THE ERA OF BEWILDERMENT

Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century 

Published in 2018 by Signal, an imprint of Mclelland & Stewart Ltd, Canada.

The Age of Bewilderment: 

Yuval Harari & 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

By Kate Orland Bere 

Copyright November, 2020

Of the recent trilogy of books written by the historian Yuval Noah Harari, this book focuses on a few of the core issues of the present and of the immediate future (up to 2050).  He is particularly concerned with what work will look like for coming and existing generations over the next 30 years. Harari’s previous tomes, Sapiens (2011) and Homo Deus (2015), zeroed in on the past, and the far future respectively. Given the success of the first two books, it should not surprise anyone the audacious Israeli would take on a third treatise perhaps to drive home some of his earlier points in the previous books, and perhaps also to answer – from his own perspective and knowledge –the questions that arose in the wake of the two previous books. One might suppose a historian can write in a less serious guise as a futurist – for who can know precisely what lies in wait in our mutual future, much less our individual ones? No one can know for certain. I think Harari intended the title to be understood individually by each reader – so that any given reader probably would come away with at least 21 lessons on the 21st century from reading this book. And although I have not yet read Sapiens and Homo Deus (I shall), I have watched Harari in countless video interviews, and I can attest to his consistency in his responses. In fact, I find with this book, his text reads exactly as he speaks, and I would not doubt that he “wrote” it orally. However, if you are a rigid believer (in God’s Word), if you think you should not be concerned with the ethics of AI use, or the coming political and economic changes with respect to technological disruption and machine learning, or if you are nervous of dialogue and thought-provoking questions regarding where this path is leading us, then you may not enjoy nor like Harari’s book – it may instead prove disturbing to you. However, if you are a curious, open-minded, critical-thinking person, you will find this book not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, and inspiring, in the extreme.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century (herein referred to as 21 Lessons) discusses trends across the spectrum of human concerns and ideas/beliefs in the coming 30 years as biotech and infotech merge, potentially pushing “billions of humans out of the job market” to “undermine liberty and equality” (xvi). “Infotech and biotech confront us with the biggest (ethical [me]) challenges our species has ever encountered,” says Harari (21 Lessons, page xvi). This is the central thesis for 21 Lessons, as Harari says he is inspired to sound an alarm for a vigorous conversation/debate to be conducted around the ideas surrounding the growing use of big data and algorithms to predetermine human behavior, as he fears this path forward may lead to “digital dictatorships” (21 Lessons, page xvii). He specifically is asking salient questions: “Is home sapiens capable of making sense of the world it has created? Is there a clear border separating reality from fiction?” (page xvii, 21 Lessons) Harari, I believe, is writing the book from the perspective that he would rather risk being ridiculed (and some do indeed try to dismiss him), than not to pose these questions, probing into the murky philosophical waters of our emerging technological future. 

21 Lessons focuses on our immediate human future – and is quite relevant then to current discussions, particularly as they pertain to employment. I did not have any preconceived notions of what I would learn, although I did have some foreknowledge of Harari’s technological and biological focus from his interviews. I was just as interested to see how he expressed his views as a writer as I was in what he was expressing as a thinker. I find Harari highly entertaining because he is pure pith: anecdotes, stories, vignettes and analogies stream from him as from a fountain, perfectly illustrating his points. If I had expected to be entertained and have my intellect stimulated, therefore, this book (and Harari) thoroughly succeeded. It is human ethics and human engagement that are at stake in his argumentation in 21 Lessons, his third book. 

I believe that the presidency of D.J. Trump in some ways inspired Harari to write this book. It is a natural step after writing the first two, and once Homo Deus was published in 2015, Donald Trump already had the 2016 election in his crosshairs. This book was written in early 2018, over a few months, Harari reveals within the book. His thesis is this: “the liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?” (21 Lessons, p.8) Harari is suggesting that the greater number of humans inhabiting the world in such a transference of power (to AI and its operators – although he writes very little of the operators/manipulators) will become “a useless class” with no contributing value to the world or its economy – not even as consumers. Instead of being exploited, the danger is rather (he thinks) in the coming mass human irrelevance. He asks: “What to do in order to prevent jobs from being lost, what to do to create enough new jobs, and [finally], what to do if, despite our best efforts, job losses significantly outstrip job creation?” (21 Lessons, page 34). While there are many questions posed in this book, this triumvirate underlie and concern the whole of Harari’s trajectory. However, he is not trying to prove something with this book (as he already has in his previous books) so much as to ask critical questions, and observe the quandaries and swamps that surround those practical and philosophical questions on essential human values, human concerns, and the human story going forward. He states (21 Lessons, page 18):

Doubtless, the technological revolutions will gain momentum in the next few decades and will confront humankind with the hardest trials we have ever encountered. Any story that seeks to gain humanity’s allegiance will be tested above all in its ability to deal with the twin revolutions in infotech and biotech. If liberalism, Islam, or some novel new screed wishes to shape the world of the year 2050, it will need not only to make sense of artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data algorithms, and bioengineering, but also to incorporate them into a new and meaningful narrative

Harari’s above statement underlies the interrogative structure of the entire book – which, in the end, does not so much answer the question(s) raised so much as it does inspire a lively conversation or debate on the questions/subjects discussed in the book while providing a helpful backdrop to initiate a public conversation/debate.

