21 Lessons for the 21st Century was the book of the month for September 2018 and a few of us within the UNLOCKT Community have been reading it. I have discussed it a lot with Charlie Mana and we thought it would be a good idea to publish a joint review.
I have previously read Sapiens and Homo Deus and Charlie had also read Sapiens, so we were familiar with many of Harari’s ideas. We tend to agree that for someone already aware of Harari’s concepts and ideas, it was more of a reinforcement than a complete breakthrough. So it led us to prioritize things we already knew were important, like meditation and lifelong learning to name a few.
Whatever you already know, Harari puts it in such clear terms that it helps you to understand it better and reformulate it to the people around you. The overarching question of this book is: what is happening in the world today, and what is the deep meaning of events?
For both of us, it became the #1 recommended book. It is like a map to navigate the 21st Century. It’s hard to imagine but we believe that if you haven’t read Sapiens or Homo Deus, you will probably have a few revelations out of reading this book.
As mentioned by Charlie, there is absolutely no reason to not read this book. While you can be not into personal growth, or meditation, or futurism, there is little case to not being interested in the current and near-future challenges of the world and humanity.
Now to get more into the details, here are some parts that specifically stuck with us:
The importance of being comfortable in a changing world.
It is nothing new that it is a great skill to keep learning throughout life. Nor is meditation new. However, Harari makes a perfectly clear case why reinventing yourself and doing so with the least amount of stress possible will not only remain a great skill but become a necessity in the world of today & tomorrow.
The more you get used to change, the better you will do. Don't wait to lose your job to start thinking about reinventing yourself. Getting out of your comfort zone is a situation you need to get familiar with.
Change is always stressful, and the hectic world of the early 21st century has produced a global epidemic of stress. We need far more effective stress-reduction techniques – ranging from drugs through neurofeedback to meditation – to prevent the human mind from snapping. Stress reduction techniques are not merely a luxury but a necessity in our ever-changing world.
Lesson #19: Education, p. 265:
“To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of what you know best and feel at home with the unknown”
How to face the possible emergence of a useless class
When you talk about this, most people’s argument is that when we had machines for farming, people started working in factories, then in services, thus it’ll be the same. However, there is no law of nature stating that humans always have useful roles in evolution. You cannot easily train a truck driver to become a data scientist.
But do we all need to work and to have economically useful roles? This is hard to know for sure but despite this we need to be prepared.
Lesson #2: Work, p. 37:
“In order to cope with the unprecedented technological and economic disruptions of the twenty-first century, we need to develop new social and economic models as soon as possible. These models should be guided by the principle of protecting humans rather the jobs”.
The importance of developing consciousness vs intelligence
It is a given that through AI, intelligence is developing very fast. Another key insight we have drawn from this text is the importance of developing our own selves and consciousness to match the development of AI.
Lesson #3: Liberty, p. 70:
“The danger is that if we invest too much in developing AI and too little in developing human consciousness, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might only serve to empower the natural stupidity of humans.”
The terrible consequences of ignorance
The Western Christian view is often that crimes are the result of evil or hatred, but Harari shows that it is most often the result of ignorance, especially when you look at modern times.
Many good people support terrible things without even knowing it. And in our complex societies, it becomes increasingly hard to grasp the consequences of our acts.
It has become a moral imperative to try to know rather than staying in blissful ignorance.
These values of ignorance and indifference should be amongst those that you reduce most in your life. You must know, and you must care about knowing!
Lesson #16: Justice, p. 225:
“In a world which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred & greed, but even more so from ignorance & indifference.”
Understand who you are and the meaning of life
Harari emphasises on the importance of understanding who you are before the machines hack you. When you investigate it more deeply, you discover that your free will and even the self are a construction and don’t rely on anything permanent. It can seem disconcerting for our Western societies.
Lesson #20: Meaning, p. 302:
“It is better to understand ourselves, our minds and our desires rather than try to realise whatever fantasy pops up in our heads. And in order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now.
Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or with the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body & mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair.
You experience all of these thoughts, emotions and desires, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them’’.
This deconstruction of the self doesn’t lead to any nihilism though. It leads to the conclusion that we should do our best to reduce suffering. Thus, living a life aiming at reducing suffering is probably the best meaning we can give to our lives.
’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ by Yuval Noah Harari is perhaps one of the most insightful and important texts that we have both read in our entire lives. Although the problems he discusses are vast and the ideas he dives into are complex, it is comforting to know that the book still has an optimistic tone. The problems that we face as individuals, as a society and as a species are amongst some of the most difficult that have even been placed in front of us. Nevertheless, the answer to these problems in its simplest form is clearer after reading this text than it has ever been before:
To educate ourselves so we can better understand the world, in order to make the best decisions possible about our collective future!