Book review

  • November 2018
  • Education & learning
  • Book or article
21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

by Yuval Noah Harari

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (30 Aug. 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1787330672
ISBN-13: 978-1787330672

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

Yuval Noah Harari rose to stardom with two excellent books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, which look at the past and future of the human species. His third book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” looks at the present, with 21 short analyses that cover the most pressing issues we face today: work, equality, nationalism, politics, justice, post-truth, education, to name a few. Those familiar with Harari’s work will find in this book many of his distinctive concerns: the rise of AI and data; the fictionality of institutions shaping our social structures; the demise of democracy.

These concerns were already discussed and argued in his previous books and in many lectures and publications afterwards. But framing these concerns either as an analysis of the past or a projection of the future, made the threats they pose seem somehow distant and hypothetical.

In this book Harari grounds his analyses in the present. The seriousness of what is at stake – for instance, radical changes in societal structures, where the biggest threat for the majority of humans is to become “irrelevant”; the end of democracy; the transformation of racism into culturalism – would be an easy target for a depressing “doom and gloom” scenario. Without conceding to gratuitous optimism, Harari succeeds in giving us a steady, rational perspective on the consequences of what we are seeing around us today. It can be terrifying, but his first advice is not to give in to fear. On this subject, the chapter on terrorism is a brilliant essay on how fear is not a decision making system. Harari does not dismiss the threat of terrorism but provides instead solid arguments to counterbalance the panic that terrorism wants to instigate.

Following on the footsteps of “Homo Deus”, we find several references to AI and data across the book. Harari convincingly argues that creativity will be a feature of AI. Until now creativity is held as an inherently human characteristic; but there is already evidence of AI systems which are in all respect more creative, and vastly more knowledgeable, than humans. Harari warns us also about the bias that AI system can embed, and the current debate about ethics in AI is a good reminder of how deeply contemporary this problem is.

A consequence of the incredible advancements in data processing and communication is a chilling demise of democracy, in favour of “digital dictatorship”. Harari points out how democracy – a decentralised system – was far superior to centralised structures when the complexity of social, economic and political issues increased exponentially in the last century. But today we are witnessing the reverse: centralised, AI powered structures are more efficient in governing complex systems such as nations, giving rise to new forms of government which he calls “digital dictatorships”. On top of that, inequality means not only the concentration of wealth in the hands of few, but also access to culture, education, health and more. The result: a whole class of people who will become “irrelevant”, without any role, resource and opportunity to play a role in society.

The last part of the book however lifts us up from what could be otherwise a worrying scenario. Education is described as a pillar for humans to remain able to shape, rather than be shaped by, technology. The final chapter is a little gift to remind us that meditation and our capacity to observe are guiding lights in these turbulent times. The final chapters become suddenly very personal, and Harari exposes his own way of thinking and coping with all the issues which are so rationally discussed earlier. We may follow his methods or not, but it is certainly comforting to know that we are still all responsible for our future.