45 pages 1 hour read

Yuval Noah Harari

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) is historian, philosopher, and acclaimed author Yuval Noah Harari’s in-depth look at the current global affairs and the immediate future of humankind. To Harari, the merging of biotechnology and artificial intelligence potentially represents the end of history with some humans becoming godlike. Despite the ramification of this situation on all of humanity, most people are distracted by irrelevant information and do not realize the debate that is occurring around them. The book is divided into five parts: a discussion of the primary technological and political challenges facing the global community, potential responses to these challenges, an analysis of how humans can rise to the occasion to help solve these challenges, a discussion of whether humans can truly understand the global nature of these problems, and Harari’s solution for helping humans gain clarity.

In Part 1, Harari offers an overview of the biggest political and technological challenges of humanity’s collective lifetime. People all over the world, including in the core liberal nations, are becoming disillusioned with the liberal story. The average individual believes they are losing their economic worth. This disillusionment is occurring at a time when problems are global in nature and will require global solutions. Automation might replace millions of individual humans with an integrated computer network, leading to an increase in post-work societies. Democracy has championed over authoritarianism in the late-20th century, however the changes that artificial intelligence will inflict on data processing could lead to digital dictatorships. Data is clearly more important than ever. If humans do not figure out how to regulate the ownership of data, we could see our global society become more unequal than ever before with the rise of a small superhuman class that controls all of the wealth, beauty, and intellect. Through Part 1, Harari hopes to show the urgency and magnitude of these global problems at hand.

Part 2 provides possible solutions to how humans might be united to confront these global issues, including whether Facebook engineers using algorithms can create a global community and whether we can reverse the globalization process and re-empower nation-states or religious traditions. Through this section, Harari reaffirms that the best solution is still a global community and neither Facebook, nationalism, or religion will unite human society. However, nationalism and religion continue to divide human groups into various rival camps. Nowhere is this more poignant than the European Union, whose multicultural experiment is on the verge of disintegration.

Part 3 moves on to discuss how humankind can rise to the occasion to find solutions to these global challenges. Harari’s conclusion in this section is that humans need to reduce hysteria around terrorism, keep their stupidity under control to prevent another world war, and show far greater humility. Harari also explores whether religious faith is a necessary condition for morality and concludes it is not. In the end, humans need to be willing to admit their shadows, and secularism is still one of the only creeds that does this. 

In Part 4, Harari examines this notion of post-truth societies. To him, this idea is false because humans are post-truth species. Our power depends on creating and believing fiction. To this end, we have a hard time understanding the global moral implications of our actions. Yet, we can get closer to doing so if we are willing to admit our ignorance and understand that our mental experiences are real.

Finally, Part 5 offers Harari’s solution. We are already living in the era of human hacking, but biotechnology and machine learning do not yet have the power to completely control and manipulate human emotions and desires. To this end, humans need to understand themselves better and see how we contribute to suffering. The global issues at hand require all humans to be more mindful, and one way to achieve this is through meditation.

On the whole, then, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century seeks to provide clarity on the major challenges facing our global community and help more people engage with this critical debate so that we can find solutions. To do so, humanity must come together and display more humility and mindfulness.