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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari again roams far beyond his nominal discipline, as he continues to develop many of the themes introduced in such earlier works as Sapiens and Homo Deus . The question which runs throughout the book is...

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In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari again roams far beyond his nominal discipline, as he continues to develop many of the themes introduced in such earlier works as Sapiens and Homo Deus. The question which runs throughout the book is that of mankind's ability to adjust to a world in which environmental, technological, political, and social change is unfolding at an ever faster pace. As he puts it, "How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?"

Among the subjects he covers are the waning of religion and nationalism as foci of human loyalty, and the possibility that they'll be replaced by individual human gurus. He explores the creative power of AI, its potential threat to human labor, and the forthcoming hegemony of the algorithm and the control of Big Data. He conjectures that "How do you regulate the ownership of data?" may become the central political question of the future.

In the realm of politics itself, he believes that liberalism offers the only alternative to global self-destruction and emphasizes the need for a global politics in place of the divisiveness of the current nationalist fever. Nationalist politics also present an obstacle to the repair and preservation of the environment, problems which clearly demand a global solution.

Instead of concentrating on imparting information, Harari urges educators to focus their teaching on the four Cs: critical thinking, communications, creativity, and collaboration. In a fast-changing world, the need to learn to adapt and be resilient should also become an educational imperative.

He sees the global response to terrorism as an over-reaction; since 9/11, ten Americans have been killed by terrorists each year, while 3.5 million per annum have died as the result of high sugar levels. Innumeracy may be a greater problem than terrorism. Harari also advises the media to curtail what he describes as terrorist "hysteria theater," despite the undoubted financial gains it produces.

He claims that the decline of organized religion suggests that many already realize that the worship of divinities is not required to live a moral life. In order to live such a life, he says, one simply needs to develop a deep appreciation of the suffering of others. The great value of such a commitment to secularism is its acknowledgement of human responsibility and agency.

In concluding, Harari recommends the practice of meditation, an integral part of his own life, as a valuable tool in attaining a sense of focus, clarity, and peace in the midst of an increasingly tumultuous world.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078

Author: Yuval Noah Harari (b. 1976)

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (New York). 400 pp.

Type of work: Current affairs

Time: Present and near future

Locale: Global

After examining humanity’s distant past in Sapiens (2014) and its long-distance future in Homo Deus (2016), Israeli historian and scholar Yuval Noah Harari focuses his attention upon problems and solutions for the human species in the present and near future in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).

In his third book, 2018’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari interprets the current social, political, and technological landscape to predict the significant, perhaps existential, challenges humanity will face in the next several decades. In many cases, his outlook is quite bleak: as technology advances inexorably, and swift communication pushes apart or pulls together groups of people with conflicting views, the pressure on individuals will grow. Some will not survive the resulting chaos. Others will be forced to subsist in reduced circumstances. However, Harari is not wholly negative. He suggests that those capable of adapting in a thoughtful, timely fashion will form the vanguard of a changed but resilient species. And, as his title suggests, he presents a variety of considerations he believes will help individuals and societies prepare for the serious changes ahead.

21 Lessons is, in many ways, a follow-up to Harari’s books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), which explore humanity’s past and potential future, respectively. Both proved highly successful and propelled the author to acclaim as a popular guru of both history and futurism for general audiences. Harari then turned his attention to the trends of the mid-to-late 2010s and their impact on the near future. Sections of 21 Lessons previously appeared as articles in various periodicals, examining particular aspects of modern society that contribute directly or indirectly to human welfare. Gathered into a collection, amended as necessary, given structure, and tied thematically, Harari’s writing forewarns of an era fraught with uncertainty and filled with potential global upheaval. While the book discusses little that others have not already thought or expressed before, Harari’s clear and engaging style draws in readers regardless of familiarity with the subjects at hand. He provides concrete examples to illustrate concepts and uses pithy sentences that drive home points, such as this telling observation: “Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.”Courtesy of Random House

As the author reminds readers, doomsayers have been proclaiming about impending disaster since the dawn of time. Turns of the millennia, plagues of disease, history-changing inventions like gunpowder or steam engines, worldview-altering atomic bombs, and other natural or human-made phenomena have all engendered feelings of foreboding as possible harbingers of the end of the world. The difference now, Harari suggests, is the rapid pace of events unfolding in the twenty-first century compared to all the centuries of civilization that came before, as well as the sheer mass of humanity potentially affected by changes soon to materialize. The world has shrunk. Journeys that not long ago took days or weeks can now be accomplished in hours. People anywhere on the globe can connect with one another instantly at the touch of a button. Ideas, good or bad, can be exchanged at the speed of light.

