21 Lessons for the 21st Century By Yuval Noah Harari

Name of the book: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Author: Yuval Noah Harari

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” book by Yuval Noah Harari is an amazing book that provides amazing facts, insights and bird’s eye view of many aspects of global world. This book was published by: Jonathan Café, London in 2018. The author has divided the book into five parts comprising 21 chapters. The five parts are: The Technological Challenge; The Political challenge; Despair and Hope; Truth and Resilience.
Firm postmodernist with liberal worldview and inclined to Buddhist meditation of Vipassana; the author has analysed the current events and future projections. The author rightly states: “In the word deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.” Observing twentieth century, author sums up well: “At the close of twentieth century it appeared the great ideological battles between fascism, communism and liberalism resulted in the overwhelming victory of liberalism.” In other words: The fascist story, the communist story and the liberal story.
“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.” The change is evident: “Open roads, stout bridges and building airports replaced walls, moats and barbed wire fences.” Liberalisation and globalization are considered as huge racket empowering a tiny elite according to many. This era suddenly left without any story is terrifying as liberal political system of industrial era is unable to handle revolutions in information technology and biotechnology. Globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning are contemporary challenges. In this context, many people are thinking that they are losing their economic worth. People are struggling against irrelevance rather than against exploitation. “At the end of the day, human kind won’t abandon the liberal story, because it doesn’t have any alternative.” However, there is nostalgic fantasies (nationalism) about some local golden past.
The machine learning will be a real game changer. Humans have physical and cognitive abilities. Machines competed with humans in physical abilities. Now machines could replace human drivers, banker and lawyers. The author cleverly writes that there is no ‘Free Will’ which is a biblical concept; “but rather from billions of neutrons calculating probabilities within a split second. Vaunted human intuition is in reality ‘pattern recognition’.” It is possible for computers to outperform human psychiatrists and bodyguards in 2050. These computers have an advantage of connectivity and updatability. AI doctors could provide far better and cheaper healthcare for billions of people. Self-driving cars will not be affected by alcohol abuse, speeding, distracted drivers. Hence reduce accidents. Government ought to protect human – not jobs. Human care industry and creativity jobs will increase. Need for high-skilled workers for maintenance of remote control, data analysis and cyber security.
“A profession for life’ is antediluvian. Jobs may appear and disappear within a decade. How it is possible to organize labourers? People will suffer from ‘Insufficient mental stamina’ to learn new job and adapt to new technology. There is a possibility of: Post-work societies, post-work economies, and post-work politics. Struggle against irrelevance rather than against exploitation.
Government could tax billionaires, robots and corporations and provide Universal Basic Income (UBI) – (the capitalist paradise) or Government could subsidise universal basic services rather than income. (the communist paradise)
Liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and follow their hearts. “Referendum and elections are always about human feeling and not about human rationality.” The reason is most people do not understand the issues. Algorithms could take decision on behalf of us: Netflix recommends movies and Google Maps directs our paths. Comparing humans like ‘tiny chips’ he writes humans are: “tiny chips inside a giant data-processing system that nobody really understands.”
One million people die in road accidents. Philosophers, prophets and priests are unable to preach ethics to these drivers. Engineers convert philosophy of ethics into a practical problem of engineering – design driverless cars. Digital dictators could emerge– biometric bracelet that could monitor everything a person do and say.
“AI might eliminate the economic values and political power of most humans.” Some groups monopolize the fruits of globalization. “Globalization will unite the world horizontally by erasing national borders, but it will simultaneously divide humanity vertically.” Google or Facebook provide some services or information or entertainment free – ‘attention merchants’; and then resell our attention to advertisers. People are willing to give personal data for free email services.
The work of the church is being challenged with regards to community building. “Facebook will lead the charge to rebuild these communities and that his engineers will pick up the burden discarded by parish priests.” People live a ever more lonely lives in an ever more connected planet. Author provides an important insight: “During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies. We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening to cyberspace than in what is happening down the street.” People thus estranged feel alienated and disoriented.
Should people abandon multi-cultural dreams in favour of xenophobic local identities? Politicians are ‘catering to the fears and hopes of alienated modern youth rather than to those of medieval peasants and merchants.’
Author asserts: “War spreads ideas, technologies and people far quickly than commerce.” In Olympics, athletes are divided according to nationality not by religion, class or language. All national anthems confirm to a universal model, short, could be performed by common people. All national flags are rectangular except for Nepal which is Triangle. “For the dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides.” Author states: “People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff there is similarity – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilization.”
“Ancestors lived in small intimate communities, numbering no more than a few dozen people.” Tribes came together as nations to build dams, regulate flow of water, build grain storages, transport system…etc. Ultra-nationalism is not just thinking they are unique, but thinking they are ‘supreme’. Ultra-nationalism can create animosity and war.
Nuclear war is future potential while climate change is present reality. Common enemy could enforce common identity, now for the globe; nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption are common enemies. “We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics.”
For the author, though religions are myths, but provides mass identities. This mass cooperation could be harnessed for larger good.
Immigration would be a hot issue: “As more and more humans cross more and more borders in search of jobs, security and a better future, the need to confront, assimilate or expel strangers strains political systems and collective identities that were shaped in less fluid times.”
