we currently rely on.

The stories Harari examines most closely are nationalism, religion, and liberalism. All of these narratives have value, both at individual and societal levels. But Harari demonstrates that none of these stories, ideas, or structures can cope with the two biggest problems he sees as facing humanity in the 21st Century: “ecological collapse and technological disruption.”

The problem of technical disruption to Harari means the rise of AI, and its threat to our physical and mental liberty. He writes:

“The algorithms are watching you right now. They are watching where you go, what you buy, who you meet. Soon they will monitor all your steps, all your breaths, all your heartbeats. They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. And once these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you, and you won’t be able to do much about it. You will live in the matrix, or in The Truman Show.

The stories that religion, liberalism, and nationalism provide simply don’t solve this problem. Religion’s offering, according to Harari, was originally the interpretation or explanation of events: providing a story. But these interpretations have largely been superseded by science, and religion’s main power is now in providing an identity for millions of people. Yet in providing this identity, it forms us into communities often of us versus them, good versus bad. In a globalised world, with global problems, this is simply not a sustainable solution.

Nationalism is another form of us versus them, and is even less suitable, as there are so many countries around the world. Again, as the problems we face are global, we need to work together to tackle them. And over the past millennium, we’ve not shown a good track record of being able to do so.

And lastly, liberalism. Harari says “liberalism has traditionally relied on economic growth to magically solve difficult social and political conflicts…by promising everybody a larger slice of the pie. With a constantly growing pie, that was possible. However, economic growth will not save the global ecosystem – just the opposite, it is the cause of the ecological crisis. And economic growth will not solve technological disruption – it is predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.”

Harari’s solution? We need new stories. And there are many out there. He considers communism and other secular stories: he considers them to have caused the ecological crisis we’re facing, and largely unable to reinvent themselves for the 21st century world.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century doesn’t answer the questions it raises, and perhaps that’s a good thing. It encourages us to go out and find our own answers, and more importantly, to think for ourselves.

Words by Anna Willis

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