21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Book Review

June 18, 2020


21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), Yuval Harari; basically 21 essays of various topics, some interesting and useful, some not so much (like many journalists, several were published elsewhere first). Harari has a unique perspective on things, an interesting writing style and can be quite quotable: “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power; history does not give discounts” (L 145). Big data algorithms: “might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation but from something far worse—irrelevance” (L 198). “It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation” (p. 9).


Part I: The Technological Challenge


Disillusionment. “Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations. … During the 20th century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story” (p. 3). These were, respectively, history as a struggle among nations, a struggle among different classes, and all groups united by a centralized social system ensuring equality. World War II eliminated fascism; communism collapsed, and the liberal story is the one left. “We need to protect human rights, grant everybody the vote, establish free markets, and let individuals, ideas, and goods move throughout the world” (p. 4). Now liberalism is attacked on various fronts, mainly by populists; think Trump and Brexit, but in other countries around the globe. “They just don’t want to give up their racial, national, or gendered privileges” (p. 5). Or it’s an elite racket.


Technology changes seemingly everything: progress, but also disruptions and people who don’t want change. “Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely” (p. 7). However, it does not seem to be a political talking point (there was of course Hillary’s emails). “It was much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation” (p. 9). “The liberal story learned from communism to expand the circle of empathy and to value equality alongside liberty” (p. 9). “The people who reject the liberal story don’t offer any coherent alternative. Most people who voted for Trump and Brexit didn’t reject the liberal package in its entirety—they lost faith mainly in its globalizing part. They still believe in democracy, free markets, and social responsibility, but they think these fine ideas can stop at the border. … China sems rather happy with the liberal international order” (p. 10).


“Resurgent Russia … is ideologically bankrupt. … Russia does offer an alternative model … a political practice in which a number of oligarchs monopolize most of a country’s wealth and power and then use their control of the media to hide their activities and cement their rule. … When you live under such an oligopoly there is always some crisis or other that takes priority over boring stuff like healthcare and pollution. … The Russian model—a country with endemic corruption, malfunctioning services, no rule of law, and staggering inequality” (p. 10-1). 


“We are witnessing a shift from a ‘set menu approach’ to a ‘buffet mentality. … Liberalism cherishes liberty, but liberty has different meanings in different contexts. Thus, for one person liberalism implies free elections and democratization. Another person thinks that liberalism means trade agreements and globalization. A third associates liberalism with gay marriage and abortion” (p. 12). Part of the reason is economics, politics, and personal considerations. Trump favors free markets and privatization, not multilateral cooperation nor free trade. China is all in for free trade, not free elections. Brexit voters don’t like multilateral cooperation. Not much interest in immigration by anyone.


One difficulty is national dreams and religion. Putin want to emulate the Czars’ empire and spread the Russian Orthodox Church. India, Poland, and Turkey push religious traditions to justify authoritarian rule. Extremists in the Middle East want a return to Muhammad’s Medina or a caliphate.


Economic growth usually is central to liberalism, but has difficulties with ecological problems and technological disruptions. Truth and factual analysis are often lacking, replaced by partisan logical fallacies and propaganda.


Work. This seems a weak chapter to me. Harari emphasizes technological change and expected disruptions due mainly to automation, but it’s not clear to me he has much expertise here. Historically, cities were awful places until such civil engineering marvels as clean water and sanitation. Horse manure was a New York City catastrophe, then horses weren’t needed.


People have physical and cognitive abilities, both of which can often now be replaced by machines. This will get worse in the future. So far, the result has been local/regional disruptions, but new jobs created. Many of these required new skills. Harari concentrates on the artificial intelligence revolution and the potential to replace educated professionals from truck drivers to bankers. In addition, AI has connectivity and is updated instantly. Fortunately: “it will be much more difficult to replace humans with machines in less routine jobs that demand the simultaneous use of a wide range of skills and involve dealing with unforeseen scenarios” (p. 25). Doctors can be replaced; “nurses, in contrast, need good motor and emotional skills in order to give a painful injection, replace a bandage, or restrain a violent patient. … 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” (p. 25).


