In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari writes about globalism, nationalism, religion, technology, meditation and economics but the book is more philosophical than historical although many interesting historical references are made. Harari’s thesis is that the source of the development of society is the fictions we have created, but when these fictions are taken too seriously, they lead to the disintegration of society.
In the past, there were benefits to believing in these stories but it is becoming less pragmatic to do so in the 21st century, a time when technological and social change is too rapid; relying on past paradigms will only place us in ideological traps, and this has been the cause of many of the problems we face today.
Harari’s solution is not to destroy these systems, but to become more aware of ourselves.
In the final chapter, the solution to the problem of human bias, tribalism, and aggression is not to create a new political movement, but to meditate. By doing so, the individual escapes the incessant conditioning of the society, and learns to observe their own thoughts, thus better understanding themselves.
This will lead to a deeper understanding of people, and will help cultivate the ability to focus and see things for what they are rather than what they appear to be. This is not prescriptive advice. Harari claims that this works for him but not necessarily for everyone else and is aware of his own biases with regards to finding this particular solution useful, but meditation is a powerful tool to use to gain a kind of clarity that is not found in books or in interactions with people.
Harari believes that surviving in the new world requires the abandonment of our baggage – the old ideas that have been inscribed in people’s minds – and to reinvent the way we think about the most pernicious problems of the modern world.
Here are summaries for each chapter:
Humans are better at inventing tools than knowing how to use them wisely. Globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning are all buzzwords that are being repeatedly parroted around the world excitedly. You may have caught a recent TED talk peddling one or a combination of these concepts. But what are the implications of living in such a world?
What will our future look like with AI? Already, we are seeing signs of a very different world.For example, technologies already exist that can recommend books and videos to us based on our previous tastes.
Harari’s main thesis in Sapiens and in this book is about stories – what they are, which ones we choose to believe in, and how they shape our world. Liberalism is one of the greatest stories we have invented. Human liberty is its number one value.
The result of globalization might not have a fairy tale ending, it may result in ‘speciation’, the divergence of humans into separate biological castes or species. In the 20th century, ‘barbarians’ were considered useful because of the labor they provided, but in the 21st century, when labor becomes automated completely, these ‘barbarians’ may become irrelevant
After the 2016 U.S elections, Silicon Valley’s assumptions had been disrupted. They were used to seeing themselves as part of the solution to bigotry, but now could not deny that they may be part of the problem. They immediately looked for an engineering solution.
The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis has been revived by recent events in the world. The Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, Brexit, and the uncertainty surrounding the EU are all indicators that the clash between the West and Islamic civilization is irreconcilable
Despite sharing a single civilization, some people resort to their nationalistic identities, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. Is this a form of escapism, or does a return to nationalism offer real solutions?
Considering the failure of modern ideologies, governments, and scientific experts in creating a vision for the future, can religion play this role better? Secular people will ridicule this idea. Religious ideas may have served a purpose in the Middle Ages, but what answers can it give us in the age of artificial intelligence and bioengineering?
Globalization made it easier for people to explore other cultures, but also made it easier for people to be offended by their differences.
Harari starts the chapter by showing us the deaths that have resulted from terrorism compared to other culprits. It isn’t that terrorism has no catastrophic consequences to the fate of nations, or that it destroys lives, but when it is put into perspective by shedding light on other killers, we see that terrorism is not that dangerous – when it comes to the total number deaths recorded.
There was a time when wars made sense to some politicians – it was when wars were profitable and easy. In 1914, the British controlled the Nile Valley and the Suez Canal for decades without much push back. The U.S won the war against Mexico, gained a landmass equivalent to Western Europe, for the price of only 13,000 men. But these days, war is not an attractive proposition for large nations, although it still is one for non-state actors.
In this chapter, Harari tells us that humility is a quality that most cultures lack. There are Indians that believe that the invention of nuclear science should be credited to them. The Jews believe that monotheism should be credited to them and that they are a significant group in the world – the top three religions.
There are two definitions of God, one is the campfire god that people talk about when they wonder about the universe and its origins. This God is unknown, mysterious, and philosophical. The other God is the one religious people pray to
What is secularism? It is important to know first what it is not. Unlike religion, secularists don’t believe that they have a monopoly on truth, compassion, and morality. Seculars try to separate truth from belief. The story of religion endows people with a sense of meaning and purpose when one believes in it strongly, but this says nothing about whether this belief is true.
From an evolutionary perspective , it has been advantageous to trust in the knowledge of others. But like other traits that may have worked well in the past but may not be useful today, the illusion of knowledge can be dangerous.
Today, it is difficult to know what consequences your actions have and whether you are causing harm to the world. In primitive times, it was easy to understand the repercussions of your actions, you knew where everything came from and you understood how your behavior affected others. But this is no longer the case.
A prevalent idea today is that we live in a post-truth world. That fake news and political figures like Trump and Putin have driven the world away from their ability to recognize truth from fiction. In this chapter, Harari gives us countless examples to show how this is false.
Science fiction today commits a grave error, it conflates intelligence for consciousness. This is why most works in this genre imagine a future war between man and machine. But the real fear should be of a conflict between a small superhuman elite who have privileged access to technology and a vast underclass of relatively powerless humans.
What has worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future. Following the advice of people who were older than you worked better in the past because the world was more stable and predictable. But in a world where technology is rapidly and constantly reshaping economies, it is risky to follow advice that might easily be outdated rather than wise.
The Disney story of The Lion King reiterates mythological ideas about the meaning of life. Namely, that there is an eternal circle of life, and that it is one’s obligation to follow his destiny. Simba must not waver off his path lest he suffer painful consequences and see the collapse of his kingdom at the hands of pernicious forces.
Harari acknowledges that while he has dismantled almost everything from politics to religion to business as some form of myth, he is required to provide something in its place. His answer is meditation.