Coming to know thyself, on 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Last week, I finished the book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. I learned so much from this book, in particular about nationalism, religion, free will, meaning, and meditation. Yuval Noah Harari is by far the most thoughtful and mindful person I know on the topics relating to the future of humanity, society, and technology. He is also the first historian whose work I have read. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in big global problems, life, and humanity in general (I have not read his other books Sapiens and Homo Deus, but they are on my reading list). In this blog post, I will provide a brief review of the book, and then share how this books has positively changed my philosophy of life.

“Global problems need global answers (and collaboration).”

Photo by Eva Blue on Unsplash

I would summarize the book as having two major parts (The actual book has five parts). In the first part, Harari discusses concepts and issues surrounding three global challenges: nuclear war, ecological cataclysms, and technological disruptions, and how they have interwoven with our everyday life, for example, work, liberty, religion, community, and nationalism. On earth, we have somewhat a common consensus on nuclear war (not to have it), some consensus on ecological cataclysms (climate change is real), and few consensus on technological disruptions (AI will forever change our lives). Harari has beautifully written a book that provides a solid ground for constructive discussions of global problems, while pertaining to Greek philosopher Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: ethos pathos, and logos, in a flowing stream of optimism and hope. He writes and speaks about making changes on the individual level, something which we could all do (more on this later).

Before knowing Harari and reading this book, I have never really thought deeply about how the coupling of information technology and biology technology would change humanity. In my previous blog post on Fei Fei Li and Yuval Noah Harari’s conversation, I share Harari’s concerns on how the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biotech could be used to “hack humans”, specifically, gather information about us and make us depend on AI that pretends to understand us better than we understand ourselves. For instance, would we be willing to give up all personal data to hospitals and research facilities, and further to marketing campaigns, insurance companies, employers, and even our family, in exchange for better health care? Despite decades of research and progress in the social sciences, humanities, ethics, data protection (GDPR), we constantly see how information technology companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google as well as dictatorship countries re-define liberty and equality across issues including personal decision-making, surveillance, data ownership, and algorithm interpretability. Coming from a mixed computer science, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction (HCI) background, I would confidently say that Harari has a better understanding of the impacts of technological disruptions on humanity than most AI and HCI researchers. Well, perhaps that explains why I don’t feel I belong in these communities.

Then, how do we embrace the constantly changing new world where we have little control over anything but ourselves? How do we develop the ability to deal with change? How should we transform education (beyond technology and personalized learning solutions) to teach the future generation and us the skills for critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity? How do we preserve our mental flexibility and emotional balance in recurring times of uncertainties, despair, and identity re-construction? We may have to re-invent ourselves several times to adapt to new jobs in upcoming years. When would we have the luxury to practice empathy and care for other people? In the past (say, year 1000), these questions matter very little because change is slow, but who knows what the world would look like 50 years from now.

In the second part of the book, Harari begins to explore how we could observe reality and ourselves with clarity, to pursue truths and the meaning of life, and to maintain our sense of identity and direction.

“Life is a not a story.”

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I love the exploring the connections between arts and sciences. Artists tell stories and narratives, and scientists tell facts and truths, but you could not have one without the other. Stories and fictions are based on logic, and sciences need different narratives so that people could make sense of it. Many aspects of our society are based on narratives. Nations, institutions, religions, economics, and technologies could not have existed without narratives. We also have multiple narratives about ourselves. We constantly create and modify our life narratives and identity as we tackle life challenges and grow.

However, living through accelerating global changes and problems such as technological disruptions, it’s timely for us to understand the differences between fiction and reality. Let’s discuss this issue in the context of free will. Now big data algorithms already make a lot of decisions for us, namely what we eat, what we read, what we study, what we buy, and we to do. Of course, it’s convenient to delegate casual tasks to machines, but at which point do we draw the borderline and define our sacred places? How would people react to algorithms that help identify their “true” sexuality? Should they trust the algorithms or themselves, and what are the consequences? How do we really know who we are? How do I tell the differences between my own narratives (ideologies, religions, politics) and who I really am?

Do I even have free will? Harari explains the notion of free will in a following passage:

“Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfill their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire — the yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire — then no, humans have no free will.” — Yuval Noah Harari

Sure I can do whatever I want, but I cannot choose who I am and the environment I was born into. Scientifically, our thoughts, emotions, and desires are the results of the interactions between genetics, biochemical processes, and socio-cultural factors.

Yet, I could learn to understand who I am, and I could reflect on and change the ways I think and behave. It might be in our best interests to really understand ourselves, our minds and our desires, than try to realize whatever fantasy we have in our head, or even worse, the perfect worlds shown on social media and movies. If we don’t, we risk of losing of our own identity. I have faith in humanity, because we adapt quickly.

