If you are feeling glum about the state of the world, then it is probably best to skip 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the latest book from intellectual rock star Yuval Noah Harari.
Here, the liberal story that has inspired and sustained the west for more than a century is pronounced dead, following the fascist and communist stories into the dustbin of history. Moreover, we face the possibility of three looming catastrophes: ecological destruction, technological disruption and the biological divergence of our own species.
If we can somehow prevent irreversible global warming, then the merger of infotech and biotech, as Harari puts it, may well render most of us economically irrelevant and politically powerless. It may even call into question whether we should continue talking about Homo sapiens as a single species, following a pretty successful 70,000-year run, described in his earlier book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Our rich technocracy may one day be able to indulge in a spot of bio-engineering as readily as injecting Botox today, creating superhumans and cheating death. “If data becomes concentrated in too few hands, humankind will split into different species,” he breezily asserts.
Such grand and provocative prognostications, sometimes ridiculed by domain experts, have become Harari’s stock-in-trade. They have earned him literary stardom among the public and fandom among the Davos crowd as the go-to intellectual of our bewildering times. Harari’s genius at weaving together insights from different disciplines, ranging from ancient history to neuroscience to philosophy to artificial intelligence, has enabled him to respond to the clamour to understand where we have come from and where we might be heading. His books have been translated into 45 languages and sold more than 12m copies.
In spite of the historic sweep, with Harari it is always worth checking the fine print. “Obviously, most of this is just speculation,” he says at one point, advising us not to panic yet. “Panic is a form of hubris,” he adds, warning us against any smug beliefs that we can predict the future. Quite.
On closer examination, Harari’s timetable is also suspiciously slippery. Some of these developments may only occur in a century, or two, if they occur at all. Then again, of course, events may take an altogether different and unexpected path, such is the capriciousness of Clio, the muse of history.
Although 21 Lessons is lit up by flashes of intellectual adventure and literary verve, it is probably the least illuminating of the three books written by the history lecturer from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Many of his big ideas will be familiar to devoted readers of his two best-selling epics, Sapiens and Homo Deus. Breaking his argument up into 21 chapters in his latest book — covering subjects as varied as disillusionment, war, immigration, God, post-truth, science fiction and meditation — also means that few thoughts are fully explored and no themes are adequately developed.
That said, Harari’s intellectual pyrotechnics remain wildly entertaining as he launches further attacks on his bugbears: nationalism, populism and religion.
With great vim, he wades into the debate about fake news. In Sapiens, Harari explained how society has been bound together by fictional creations, such as money, nation and religion. That gives him a somewhat sanguine perspective on the heated debate that is now raging about fake news.
“When a thousand people believe some made-up story for a month — that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years — that’s a religion,” he says.
Mindful of the grave offence that such an argument may cause, he swiftly adds that fictions are not necessarily worthless or harmful. By encouraging the better angels of our natures, they can also be beautiful and inspiring.
Nor does Harari ultimately deny that fake news is a problem, behoving us all to make an effort to uncover our own biases and verify our sources of information. His two rules of thumb are: pay good money for reliable information (an idea we hope FT readers approve of); and read relevant scientific research. He also urges scientists to become more vocal and imaginative in injecting their knowledge into the public domain. “From a political perspective, a good science-fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature,” he writes.
It is not just religious dogmatists that find themselves in Harari’s cross-hairs. He is similarly ferocious in his assaults on extreme nationalists in general and Brexiters in particular. He dismisses the idea that nationalism is in any way a natural and eternal part of the human psyche. An excessive focus on the nation makes it more difficult to tackle the common global challenges we all face, such as adverse climate change. While recognising that national identity can often act as community glue, he suggests that nationalism can sometimes be an “escapist indulgence” that may doom humankind and the “entire biosphere” to disaster.
A wealthy technocracy may one day indulge in a spot of bio-engineering as readily as injecting Botox, creating superhumans and cheating death
Harari accuses the British public, those who voted for Brexit, of endangering a valuable European political construction that helped end centuries of bloody conflict. Brexit has only thrown a “spanner into the miracle machine”. Michael Gove, the supposed intellectual of the Brexit campaign, appears to have trod on some especially sensitive Harari corns and is ridiculed for prioritising his own “feelings” over rational thought.
Perhaps the most powerful parts of the book, though, concern Harari’s discussion of the data economy and the increasing automation of our lives. In a striking metaphor, he suggests that we digital consumers are as naive as native Americans trading our valuable land for trinkets with the invading conquistadores. The ownership and regulation of data, he writes, “may well be the most important political question of our era.”
The vast amounts of data the tech companies are currently ingesting give them ever-increasing insights into our habits, thoughts and lives. Americans check their smartphones 8bn times a day giving up data with every interaction.
The ability of smart algorithms to feast on all this data means they will become increasingly good at predicting our lives and making better decisions for us. It will not be so much Human vs Machine as slow-moving individual vs superfast network. We humans may comfort ourselves that we will forever reign supreme in the realms of ethics and feelings. But Harari doubts that too. Our self-driving cars can be fitted with adjustable ethical settings, drawn from the works of all our great philosophers, while biometric sensors will interpret our own feelings more accurately than we can.
Once computers understand us better than we understand ourselves, what does that mean for our choice of careers, lovers or voting decisions? Harari envisages a world in which Anna Karenina would have consulted the Facebook algorithm before deciding whether to hitch up with Count Vronsky and where AI systems define the parameters of our political decision-making. Our democracies would then become little more than “an emotional puppet show” (some may think we have reached that point already).
Naturally, Harari explores the outer edges of such debates and arrives at some wildly speculative conclusions about the future of AI. “After four billion years of organic life evolving by natural selection, science is ushering in the era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design,” he says. “In the process, Homo sapiens itself will likely disappear.”
Having ticked off the past and future in his two previous books, Harari tells us that his ambition with 21 Lessons is to zoom in on the “here and now”. But his horizons appear strangely limited, touching only briefly on Asia and Africa, where most of humanity lives.
WATCH | Yuval Noah Harari on 21 Lessons for the 21st Century:
One of the most significant stories of the 21st century is surely how China is reclaiming its role as the world’s leading economy, a position it probably held for 18 of the past 20 centuries.
A new Beijing consensus, combining authoritarian politics, (mostly) capitalist economics and technological dynamism, is becoming increasingly pervasive and popular around the world. Even the current president of the US seems quite enamoured with the model, despite railing against China for nationalistic reasons.
It seems decidedly odd that Harari is so obsessed with the Occident while mostly ignoring the Orient. It would be fascinating to read more of Harari’s views on the probable evolution of China, India, south-east Asia and Africa. As he tantalisingly puts it: “Today, few would confidently declare that the Chinese Communist party is on the wrong side of history.”
This book ends on an intriguing personal note, as Harari reflects on his own life story and what it means to be homosexual and Jewish in our modern world. One of his great personal salvations has been the discovery of Vipassana meditation as a useful mechanism for focusing his life. He tells us that he meditates for two hours every day and goes on a retreat of a month or two every year. For the moment, consciousness remains one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, worthy of both personal and professional exploration.
If there is a theme that runs through all of Harari’s writings, it would surely best be summed up by his statement that: “Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”
Or, as he concludes, it is worth trying to understand our own minds more clearly before the algorithms make up our own minds for us.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari is available at Exclusive Books from R295.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.