“We created myths to unite our species; we tamed nature to give us power; we are now redesigning life to fulfil our wildest dreams; but — do we really know ourselves anymore? Or will our inventions make us irrelevant?”
Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is one of the most thrilling, thought-provoking and brilliant books I’ve encountered in recent years. It’s one of those books which are hard to categorise; you may think of it as popular apocalypse literature or glorified self-help, or consider it a serious book that meditates on the question of what it means to be human in the age of bewilderment. It would make no difference, because the book is about the mess we have become in this time and age when the ironies of our existence are more pronounced than ever. We may be connected to the whole world via our smartphones, yet we have never been so disconnected from ourselves or from those who surround us in our physical world. We may be talking of the ‘global’ and even believe in its promises, yet our world never has been as divided as it is today.
Although we have advanced in technological inventions — such as artificial intelligence (AI) that might outsmart all other modes of intelligence in some future — we are more than ever negligent of the development of human consciousness, which might be, as Harari puts it, our last chance at preempting the potential threat that AI poses. And it is only by developing human consciousness parallel to AI that we will be able to preserve what is unique in human beings: namely, their ability to feel things at a deeper level, something that AI cannot. It is not only AI that concerns Harari in this strangely provocative book; issues such as ecological crises, technological disruptions, epidemics of fake news and questions of the possible futures of human beings are also crucial to his discussion of what the 21st century might look like in the not-so-distant future.
The 21 chapters centre on five key features: the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. Each part has subsections which can be independent topics in their own right. In other words, the book is multifold and can be discussed at many levels. That is why, for the purpose of this review, I will focus on what I see as the thesis of Harari’s book in the following passage:
A stimulating finale to a trilogy on humans past, present and future meditates on what it means to be human in the age of bewilderment
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power. In theory, anybody can join the debate about the future of humanity, but it is so hard to maintain a clear vision. We might not even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are. Most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give any discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair; but who said history was fair? As a historian, I cannot give people clothes or food, but I can try to offer some clarity, thereby helping to level the global playing field. If this empowers even a handful of additional people to join the debate of the future of our species, I have done my job.”
While Harari’s emphasis on the need for clarity is probably the most taken-for-granted insight in the reviews that the book has received so far, it is for me the point of utmost significance and perhaps what is needed most at this time in all of our lives. But what does Harari mean by clarity? Does he mean to be able to make sense of all the conundra that surround us, from technological challenges and ecological disasters to identity politics and the threat of nuclear war? Or does he mean our ability to ‘narrativise’ seemingly disparate events across geography and cultures? Considering the range of topics in his book and the different attunement of discourses that they take on in individual chapters, to me his emphasis on clarity is precisely this challenge of navigation: to be able to sustain in the act of comprehension (a concept that philosopher Louis Mink describes as a “single act of seeing things in one image of the manifold events”) all that we are witnessing — and all that we might witness in the future.
While it is hard to provide a summary of this book, it is important to note that 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is not a single story; it is a tapestry of several stories. Be it liberalism, globalisation, terrorism, nationalism or religion, Harari — thanks to his academic training — deconstructs all the narratives human beings have told themselves to various gains since the dawn of time. As a historian, perhaps his instinct is not to write a new narrative of the new world, but to observe the stories that have held human beings together vis-à-vis the stories that are in the making to break them apart.
In other words, Harari is not the first to talk about the impending apocalypse of the world by our technological alter-egos. We remember well George Orwell’s prescient book Nineteen Eighty Four, the fascist regimes and their secret surveillance techniques that showed us the underbelly of modernity and our own human shadow in the 20th century, not to mention some recent examples of great cinematic pieces such as Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. All these cultural artefacts pointed out, or even predicted, the challenges that we are facing now in the nearly ending second decade of the 21st century. And so does Harari in most of his 21 Lessons. However, it is only the last two parts of the book (‘Despair and Hope’ and ‘Resilience’) that are the true lessons from a man who discovered himself through paying attention to the inner rather than the outer chaos.
At times, the reading experience of this book resembles the chaos of our external condition. From the moment we wake up, our lives are ‘mindless’, as we frantically communicate through emails, phones or text messages while hardly paying attention to the embodied experience of the everyday. Similarly with 21 Lessons and its competing stories of nationalism, liberalism, biotechnological revolutions etc, one feels lost in the neatly mapped out and yet complex trajectories of these stories which are endured differently from one region of the world to the other. And yet, Harari manages to put everything in perspective for us by employing the same strategy that his yoga teacher in India did, namely, being aware of the things around us without trying to intellectualise. Although the answer is not in just being aware, as Harari acknowledges, it’s the first step to keep perspective intact. For it is awareness that makes us conscious of not only the world, but our own being in it. For Harari, being aware means that we are able to tame our fears and adopt humility in our opinions, as it is the overestimation of fear and the entitlement of our opinions that drive us in the direction of self-destruction. It is not far from the truth, as we have seen in the unfolding of our recent history almost everywhere in the world: human beings are the harbingers of their own destruction, primarily because of giving free rein to their fears and opinions and hence providing reasons to spark conflicts, biases and lethal impulses of hatred.
Being a Jewish academic teaching in Israel, Harari’s writings might not be seen as insightful or objective by the obvious standards of national and religious bigotry amongst the various segments of his readership. It is, however, important to note that Harari has been an honest seeker on the path of understanding — sales of his previous books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have proven that beyond statistics — and his meditative approach towards the world around us has been nothing but insightful and intellectually stimulating. His self-critical sensibility and rethinking of old narratives of his own identity become evident as one reads through 21 Lessons. He achieves it primarily by centring language as a formative force of our knowledge; whether it is religion or Karl Marx, each finds itself in the other by some mysterious force of language.
While this book makes an excellent finale to Harari’s trilogy of humans past, present and future, even in its own right it is highly recommended to those who care about where we are headed as a species and what could we possibly do about it.
The reviewer is a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University
21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari
Spiegel & Grau, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 24th, 2019