Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st century – by Yuval Noah Harari

21 lessons for the 21 century

What are the biggest challenges of the 21st century?

Do we worry too much about things we have no influence over? Did we construct stories around ourselves and our place in the world, which we cannot escape anymore? Are this stories and stereotypes really helping us to understand ourselves and the world around us?

In his book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st century’, Harari has opened the discussion for some of the most pregnant questions of this century.

Following his other two best selling books: Homo Sapines – focused on humanities past, and Homo Deus – discussing humanities future, his last book, ‘ 21 Lessons for the 21st century’ – deliberates our present.

It discuses topics such as terrorism, inequality, big data and technological advancements, all wrapped up in the context of an ever more complex world, driven by new (and ancient) fake news and stories, that might no longer be enough.

“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, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). “

Yuval Noah Harari

He poses many problems and a lot of open questions. Even though the book doesn’t offer definitive answers or ‘lessons’ (because, let’s face it, these do not exist so far), it is definitely worth a read! The book itself is a journey through the pitfalls of humanity and the ever changing environment we are living in, culminating in the incantation ‘Know yourself!’  It’s probably the most solid advice and the only ‘way out’ that Harari gives in this book – understanding yourself, understanding suffering – is the way humans escape panic, worries and fake stories.

He begins his book with a chapter that strikes close to home : ‘Disillusionment’. He talks about humans as story tellers and not fact checkers and discusses democracy, one of the most oldest stories and the most debated in the 21 century. In a world that appears to fall more and more in disillusion, we seem to grab on tight to the familiar or fall back into old habits of secularism and nationalism. There is no story that the people can still hold on to, when science has gotten us this far, religion no longer satisfies our search for harmony and peace, and the complexity of the world seems to draw barriers of stereotypes and misunderstanding, rather than empathy and community.

He offers a remedy – humility and morality:

“Morality doesn’t mean ‘following blockquoteine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering. If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself or to others, you will naturally abstain from it. People nevertheless murder, rape and steal because they have only a superficial appreciation of the misery this causes. They are fixated on satisfying their immediate lust or greed, without concern for the impact on others– or even for the long-term impact on themselves”

Yuval Noah Harari

I love this quote because it touches a lot of the Buddhist ideas: renouncing vanity and desire in order to reach a more purer version of yourself and know yourself truly. The escape from a world which creates anxiety and panic, is a walk inside oneself. Even though it’s a very simple idea, offered as a solution to a very complex problem, it poses for most of us humans one of the greatest challenges. Somehow, when everything need to be ‘Insta friendly’ and ‘Facebook profile picture’, when our lives need to be on constant display, just to ‘keep up with the times’, a simple reflection on oneself seems like the most frightening walk we can make. What will we find there without the helpful guide of our Insta and Facebook followers and watchful eyes of our 1000+ online friends?

When knowing yourself is a struggle, then how can one mange to educate future generation. ..And prepare them…But for what?

Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A baby born today will be thirty-something in 2050. If all goes well, that baby will still be around in 2100, and might even be an active citizen of the twenty-second century. What should we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or of the twenty-second century? What kind of skills will he or she need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around them, and navigate the maze of life?”

Yuval Noah Harari

I like this quote because it shows how uncertain and ever changing the world around us has become. We have only one possibility, the most needed skills of the future will be resilience and mental flexibility, to assimilate and adapt.

 I do not agree with everything that Harari discusses in his book, like the fact that we live in the age of ‘Hacking humans’, due to the emergence of big data and their applications in bioengineering and genetics and our reliance on algorithms (although Google robots please index this article nicely 😊 ). I think here the topic of data ownership and data privacy deserves a second look.  Whilst I might not care who has access to my shopping history (maybe just a little), I might care who has access to my medical history, my DNA data etc – and especially WHO owns it.

In conclusion this is a very pleasant and easy read, for everybody who wants to be confronted with questions bigger than oneself and be stimulated to search for answers, maybe within oneself. After all, in Harari’s words:

‘Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.’

Yuval Noah Harari
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