Harari, as a historian, is obviously influenced by his vast understanding of human history. As well, he does not view Christianity nor Islam nor Buddhism (nor any other mystical or religious beliefs) to be but stories rendered to cohere the world in times when we did not know how long we had been on this earth (that science/knowledge). He does not discredit religion, but rather sees religious stories as a means to calm people and help them to cohere meaning – if that is what they need. He has no quibble with religion, he says, as long as it does not persecute others, and does not cause humans to believe things that will ultimately harm humanity as a whole, nor as individuals. He is a happily married homosexual who appreciates living in times in Israel where this reality, his sexual orientation, is respected and understood (by the governing bodies at least). He is someone who is, if one can judge by his writings, both moved and motivated by humankind’s ethical and practical concerns. Harari would appear, then, to be a humanist. His arguments are structured from this perspective, with a firm foundation in proven science and history (educated at Oxford University, UK). Hh also seems to adhere to a humble view of human nature – a posture where considerations for the mass of humanity are held up as of the greatest importance. His arguments, therefore, are humanist arguments, and also very rational. 

The organization of the book is in 21 chapters (lessons), leading through the topics of: [Part I: The Technological Challenge]- Disillusionment, Work, Liberty, Equality; [Part II: The Political Challenge]- Community, Civilization, Nationalism, Religion, Immigration, [Part III: Despair & Hope] -Terrorism, War, Humility, God, Secularism; [Part IV: Truth]- Ignorance, Justice, Post-Truth, Science Fiction; [Part V: Resilience]- Education, Meaning, Meditation. The organization is like a play: the problems are presented in the beginning two “acts” with technology and political challenges of our times, and moves to the rising crisis in the third where he is considering what drives fear and belief. In part (act) four, he is considering the stories humans are telling – the misinformation and propaganda that is propagated by those hoping to assume control. Consider what Harari says in the chapter on Ignorance:  

Most political chiefs and business moguls are forever on the run. But if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, explore dead ends, make space for doubt and boredom, and allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time, you will never find the truth. (page 225, 21 Lessons)

What he is really saying here is that to make sense of this world, humans do need time for reflection, and to work with facts and true data or information, not grotesque exaggerations nor outright lies. In the chapter on Justice, he asks: “How can anyone understand the web of relations among thousands of intersecting groups across the world?” (page 233, 21 Lessons: the complexities, the crucial aspects of so many relations). In the chapter on Post-Truth, Harari states: 

I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it [a made-up story] for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). (page 239, 21 Lessons)

In the chapter Science Fiction, Harari uses Huxley’s classic science fiction novel, Brave New World (1932) as the focus for exploration of the ideas he has generated in the preceding chapters, saying that “the underlying assumption of the book [BNW] is that humans are biochemical algorithms, science can hack the human algorithm, and technology can then be used to manipulate it.” Well, indeed…was Huxley ahead of his time, or has this been a perceived goal over all of these years since…the last 90 years?

In the final denouement, section V with its three chapters, Harari proposes certain means of facing these human quandaries, both ethical and practical, outlined earlier in the book. He presents the present as an “age of bewilderment” where people are at sea, with the stories they had previously believed or thought not seeming to hold weight or currency in the rapidly changing world in which we are functioning. He asks: “what kind of skills will he or she (an individual maturing now) need in order to get a job, understand what is happening to him or her, and navigate (successfully) the maze of life?” (page 263, 21 Lessons) Harari states:

By 2048, people might have to cope with migrations to cyberspace, with fluid gender identities, and with new sensory experiences generated by computer implants. If they find both work and meaning in designing up-to-the-minute fashions for a 3-D virtual reality game, within a decade not just this particular profession, but all jobs demanding this level of artistic creation might be taken over by AI. So at twenty-five, you might introduce yourself on a dating site as “a twenty-five-year-old heterosexual woman who lives in London and works in a fashion shop.” At thirty-five, you might say you are a “gender-nonspecific person undergoing age adjustment, whose neocortical activity takes place mainly in the NewCosmos virtual world, and whose life mission is to go where no fashion designer has gone before.” At forty-five, both dating and self-definitions are so passe. You just wait for an algorithm to find (or create) the perfect match for you. As for drawing meaning from the art of fashion design, you are so outclassed by the algorithms that looking at your crowning achievements from the previous decade fills you with embarrassment rather than pride. And at forty-five, you still have many decades of radical change ahead of you (page 267, 21 Lessons).

