As we pass another decade in the 21st century, what future are we headed towards? Who knows, but Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (also on Overdrive as an e-book & e-audiobook) looks at some of the hot topics & issues to worry about that the 21st century brought in its wake and attempts to untangle them so that we can think about these issues with more clarity, less clouded by our illogical emotional responses than before. While there are some speculations as to what the future might bring, that is covered to a much greater extent in Homo Deus (while Sapiens covers the history of humankind), and the primary focus of 21 Lessons is definitely on the present. Harari covers such topics as the possible/imminent future irrelevance of people as individuals (and the consequences of irrelevance in that future society replete with AI), to terrorism and war, to religion and fake news, before tackling what one can do in light of all this – actually let’s be real, when I say tackles, I mean Harari kind of dismantles what we might first think of as the solutions: Education, Meaning, and Meditation.
While reading the chapters on Terrorism (c.10) and War (c.11), I was struck by how much more might have been written if 21 Lessons had been written/published just one year later, in 2019, what with all the civil unrest that stirred up in the past year alone, from Hong Kong to Chile to Spain, among a number of other countries; though perhaps it wouldn’t have changed much in the book, since some of the other chapters (see below, on terrorism & war) can be extrapolated and applied to some extent to protests and civil unrest. On the other hand, I feel like they’re different enough and at a major enough concern that’s also prevalent enough throughout the world that Protest would’ve made a nice chapter.
This is a comment that has been voiced several times over from what I’ve seen of reviews of 21 Lessons, but when I first started reading I thought the same: the title is a bit misleading. The “lessons” aren’t always lessons as such rather than essays on a certain topic, which is not to say that detracts at all from the contents of the book – I did find it a bit odd when I started reading, but there’s a reason Harari has found such acclaim: his writing is engaging, and his ability to break down larger conflicts or discussions into smaller parts, effectively untangling issues into separate strands such that it becomes easier to continue discussions, is incredibly fun to behold. There’s a feeling of “well duh” sometimes while you’re reading through the process, but it’s more like Harari did the steps for you rather than him just stating the obvious because, as he says, “most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents” (Harari, xiii), so instead of it being particularly enlightening, a lot of what Harari wrote sounded more like an obvious conclusion, or at least commonsensical: the makings of a well written piece. One such untangling I especially enjoyed was on the topic of immigration, where Harari illustrates what often gets muddled in discussions about immigration policies between pro- and anti-immigrationists. It’s an ode to Harari’s ability to achieve what he set out to do in this book because right at the introduction, he says “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power… I can try to offer some clarity, thereby helping to level the global playing field. If this empowers even a handful of additional people to join the debate about the future of our species, I have done my job” (Harari, xiii). He is giving the reader just enough information to think about and chew on so they can decide whether to look into it further, and if so, how.
Another few chapters I found particularly delightful were the ones on religion, God, and secularism, especially the part about acknowledging the history that accompanies whatever you subscribe to: where did what you believe in go wrong in history, and why did it happen? How do we avoid repeating the same mistakes? And while we’re at it, in the last part, the chapter on Meaning and how people strive to find meaning to their lives, was likely one of the most entertaining to read, where Harari describes several stories with great followings, including religions & nationalism; breaks down what a great story needs in order to develop and keep their followers; and also why all of them, regardless of what they preach, have the potential to be just as dangerous as the next. Most likely the first impulse one has upon reading this chapter is to throw oneself upon the pyre of “no-self”: Buddhism. Harari cautions readers that “this too very easily turns into a heroic epic… ‘No Story’ can all too easily become just another story” (c.20: Meaning), allowing its adherents to fight wars and break the very tenets of what they are fighting for in order to justify their all-too-human desires. As Harari notes:
Fighting other people because you believe in the glory of an eternal God is unfortunate but understandable; fighting other people because you believe in the emptiness of all phenomena is truly bizarre – but so very human. (Harari, 21 Lessons, c.20: Meaning)
While I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Harari says in 21 Lessons, especially concerning how much of humanity will be replaced by machines and how irrelevant people will become, it still makes for a fascinating read and gives the reader a lot to think about, which I think is a great way to start off this new decade.