21 Lessons for the 21st Century

BY YUVAL NOAH HARARI
SPEIGEL & GRAU, 2018
400 PP.; $28.00

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; and now, to complete the triptych as it were, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. “[I] want to zoom in on the here and now,” the author says in his new book. “My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies. What is happening right now? What are today’s greatest challenges and most important choices? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?” Harari has the credentials to tackle his wildly ambitious task: he is formidably erudite, insightful, and sophisticated. That I found the book both provocative and sometimes exasperating would, I think, please and even amuse him.

I’m not sure “Lessons” in the book’s title is appropriate; analyses might be more accurate (more on this later). At any rate, Harari’s scrutiny of the most momentous phenomena shaping our world and its future comprises twenty-one chapters (some coincidence!). Part I is called “The Technological Challenge,” which is a logical and inevitable choice for investigation, given technology’s importance and the awe it commands in so many aspects of our lives.  The section is also deeply pessimistic, which might be logical, but is it inevitable? Harari believes that liberal democracy, despite its flaws, “is the most successful and most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world.” And he sets out a case for why this model is profoundly stressed by the onrush of incredible new technology.


Harari contends that secularism “probably sets the ethical bar too high. Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code.” Moreover, he maintains that “Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow.”


Harari begins by asserting that “Since the 1990s the Internet has changed the world probably more than any other factor” while the “democratic system is still struggling to understand what hit it, and it is unequipped to deal with the next shocks.” Those shocks will probably derive from mind-boggling advances in the realms of artificial intelligence (AI), biotech, and infotech:

The revolutions in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. We will learn how to design brains, extend lives, and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequence will be. Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.

Harari also posits that by 2050, AI could render most human beings redundant in the workplace, including in the white-collar professions. This state of affairs—millions (billions?) unemployed and unemployable—will indelibly alter governments, social relations, and daily life. What will those superfluous individuals do? Is the nihilism and despair operating in the Western world today a mere foreshadowing of what’s to come?

It could be so if Harari’s most ruinous scenarios come to pass, wherein external data-processing systems “can hack all your desires, decisions, and opinions. They can know exactly who you are.” It gets worse: biometrics (surveying every detail of the human body) allied with new, extraordinary modes of AI will literally, if Harari is correct, change human nature in every conceivable—and inconceivable—way:

[O]nce we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work [if we work], and whom to marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision-making. …As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer view the world as the playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices. Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system—and then merge into it.

Harari doesn’t provide reasons to be sanguine about the possibilities of such a metamorphosis into what he calls “digital dictatorships.” Not depressed yet? Try this, a final fillip concerning Harari’s techno trepidation: “Humans and machines might merge so completely that humans will not be able to survive at all if they are disconnected from the network. They will be connected starting in the womb.” I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I won’t be around to see all this.

21 Lessons approaches other subjects that readers might have an easier time discussing reasonably: God, secularism, and free will. “From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history,” Harari contends, noting that religious faith isn’t necessary to behave morally. (For Harari, morality means “reducing human suffering.”) So far, so good. The author also says this about God:

When all is said and done, it is a matter of semantics. When I use the word ‘God,’ I think of the God of the Islamic State, of the Crusades, of the Inquisition, and of the ‘God hates fags’ banners. When I think of the mysteries of existence, I prefer to use other words, so as to avoid confusion.

A reader could conclude from this passage that Harari’s an atheist, but my memory and notes don’t indicate that he ever explicitly states that he is.

For Harari, the most important virtues of an exemplary secular person are commitments to truth, compassion, equality, freedom, responsibility, and courage (“it takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown”). Harari acknowledges that at least some of these moral principles overlap with both secularism and religion, but he also contends that secularism “probably sets the ethical bar too high. Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code.” (I’m guilty as charged.) Moreover, he maintains that “Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow.” He means secularists too. “Secularism should not be equated with Stalinist dogmatism or with the bitter fruits of Western imperialism and runaway industrialization. Yet it cannot shirk all responsibility for them, either.” He goes on to discuss some of those responsibilities. It’s fascinating to ponder the implications of this, and I regret to say that he might be partly right.

