Monthly Archives: November 2019

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


2018, 318 p

This is the third book written by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri. His first, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was published in Hebrew in 2011, and translated into English in 2014. His second book, published in 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow subverts the idea of ‘history’ to look to the future (a no-no amongst historians). In this third book, he returns to the present and the immediate future with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Historians are certainly getting around! As with The Road to Unfreedom (my review here), it seems that historians no longer restrict themselves to things that have already happened, but are venturing into prediction. I don’t know that I’m particularly persuaded that a historian has any particular skill for prognostication, beyond an awareness of precedence and a span in their view. Hariri is an academic military historian – a historical genre that I am not fond of, but he wanders far from his origins here.

The book itself is divided into five parts. Part I, The Technological Challenge, mounts for me what was the most insightful part of the book, where he marries the broadening provided by Big Data (‘infotech’) and the narrowing provided through algorithms (‘biotech’) to argue that the world will soon have a large “useless” class, which will need to be managed socially and politically. Many of the professions and skills that we assume are based on human insight can, in actually, be reduced to a series of algorithms, and this even extends into the creative sphere, where music, art and film can be tailored to a market ruled by algorithms. (I think of Spotify and how it can easily provided me with a whole afternoon of listening pleasure without me even thinking about it).

Part II The Political Challenge looks at globalisation.  He refutes the idea of a ‘clash of civilizations’, arguing that all 21st societies (with the exclusion of Islamic State) subscribe to the same economic template. Nationalism, religion and immigration all challenge globalisation, exemplified by the current tensions within the European Union.

Part III, Despair and Hope looks first at terrorism and war, but then argues instead for a spirit of humility, especially in advancing ‘God’s’ claims. Although he is Israeli, he holds all religions at a skeptical distance.  Part IV, Truth, examines ignorance and fake news, and the manipulation of political opinions through algorithms and popularism. His final section, Resilience, emphasizes that during the 21st century, people will be exposed to relentless expectations of change that our current education system cannot prepare them for. He finishes what was, for me, a rather limp recommendation of meditation – a  disappointing ending to what was, in places, an insightful book.

This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.

One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Movie: Birds of Passage

I’ve avoided watching Narcos and all those drug films set in Colombia. This is one different, however. It shows the effects of the drug trade on an indigenous family over a number of decades, as they become more affluent and family loyalties are stretched and broken.  Mainly in Wayuu dialect, there isn’t much Spanish, and it’s pretty fast and indistinct.

Interesting, both as a story and as visual anthropology.

My rating: Four stars

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 22-31 October

Empires of History Podcast. The Ottoman Series. I’ve decided to join a class at my U3A on the History of the Ottoman Empire. I missed the first class and am feeling a little out of my depth, so I’ve downloaded this series. It’s American and I’m not sure whether it’s complete or whether he ran out of puff, because the last one was in June this year. Who knows, perhaps it’s a long time between episodes. Even though many of the names are unfamiliar, he doesn’t move so quickly that they all merge into a big muddle. He’s obviously reading it from pages (which you can hear rustling) and the production values are pretty basic, but I’m finding it interesting and useful. However, the special episode with historian John McHugo was pretty ordinary.  I’m up to Episode 8 The Thunderbolt Strikes, Dec. 19, 2018.

In Our Time Another podcast that’s been hanging around on the phone for ages, and first recorded in 2016 is 1816: The Year Without A Summer. During 1815 Mt Tambora erupted in Indonesia, the largest eruption in recorded history. This episode has a volcanologist , a historian and a professor of literature who discuss the world-wide ramifications of this eruption. It caused famines in post-Napoleonic Europe, it might have triggered the west-ward movement of anti-slavery Americans across the mid-west, and the wild weather it provoked kept the Romantics inside their holiday home in Geneva, making up stories like Frankenstein.  It’s an interesting application of big history onto an abrupt environmental intervention.

Earshot (ABC). I must confess that you’re NOT likely to hear “Quick- an emergency!- we need a historian!!”  But in the case of Mosul, when it felt to ISIS, a historian was just what was needed to report the facts of what was happening, on the ground, when journalists could not get there. At great personal danger Omar Mohammed created the Mosul Eye blog (which still operates).  This Earshot Episode Mosul Eye This is his story.

99%Invisible Apparently Toronto has a love/hate relationship with its raccoons. Who knew?- I didn’t even see a raccoon while I was there. In fact, have I EVER seen a raccoon? Anyway, apparently they get into the rubbish and strew it around, so the City authorities contracted a design company to design a raccoon-proof compost bin.  They had to lock securely, so that the raccoons couldn’t get in, but they also had to open automatically because they were collected by a truck with a motorized arm (like the trucks we have here in Melbourne) The resulting bin, described in Raccoon Resistance had a sort of dial-lock, but would it defeat the raccoons??  The website has videos which had me cheering for the raccoon. (The answer is no…)

The Documentary (BBC). Professor Elizabeth Dore conducted the first large-scale oral history project in Cuba in thirty years, and this podcast Cuban Voices is based on some of the interviews she conducted. This episode was put together after the selection of Miguel Diaz-Canel to replace Raoul Castro in 2018. Her respondents talk about the shortages during the Special Period, and some speak with nostalgia of the time before Cuba was opened up to tourism.

Assignment (BBC)  Genoa’s Broken Bridge. In August 2018 the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed. Opened in 1967, it was one of the longest concrete bridges in the world, connecting Genoa with the rest of Italy, and Italy with Northern Europe.  When it collapsed, killing 43, questions began to be asked about its construction methods and the effects of privatizations.

The History Listen (ABC) Historian Ruth Balint talks about her mother’s recipe book in Cooking for Assimilation. Her mother Evi, came to Australia with her husband and baby son in 1938 after Hitler marched into Vienna, before the wave of post-war European immigration from 1945 onwards.  Her recipe book, written first in Hungarian but increasingly in English, documents her mother’s growing network of neighbours and friends in that time-honoured tradition of recipe-swapping.

Letters of Love in World War II. I can’t bear to keep listening because I’m using them up and there’s only two more left after this.  But I can’t bear to not listen because I want to hear what happens next. In Episode 6 Germany: On the Approach, it is 1944 and Cyril is in Europe, going through France and then across to Germany as the German army is in retreat. Interestingly, they start re-numbering their letters to each other from ‘1’ again after Cyril’s short break in England.

Outlook (BBC) I’m quite claustrophobic, and the idea of diving INTO an iceberg makes me feel lightheaded. It might look beautiful, but all that calving and grinding and moving….no thanks. The Diver Trapped Inside an Iceberg tells the story of Jill Heinerth, photographer and explorer who eventually decided that perhaps it was dangerous after all.  30 Oct 2019