A consequence of this modern way of life—and a major problem, Harari argues—is information overload. Humans have become obsessed with data-gathering, lately through sophisticated portable internet-capable devices, as a means of keeping in constant touch with the world and bringing relevance into their otherwise humdrum lives. And as individuals collect information, other entities with different motives (such as governments and corporations) are collecting information about them: personal history, health issues, food preferences, political affiliation, sexual proclivities, and much more, all conveniently broken down into demographic categories. The trouble is, humans are not necessarily equipped evolutionarily or emotionally to live in such mentally overwhelming conditions. The proto-humans who emerged as hunter-gatherers long ago developed brains structured to handle simple binary choices (e.g., kill or be killed). Though Homo sapiens has learned much and progressed far over time, the species remains biologically limited, wired for the analog rather than the digital age, and as such has difficulties processing and analyzing complicated data. Humans faced with a bewildering plethora of modern considerations linked to behavior, or reactions to sensual stimuli—Is something morally right? Is it socially acceptable? Is there profit to be made?—impulsively make decisions based on ancient intuitions and are prone to error. Individually and socially, these errors can have sweeping consequences. © Ilya Malnikov

21 Lessons is Harari’s attempt to show ways in which even primitive, flawed brains can be applied to contemporary issues. The work is split into five main parts: the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, truth, and resilience. These parts are divided into a total of twenty-one chapters—the “lessons” of the title—that each examine a contemporary issue such as equality, war, or education. However, as many reviewers noted, the work is ultimately structured less like a series of prescriptive lessons than as general points to ponder and reflect on. While some might be disappointed in the lack of recommended actions with proven results, awareness and consideration of the issues Harari outlines is surely beneficial, even if one disagrees with some of his ideas.

Part 1, titled “The Technological Challenge,” the longest section in the book, focuses mainly on the anticipated effects of biotech and infotech on humanity in the near future. Harari begins, however, with “Disillusionment: The End of History Has Been Postponed,” a far-ranging chapter about how humans tend to think: in stories, tales, and myths, rather than in facts. He argues that this is a relic from when information could only be passed along from generation to generation orally, among members of separate tribes. All tribes had their own stories and like-minded groups banded together, united by common beliefs and ideals, a custom that held true from antiquity until modern times. For example, Harari maintains, the twentieth century was dominated by three major and largely incompatible movements that coalesced out of tribalism: fascism, communism, and liberalism.

Harari largely sympathizes with liberalism, which he identifies as the dominant remaining ideology in the early twenty-first century and defines most broadly as a belief in the value of liberty. Liberalism faced a major challenge from fascism—characterized by rabid nationalism under the leadership of dictators who ruthlessly suppress dissenting voices and ideas and rigidly control all aspects of society—but seemingly overcame it in World War II. Communism, which advocates a publicly owned society, then became the main threat to the liberal order, but this threat faded following reforms in China and the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. With liberalism apparently victorious, Harari notes flaws in the system, such as the fact that ongoing economic liberalization and globalization have failed to ensure peace and alleviate poverty. Indeed, the “disillusionment” the author discusses is with the very liberal principles many take for granted, as demonstrated by widespread backlash apparent in the mid-2010s.

