Review by Brian Tanguay
When I began reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the 2018 book by historian Yuval Noah Harari, I was feeling at loose ends about the ongoing pandemic, climate change, and the vitriolic political atmosphere in the United States. So many serious problems, so much information (much of it of dubious accuracy or utility) and so little clarity about what should be done. I despaired because putting all these issues into meaningful context is difficult, if not impossible, for the average person. This isn’t to say that I found neat, tidy answers to the vexing questions that face humankind in Harari’s book. What I did find was a helpful framework for thinking about a world in drastic flux, along with a timely reminder that no one person, country, corporation, religion or ideology has all the answers. Whether we admit it or not, we’re all struggling to find our way.
“Questions you cannot answer,” Harari writes, “are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.” That’s an excellent starting point for anyone trying to make sense of what is going on in the world today. While certainty is comforting, there’s little of it to go around when the issues are large, complex, and global. As Harari cogently argues, global problems like climate change require global solutions. Most of us have a hard enough time understanding the place where we live, let alone a country on the other side of the world. I find this idea strangely comforting, as if it relieves me of feeling personally deficient because of my ignorance. Throwing up one’s hands in defeat in the face of it all is not however what this book is about; it’s about examining the many challenges we face with a longer lens. This longer view is why Harari’s thinking and writing is valuable, and it’s his unique ability to convey his thoughts and ideas in accessible language that accounts for the success of his previous books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, and continues in his latest effort. Harari will get you thinking in ways you may never have done before. You might not always agree with him, but he’s definitely provocative and stimulating.
A case in point for me was his analysis of Big Data, what Harari refers to as the merging of biotech and infotech. Anyone who uses a smartphone or a computer is likely aware that incredible amounts of our personal information — what we view, read, listen to, stream, click on, follow, and post — is scooped up and fed into algorithms that deliver back to us more of what we like or are most interested in. Our data is coveted, as valuable as gold, silver or oil; it’s bought and sold, largely without our knowledge. Our tastes in music, movies, books, food, and what have you is one thing, but what happens when detailed biometric information about us can also be analyzed and aggregated, shared and sold? While there are many benefits to having quick, reliable access to our personal information, there are definite dangers when such data is controlled by too few hands. As Harari writes, “Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.” The question about Big Data is: what safeguards can society devise to allow us to reap the benefits of quick access to data without it being used against us by unscrupulous actors, be they corporate or governmental? This is one of the most complex problems facing us right now.
We will have a related challenge as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated. How will we respond when computers render humans obsolete and replace them in more and more jobs? What will become of all those surplus workers? If the recent past is prologue, the answer might be, not much. But what if AI replaces workers on a massive scale? That’s a problem of a different magnitude, one that will cause enormous suffering if left unaddressed.
The existential questions of this century will be global in nature and will call for greater cooperation among people and nations than ever before. We will become more interdependent, not less so. As Harari points out, large-scale cooperation is the primary reason the human species has been so successful. Our ability to cooperate might save us while our refusal to do so might doom us to a horrible future. Nationalistic slogans like “America First” may appeal to some people on a tribal level, but it’s inadequate as a response to the global challenges we face.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a profound book, worthy of a close read and plenty of contemplation. In a highly interconnected world, our actions and daily routines have consequences that resonate far beyond our personal horizons.