The AI invasion should create new jobs for people; “new jobs that will probably demand high levels of expertise, and will therefore not solve the problems of unemployed unskilled laborers” (p. 30). High unemployment and a shortage of key labor is possible. The Scandinavian model is “protect workers, not jobs.” That’s better than “post-work societies.” Governments could provide universal basic income or universal basic services (education, healthcare, and transportation).


The Google algorithm is important: “When I publish a book, my publishers ask me to write a short description that they use for publicity online. But they have a special expert who adapts what I write to the taste of the Google algorithm” (p. 38).

“Homo sapiens is just not built for satisfaction. Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations” (p. 43). “About 50% of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men never work. … Government provides them with generous subsidies and free services. … These ultra-Orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society” (p. 43).


Liberty. “The liberal story cherishes human liberty as its number one value. It argues that all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans. … In politics, liberalism believes that the voter knows best. … It hails free-market principles” (p. 45). “Feelings are biochemical mechanisms. … Feelings aren’t based on intuition, inspiration, or freedom—they are based on calculation. … Moral feelings such as outrage, guilt, or forgiveness derive from neural mechanisms that evolved to enable group cooperation. … Feelings are therefore not the opposite of rationality—they embody evolutionary rationality” (p. 48-9).


“As governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human operation system, we will be exposed to a barrage of precision-guided manipulation, advertising, and propaganda” (p. 54). “Human emotions trump philosophical theories” (. 59). Democracies outperform dictatorships because it diffuses information, a dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. The Soviet Union made poorer decisions than the US. “AI might make centralized systems far more efficient. … Authoritarian governments could gain absolute control” (p. 67). Harari also describes the natural stupidity of humans.


Equality. “Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality. … Equality became an ideal in almost all human societies. … The history of the twentieth century revolved to a large extent around the reduction of inequality between classes, races, and genders. … Some groups increasingly monopolize the fruits of globalization. …The richest 1% own half the world’s wealth” (p. 74-6).

“The key is to regulate the ownership of data. In ancient times land was the most important asset in the world, politics was a struggle to control land. … In the modern era machines and factories became more important. … In the 21st century, however, data will eclipse both land and machinery” (p. 78).


Part II: The Political Challenge


Community. “The sociopolitical upheaval of our time—from rampant drug addition to murderous totalitarian regimes—result to a large extent from the disintegration of human communities” (p. 85). Facebook and other platforms built something of a global community. “The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that data entrusted to Facebook was harvested and used to manipulate elections around the world” (p. 86). “Most corporations believe that they should focus on making money, government should do as little as possible, and humankind should trust market forces to make the really important decisions on our behalf” (p. 87). “Facebook has been repeatedly accused of tax evasion. The difficulties inherent in taxing online activities make it easier for these global corporations to engage in all sorts of creative accounting” (p. 91).


“The co-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Arab world started in hopeful online communities, but once they emerged into the messy offline world, they were commandeered by religious fanatics and military juntas” (p. 92).


Civilizations. There is a “clash of civilization” perspective claiming that diverse civilizations view the world in irreconcilable ways. Thus, the West cannot reconcile with the Muslim world. Islamic fundamentalism is problematic; it’s another thing to claim irreconcilable differences. “For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a halfhearted experiment that survived for barely two hundred years in a small corner of the Balkans. … Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills” (p. 96).


“A thousand years ago, planet Earth provided fertile ground for dozens of different political models. In Europe you could find feudal principalities vying with independent city-states and miniscule theocracies. The Muslim world had its caliphate, claiming universal sovereignty, but it also experimented with kingdoms, sultanates, and emirates. The Chinese empires believed themselves to be the sole legitimate political entity” (p. 100). “Nowadays, in contrast, almost everybody believes in a slightly different variation on the same capitalist theme” (p. 106). “When it comes to the practical stuff … almost all of us belong to the same civilization” (p. 108).


