21 Lessons for the 21st Century

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

by Yuval Noah Harari

How do computers and robots change the meaning of being human? How do we deal with the epidemic of fake news? Are nations and religions still relevant? What should we teach our children?

Yuval Noah Harari's 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a probing and visionary investigation into today's most urgent issues as we move into the uncharted territory of the future. As technology advances faster than our understanding of it, hacking becomes a tactic of war, and the world feels more polarized than ever, Harari addresses the challenge of navigating life in the face of constant and disorienting change and raises the important questions we need to ask ourselves in order to survive.

Harari's unique ability to make sense of where we have come from and where we are going has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Here he invites us to consider values, meaning, and personal engagement in a world full of noise and uncertainty. When we are deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power. Presenting complex contemporary challenges clearly and accessibly, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is essential reading

Summary Notes

Lesson 1: Disillusionment

The end of history has been postponed

In the twentieth century, there were 3 major ideologies that were taking over the world: Liberalism, Communism, and Fascism. As we know from the history lessons, Fascism, once very strong, collapsed. The next one to collapse was Communism. The last one that survived was Liberalism. With its great promise, Liberalism has been accepted globally until now.

In the twenty-first century, we face completely different problems, and people are looking for an escape from the current system. Despite liberalism working well so far, we see a lot of movements trying to go back to “old, better times”. We can observe this with President Donald Trump’s winning campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, with Brexit, and different movements in other countries. However, all of this is an illusion, because there were not better times in the past. Liberalism does not work perfectly, but it’s better than the current alternatives.

As Barack Obama said, most humans have never enjoyed greater peace or prosperity as they do now.

However, liberalism does not have all the answers to our present challenges. Some of the biggest problems we face are ecological collapse and technological disruption. The first one is due to the fact, that our prosperity was defined by the constant growth of the economy. However, now we know, that, if this continues, it will cause an ecological disaster. The second problem will cause a limited job supply. With constantly advancing automation and artificial intelligence, humans will become increasingly less needed in the global economy.

Lesson 2: Work

When you grow up, you might not have a job

The Industrial Revolution made many jobs that were previously popular and important obsolete. And at that time, for every job that was replaced by machines, at least one new job emerged. But this is not a rule, and it’s likely to change in the near future. Humans have two abilities: physical and cognitive. The industrial revolution replaced part of the jobs that require physical work. With the new revolution that’s happening now, computers and algorithms are about to take over the jobs that require cognitive skills, such as doctors or lawyers.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, horse-drawn carriages, which used to be the best transportation, had been replaced by cars. There were no other jobs for so many horses. The same is very likely to happen to humans very soon, as AI and automation are slowly taking over jobs.

One of the solutions of not having jobs is a universal basic income (UBI). UBI is the minimum guaranteed money a citizen receives for their basic needs. This solves a lot of problems, but not all of them. Especially since this type of income would work only in the borders of one country. While citizens of the United States will enjoy the easy life, the economy of third world countries, such as India or Pakistan, may get devastated. This is because UBI hugely depends on human labor, and automation and AI will replace that.

Lesson 3: Liberty

Big data is watching you

We like to think that we have free will and that our decisions are logical. But scientists long ago discovered, that our decisions are emotional. We make a decision based on our intuition and feelings, and later we add a logical narrative.

In the future, algorithms will know us much better than we know ourselves. Algorithms, together with devices that will analyze human bodies (such as biosensors), will be able to read us very well. They already know what road we should take (Google Maps), or what movie we should watch (Netflix). But the future is more than this. They will know better than us what we should study, who we should marry, and what job we should take. They will analyze our emotions, our personality, they will understand what makes us excited and what we don’t like. Based on all this information, AI will be able to make decisions for us. This includes the political ones.

So, despite having free will, we will be more and more dependent on algorithms. We will trust them more, so at the end of the day, our future will depend on them. Not on our own judgment, but on AI.

Hollywood movies taught us, that in the future, there might be intelligent robots, that will gain consciousness and destroy humanity. The truth is, that intelligence may work completely independently from the consciousness. It seems that we will have super-intelligent computers helping humanity in pretty much every area of life. But the biggest danger is not in creating an AI that is conscious. The danger is in people that will use these computers to rule the world. AI will be as evil as the creator.

Lesson 4: Equality

Those who own the data, own the future.

In the last century, we created a culture of repeating the idea that everyone is equal. We, as a nation, we are all the same. However, that will not remain the same. The rich are becoming richer, and most of the global wealth is kept in the hands of a very small group of people.

