21 lessons for the 21st century
Summary, merits, berries and limitations
I just finished reading “21 lessons for the 21st century” by Yuval Noah Harari, one of my favorite writers and well-known for his best-sellers “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”. In the new book, Harari gladly recycles and bundles outtakes from those and other previous publications, and mainly adds a lot of questions.
Those questions do get you thinking, though.
Here’s my review that can save you four hours of reading, or inspire you to buy the book.
Whereas the former two books focus on recounting in largely chronological order the history and faraway future of the human race respectively, the current book offers a mix of immediate thoughts about our current predicament as humans in the present and the not-too distant future.
Trying to summarize and reflect on the 21 chapters in three neat sections is a more than challenging endeavour. But here goes. Why oh why did we not stay in the savannah picking berries?
Our liberal story and the triple challenges we face
After fairly honestly and bravely dismantling and picking at the power of the “Liberal story” to help us navigate the complex, global information society we have at the beginning of the 21st century, Harari goes on to explain how the three challenges we face now can not be resolved by us if we adhere to liberalism in its current form.
He admits that the liberal story, for all its drawbacks, has proven to be superior to the communist and the fascist story. And that for all the suffering it has brought, coupled with democracy, free markets and the socialist element of welfare programs it has brought more good to more people than any other (belief) system to date.
However, it is not going to help us navigate the world in the remaining 81 years of this 21st century, because it is simply not up to the task of dealing with three global threats.
Technological disruption, threat of nuclear warfare, climate change
Technological disruption (specifically, the currently developing merger of the infotech and biotech revolutions), the danger of nuclear warfare (or potentially even nuclear terrorism) and global warming all push us toward a world where liberalism – which is predicated on the idea that liberty is only valuable when you can match it with equality – can only hope to do so much to advance our causes.
Limitations: data-inequality and nationalism
Our concepts of liberalism fall short when facing the inequality that arises when, for instance, very small elite groups of investors, engineers and entrepreneurs have ownership of the most valuable commodity of our times – data – which is largely (for now, still) generated by us, the peasants.
Liberalism also falls short when it is married to national identities and their stories. Or even when — as in the European experiment — it is married to a collection of national identity stories.
Nationalism has its merits, the writer asserts. However, trying to solve global problems like climate change or technological disruption with separate policies by sovereign nation states is like trying to manage the flow of the Nile by uncoordinated efforts by separate, small agricultural villages. You can’t attack global problems with national or even continental policies.
Human hacking, free will and the next evolution
Possibly the greatest threat we face — or at least the threat that Harari seems to use most ink to describe – is the threat that technological disruption poses to us as individuals, our organizations and us as a world society.
The core of the argument is something like this: we are already increasingly giving away huge amounts of data to the companies that create intelligent machines. And by handing over all of our data we are allowing them to create smarter and smarter machines, while simultaneously allowing them to get to know us better and better.
Human hacking is not a new concept, and ruling classes trying to influence the thoughts, feelings or behavior of the masses are as old as civilization, mind you. But never before in the history of man have organisations like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Tencent and Baidu and/or the American, Russian or Chinese government existed nor has anyone had the capability to collect, store and analyze data at the scale that they can.
Now, as dinconcerting as it may be how millions are now being swayed – by using Big Data and rudimentary intelligent algorithms – to vote, mate and consume differently than they otherwise might, the future seems to hold much scarier things.
Don’t worry, your choices are not your own
Advances in both machine learning (for all purposes you can equate that with A.I., although it’s technically not the same thing) and the developments being made in biosensors and brain-computer interfaces might mean that soon enough, the algorithms might know us better than we know ourselves.
Harari argues that if you don’t mind living in a world where your algorithm helps you listen to music tailored specifically to you – sometimes possibly even created specifically for you – because it can biometrically sense what works for you in a specific moment (say, when your boyfriend has just broken up with you), you don’t have to worry about anything.
If you don’t mind living in a world where computers are better at deciding who will be your next life partner, what education or career fits you best, and so on, there’s no need to fret. You’ll get used to it, much as you’ve gotten used to trusting Google when it tells you to turn left while your gut tells you to turn right. The algorithm knows best, and that’s fine. Isn’t it?
This feels uncomfortable because we like the feeling of having free will. And also, it feels uncomfortable because we instinctively realise that the algorithms that will be making these decisions for us, won’t really have a mind of their own for quite some time. So, who will be programming them, and whose agenda will the algorithms truly be pursuing?
