21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) explores the crucial social problems likely to beset humanity in the coming decades. The text is a protracted reflection on globalization, technology, climate change, and cultural conflict. Harari warns about worst-case scenarios involving growing inequalities and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). His predictions are meant to compel humanity to act in its own interest as soon as possible.

Technology is advancing at a breathtaking speed, mainly thanks to biotech and infotech, which together will enable AI to imitate, expand, and anticipate human feelings and desires. The rise of biotech will also mean that AI algorithms will make life-changing decisions. Meanwhile, philosophers will be able to present ethical guidelines into machines such as self-driving cars.

With the rise of AI, the rich will be able to widen the gap between themselves and the poor by enhancing their own intellectual and physical abilities. One way to guard against this would be to cultivate communities. Some technological corporations, chief among them Facebook, have vowed to work toward fostering global communities. But in order to make true their pledge, they will need to use their online resources to encourage offline community activities. That may involve a radical revamping of their business models.

Instead of engaging in global communities, people tend to opt for nationalist rhetoric and religious ties that enable a sense of belonging. This is not entirely bad: both religion and nationalism offer local answers to global challenges. But nationalism can lead to anti-immigrationist feelings, which in turn fuel the threat of terrorism, a desperate strategy adopted by those unable to inflict large-scale damages on their enemies. Current forms of terrorism are negligible, but they might in the future give way to nuclear terrorism, which would be much more dangerous. Wars are more a serious threat because of the danger of nuclear annihilation. But the possibility of a nuclear holocaust explains why wars have in fact been unsuccessful in the twenty-first century. War is also not very useful for acquiring data, which has become more valuable than material assets.

In order to avoid both war and terrorism while also fostering a global community, humanity must strive to be more humble. Unfortunately, those in power still use fictions to try to lead people to believe that they have the exclusive means to know the truth. And they succeed because humans have always preferred fictions over truth.

This, however, does not mean that humans shouldn’t look for truth. They should pay for reliable news and read scientific literature. Scientists should do everything possible to make themselves heard. They should also engage in meditation, as a way of complementing neuroscience.

Children must also learn to prepare themselves for the future. They must be taught to be resilient in the face of emotionally draining changes. They should learn to embrace the fact that their existence is discontinuous and ephemeral, and that thoughts and feelings are not something that they possess but rather experience.

Rather than assuming that they know what is going on, humans should acknowledge their relative ignorance. Rather than panic because the world is going up in flames, they should adopt a milder attitude of bewilderment, and then get to work at solving the biggest problems facing humanity.

The key insights for this book are:

  1. Humanity’s future will involve the rapid development of biotech and infotech.
  2. Biotech and infotech will render humans increasingly irrelevant as their jobs will be replaced by machines.
  3. The rich will be able to enhance their brains and bodies.
  4. Anti-immigrationists are culturalists.
  5. Humanity must cultivate humility in order to face the challenges of the future.
  6. Humans have always preferred fictions over truth. In this sense, they have always lived in post-truth societies.
  7. Art, and in particular science fiction, may become an important vehicle in informing the public about the reality and dangers of the imminent future.
  8. Humanity should look for ways to decrease suffering, instead of searching for a meaning to life.
  9. Scientists should engage in meditation, as a way of complementing neuroscience.

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