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21 Lessons for the 21st Century Paperback – 22 Aug 2019
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"Fascinating… compelling… [Harari] has teed up a crucial global conversation about how to take on the problems of the 21st century." (Bill Gates New York Times)
"The great thinker of our age." (The Times)
"Truly mind-expanding… Ultra-topical… Harari’s big selling point [is] the ambition and breadth of his work, smashing together unexpected ideas into dazzling observations." (Guardian)
"Erudite, illuminating, vivid. [Harari’s] lessons suggest new ways of thinking about current problems… a splendid, sobering, stirring call to arms." (Sunday Times)
"There is surely no one alive who is better at explaining our world than Yuval Noah Harari - he is the lecturer we all wish we’d had at university. Reading this book, I must have interrupted my partner a hundred times to pass on fascinating things I’d just read. Harari has done it again - 21 Lessons is, simply put, a crucial book." (Adam Kay)
From the Inside Flap
Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus looked to the future. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century explores the present.
How can we protect ourselves from nuclear war, ecological cataclysms and technological disruptions? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news or the threat of terrorism? What should we teach our children?
Yuval Noah Harari takes us on a thrilling journey through today's most urgent issues. The golden thread running through his exhilarating new book is the challenge of maintaining our collective and individual focus in the face of constant and disorienting change. Are we still capable of understanding the world we have created?
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It is a book of 21 essays on different subjects beginning with ‘Disillusionment’, ‘Work’, ‘Liberty’, and ‘Equality’ under Part I, entitled, ‘The Technological Challenge’. The book has a total of five Parts. The other four are: ‘The Political Challenge’, Despair and Hope’, Truth’, and ‘Resilience’.
Harari’s thoughts spring from the basic, but important question, ‘What can we say about the meaning of life today?’ In order to put the age-old question into the context of today, Harari examines the scientific and cultural changes that have transformed human societies across the world. One major change wrought by technology is the phenomenon in which we get increasingly distanced from our own bodies, and are being absorbed into smartphones and computers.
Harari shows how ‘benign patriotism’ can so easily be transformed into ultra-nationalism; form the belief that ‘My nation is unique’ (every nation is) to ‘My nation is supreme’. Once we get to that, war and strife is, frighteningly, just a step away. He devotes a chapter each to ‘immigration’ and ‘terrorism’ because these are the two bogeymen of the world – not just the Western world. Harari fears that when New York or London eventually sinks below the Atlantic Ocean, people will be blaming Bush, Blair and Obama for focussing on the wrong front.
Given the undertones of religious conflicts and differences in the wars that an American-led West had inflicted on various parts of the world, Harari had much to say in his chapters on ‘God’ and ‘Secularism’. He tries to show how irrational belief in a personal God is. ‘Science cannot explain the “Big Bang”, they exclaim, “so that must be God’s doing”…After giving the name of “God” to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces’. Not to mention abortion, eating pork, and drinking beer. What does it mean ‘Not to use the name of God in vain’? Harari suggests that it should mean that ‘we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatred’. He exposes the problems of dogmatism, and warns against the illusion that the falsity in one’s creed or ideology will never be allowed to happen. ‘if you believe in an absolute truth revealed in a transcendent power’, he writes, ‘you cannot allow yourself to admit any error – for that would nullify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game’.
Harari’s conclusion is a treat to read and has much to commend in the way he reconciles religious beliefs and rational thinking. Humans love story-telling, he writes, and the answers to the question, ‘what is the meaning of life?’ lie in the stories – but we do not have just one story each. And this is crucial. We not just a Muslim, or an Italian, or a capitalist. We do not have just one identity as a human. And we have many stories. We must not shut them out for the sake of one favourite.
The revolutions in biotech and infotech are made by engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists who are hardly aware of the political implications of their decisions…
Donald Trump warned voters that the Mexicans and Chinese will take their jobs, and that they should therefore build a wall on the Mexican border. He never warned voters that algorithms will take their jobs, nor did he suggest building a firewall on the border with California.
Humans have two abilities – physical and cognitive. The former have been partly supplemented by machines. Artificial Intelligence is challenging the latter…. Communism has no answer to automation, as the masses lose their economic value and become irrelevant.
Artificial Intelligence and human stupidity – if we concentrate too much on AI and not enough on human consciousness, AI will end up merely empowering the stupidity of humans.
Globalisation has resulted in growing inequality – the richest 100 own more than poorest 4 billion – and might in time lead to speciation. [People and species are opposite - species split, whereas people coalesce into larger groups, though mergers change.] Challenges are now supra-national – there are no national solutions to global warming. Nations have no answer to technological disruption. The nationalist wave [which he attributes in some measure to nostalgia] cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Europe is a good example of supra-national solutions [he thinks Brexit is a bad idea]. Early humans faced problems which local tribes couldn’t handle (for example, Nile floods). Nowadays problems are supra-national.
Most stories are held together by the weight of their roof rather than by the strength of their foundations. Consider the Christian story. It has the flimsiest of foundations…. Yet enormous global institutions have been built on top of that story, and their weight presses down with such overwhelming force that they keep the story in place.
This is another intellectual tour de force from Harari, though as other reviewers have said it’s essential to have read the other two books first.