Learn 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) has capped the author’s trilogy on past, present, and future of humankind.
Following the enormous success of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), the book delves into today’s most urgent issues – automatization, fake news, nationalism. Here are my 4 major lessons from this exquisite book.
Humanity Is Searching for Identity
In modern debates on gender and society, the argument of “social constructs” has been moved forward on multiple occasions. In Harari’s view, almost every story we believe in is a made-up concept. There are no biological hard-wirings for nations, religions, or political identities.
We create our own interpretations of stories. Christianity is whatever Christians make of it, and “being Italian” is whatever Italians make of it. Every modern nation is a collection of many diverse tribes from the past. Gradually, we unified small collective identities into bigger ones.
Human unification is the main motivation behind creating such stories. It’s about establishing links between groups and homogenizing practices amongst them.
One thousand years ago, it wouldn’t be possible to organize the Olympic games. Today, almost every country follows the same, internationally homogenous structures, like having a national anthem or a flag.
The market is yet another story we tell ourselves. We gave value to money, which is a purely abstract concept. In the contemporary world, the US dollar is valued by every nation and religion, just as is the case with medicine or science.
Global problems require global answers. The truth is, Polish nationalists, Brexit supporters, and fundamental Muslims don’t have answers for problems such as automation, global warming, or the nuclear threat.
In the past, tribes united to face challenges greater than themselves. Nowadays, a way forward and successful coping with worldwide issues needs collective actions of all humans. In a global village, we’ll have to rethink our limited identities and unite to effectively face the problems of the Earth – not just a tribe, an ethnicity, or a nation.
Modern Challenges Require an Objective Perspective
One of the challenges that need a global, collective action is automation and the rapid technological revolution. As technology progresses, millions of people will lose their jobs. The new workplaces will require fewer people with more specific skills and qualifications.
To successfully cope with this challenge, the idea of UBI – universal basic income – has been suggested. Indifferent of the ideological stances, further research and tests will be necessary to determine what it actually means and whether or not it’s a good solution.
What Harari points out is, first of all, the necessity of establishing the definition of ‘basic’ – is it national, European, or global? Moreover, a difference between universal basic income and services needs to be taken into account. Should everyone receive a fixed amount of money, or should we instead provide free healthcare and education for everyone?
An objective perspective is crucial to deal with those problems. Especially today, when the liberal story is going through its crisis. The threat of Big Data will force us to give up on our biases to come up with a good answer.
Algorithms track our behaviors and monitor our preferences online. As we’ve seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, targeted ads and having access to massive libraries of data can influence the results of elections and referendums.
How can we trust democracy, when online algorithms can impact our perception of economic and social matters? For instance, in the Brexit referendum, the UK citizens were asked what they feel, not what they think about leaving the EU. The average Brit doesn’t have sufficient economic and political knowledge to decide what’s best for their country. On the contrary, they know exactly what they feel.
Yet, what we feel about something can no longer be trusted. Targeted campaigns can make us scared or angry over data and statistics. This is an uncontrollable propaganda tool that goes beyond ideology and politics – it’s a question of free will.
Global issues such as immigration or terrorism require a worldwide debate, and one that is devoid of prejudice. But can we be sure about our common sense and feelings anymore?
Don’t Take Anything for Granted
The world identity crisis – losing faith in liberalism, nationality, or religion – struck us in times of unprecedented challenges, such as the revolutions in infotech, biotech, and inequality.
Not being so sure about ourselves seems like a good first step to facing these issues. Every religion and nation see their input into human development as significant, often perceiving themselves as ‘the chosen people.’ In reality, we’re all specks of dust, and no group can take full credit for the positive aspects of our civilization.
In fact, scientific breakthroughs and social progress are due to the involvement of the individual, despite their religious or national identity. Judaism cannot take credit for Einstein’s theory of relativity, just like Christianity can’t take credit for Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Of course, the upbringing and culture have their impact on the individual, no doubt about it. Yet, for instance, we cannot say that “A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis” was the work of Freud’s mother.
Religions and cults like to see ethics and morality as their “inventions,” given to them by their God or gods. Nevertheless, humans aren’t the only beings on Earth with social structures based on morality and ethics. For example, apes, wolves, and rodents have their empathy-based structures too.
To successfully oppose global threats, we need to teach ourselves humility. This is the case not only with collective ideologies but also with our own beliefs and opinions. Various studies show that a lion’s share of our decisions is shaped by groupthink. We need to acknowledge our own ignorance.
The world is way too complicated to be fully understood by a single person. You can be sure that politicians who claim to know everything are blinded by the light of power, blurring their vision of reality.
Politics, economics, society – those are all complex concepts. By accepting our own lack of knowledge, learning humility, and accepting the relativism of certain matters, we can look beyond our differences. Through seeing ourselves as human beings above politics, nationality, and religion, we can look objectively at modern challenges and stand up to them together as humanity.
The Things We Don’t Know
In this complex world, we’re stuck in a box, within a box, within a box. Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” helps us to make sense out of this muddled and convoluted reality.
To create a better future, we first need to grasp the present. Today, we’re struggling with unparalleled global issues, such as revolutions in biotech and infotech, massive inequality, climate change, immigration and terrorism. We need to rethink who we are and what we know to face these challenges.
The world is going through multiple identity crises. Storytelling was a key aspect of human evolution and progress. To take another leap forward, we need to question the present collective identities and try to find our way forward as a unified species – give ourselves a new story, as the humans of Earth.
At the same time, acknowledging our own ignorance and lack of control is essential. We don’t have full power over our thoughts and opinions. Such an outlook on the idealistic “free will” can give us a broader perspective, hence helping us to fight global issues.
In Harari’s words, “we suffer from global problems without having a global community. It’s impossible to fully understand societal problems altogether.” Yes, we’re just human beings – often erratic, lost, and alone. But together, we can try to create a future for everybody, not as Americans, Jews, or Conservatives, but rather as humanity.
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