Terrorism should not be given a higher important than it deserves. “Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and shake huge political structures such as the European Union or the United States.” Diabetics kills 3.5 million people while air pollution kills 7 million people. But people fear terrorist attack than sugar or polluted air. Terrorists aim is to create fear rather than material damage. Fly destroys a China shop by entering in the ear of a bull, which in turn destroys the shop. As terrorists are weak, they provoke nations to respond. Terrorists actions are theatrical spectacle. While combating terrorism we cannot think like army generals, but like theatre producers. Terrorists are like a small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise. Nuclear terrorism, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism would pose a much more, serious threat.
In agricultural society 15 percent of people died of violence. In twentieth century it was 5 percent. According to the author: Successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. Information era wars could be different: “Malwares and logic bombs could stop air traffic in Dallas, cause trains to collide in Philadelphia, and bring down the electric gird in Michigan.”
“Most people tend to believe they are the centre of the world, and their culture is the linchpin of human history.” Orthodox Jews claim: Yoga was invented by Abraham and all the basic yoga postures are derived from the shape of the letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Abraham taught these postures to the son of one of his concubines, wo went to India and taught yoga to the Indians. Genesis 25:6 is quoted as evidence and one of the ‘gifts’ was yoga. Similarly, all religious traditions have similar claims.
According to author, stories were invented by ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures. Author simply dubs all religions are myths. Interestingly he observes that St. Paul is the founder of Christianity. He claims: Christians wish to be true to compassionate spirit of Christ and not strict to the Word of God. Author defines morality as not following divine commandments but ‘reducing suffering’.
“Secular people do not believe in any gods or angels, do not go to churches and temples, and do not perform rites and rituals. As such, the secular world appears to be hollow, nihilistic and amoral – an empty box waiting to be filled with something.” Author defines secularism cardinal principles as: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. Secularism has its own version of morality with strange logic. “Rape is obviously unethical, not because it breaks some divine commandment but because it hurts people. In contrast, a loving relationship between two men harms no one, so there is no treason to forbid it.”
“Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows the best, free-market capitalism, believes that the customer is always right, and liberal education teaches students to think for themselves.” However, there is ‘the knowledge illusion’. “People appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chambers of like-minded friends and self-confirming message feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.” Because of ignorance author really states: “Modern democracies are full of crowds shouting in unison.”
One-person luxurious lifestyle is based on child labour in dismal Third World sweatshops. “The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed, but even more so from ignorance and indifference.” Most of the injustices in the contemporary word result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices. “For each group and subgroup faces a different more of glass ceilings, double standards, coded insults and institutional discrimination.”
In Post-truth world there could be ‘fake countries’ as entire histories and nations might be faked. “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion.” There is also ‘national mythology’ created by each nation. “In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people.” The onus is on the people: “It is the responsibility of all of us to invest time and effort in uncovering our biases and in verifying our sources of information.”
“People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realise that they are already trapped inside a box – their brain – which is locked within a big box – human society with its myriad fictions.” Inside Out Disney land movie dismantles ‘self’. Author sadly concludes: “Escaping the narrow definition of self might will become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.”
Many schools focus on cramming information. Now information is available easily accessible. The problem is to understand what real, true information is and what is misinformation. Schools should switch to teaching four Cs: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity.
Hacking humans: Corporates or government ‘knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain.’
Commenting on religious and national rituals author writes: “Almost anything can be turned into a ritual, by giving mundane gestures like lighting candles, ringing bells or counting beads a deep religious meaning.” “Similar rituals have been used for political purposes too. For thousands of years crowns, thrones and staffs represented kingdoms and entire empires and millions of people died in brutal wars waged over the possession of ‘the throne’ or ‘the crown’.” It was also acknowledged by Napoleon: “Napoleon famously observed that he could make men sacrifice their lives for a colourful ribbon.” Political tool of national worship is a powerful manipulating tool: “This worship of the nation is extremely attractive, not only because it simplifies many difficult dilemmas, but also because it causes people to think that they belong to the most important and most beautiful thing in the world – their nation.”
Liberal ideology also has its own myth: “According to liberal mythology, if you stand long enough in that big supermarket, sooner or later you will experience the liberal epiphany, and you will realise the true meaning of life.” Information era also has its own myth: “In the age of Facebook and Instagram you can observe this myth-making process more clearly than ever before, because some of it has been outsourced from the mind to the computer.”
“According to the Buddha, then, life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning.” Brilliant author alas, looks to the same Buddhism and practises: Vipassana – introspection. Vipassana – is based on the insight or belief that the flow of mind is closely interlinked with body sensations.
A good academically sound, well researched, analysed and brilliantly written book. Some of the conclusions and interpretations are not acceptable as the author brands all religions as ‘myth’ and creates innovative myths which he claims as scientific. To broaden our knowledge, this is a helpful book for all leaders.

  • Reviewed by J.N. Manokaran

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