Book Review – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
by David Molesky
Yuval Noah Harari’s first two books largely inspired my presentation for TRAC 2018. When I heard that the former Israeli history professor would be coming out with a third last fall, I literally could not wait and contacted his publishers for an advance copy.
In his first book Sapiens, Harari adapted to text his popular online class that tracks humanity from the invention of fire to cyborgs. At the end of the book, he redirects his 20/20 hindsight vision for history to bring focus to the misty crystal ball of the future – a transition to the next book, Homo Deus. Here, among other predictions, he proposes that the most affluent members of society will soon have the opportunity to upgrade themselves through biotechnology into what will need to be classified as an entirely new species.
The latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is Harari’s self-help guide for our bewildering era. It reveals an evolution of many of the concepts raised by the first two books and is Harari’s response to the questions and challenges that intellectual peers raised during two years of touring with his books. In 21 chapters he outlines those forces shaping society that he believes need greater attention if we are to ensure a bright future. Although the book is titled “Lessons,” Harari offers no answers but instead reveals key issues in tandem with philosophical and historical perspectives.
The cornerstone concept, mentioned in all three books, is that humans have dominated the planet through fictions. The shared belief in these stories allows for mass-scale human cooperation – take, for example, money, religion, sports, and the nation-state. Considering the forecasted set of challenges before us, Harari dedicates the 18th chapter of 21 Lessons to the genre – Science Fiction: The Future Is Not What You See in the Movies.
At the beginning of this chapter, Harari states that because fictions are so crucial to our species’ success, “poets, painters, and playwrights are therefore at least as important as soldiers and engineers.” Just as artists have inspired religious fervor, “our belief in the modern mythology of capitalism is underpinned by the artistic creations of Hollywood and the pop industry.” In the 21st Century, science fiction shapes “how people understand the most important technological, social, and economic developments of our time.” Harari critiques popular literature and film for its failure to deliver crucial insights and realistic future visions to the masses. Few people read the latest articles on machine learning or genetic engineering, instead our understanding of these subjects reaches us through “movies such as The Matrix and Her and TV series such as Westworld and Black Mirror. ”
Harari calls for the genre to be more responsible in its depiction of scientific realities and asks that it not “imbue people with the wrong ideas or focus their attention on the wrong problems.” For example, in regards to artificial intelligence, rather than worry about killer robots, we should really be concerned about “a small human elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo Sapiens.” Most movies about AI are so divorced from scientific reality that they seem to be about completely different concerns. For example, the plots of Ex Machina and Her seems driven by anxieties related to the liberation of intelligent women.
The Matrix and the Truman Show enlighten us to the possibility that we could get caught in a web of manipulation, but the endings mislead us with the message that one can escape to access the true reality. We are already trapped in boxes however, namely our minds and society. According to the most up-to-date neuroscience, our brains are never free of manipulation. Harari goes on to praise a recent Disney film, Inside Out, which completely dismantles the usual Disney myth where a hero faces danger, but through free will discovers the authentic self. Instead, this movie takes us into the main character’s mind, to reveal that she is actually more like a robot who is controlled by biochemical mechanisms, represents as animated personified characters. The film reveals new scientific understanding that what we experience as ourselves is really a mirage projected by a complex system of neural networks and biochemicals.
Harari goes on to discuss Huxley’s Brave New World, with its sinister message that becomes more and more relevant each passing year. In it, a world government uses biotechnology and social engineering to ensure that society is content and will not rebel. The dystopia in this future is not obvious, nor is it obvious that it describes our present situation, with the whole of humanity becoming data cows. Harari concludes that the only way to escape the matrix is to escape your self. As algorithms hack human biochemistry, a stubborn belief in one’s free will only make you more stuck in these webs of manipulation.
Harari’s book is a rallying cry to creative people and thinkers to construct new narratives, be it by pen or brush, that will serve to educate and prepare human society for the challenges inherent in the near future.