Three Rules for Living in the 21st Century
Apply them in any context, any time, anywhere.
I loved Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. History seen through the eyes of really smart people becomes a lens that magnifies the traces of our own psychosocial make up. But eye-opening and compelling as Sapiens may have been its follow-up Homo Deus was way less endearing.
The problem lies with the author and its roots are to be found in the very same focus that made Sapiens such an exceptional book to read. Harari is unusual amongst historians in his anthropological and cross-disciplinary extrapolative approach that uses data to link specific points of the past and draw a continuum that allows us to make sense of our journey from our point of origin to today.
The technique is solid when it’s applied to evidence we can see and facts we can examine and its suppositions make the kind of total sense you expect from a historian of Harari’s caliber. But apply this to the future, even the very near future and you’re on shaky foundation from which it is difficult to build much.
“what science fiction takes into account is what Harari doesn’t because, bound by the need for data and the use of as a scientific approach as possible, he cannot.”
So Harari does what anyone in his shoes would do. He takes the worst excesses of the past as a role model to apply to the future, amplifying the impact of every ill (because technology makes everything bigger and faster) and painting the kind of picture that Michael Moorcock painted better and with greater aplomb in his science fiction trilogy Dancers At The End of Time.
I mention Harari because he’s in the news, at present, warning us of the coming dystopian age. Now, quite possibly, the next 20 years may turn out to be a kind of Mad Max world where wealth inequality and unemployment due to automation will get so bad that we’ll turn to William Gibson’s Virtual Light for guidance. But I doubt it.
Science Fiction Depicts The Present
My liberal mixing of science fiction titles with a work that regardless of its dire predictions is structured, factual and instructive is not meant to detract from it. But solid as its research may be its predictive framework is weaker than that used by science fiction which, in itself, uses the future only as a literary device to make statements about the present. And what science fiction takes into account is what Harari doesn’t because, bound by the need for data and the use of as a scientific approach as possible, he cannot.
What he cannot take advantage of is the human dynamic that changes the development arc of historical trends. Because he’s restricted to an evidential approach Harari can extrapolate from known facts but he cannot (and to his credit does not) attempt to imbue them with anything more than they are. To better illustrate the flaw at the core of Homo Deus consider that if we but move Harari’s moment in time by just 268 years to 1750 AD, using the same methodology he employs in Homo Deus, he may well foresee that the Industrial Revolution will happen in China whose scientific, medical and technological progress far outstripped that of the West.
In retrospect we know that the reason this didn’t happen is because “Europe developed a unique culture of competitive scientific and intellectual advancement that was unprecedented and not at all predestined.”
It was something no one living and working in that world, back then, could have thought possible, which is why it was so hard to predict. Which brings us back to the present.
The World is Chaotic
The world changes at a pace that is now so fast that it is, as Harari claims, difficult for anyone to keep tabs on it and track everything. But we really don’t have to.
While it’s true the world appears chaotic we only need to make sense of it at a local level, enough for us to become effective in what we do. And for that we need to use what we have always used: our brain. And the secret power we have in navigating our way through it lies in our humanity not in an idealized, post-cultural way that presents human beings as essentially good actors despite themselves. No.
The humanity we bring into play stems from the very same basic drives for safety, survival and thriving that has brought us to this moment of complexity in our history. We learn to use it to navigate the human terrain of our world so that we can do what we have always done: use the energy available to us in the most efficient way possible.
It is this that also gives us the ultimate recipe for navigating the 21st century. It has three basic rules:
- Be human — Completely. Explore your potential. Take pride in your life. Become all you can be and strive to be, at every stage, the best possible version of you.
- Do no damage — None. The planet is our home. Our body lives on it as a guest and we live inside our body. If we treat all of this with respect and seek to find the kind of balance that allows us to enjoy Rule Number One, fully, we then have the means to live up to every challenge and face every situation that may arise.
- Leave only good memories behind — Our lives are brief. We are all interconnected in ways we can barely understand. Our decision making is frequently poor and our morality is notoriously fluid. If our one, sole guiding principle was just this edict we would then make better decisions, smarter choices and have a far stronger moral compass than anything else we might put in place.
It’s simple. Right?