Nationalism. “Humankind now constitutes a single civilization, with all people sharing common challenges and opportunities [but] … groups increasingly support nationalistic isolation” (p. 110). “Cultures are flexible. … Nation-states are only one option on the Sapiens menu” (p. 10). “Tax evasion and nepotism come naturally to us, but nationalism says they are ‘corruption’” (p. 111). “Democracy cannot really function without nationalism. People are usually willing to accept the verdict of democratic elections only when all parties share the same national loyalties” (p. 112). “During the Cold War nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international policies” (p. 114).


Harari talks about the people and organizations that push for extreme nationalism, without globalization, multiculturalism, or immigration. “Without a global trade network, all existing national economies would collapse” (p. 116). Forget about reversing ecological damage; pollution and destroying resources are externalities in this view and unimportant. Without the free exchange of ideas technological progress would slow.


Religion. “Traditional religions are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems. In contrast, they are extremely relevant to identity problems. … Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good at farming or healthcare. The true expertise of priests and gurus … has always been interpretation” (p. 131). “This has also been why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilization. When things really work, everybody adopts them. … While science provides us with clear-cut answers to technical questions … there is considerable disagreement among scientists about questions of policy” (p. 133). “American capitalists went on reading the Sermon on the Mount without taking much notice. There is just no such thing as ‘Christian economics’” (p. 135).

“People’s identities are a crucial historical force. Human power depends on mass cooperation, and mas cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities—and all mass identities are based on fictional stories” (p. 137).


Immigration. “The European Union was built on the promise of transcending the culture differences between French, German, Spaniards, and Greeks. It might collapse due to its inability to contain the cultural differences between Europeans and migrants from Africa and the Middle East” (p. 143). Harari describes three terms for immigration: allow immigrants in; immigrants embrace core norms of the host; and they assimilate. All three are debatable: is allowing immigration a duty or a favor? Is legalized immigration better than an underworld of illegal workers? What does assimilation mean? Is full assimilation needed for full equality? Who determines if it is actually working? There is a greater focus on violation rather than compliance.


“The worst problems with culturalist claims are that despite their statistical nature they are all too often used to prejudge individuals” (p. 158). 


Part III: Despair and Hope: “Terrorists are masters of mind control” (p. 163).


War. “China, the rising power of the early 21st century, has assiduously avoided all armed conflicts … and owes its ascent strictly to economic factors. … Iran has recently become the regional hegemon not by dint of any brilliant battlefield victory but rather by default. … So far the only successful invasion mounted by a major power in the 21st century has been the Russian conquest of the Crimea” (p. 177-8). “Today the main economic assets consist of technical and institutional knowledge … and you just cannot conquer knowledge through war” (p. 182).


“We should never underestimate human stupidity. … Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history. …  No god and no law of nature protects us from human stupidity” (p. 183-4).


Humility. “Most people tend to believe they are the center of the world, and their culture is the linchpin of human history” (p. 186).


God. “Does God exist? That depends on which God you have in mind: the cosmic mystery, or the worldly lawgiver? … [The cosmic mystery is] a grand and awesome enigma, about which we know absolutely nothing. … [The worldly lawgiver is] a stern and worldly lawgiver about whom we know only too much” (p. 202). “We give our ignorance the grand name of God” (p. 202).  “Commerce depends on trust between strangers. Merchants don’t usually visit dens of thieves” (p. 207).


Secularism. “Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. … They view morality and wisdom as the natural legacy of all humans. … Secular people are comfortable with multiple, hybrid identities. … Secular ethical codes … enshrine the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions. … Secularists strive not to confuse truth with belief” (p. 209-10). “Secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion, and freedom” (p. 215). “Capitalism too began as a very open-minded scientific theory but gradually solidified into a dogma” (p. 216).


Part IV. Truth


Ignorance. “In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual” (p. 223). The knowledge illusion (Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach): “We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own” (p. 224). “It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. … Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is” (p. 227).


“Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the center, because the center is built on existing knowledge” (p. 228).