One of the problems that we are faced with is bioengineering. Only the rich people will be able to afford to improve their bodies. They will become superhumans. They will not be equal anymore. For the first time in history there will be normal people and enhanced people, that have super intelligence and strength; whatever they desire to have they will. This will put in big danger the humans that are poor.

Another problem is the collection of data. Those who own the data will have the power. Governments can use data about us to manipulate us. It’s hard to understand how it exactly works, but the latest Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us how the presidential election can be manipulated if we only know what strings to pull.

Lesson 5: Community

Humans have bodies.

CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, says its mission is to help people create stronger communities. The development of Facebook was initially to help people find groups of people that would better suit them. Why? Because people feel more and more lonely due to technology and globalization. We live in a world that has never been connected so well before, but we feel lonelier than ever before.

The question is whether the online communities can replace the offline ones? We cannot interact on the full human level via online platforms, and sharing your experience online is also not the same as a human to human interaction. Also, online communities raise the question, can any social network help us to create better communities while being focused on showing us advertisements and earning money from our data?

Lesson 6: Civilization

There is just one civilization in the world.

The world seems to be divided. For example, we have cultural or religious differences. There is the European civilization. There is the Islamic civilization. However, our civilization is what we make of it. Civilizations are not different because people have different genes, or there are hard religion beliefs that define what it is. Civilizations are different because we define them in a different way. The differences are only in our minds, and physically there is no significant difference.

All countries agree on all the basic stuff. Each country has a similar flag, an anthem that is in the style and composition of Beethoven, and so on. Each country might have a different government, different laws, but they all agree for the most part on the fundamental elements of our one global civilization.

And at the end of the day, all human civilizations are slowly merging with each other into one.

Lesson 7: Nationalism

Global problems need global answers.

Nationalism was very important for human civilizations to create stable countries, and to protect themselves from foreigners. It still plays an important role today. If people did not feel belonging to a nation, there would be more chaos and unstable structures. Countries that have strong nationalistic bonds have more prosperity, such as Germany or Switzerland. Countries that don’t have such strong, nationalistic feelings don’t prosper as well (i.e. Afghanistan or the Congo).

There are also big dangers with nations. Nuclear war is a great example of this, especially when one nation wants to protect itself from another.

Also, countries compete with each other in other areas, not just in the area of the military. Generally, this competition is good because it drives technological progress, but it may lead to irreversible changes. Like climate change.

For humans, the best way to survive is to live in our tribes (countries) but to cooperate with the global community to solve our problems together.

Lesson 8: Religion

God now serves the nation.

An important understanding regarding religion is that it evolves. People have always interpreted religious texts, such as the Bible or the Quran, in such ways that they support political changes. We can see that the same religion can have many different forms, which largely depend on the host nation.

Religion influences the development of technology in a very specific way. Religion lives close to the politics of a country, and whatever a government of that country decides, the religion tries to justify that decision. Many nations think of themselves as if they are chosen by God as if they are superior. This makes things dangerous because whatever a country decides to do, will be in the name of God - for the greater good of that nation.

Because of this, a nation's first interest will be themselves, and not the greater good of the global community, and they will use religion to justify any action taken

Lesson 9: Immigration

Some cultures might be better than others.

In recent years the wave of immigration became a huge problem for many countries. The biggest question people are asking is whether countries should accept immigrants, or not.

It’s easier to see the immigrants as a deal with three terms:

Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.

Term 2: The immigrants accept at least some of the values and norms of the host country.

Term 3: The immigrants become an equal part of society and there is no difference between them and native citizens.

There is a debate going on in each of these terms, as there are many questions that have no clear answer. One of the biggest problems is the cultural difference. The citizens of the host country are much more likely to hang out with and hire people that are similar to them. Even though the immigrants may find a job, they are very unlikely to get top positions in any company. Not because of a lack of qualifications, but because of the cultural differences.

We can see an example of this in the United States, where it takes many generations to integrate immigrants within society. Eventually, this usually happens but the process is not easy, and there really is no guarantee that it will.

Lesson 10: Terrorism

Don’t panic.

Terrorism is a tool for people that have very limited resources and power to act. And yet, with just a very little, they are able to make a big noise. What can a fly do to a bull? A fly can't fight the bull, it will simply be seen as a distraction or annoyance. However, if the fly can get into an ear of the bull, the bull will eventually go mad and destroy everything around. This is how terrorism works.

