21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids? These are among the many questions that historian and professor Yuval Noah Harari asks in the initial pages of his 2018 book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
While the title of this book suggests that the author will provide us with simple answers to modern-day problems, Harari quickly clarifies that this book is intended as a tool to stimulate further thinking and encourage participation in what he believes are some of the major conversations of our time. Harari begins with a high-level survey of today’s political and technological predicaments, two subjects that provide the foundation for this book.
Using seemingly amusing anecdotes, Harari reveals the more sinister effects of technology. He recounts the incident of a tourist in Australia driving his car straight into the Pacific Ocean because Google Maps directed him there to explain that our abilities are like muscles; if we don’t use them, we lose them. This isn’t restricted to our navigation skills; Harari speculates that our reliance on technology will strip us of our ability to make critical decisions, such as choosing a career or a spouse.
In the first half of the book, when Harari offers hope, he takes it away as quickly as he gives it. He warns us that we no longer have a physical or cognitive edge over machines and that developments in automation mean that we are on the verge of a terrifying upheaval. Fewer employees today anticipate working in the same job for their whole lives. He admits that while automation has disrupted many industries, unemployment is at an all-time low. Still, Harari insists that it would be a mistake to see this statistic as hopeful, arguing that ‘we cannot allow ourselves to be complacent’.
It is likely that by this point the reader’s mind will reflect the mood portrayed by the frantic list of questions in Harari’s introduction. Yes, we are now more informed, but what do we do with this newfound information? Harari offers little comfort when he tries to assure us: ‘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’.
It is in the final two sections of the book that Harari offers a framework to approach overwhelming global problems as well as a way to circumvent dread. Harari argues that the power of groupthink is stronger than we believe. Improvements in biotechnology and machine learning make it easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and following our heart is no longer a dependable strategy. The best way to recognize the difference between ourselves and marketing experts is to reevaluate narratives and understand ourselves. Harari credits meditation as a tool to aid this process, explaining that it is ‘why someone so skeptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning’.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a dizzying journey of anxiety and inspiration, often leaving the reader with more questions than answers. It is this quality that makes it a fitting book to begin revaluating your beliefs and biases when confronting the major forces that are likely to influence the future of our planet.