#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * In Sapiens, he explored our past. In Homo Deus, he looked to our future. Now, one of the most innovative thinkers on the planet turns to the present to make sense of today's most pressing issues. "Fascinating . . . a crucial global conversation about how to take on the problems of the twenty-first century."--Bill Gates, The New York Times Book Review NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY FINANCIAL TIMES AND PAMELA PAUL, KQED How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children? Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today's most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future. As technology advances faster than our understanding of it, hacking becomes a tactic of war, and the world feels more polarized than ever, Harari addresses the challenge of navigating life in the face of constant and disorienting change and raises the important questions we need to ask ourselves in order to survive. In twenty-one accessible chapters that are both provocative and profound, Harari builds on the ideas explored in his previous books, untangling political, technological, social, and existential issues and offering advice on how to prepare for a very different future from the world we now live in: How can we retain freedom of choice when Big Data is watching us? What will the future workforce look like, and how should we ready ourselves for it? How should we deal with the threat of terrorism? Why is liberal democracy in crisis? Harari's unique ability to make sense of where we have come from and where we are going has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Here he invites us to consider values, meaning, and personal engagement in a world full of noise and uncertainty. When we are deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power. Presenting complex contemporary challenges clearly and accessibly, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is essential reading. "If there were such a thing as a required instruction manual for politicians and thought leaders, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century would deserve serious consideration. In this collection of provocative essays, Harari . . . tackles a daunting array of issues, endeavoring to answer a persistent question: 'What is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of these events?'"--BookPage (top pick)
I do agree with other reviewers that Harari doesn't have all the answers (who has?!), but he highlights and pinpoints the societal problems in such a way that definitely makes us pause and think. At first glance, Harari might seem a super skeptic, but in fact, he makes a lot of sense. I have never written out so many quotes from a non-fiction book (or any book for that matter) like from this one, which shows how many mind-boggling, important, radical, and, to some, sacrilegious ideas he has.
In his essay-like chapters he touches on a variety of subject, "lessons" he calls them - and not without reason. (He lost me a bit in the chapter on science fiction - but it's not his fault). I especially liked how, instead of lecturing, he converses with the reader. Also, it has to be mentioned that, like in "Sapiens", Harari continues to be very consistent with his objectivity - he attacks the weak points of ALL religions/nations/philosophies, including his own (Judaism and Israel). A very welcome surprise in the last chapter - on Meditation: to think that an author who seems to be brutally critical of so many things that Homo Sapiens represent, embraces meditation so fully - it has to stand for something (both in his favor and that of meditation!).
"By manufacturing a never-ending stream of crises, a corrupt oligarchy can prolong its rule indefinitely."
"During the latter part of the twentieth century, each generation—whether in Houston, Shanghai, Istanbul, or São Paulo—enjoyed better education, superior healthcare and larger incomes than the one that came before it. In coming decades, however, owing to a combination of technological disruption and ecological meltdown, the younger generation might be lucky to simply stay in place."
"What we are facing is not the replacement of millions of individual human workers by millions of individual robots and computers; rather, individual humans are likely to be replaced by an integrated network."
"Though they suffer from their own problems and limitations, and though some accidents are inevitable, replacing all human drivers by computers is expected to reduce deaths and injuries on the road by about 90 percent."
"The human care industry—which takes care of the sick, the young, and the elderly—is likely to remain a human bastion for a long time. Indeed, as people live longer and have fewer children, care of the elderly will probably be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the human labor market."
"The most successful ice cream vendors in the world are those that the Google algorithm ranks first—not those that produce the tastiest ice cream."
"In the twenty-first century, however, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, and politics will be a struggle to control the flow of data. If data becomes concentrated in too few hands, humankind will split into different species."
"Humans have bodies. 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 in cyberspace than in what is happening down the street."
"There is a scientific consensus that human activities, in particular the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, are causing the earth’s climate to change at a frightening rate. Unfortunately, as of 2018, instead of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the global emission rate is still increasing. Humanity has very little time left to wean itself from fossil fuels."
"Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups."
"People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged."
"We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries a Dalit—yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts forever."
Final chapter could be summarised as "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" [Hamlet], the basis of all cognitive therapy.
year of pies lessons of history
"Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading: down."
"We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data cows hardly maximize the human potential."
"[Facebook] and the other online giants tend to view humans as audio-visual animals - a pair of eyes and a pair of ears connected to ten fingers, a screen, and a credit card."
"We must realize that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to their provocations."