When Harari says “life is not a story”, I think he means that life is not fictional, it’s real. We cannot live through life while blindly following a narrative that is on the contrary of who we really are, be it solely based on big data algorithms, religions, politics, or even arts and sciences. Our whole life experiences are real, and making sense of these experiences, their origins and significances, require us to have a clear understanding of ourselves and our minds.

Unfortunately, our education system has not prepared us with the skills to understand who we are. Teachers cram students with more and more information, then leave students to find their own passion and interests, and tell them follow their dreams. Nowhere in our education have we been taught practical skills to understand our mind. I might be wrong here, but historically neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and psychologists attempt to understand the mind through secondary sources such as brain biochemistry and human behaviours, since we don’t have a direct communication channel with the mind or consciousness besides ourselves.

In the book’s last chapter, Harari proposes meditation (Vipassana meditation) as a practice to observe our mind, desires, emotions, and behaviors, as the beginning to develop a realistic understanding of ourselves. I have tried meditation multiples, and just by observing how hard it is to concentrate my own mind I could tell that it is a skill that not many of us possess, especially in the busy world we live in. Thus, I agree with his point that we have a poor understanding of ourselves, and we always find it difficult to absorb other people’s viewpoints and life lessons, so why not start by just observing ourselves, without judgement? Academic research is being conducted using meditation as a tool, although it takes years of practice, and I am not familiar with any research in this space.

A philosophy of life

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Lastly, I want to revisit an existential question of humankind:

What is the meaning of life?

Harari has his own answer in the book, but I would like to share the story of his pursuit for the meaning of life:

“When I was a teenager I was a troubled and restless person. The world made no sense to me, and I got no answers to the big questions I had about life…All I got from the people around me and from the books I read were elaborate fictions: religious myths and its historical mission, romantic myths about love and adventure, or capitalist myths about economic growth and how buying and consuming stuff will make me happy. I had enough sense to realize that these were probably all fictions, but I had no idea how to find truth.

When I began studying at university, I thought it would be the ideal place to find answers. But I was disappointed. The academic world provided me with powerful tools to deconstruct all the myths humans ever create, but it didn’t offer satisfying answers to the big questions of life. On the contrary, it encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions….As a side hobby I kept reading a lot of philosophy books and having lots of philosophical debates, but though this provided endless intellectual entertainment, it hardly provided real insight. It was extremely frustrating.” — Yuval Noah Harari

I enjoyed reading this book because his research and personal life stories are so liberating. I don’t think I have read anything close to it in my entire life. I could relate to Harari’s life story very well, because I have too have been thinking about philosophical questions since a young age, and I am sure many people can relate to depressing moments when they were troubled by existential questions. Life is not easy.

I often think about the meaning of life from time to time. I thought my destiny was to pursue research, but it turned out to be a mistake. Science is not so much different from religion in the sense that you have to believe in what you are doing, of course the former is based on evidence and the latter is based on faith, yet the reality is never so black and white. I have had too many first-hand and second-hand encounters with acts of dehumanization (not my supervisors) in the academia in Taiwan and UK that it’s not difficult to lose faith in the pursuit of science. It’s hard to believe in the scientific narrative when I see the widening gap between research and reality. I am sure many academics and non-academics could relate to this. This is all because I have had too many expectations.

In computer science and even in Human-Computer Interaction, the narratives have been that we are doing good for the humanity, but who are we to say what’s good? It’s not to say that the scientists are wasting their time, because by the same reasoning they could think this blog post is absolute nonsense. Nonetheless, we have to constantly remind ourselves of our ignorance — we must admit we know very little about everything, on both individual and cosmic levels. Hence why I find everything that starts with “We know this…” or “We are human/user-centered” rather unconvincing, which is the tone of present day sciences and industries where publication, novelty, and profitability are running rampant. I may be too cynical here, but who says life is all rosy.

Like Harari, I never found a satisfying answer to the big questions in life in education and academia. I thus have my deepest respect for Harari who is able to find his way through life. Perhaps the answer is not to be found in the external world but only within ourselves. In the end, I find myself returning to the old saying “know thyself”.

The question “What is the meaning of life?” is too big for a single person.

“You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind, but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has eternal essence, and that completely satisfy you.” — Yuval Noah Harari

The only constant in life is change, and we have little control over it. There is nothing in the world which we completely control, except ourselves. I have realized that my biggest question of life is not the search for meaning but the search for myself:

Who am I?

When we know the truth about ourselves, we can begin to accept ourselves as a whole and to live freely. Freedom — free of expectations and judgments — brings us one step closer to self-actualization.

I will end this blog post here, and I hope it has made you think a little about life. peace.- CJW 2019/07/06

I read, write, and reflect on human lives. Previously HCI Researcher @ Lancaster, UCL, and St Andrews. Website: https://chijuiwu.space/

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