Most of us are aware of Yuval Harari’s genius because of his best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 21 Lessons for the 21st century, however, is a different experience of the author’s insights through an even more analytical lens.Yet, similarly to his more well-known book, it makes the reader question most of their modern preconceptions.
It is interesting to see how Harari makes us see phenomena and conflicts which should be evidently clear, but most people don’t realize. For instance, the author mentions how for most of modern history, there was a fight between major ideologies: facism, communism, and liberalism, where after World War II, fascism lost, and so did communism after the Cold War. Liberalism was the last one standing – the ‘end of history’, as Fukuyama calls it. However, since 2008, societies have been each day more skeptical of the successes of liberalism as well (just think of how many of the world’s biggest democracies rely on exploiting the work and resources of underdeveloped countries as an example). Besides that, liberalism does not know how to deal with humanity’s most pressing existential threat: ecological destruction. There being no alternative to liberalism, we’re currently facing the opposite problem of the beginning of the XXth century, having gone from three options of worldwide ideological narratives, to zero.
The main effect that Harari has on readers is of making us see and question issues which should be obvious to everyone. That is also proven by his analysis of terrorism: that its goal is, obviously, to terrorize people and incite an overreaction by the government. Even though everyone should be aware of this – the word “terrorism” pretty much gives it away-, most of us still fear a terrorist attack to an unreasonable extent, and vote for political parties based on their plans on how to deal with the issue. It would actually make more sense to vote on politicians based on their plans to reduce traffic accidents than plans to deal with terrorist threats, considering that the former kills millions of people globally per year, while the latter kills a couple thousand.
A great majority of 21 Lessons for the 21st century focuses on technological advancements and how they will affect and modify society in the very near future. Such advancements, coupled with biotechnological developments, have an enormous disruptive capability which will most definitely affect the way we live, work and interact as humans. Many of us tend to see this from a negative perspective, especially when one considers the amount of personal data that big companies need to have on each of us in order to provide advanced AI services, for instance. However, Harari shows that regardless of data protection concerns, it might be worth it to just embrace the upcoming advancements. If technology were for example, capable of knowing our feelings at a certain time, and based on that recommend us exactly the song that we want to hear . Would you not just enjoy the practicability of such a disruption?
Now, the only criticism which I have to offer is perhaps that Harari focuses too much on technological developments and biotechnology. From my point of view, the major changes in society that those will bring about are still far from us. However, that doesn’t make it any less interesting to reflect upon what the world will look like in the future considering technologies which are already being developed nowadays.
All in all, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is especially exciting for those of us who like to continuously question our own beliefs. Thinking about the way exterior phenomena affect (or even create) thoughts which we tend to think are our own is interesting to say the least. The book is a great continuation of Sapiens, and further explores intricacies of modern society in a way which only Harari can do.