There really has not been many people killed since 9/11 because of terrorists in Europe or America. Usually attacks result with casualties of around 50 to 100 people. 9/11 set a new record with a death toll of nearly 3,000. But that is still a very small number compared to battles during wars. For example, during the Battle of the Aisne, there were 250,000 people killed (First World War). And each year deaths due to accidents are much higher (i.e. 40,000 people in America or 80,000 in Europe). This is much more than that caused by terrorism. Yet we hear a lot about terrorist attacks. This is because of the media, which is a great tool for terrorism to spread its fear and political disagreements.

We live in the safest world that humanity has ever had.

Lesson 11: War

Never underestimate human stupidity.

In 1914, world leaders understood very well what it meant to have a successful war. America, Britain, France, they all had plenty of successful conquests. They gained new territories or colonies, with gold mines and wheat fields. Today, in 2018, most nations do not look to, or for war. Nowadays, good trade relations are far more important than gaining new land and sending people into war. There is much more to lose than to gain. There are still some small wars in the world, but these wars prove that getting into them can devastate the local economy.

Despite all of this, we cannot underestimate human stupidity. Even though there is not much to gain by war, there is still some risk of it. But war is not inevitable. The peaceful resolution of the Cold War proves that even the biggest forces can solve a conflict without bloody battles. Believing that war is inevitable can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This belief may create a hostile attitude and lead to a war, even if logically, there is more to lose than to gain.

Lesson 12: Humility

You are not the center of the world.

Most of the people of the world are convinced that their religion and their nation were crucial to the establishment of the world as we know it. British, French, German, American, Russian, and others are sure that people would live in barbarous and immoral ignorance if it had not been for their countries special achievements throughout history.

And yet humans, long before any nation had been established or religion founded, had colonized the world, invented farming and agriculture, invented money, and writing. All civilizations were built on the same foundations. Thinking that your nation is special, or your religion is the only true one, shows an ignorance of history with more than a hint of racism.

Lesson 13: God

Don’t take the name of God in vain.

In the Bible, the third of the ten commandments says do not wrongfully use the name of God. This doesn’t only mean to not speak the name of God when it’s not needed, but also to not use the name of God to achieve your own goals. We should not use God’s name as a means to get what we want. History holds many examples of such misuse. For example, the Crusades and the Inquisition. And nowadays, many people are still misusing God’s name.

People argue that we need God in order to understand ethics and morality. Can humans be moral if they do not believe in God? Actually, people around the world do have some morality that is not dependent on what they believe or doesn’t believe. All the ethical rights that are commanded by religions come from our own human nature and are universal. How is that so? It’s because the biggest driving force of every human is to avoid pain. We just feel better, if there is less suffering around us. We are genetically programmed to help each other, and avoid suffering. That's why we don’t create suffering for others if we really don’t think it’s necessary.

Lesson 14: Secularism

Acknowledge your shadow

What does it mean to be secular? It is not the opposite of being religious. Rather, it is the ability to differentiate between what is truth and what is belief. There is a number of qualities that the ideal, secular person follows. Here they are:

Truth - A secular person is committed to seeking the truth, which is based on observation and evidence, rather than on faith.

Compassion - A secular person is committed to a deep appreciation of suffering (instead of obeying the laws of this or that God). They don’t kill others, because it gives them pain and suffering, not because “God says so”.

Equality - This is the result of the two previous commitments. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it, and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovered it.

Freedom - Secular people cherish the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment.

Courage - Secular people must have the courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, and even more courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown.

Responsibility - Secular people know that they are responsible for everything that’s happening around them and that people are responsible for all the problems in the world. The responsibility is in their hands, not in the hands of God.

The biggest advantage of secular science over any religion, ideology, or a worldview, is that secular science is able to admit mistakes and blind spots. If you believe that a higher power has revealed an absolute truth, you cannot admit that it's a mistake, even if evidence suggests otherwise.

Lesson 15: Ignorance

You know less than you think

Humans evolved in a world and environment that was much simpler than the one we have now. In our world now there is so much knowledge, that it’s impossible to learn or understand it all. To handle it all. In order to survive in this silicon age, we have to rely on groups. One individual is not able to do everything by himself anymore. So, taking this into account, is it right that we make the most important decisions altogether? Is it right that decisions of great matter, such as global warming, dying species, etc., are made by the public? If yes, how can we be sure that the public has all the necessary education to make these kinds of decisions? As we already stated, there is too much knowledge to handle. We have to rely on specialists in many cases.

There is one big problem with this type of power. The specialists, men with power are blind to new, revolutionary knowledge. They got their power by sharing their views with a majority of people. Those people with power will only want people like them to be in the circle of power. And that means that there is no room for new knowledge.

The best we can do under such conditions is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.