"Apparently ape leaders developed the tendency to help the poor, the needy, and the fatherless millions of years before the Bible instructed ancient Israelites that they should [do the same]..."
Harari’s third book discusses five challenges Harari believes to be facing our world (and our species) today: the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. Harari presents three to five essays as to each of these challenges, discussing them from various angles. It’s obvious from these essays that Harari is both a clear-eyed thinker and a good writer. He has obviously thought quite a bit about the challenges he presents. And he writes about them in an erudite, yet friendly and casual, style that seems virtually designed to appeal to today’s reader, especially those who “read” books via audiobook. And that’s both good and bad.
It’s good because too few of us spend much, if any, time thinking about the challenges our species may face in the future because of our actions today. We’re too wrapped up in the stress of our daily lives, and in trying to decompress and recover from that stress, to give much thought to the challenges we may personally face in the future, much less the challenges that may face our whole species. We need more authors such as Harari, more people alerting us to problems we may be creating before it’s too late to change course, more people getting us to think before we act.
But it’s bad because Harari seems overly cautious in his warnings, seemingly going out of his way not to offend anyone in his audience. He’s so inoffensive, even as to the groups he singles out as wrongly pursuing the irrational “solutions” to problems that have plagued our species since the dawn of time, and even as to the groups that he seems to believe to be creating the greatest risk to the future of our species, that I doubt that almost anyone whose actions Harari objects to will recognize themselves in his warnings. A prime example of this problem is evidenced by Harari’s popularity, and the popularity of this specific book, among the Silicon Valley tech elites against whom Harari warns his readers even more than he warns them about tribal religions or nationalistic political movements. Thus, the people who are (in Harari’s view) thoughtlessly creating the biggest risks for our species are also the ones who are most applauding his book, without recognizing themselves or pausing to think about the risks they are creating.
Perhaps Harari should have added a sixth section to his book about ego-centrism and how difficult it is to convince people to realize that they themselves, not just others, are a large part of the problem, that while they may view themselves as one of the good guys they are, in fact, one of the bad guys without realizing it. Perhaps Harari should have written a section that acts like Mitchell and Webb’s “Are we the Baddies?” comedy sketch, warning his readers that they, specifically, may be one of “the baddies” and need to slow down and more thoughtfully consider the consequences of their actions, both in their private lives and in their careers.
Harari may have been able to obtain the same result had he written more about potential solutions to the challenges that face our species and not just about those challenges themselves. And that, ultimately, is my gripe about Harari’s book. While he brings much-needed attention to a number of the challenges facing us, he doesn’t present any solutions. He doesn’t present the hard-choices we would need to make in order to avoid or solve the problems he flags. It allows his readers to view the problems as something either so large that there’s obviously nothing anyone can do about them, or as something for others to think about and solve. After all, if someone as intelligent, educated, and thoughtful as Harari – someone who has the luxury of spending hours each day thinking about these problems – can’t suggest any potential solutions, then what chance is there than any of his readers will do any better? Why bother trying at all. Let’s just wait to see what happens and hope for the best.
Harari writes in his introduction, “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try to offer some clarity, . . . .” I think Harari has indeed succeeded in bringing more clarity to the challenges that face our species today. But I hope Harari won’t be as nice to his audience in his undoubted fourth book, that he calls his readers out in no uncertain terms for what they themselves are doing to put us all at risk, and that he presents concrete steps we can all take to avoid succumbing to the challenges that face us, hopefully showing us how to avoid altogether the outcomes he fears. That would be a book worthy of being read for more than entertainment purposes.
Harari begins by noting that liberalism is in danger as a dominant narrative in the world, having been vitiated by disillusionment, disaffection, and distrust. These reactions have in part been caused by the revolutions in biotech and infotech. Many people feel as if their lives have lost relevance and significance. Just as Hitler and Stalin capitalized on similar feelings in the 1930s to direct anger and anxiety toward scapegoats, so too are populists today trying to exploit alienation and anomie to build their own power bases.
Totalitarian movements have always been bolstered by the way they help people feel like part of something bigger - a community of like-minded others. Today in a society with less interpersonal interaction than ever (in spite of superficial connections such as having many “friends” on Facebook), connections offered by belonging to the right or left are especially powerful because “real life” interactions don’t occur as much as virtual ones. Nevertheless, now one can have a “group” and “identity” and “significance.” On a broader scale, people are also encouraged to identify more with their nations and exhibit a national pride, even though it is counterproductive to deny the global interdependence of the world now.