Encapsulating this backlash for Harari are the US presidency of Donald Trump and Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Yet he is clear that these are just two pertinent examples of a general trend, one in which liberalism is being fractured to the point that it can no longer be considered a coherent driving story of humanity. He suggests that the concepts of liberty and equality are increasingly given to individual interpretation, with leaders such as Trump and proponents of Brexit mixing in illiberal ideas. The qualities of certain liberal principles—democracy, civil rights, religious freedom—have seemingly become arguable. This shift is aided by disruptive technological development, including channels that exacerbate confusion between opinion and fact, as well as by societal apprehension caused by events such as the global financial crisis, massive population movement, and devastating natural disasters. The result is a widespread resurgence of nationalism, an earlier and more localized guiding story than liberalism, communism, or fascism (though it played into all three). And while nationalism can take many forms, Harari warns against the apparent rise of inequality and prejudices based on factors including skin tone, national origin, mental or physical handicaps, gender identity, and religion.

After establishing many of the broad themes and concerns in the introduction and first chapter, Harari subsequently tackles narrower subjects, though all are complex and intertwined. In general, the author lays out his view of the current state of each issue, forecasts the challenges and choices ahead, and then discusses potential ways to prepare for and cope with what the future holds. Lesson number two, for instance—titled “Work: When You Grow Up, You Might Not Have a Job”—examines the impact of increasing automation on the job market. As proves typical throughout the book, the warnings are nothing new: the rise of robotics will eventually supplant humans in the performance of repetitive labor, while the advantages of artificial intelligence (AI) in storing and comparing data will make inroads into human cognitive superiority. It is highly possible that soon millions of human employees will become obsolete. Harari’s discussion of solutions for the problem are also not particularly groundbreaking: individuals must become more creative in finding niches and concentrate on supplemental roles related to the advanced technologies, while governments should be prepared and consider legislative measures such as a universal basic income (UBI) that might help ease the transition to a heavily automated economy. Instead, it is the author’s coherent and thought-provoking presentation of the issues at play, especially for general audiences, that is the real strength of the book.

Parts 2 through 5 continue to build upon the premises established in the first part. Harari touches upon dozens of tangential facets of the human experience that may or may not be relevant for individual readers, but it is probable that everyone will find something to latch onto. There are discussions of community and personal identity, religion versus science, and the ownership of data as the new standard of wealth. The author ventures far and wide in his arguments, drawing upon diverse resources—from Confucius and Buddha to Mark Zuckerberg and Joseph Goebbels—in an effort to give shape to abstract ideas. Fittingly, his final lesson comes the closest to truly imparting a teaching, as he advocates for meditation and mindfulness as a way to approach any situation or eventuality. Though this practice may not help all readers achieve peace of mind, it is arguably the clearest step any individual can take to face the many challenges of the present and future.

The tone of 21 Lessons varies from pedantic to philosophical to jocular; in his passion to bring understanding to his theses, Harari sometimes explains too much. Other times, his thoughts turn generic or simplistic, giving the reader nothing to grasp. These flaws were noted in many reviews, which also tended to note the overlap between the book and Harari’s previous works. Gavin Jacobson, in a review for New Statesman, even considered 21 Lessons a failure on the whole. Yet though the book is inconsistent, it is seldom completely uninteresting, as indicated by the overall largely positive critical reception. Harari has an ability to startle with a well-expressed truth or controversial opinion. And most reviewers agreed that his skillful writing outweighs any missteps, especially as a primer for general readers rather than an academic-focused work.

Review Sources

  • Gates, Bill. “What Are the Biggest Problems Facing Us in the 21st Century?” Review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times, 4 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/04/books/review/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-yuval-noah-harari.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
  • Jacobson, Gavin. “Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a Banal and Risible Self-Help Book.” Review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. New Statesman America, 22 Aug. 2018, www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/08/yuval-noah-harari-s-21-lessons-21st-century-banal-and-risible-self-help-book. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
  • Lewis, Helen. “21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari Review—A Guru for Our Times?” The Guardian, 15 Aug. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/15/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-by-yuval-noah-harari-review. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
  • O’Toole, Fintan. “‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’: A Wake-Up Call about Humanity’s Future.” Review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. The Irish Times, 13 Oct. 2018, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-a-wake-up-call-about-humanity-s-future-1.3644653. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
  • Review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari. Publishers Weekly, 25 June 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-525-51217-2. Accessed 23 Jan. 2019.
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