Justice. “An inherent feature of our modern global world is that its causal relations are highly ramified and complex” (p. 231): Consider Israeli harm of West Bank settlers, the “subjugation of billions of farm animals,” and so on. Who is responsible? “The system is structured in such a way that those who make no effort to know can remain in blissful ignorance, and those who do make an effort will find it very difficult to discover the truth” (p. 232). “It doesn’t matter whether you judge actions by their consequences … or believe in categorical duties that should be followed irrespective of consequences” (p. 232). “The corporation is highly profitable because it does not pay for externalities” (p. 232). “The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed but even more so from ignorance and indifference. … With the benefit of hindsight, moral certainty might be beyond our reach” (p. 233).


“In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas … people often resort to one of four methods. The first is to downsize the issue [Syrian civil war because Assad is evil]. … The second method is to focus on a touching human story … and generates false moral certainty. … The third method … is to weave conspiracy theories. … These three methods try to deny the true complexity of the world. The fourth method is to create a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution, or chief, and follow it wherever it leads us. Religious and ideological dogmas are still highly attractive” (p. 236-7).


[My approach to justice was through philosophy: e.g., Aristotle on virtue, Kant on categorical imperatives, utilitarianism, or Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Harari’s approach is entirely different and basically puts philosophical alternatives as examples of “imagined reality” or ideological dogma.]


Post-Truth. The era of post-truth means lies and fictions surround us. Like the Russians attacking Ukraine and denying it. “According to Russian national myths, Russia is a sacred entity that has endured for a thousand years” (p. 238). That meant the West created the “fake country” Ukraine in the 1990s. “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion. … For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit” (p. 241).


“The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. … As a species, humans prefer power to truth” (p. 245-9). Some newspapers make a real effort to discover the truth, others are “brainwashing machines.”


Science Fiction. This chapter did not make much of an impression on me, although I like science fiction.


Part V: Resilience

Education. Education has always been important, especially for career development, later for knowledge and critical thinking skills. It’s especially relevant given the rapidity of change in technology and other areas. The ‘four C’s: “critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Schools should downplay technical skills and emphasis general-purpose life skills” (p. 268).
The Industrial Revolution has bequeathed us the production-line theory of education” (p. 272). It’s difficult to distinguish “timeless wisdom or outdated bias.”


“Thousands of years ago humans invented agriculture, but this technology enriched just a tiny elite while enslaving the majority of humans” (p. 273). This is a typical Harari quote, interesting but simplistic and not necessarily true.


Meaning. “Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal. … When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story” (p. 275). In Hinduism, each person has a unique dharma, “the path you must follow and the duties you must fulfill. If you realize your dharma, no matter how hard the path may be, you enjoy peace of mind and liberation from doubt” (p. 276). “To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions. First, it must give me some role to play. … Second, … it must extend beyond my horizons. … Most successful stories remain open-ended” (p. 282-3).


“The great chain of kindness is a bit like the great chain of turtles” (p. 286). “Mystic poets of all traditions have often conflated romantic love with cosmic union. … If you are really in love with someone, you never worry about the meaning of life” (p. 287). “A story may be pure fiction, yet provide me with an identity and make me feel that my life has meaning … Not only are our personal identities built on the story, but so are our collective institutions” (p. 287-8).


Rituals are needed to make the story feel real. “Hoc est corpus”---“This is the body!” Which got garbled into “hocus pocus.” “Confucius saw the strict observance of rites as the key to social harmony and political stability” (p. 291). “If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested in social stability and harmony, as Confucius was, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies” (p. 291).


“Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent, because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. … The more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice” (p. 293). Because of uncertainty: “most religions considered faith to be a cardinal virtue and doubt to be among the worst sins possible—as if there were something intrinsically good about believing things without evidence” (p. 303).


“The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe” (p. 305). “My inner propaganda machine creates a personal myth with prized memories and cherished traumas” (p. 307). “We humans have conquered the world thanks to our ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality” (p. 313).


Meditation. “Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind” (p. 320). “To change the world, you need to act, and even more important, you need to organize” (p. 320). “In principle, meditation is any method for the direct observation of one’s own mind” (p. 322). Meditation aims to explore the mind rather than just focus it” (p. 324). 




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© 2016 Gary Giroux