Climate management, for example, must cut across borders, because the activities of one state or one country affect all the others. Much of the mass immigration movements are in fact driven by ecological problems such as drought and the resulting food shortages. Harari opines: “We now have a global ecology, a global economy, and a global science - but we are still stuck with only national politics.”
Harari’s discusses the many pros and cons of immigration and then segues into a discussion of terrorism, because much of the opposition to immigrants is based on false data about how many terrorist acts are committed and how many are (or are not) committed by immigrants. The actual numbers of each are much lower than fear-mongers allege. Harari points out:
“Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and rattle huge political structures… Since September 11, 2001, each year terrorists have killed about 50 people in the European Union, about 10 people in the United States, about 7 people in China, and up to 25,000 people elsewhere in the globe (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria). In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people per year. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terrorist attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?”
Terrorists think like theater producers, he says. They hold our imagination captive and use that against us. …Terrorists kill a hundred people - and cause a hundred million to imagine that there is a murderer lurking behind every tree.”
Thus we waste money, time, and political capital on fighting terrorism that could otherwise be invested in fighting global warming, disease, and poverty, inter alia.
But again, fear of immigrants can help bolster the power base of would-be dictators. Prejudice and racism have always had strong appeal, as they provide an easy explanation for why your life isn’t what you think it should be. Such appeals to baser instincts are both more potent and more surreptitious than in the 1930’s: today’s would-be dictators have tools Hitler could only dream about. Not only do they make full use of social media. They also co-opt the holders of much of the country's wealth by reducing taxes and marginalizing the poor. The wealthy in turn exhibit outsized influence on elections, and buy controlling shares in sources of news, enabling those in power to hide or distort their activities and cement their rule.
Promises by rulers such as Trump and Putin to make their countries “great” again are rooted in false narratives about the past and about the feasibility of denying the future. But they have no answers, Harari avers, to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption, especially from the increasing use of artificial intelligence in both the workplace and at home, and in the construction of our desires. Even when we feel we have “free will,” in fact our wills are being increasingly shaped by social media, advertising, and a search for “simple” answers in the face of too much complexity.
Harari addresses human stupidity (which “we should never underestimate”) as well as changes in education that might help remedy the situation. Our educational practices, he points out, were designed to serve the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of the Technological Revolution, memorizing facts is not only not nearly as important, but not as helpful as learning how to make sense of it all, through critical analysis and creativity.
Without knowing how to sift through and interpret the bombardment of information, humans tend to opt for easy answers, either through religious systems or political dogmas. Neither necessarily leads to greater tolerance, compassion, or even morality.
Evaluation: While much of this book is a critique of the current limitations in analysis by many people, the author does not hesitate to suggest a number of helpful changes that could be made. Above all, there is no shortage of stimulating ideas for readers to discuss with others.
Good but not great. I went into the book with high expectations given the reviews of Sapiens which I have yet to land a copy of. The book focuses on coming technological changes and how they will likely impact daily life and political life. One of Harari's big points is that the pace of our technological progress has so outpaced our moral and political progress that disaster is almost inevitable. I kept getting reminded of Ian Malcolm's quote in Jurassic Park where he says the scientists were so busy trying to figure out if they could bring dinosaurs back to life that they never stopped to ask if they should.
Harari goes through technologies like biotech and big data and demonstrates how much progress is being made in doing jobs that we once thought could only be done by people. This begs the question of what those people will do when the jobs are no longer there? What happens when there are very few actual "jobs" left when machines and algorithms go more accurately perform the work than people. Harari talks about self driving cars but then expands into fields like medicine and law, making a compelling argument that those professions are at risk too. Meanwhile, our political structure is utterly unequipped to work through the consequences of such change.
Other parts of the book deal with issues like the survival of political systems and issues like religion, immigration and terrorism. They are well written and interesting. However, it is hard to read the book and escape a sense of impending doom for the species. Harari himself says that it was not his goal to leave everyone pessimistic but the only actual suggestion he proposes for the litany of problems is meditation. It felt like a very thin straw to grasp for in the face of so many issues.
Recommended but not life changing.
These are all questions that are clearly of concern to each of us in the here and now. They also motivate many of the “lessons” discussed in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a volume that once again combines Yuval Noah Harari’s unique blend of history, science, philosophy, and anthropology. Unlike Sapiens, which explored mankind’s past 10,000 years, and Homo Deus, which projects humanity’s long-term future, this book purports to assess the major issues facing us in the present. Unfortunately, this exploration is neither wholly successful nor is it nearly as compelling as the author’s previous two efforts.