Free will doesn’t earn its own chapter in 21 Lessons, which is ironic because it’s integral to Harari’s contemplation of God and secularism, and, indeed, to his whole Weltanschauung. But he doesn’t shun it either, writing that “Democracy assumes that human feelings reflect a mysterious and profound ‘free will,’ that this ‘free will’ is the ultimate source of authority, and that while some people are more intelligent than others, all humans are equally free.’” However, “When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers. My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate.” He also contends that liberalism is “particularly confused” on the topic: “If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire, then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire, then no, humans have no free will.” Harari sums up by offering humanity a rather feeble anodyne: “Ultimately we should realize that we do not control our desires, or even our reactions to these desires. Realizing this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, about our desires. We don’t have free will, but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will.” We’ve come a long way from college Philosophy 101 and about what Descartes and Kant and other philosophers had to say on all this.

There are, of course, savants who argue for the other side of the conundrum. The late great Martin Gardner had this to say in his book, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983):

I cannot conceive of myself as existing without a body in both space and time, or without a brain that has free will. I agree with Samuel Johnson that “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.” I cannot comprehend how the dilemma can be resolved, but I am no more troubled by this than by the fact that I cannot understand time, being, consciousness, or the nature of God. Indeed, it was with a feeling of enormous relief that I concluded, long ago, that free will is an unfathomable mystery.

Gardner concludes: “I am persuaded that somehow, in a way utterly beyond our ken, you and I possess that incomprehensible power we call free will.” I find these remarks more congenial, hence more cogent, than Harari’s. (Don’t you?) As I humbly see it, since I’m held responsible for my actions by society, I’m being honorable, or at least decent, by assuming that those actions are manifested through the exercise of my will. I would also maintain that while people are sometimes ruled by unruly emotions deep in their psyches, major aspects of human endeavor—science, technology, scholarly work, writing, sex (just kidding; I wanted to make sure you’re paying attention), and the like—are inconceivable without rational, intellectual, conscious thought processes. Harari’s genome didn’t create 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. (As for his predictions about future strictures concerning free will, I can only say that the future will have to take care of itself.)

A friend of mine disparages Harari because she finds him “glib.” She believes this to be the case, I suspect, because Harari’s prose is smooth and clean, and my friend, I presume, expects writing on weighty subjects to be wooden, ponderous, pedantic. But Harari’s style is an exemplary instrument for explicating his memes and themes. I have a few qualms about the book, some somewhat more consequential than others. There are a couple of sentences that disturb me: “Though nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale [during World War I], modern nation states also built massive systems of healthcare, education, and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.” This is unworthy of Harari. Nothing could make the unspeakable carnage that occurred at those two Great War battles seem worthwhile. Elsewhere, Harari says that “the kamikaze [sic] were ordinary planes loaded with explosives and guided by human pilots willing to go on one-way missions. This willingness was the product of the death defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by [Japan’s] State Shinto.” But if my memory of my reading about World War II serves me correctly, many of those pilots weren’t so willing, were, in fact, coerced. On a lighter note, Harari proves that a scholar can be quite knowledgeable and perceptive about certain subjects, but not others. He’s unreliable on movies. He thinks The Matrix and The Truman Show are brilliant and he admires Inside Out. I think all three are pretentious stinkers. (Naturally, I’m right.)

The most disquieting aspects of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century probably aren’t Harari’s 
fault. They are the same unsettling vibes I found in another recent, also very good book by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking called Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media. LikeWar works on a smaller scale than 21 Lessons, but it too presents a canvas of humanity’s presumed appalling future. Both books also offer suggestions for thwarting the horrors they delineate. Here’s the problem: the nightmarish visions that these authors evoke are so powerful, so overwhelmingly unnerving, that the books’ correctives—any correctives—seem pitifully inadequate, seem useless. A malign future, rooted in our tremulous present, appears to be inevitable.

This might seem counterintuitive, but the seemingly hopeless prognosis for a hellish new world in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is no reason not to read it (or LikeWar, for that matter). Harari’s ultimate goal, I believe, is polemical: he wants to encourage discussion and argument, and I don’t doubt that he hopes readers form opinions opposed to his own. Whatever terrors the future holds, it is safe to say that engaging right now with a splendid mind like Harari’s is an eminently civilized endeavor.