If you’re not (really) paying for the product, what does that probably make you?
The next evolution of inequality
Harari argues that we should be afraid of this future of superintelligent A.I. mixed with biometric sensors, because the algorithms might come under the control of a tiny, wealthy elite. This could potentially create massive inequality, the likes of which are unprecedented in the history of homo sapiens – not even in times of slavery or holocaust.
Inequality in a world of A.I., biometric sensors and human gene editing – which is not right around the corner but which is actually crossing our doorstep as we speak – does not constitute class wars and exploitation of the workers.
Inequality in the world of 21st century technology could constitute biological classes – literally, not just ideologically – with an upper class of superhumans with extraordinary health, physical capability and superhuman cognitive and creative capability. And forget about economic struggle between them and simple homo sapiens; rather worry about the future (economic) relevance of people who can’t afford to make the evolutionary step up.
Free will – in so far as it does or does not exist – and societal fabric are in danger. The fundamental questions of being human or what it means to be human are in danger.
And liberal democracy, with a social system (or even UBI) in place and coupled with free market capitalism, can’t save us.
We need a better story.
The end of the storytelling ape
In quite a few of the chapters Harari reminds us that homo sapiens dominates the planet thanks to our unique capability for inventing stories and rallying around them.
Your nation is a story. You can not touch or hold the Dutch or American or Japanese identity or nation in your hand. What you can do is touch the flag, look at the country, and listen to the national anthem.
The story that the writer grants most merit seems to be the ‘secular’ narrative, one that — as he describes it — has as its ingredients beliefs in freedom, in (scientific or empirical) truth, in doubt, in the need to reduce suffering and in personal and societal responsibility.
We need a new story
But we need a new story, says Harari because both freedom and responsibility as we conceptualize them, have a bearing on a ‘mysterious concept of free will’ which soon will prove to be irrelevant.
We need a new story, and science fiction is highly relevant and important, Harari reminds us.
But almost in the same breath he tells us to stop spinning stories, and to just breathe – preferably with some variation of meditation – and experience the moment.
Stop with the stories
Why? Because stories can only help us so far. And because, accompanying the technological, scientific and economic revolutions that we are facing right now as a species, we also need a revolution of consciousness.
Harari is the latest in a line of smart, sometimes scholarly men from Paolo Coelho to Jeremy Rifkin and in ways even Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to remind us that we are in dire need of a revolution of mind and of consciousness if we are to survive and progress.
Decentralization, the limits of the finite and what Harari missed
Among the countless technological innovations that the writer mentions, blockchain or decentralized technologies are like an high tech elephant in the room.
I have a hard time understanding why Harari chose to overlook the rise and growing adoption of decentralized technologies such as for instance the Brave Browser, the Hyperspace or Steem.it social media platforms; the obvious Bitcoin and all of its merry follower cryptocurrencies and Ethereum, Neo, et cetera and so forth as development platforms for decentralized apps;
WePower and others for decentralized energy production and trading and countless, myriad others together currently forming a billion dollar industry, in what is as yet being described as the crypto nuclear winter.
Far from a perfect solution to all of the problems Harari rightly underscores in “21 lessons…”, decentralization and the way of thinking and organizing trust and supply and demand that it entails, is certainly a noteworthy development in the broader picture. In a far, far greater sense than financially.
Decentralization might be a game changer
If humans do manage to adapt their thinking and acting to the philosophy of decentralization and peer-to-peer networks, and the ideas of the creation of commons or machine-to-machine ecosystems for the commons, we might yet rise to the challenges we face.
And what if we come up with an even greater revolution in our thinking and/or our technologies — mind you, the two often come in pairs and team up with a third, namely, action, to result in revolution?
The merits and limits of stories and consciousness
What about the daunting challenge of societal change without an inspiring narrative?
Harari is right to assert that — and I paraphrase — stories have a finite capacity to help us understand and better ‘manage’ reality, because they are limited by our own consciousness and imagination.
But our own consciousness — which Harari urges us to explore more on the basis of a kind of scientific introspection, as a possible avenue for a solution to our crises, and again rightly so — is equallylimited by our consciousness and imagination.
My question: in regards to human ingenuity, consciousness, possibilities, stories and the unknown unknown; what are the true limits of what we at any point regard as finite?
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