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21 Lessons for the 21st Century is Yuval Noah Harari’s gift to the world

The pace by which the world is changing is unprecedented. How to deal with all the uncertainty that is being brought? Perhaps our change has to come from within. In his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari offers a broad scope of the challenges we are presented with today.

While he explores the significance of storytelling explaining our achievement as a civilization, he also offers its threats and limitations. But more importantly, he argues that humans’ biggest achievement is yet to happen.

“We humans are have learned to control the world outside of us, but we have very little control of the world inside of us.” 

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg 7.

The liberal story for Yuval Noah Harari

If you are familiar with Harari’s work, you are probably familiar with his concept that humans understand the world through storytelling. “Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations.” he writes. “The simpler the story, the better.” 

He argues that after the catastrophes of the Second World War, humanity was left with a single story to look after; liberalism. A story promising the liberation from oppressive systems that, for years, deprived societies, economies and people, of their own humanity. 

“The liberal story celebrates the value of power and liberty and acknowledges that not all is good in the world and there is still so much to overcome.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg. 4

Yet, how are we using this story to fit the new, unprecedented, technological advances? How will the liberal story prevent an era of unconscious subordination? 

“The liberal political system was shaped during the industrial era to manage steam engines, oil refineries, and television sets. It has difficulty dealing with the ongoing revolutions of information technology and biotechnology.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg.6

Infotech and biotech revolutions

The truth is that we (and politicians) are barely able to understand such technologies, let alone are able to “regulate their explosive potential.” And, the problem is not only that infotech and biotech revolutions are restructuring economies and societies, but our own bodies and minds. 

There is enough talk on how machines are taking over human jobs. The threat of becoming irrelevant in the future is not only real but close.

Harari argues that eventually, people will not only have to constantly reinvent their-selfs but their purposes. Our days of specialization are far behind and if we want to stay relevant, we need to keep re-defying our purposes and learnings. 

What will equality mean in a digital era? How will communities look like? And how will the liberal promise adjust to these changes?

Most importantly, as machine learning takes advantage of the new digital ecosystems such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, etc. they begin to understand our minds — what we like and don’t like — much better than what we do.  

As of today, my Netflix recommendations are trash, but as I keep binge-watching series and movies, it slowly understands what type of movies I like best. Eventually, it would be far easier for Netflix to know my movie taste, than to know it myself. 

Science-fiction vs. fiction in Yuval Noah Harari’s mind

Harari poses an interesting perspective on how science fiction has become perhaps the most important artist genre. And, if you are anything like me, The Matrix, Her, Westworld, and Black Mirror have shaped my predicaments for the future.

“Perhaps the worst present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness. As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens. In thinking about the future of AI, Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg 253

Surprisingly, he argues, that perhaps the more realistic depiction of the human condition comes from Disney itself. In 2015, Pixar released Inside Out, a movie that beyond telling the story of Riley, shows how complex humans are. And thus, brings the concept of the Matrix outside the screen and into our heads instead.

Ironically, Harari argues that humankind is far more complex than a simple story that we have been telling ourselves for years. But that is not entirely our fault, for centuries we have been using fiction to give meaning to our lives.

Humans get married to their jobs, to their partners, to their beliefs. We get married to stories. To fiction. But truth is, Humans are not stories.

And the problem of believing that is that data is using our stories to their advantage to manipulate ourselves. Soon Coca-Cola, Amazon, and even Apple will know what we are looking for to give meaning to our lives. Harari hence fears, an era of digital dictatorship, where we don’t even realize the subordination we are subduing to.

Finding meaning through education

Be it religion, nationalism, or a simple romance, people tend to identify with a story to give meaning to their lives. And the problem is not that their stories are not valid but that, in the fast-changing world that we live in, those stories are no longer reliable to give us meaning.

“Once our personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundation.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg. 289

Thus, the question is, do we have the tools we need to adapt to change? With an already overflow of information, would our education system still work? More important than learning, Harari argues, it is important to make sense of it.

“Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need merely to invent new ideas and products, but above all reinvent yourself again and again.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Pg. 268

It is important to understand that things are not working as they did for centuries. For the first time in history, they are changing so fast that we can no longer rely on adults to understand how to deal with it. And our production-line theory of education and social development is coming to its expiration date.

And so, in the 21st century, the most urgent and complicated question to answer is “who am I?”

Stories are ultimately human inventions

But, who should we trust to answer such questions? In the digital world that we live in humans have become easier to manipulate.

“Just like Riley Andersen from Inside Out, most people barely know themselves and when they try to “listen to themselves,” they easily become prey of external manipulation.”

We, humans, seek for meaning to understand ourselves and the role we play in our communities. But while a good story must give us a role, it is not necessarily true.

To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes have invented are true. They are human inventions.”

Yuval Noah Harari, 287

We are neither the religion we follow, the school we graduated from, the job we have, the person we date, nor the role our culture has given us. We are not stories.

And if we really want to understand, we need to stop identifying with our Instagram account. More than that, with the inner story we have told ourselves.

What should we do then?

Just stop, do nothing. Try to meditate and learn more about yourself. Stop swiping your phone to see how you want your next vacation to look like.

Stop relying on Netflix to tell you what to watch. Meditate. Go to therapy. Do art or play sports. Whatever it helps you understand your own mind, and understand how to deal with your inner fears, biases, and complexities.

See what the world really looks like.

We are now on a time where we have to make a choice.

“If we make an effort we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now”

Yuval Noah Harari , Pg 326.