To be sure, there is a lot to like about what appears here. In particular, Harari’s discussion of the economic, legal, and social challenges created by the ascent of Big Data is very illuminating. Who owns the information summarizing our lives—or, perhaps more critically, who controls it—is indeed likely to be one of the major issues defining our near-term future. I also thought that the author’s interpretations of nationalism and secularism were insightful. Overall, he did a nice job of connecting several disparate themes into a cohesive bigger picture (e.g., a discussion of the importance of developing a global community is followed by an examination of nationalist sentiment which leads to a consideration of the immigration problem and then to the threat posed by terrorism).
The main problem I had with all of this is that major portions of the book were not especially original and often seemed like slightly reworked versions of arguments used in the author’s previous studies. For instance, the rise of biotech was thoroughly covered in Homo Deus and humankind’s use of rituals and ability to create useful fictions were essential parts of Sapiens. As such, there are really far fewer than 21 distinct lessons presented here, despite the volume containing 21 different chapters. Finally, the last two chapters involving the role of personal stories and the importance of meditation were woefully self-indulgent and had an off-putting pop-psychology/self-help feel to them. So, while 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is not at all a bad book, the reader might be better served by considering the author’s earlier work instead.
To my mind, he seems on much stronger ground, when he talks of the pernicious effects of the way religion is practised, the state of education etc. this is where the book comes alive.
It's definitely a book worth the reading. There is much to think about.
not as good as the 1st 2 books
I'm not sure what else Harari has to offer us at this point. He is too honest to pretend he has the solutions.
I read this book as part of a book club. This is a difficult book for me to rate. It's an interesting book, and I didn't find it a waste of time. I think the reason I don't view the book as positively as others do is that, well, even I could have written the book. It really was true - my view of the world matches the author's fairly well.
So why would I list that as a negative against the book? Because the author is a well established academic, with a particular area of expertise, and I am not. Yet, even I could have written this book. I was hoping to gain insights from his position of expertise, but the book is really the author's perspective and opinion, and doesn't reflect any expertise. In that sense, I think the book has been oversold on its merits.
On the plus side, well, it really does jive with my world view, so I don't particularly mind recommending it. :-)
Yuval Harari is well known for his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. He has decided to squander his reputation on a book called 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The basic problem is that every chapter is the subject of whole shelves of books, and putting them all in one book cannot possibly do them justice. What we have left is a set of 21 editorials, which might inform the totally uninformed, but provide little insight and no solutions. As “lessons” they are unhelpful.
He has conveniently distilled all the threats to mankind into three: nuclear war, climate change and technological/biological disruption. But only technological/biological gets examined. You’re on your own for climate change and nuclear war, which apparently don’t rate high enough for “lessons”.
Despite those three most important threats, the most common theme throughout the book is criticism of religion, mostly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though Buddhism and Hinduism come under attack as well. Looking back from the perspective of the universe, Harari condemns all religions as pompous, pretentious, full of contradictions, and terrifically negative forces.
In his chapter on Immigration, Harari boils down the entire complex situation to three superficial “debates”:
-The receiving country must be willing
-Immigrants must be willing to adopt “at least the core norms and values” of the new country
-If immigrants assimilate, they become “us” rather than “them” and must be treated as first class citizens.
Simple, inaccurate and totally missing the real issues.
In his chapter on terrorism, Harari completely misses the point that the state has a monopoly on violence. Anyone who challenges that monopoly must be put down, no matter how many civil rights and freedoms are trampled in the process. He spends pages explaining how few people are killed by terrorists compared to traffic, war and disease. So why are we so afraid of terrorists, he asks. (Because the state wants us to be, Mr. Harari.)
In the chapter on war, he comes to the magical conclusion that we’ve pretty much done away with it. So far, the only new war we’ve seen this century is Russia taking parts of Ukraine. He says countries see too much risk in starting new wars. He completely ignores (not for the first or last time), the effects of climate change, which will result in unprecedented and massive wars as countries face unstoppable waves of immigrants seeking water and land, as countries disappear from the face of the earth, and as those that have will defend it to the death against all comers, foreign and domestic.
The final chapter is on meditation. Meditation is Harari’s solution to pretty much everything, because you can focus on what is real – what is going on in your body right then and there. He says he does this two hours a day, plus one or two months a year.
If I had to summarize 21 Lesson for the 21st Century, I would say: throw off the false faiths of institutional religions and meditate instead. Not quite what I expected, and not much help in navigating the 21st century.