Lesson 16: Justice

Our sense of justice might be out of date

In the stone age, the definition of justice was relatively easy. When I gathered something, it was mine. I could share it with other people, but it was usually clear who had rights to what.

Nowadays, the world and relations between people and groups of people are way too complex to properly understand justice. We can look at the justice of a situation from one perspective, but should we change our perspective we will find that that view changes too. For example, if you invest in an industry that’s poisoning the river, are you guilty of what the industry is doing? Are you guilty, even if, as an investor, you are unaware that the industry is stealing the river from other people and from nature? The industry’s guilty, but are you? This is just an example of how complex justice can be, how difficult it is to define who’s guilty if anyone actually is.

Lesson 17: Post-Truth

Some fake news lasts forever

Creating fiction is one of the greatest things that we humans can do. Thanks to the sharing of abstract information we were able to unite and create civilizations. However, the same abstract thinking is used to share fake information. Some of that information has been around for thousands of years, and people are still believing that it is true. Take for example all the religious texts. So many of them contradict each other, and yet each is held to be 100% true. If say the Bible is true, then does that mean that the Quran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, etc., are false? Are any of the religious texts truly 100% true?

Fake information is often bad, but not always. It helped us to form civilizations, and it helps us in uniting people. However, we must realize, that we live in a post-truth era. That means that almost nothing is really true. Sometimes fake information supports us, but sometimes it may cause suffering to many people.

How do you live in a world that is full of fake news? First, if you want to have reliable information, pay for it. If it’s free, it’s very likely that someone wants you to believe it’s true for their own benefit.

Secondly, if certain information is very important to you, look for the most reliable sources of knowledge. Sources that will support it - like academic publications of well-known professors, and the like.

Lesson 18: Science Fiction

The future is not what you see in the movies

The biggest sin in modern science fiction movies is that they confuse superintelligence with consciousness. Soon, we will be living in a world with mostly intelligent machines. However, they will not have consciousness. They will not be self-aware. They will not have feelings. The world will be different than what we see in the movies.

Lesson 19: Education

Change is the only constant

Throughout human history, it was always relatively easy to predict the future because the world was not changing much. If you were a farmer in China, you knew your son would be a farmer too. And you knew what you would have to teach him, so he could be a good farmer like you. However, nowadays, technology is progressing so rapidly, that we cannot be sure anymore what will be in 2050, let alone in 2100. So, how can we teach our children things, if we have no idea what the world will look like?

The present schools are teaching children information and skills, which might be completely irrelevant in the future. Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs”, which are, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. But even this model might soon be obsolete.

For thousands of years, philosophers urged us to know thyself. This was probably never so important as it is now. Because, if we don’t know ourselves, the super-intelligent algorithms will know us better, and make our decisions for us.

Lesson 20: Meaning

Life is not a story

Humans conquered the world because they could tell stories. And they became pretty good at it. Stories, that sometimes are real, but are mostly abstract and fictitious. These stories helped people to unite and to defend themselves against their enemies. Religions and ideologies are just stories. They were created no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and still many people believe in them. But all such stories are not real because they don’t have a true beginning and a true ending. We don’t know exactly what happened at the beginning of the universe, and we don’t know what the end will be.

So, why do we believe in these different stories? They give us identity, they give us meaning. They are built on beliefs of people around us - parents, neighbors, etc., so “they must be real!”

Do humans have free will? It depends on how you define it. If free will is the freedom to get what you desire, then yes. However, if you define free will as the freedom to choose what you desire then no. Humans have no free will.

In order to understand ourselves, we have to acknowledge that we have a brain that is a storyteller, and the “self” is nothing more than just a fictional story created by that part of our brains. In order to understand what the “self” is, you should observe your body, your breathing, your emotions, your desires. And forget about Facebook and Instagram - those are not real.

According to Buddha, life has no meaning and we don’t have to have any meaning. We have to realize that there is no meaning in order to be liberated from the suffering of the world. From the attachments and identifications of all fiction stories around us.

Instead of asking ourselves “what is the meaning of life”, we should be asking “how to get out of suffering.”

Actions to take

Lesson 21: Meditate

Just observe

Meditation is a way to find out what’s real. What is in our mind. Most people don’t think about where their thoughts come from, about how the brain works, why they have anger, why exactly they feel the way they do, and so on. There is only one answer to these questions, and you get it by calming down and observing your body.

Yuval Noah Harari gives a lot of credit to meditation. He says that without meditation he would never have written this and his previous books. Meditation helped him understand all these difficult subjects. He was using Vipassana meditation, 2 hours daily, with a yearly retreat for one or two months. That’s a lot of meditation!

Actions to take

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