This is why the final section is entitled Resilience. With so much radical change predicted, and so much other difficult change (not even discussed) expected (climate change et al), Harari is stating that aside from resilience, four characteristics in learning will need to be emphasized in the future, henceforward – the four C’s:  communication, critical-thinking, collaboration and creativity (page 266, 21 Lessons). Adaptability and heutology (self-determined learning) are also going to be critical skills in this challenging future he lays out. 

I think Harari should have ended his book with the chapter on Meaning. This could have been a better ending to his tome – his final passage of that chapter (chapter 20, 21 Lessons)

So, if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is: The answer isn’t a story (page 313, 21 Lessons).

Prior to that statement Harari had clarified that “the realest thing in the world is suffering” (page 311, 21 Lessons), which I too believe to be true. What is unique about this author, this thinker, this philosopher, is that while thinking deeply about the panoply of problems, both ethical and practical, surrounding the topic of the coming merger of biotech and infotech, he does not lose sight of human rights, of human justice, of human dignity. Harari does not lose sight of the importance of actual thinking and reflecting, as opposed to reacting, or defensiveness, or cruelty and self-indulgence. 

Harari does not make any grand claims for this book in the forward: he makes no promises. He says instead: 

After some soul-searching, I chose free discussion over self-censorship. Without criticizing the liberal model, we cannot repair its faults or move beyond it. But please note that this book could have been written only when people are still relatively free to think what they like and to express themselves as they wish. If you value this book, you should also value the [that] freedom of expression (page xix, 21 Lessons). 

In other words, Harari says he will speak his mind, even at the risk that autocrats might take his words out of context for their own nefarious purposes. This book is to begin conversations on the future, not to end them. The book does not propose complete answers, nor complete truths, let alone some complete story. Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century offers a pathway to thinking of a new hopeful set of possibilities for human meaning and human work in the 21st century – in considering the dilemma of constant change presented in a world economy driven by the merger of infotech and biotech. It is in this way that the book is most helpful to anyone attempting to face a future of work (still) in the 21st century: it offers a sharply delineated overview of the problems we are facing globally, politically, in an accelerating future, including the problems inherent in a “liberal’ education as it means now. Harari outlines the problems of educators (and advisors) incisively:

People all over the world are but a click away from the latest account of the bombardment of Aleppo or the melting ice caps in the Arctic, but there are so many contradictory accounts that it is hard to know what to believe. Besides, countless other things are just a click away as well, making it difficult to focus, and when politics and science look too complicated it is tempting to switch to some funny cat videos, celebrity gossip, or porn. 

In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world. 

In truth, this has been the ideal of the Western liberal education for centuries, but up until now even many Western schools have been rather slack in fulfilling it. Teachers allowed themselves to focus on imparting data while encouraging students “to think for themselves.” Due to their fear of authoritarianism, liberal schools have had a particular horror of grand narratives. They have assumed that as long as we give students lots of data and a modicum of freedom, the students will create their own picture of the world, and even if this generation fails to synthesize all the data into a coherent and meaningful story about the world, there will be plenty of time to construct a better synthesis in the future. We have now run out of time. The decisions we make in the next few decades will shape the future of life itself, and we can make these decisions based only on our present worldview. If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random (page 265-266, 21 Lessons).

This last is a clarion call from Harari for offering greater clarity and hope for our youth about the true priorities in human life – as they exist in real time, and in any real future. That above all overrides the considerations of work and education: what must we know and what must we do – to survive in this world as we know it? Now. To understand it, Harari is saying, we must never stop learning and broadening as well as deepening, the human conversation/discussion/debate on what we want to become as a species.

There are far too many takeaways in this book to number – and in relation to career development, the obvious takeaway from 21 Lessons, is that participation in the conversation around political decisions for humanity (in each country) has become inseparable from career development, much less job creation. I believe that Harari’s ultimate message is that if you (the reader, the citizen) as a human do not take up the task of understanding what is now happening in these mergers, and the brave new world emerging from that merger of biotech and infotech, you are forfeiting any choice in your future, and perhaps forfeiting the world itself. To understand your choices, any of them, and take a role in shaping the future, you must understand what is happening and why, globally, not merely locally. Harari is saying, in so many ways, now is not the time for complacency or for fear. 

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Note: There is only one book that would seem to rival, at the moment, the philosophical breadth of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and that is Stephen Hawkings’ posthumous Brief Answers to the Big Questions. I think a class developed to compare and contrast the two books would be fascinating.

References:

Harari, Yuval Noah. (2018) 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Canada: Signal @ McClellend & Stewart, INC.

Hawking, Stephen. (2018, October 16) Brief Answers to the Big Questions. London, UK: Bantam.