Daily Archives: November 8, 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.