Like his biblical namesake, Yuval Noah Harari has been doing his best to help humanity survive the coming deluge. But in Harari’s case, the deluge is man-made and not sent by God to wipe out a corrupted humanity.
The bestselling Israeli historian, philosopher and social critic is in great form with his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As we already know from his previous works, he’s a great distiller of trends, skilled at simplifying big ideas and presenting them in appealing bite-sized ways. He’s also got a McLuhanesque talent for constructing playful witticisms.
As Harari lays out in 21 Lessons, global civilization is facing a deluge of modern challenges. In his view, the three big ones are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption prompted by the rapid development of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
Even if you are an aboriginal native in a rainforest in South America, you still can’t escape the consequences of these challenges. They are global problems that need to be solved on a global, not national, scale, he writes.
Modern technological innovations are compelling us to re-evaluate our core beliefs and making new adaptation skills mandatory. It is difficult to train for a career today because there is no telling which professions our emerging technologies might soon make obsolete.
People once took jobs for life. But in today’s rapidly changing job market, we must adapt to changes in the workplace as rapidly as a school of fish changes course. The example given is of a truck driver who, because of the introduction of self-driving vehicles, loses his job and so must reinvent himself as a yoga teacher.
Harari emphasizes the importance of knowing how to adapt. “Do we human beings have the intelligence and the emotional stability necessary to reinvent ourselves repeatedly?” he asks.
A keen analyst of how new technologies and social trends affect the geopolitical landscape, Harari reminds us what we already know – that Big Data is watching us. Google is just one of a multitude of online entities that compile information about us. So far these agencies confine themselves to collecting data “outside of our skin,” but as biotech continues to evolve, they will collect vast amounts of information from inside our bodies as well. (Soon a computer may be just as skilled as a doctor at diagnosing diseases.)
He observes that there will be both good and bad consequences resulting from our revolutionary new technologies and the cascading social changes they generate. Noting that the world of 2050 will look very different than today, he offers both utopian and dystopian visions of what tomorrow may bring.
Western democracies are founded on the ideal of individual free will and the notions that the customer is always right and voters know best. But in the age of the computer algorithm, machines may often know better. Harari presents a cogent criticism of liberal democracies and our presumption that we voters are informed enough to make intelligent choices.
Our “illusion of free will,” he writes, is likely to disintegrate as institutions, corporations, and government agencies continue to collect more private information about us, and increasingly manipulate us in ways we can’t even see.
Like a magpie who builds its nest from shiny objects taken from others, Harari collects vast amounts of information and shares the best bon mots or insights with his readers. For instance, he cites biologist-philosopher Richard Dawkins on the ineptitude of the British public to vote for or against something as complicated as Brexit. Observed Dawkins: “You might as well call a national plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, and let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land.”
He decries the rise of “digital dictatorships” built by governments to impose a totalitarian regimen upon their subjects. China, of course, stands as a poster child for brutal totalitarian regimes. To enhance social media profiles and online shopping data, the Sinos are said to be perfecting facial recognition algorithms for a national surveillance program involving vast networks of public cameras.
Loyal and obedient Chinese citizens will be rewarded with faster Internet service and fewer hoops to jump through when applying for foreign travel. Enemies of the state, however, including those who question the government’s official narratives or policies, may be arrested, harassed, and socially stigmatized: their cell phones will automatically notify all of their contacts of their deviant status.
As he did in both of his previous books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, Harari writes insightfully about the myths and stories that humans create in order to unify tribes and other social groups. He also tackles the phenomenon of Fake News. The best way to avoid it, he suggests, is to pay for quality news without advertising, rather than use free sources that attract customers through sensational, deceptive or fictionalized headlines.
Perhaps the biggest deluge we are facing continues to be the information explosion that Marshall McLuhan described in an earlier day: it now seems to be on steroids. Harari emphasizes our supreme task of deriving meaning for our lives from the universe of facts and patterns swirling around us.
21 Lessons also offers sections on terrorism, war, humility, education, meditation and other topics that are woven into an engaging and thoughtful narrative that usually sounds reasonable. In my opinion, Harari becomes most suspect when expounding at length on a topic he should know the most about, being the closest at hand: the Jewish religion. If this Israeli professor really believes the Jewish people are as insignificant and self-aggrandizing as he claims, why does he devote so much rhetorical energy to debunking their religion, accomplishments and place in history?