21 Lessons For The 21st Century Review
This is my review of 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s in a way a followup to his Sapiens and Homo Deus books. The former I read, but didn’t get around to writing a review here – no shameless self-linking today! Now, Sapiens focused on humanity’s past, and Homo Deus on its distant future. But this one has a bit of both, and manages to keep the focus on the near future - what will happen in 10 or 20 or 30 years, and how one can be best prepared for that.
As the name hints, the book is structured in 21 chapters - or rather 21 essays - where the author tackles various themes. Topics range from the future of work in the age of automation, to nationalism, religion and education. The kind of things to keep one a bit up at night if you really think about them and where they could go (or have already gone) wrong. There’s a bunch of common themes weaved through each essay - the notion of humans as storytellers; the idea that many concepts such as states, religions, and corporations are really just stories which enable large-scale cooperation between people; and the scary impact AI and advanced bioengineering will have on us if left unchecked.
I especially liked the chapter on secularism. The word and concept itself are kind of fuzzy, but he did a good job of articulating it with a positive definition (a commitment to truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility - with all the entailing properties), rather than a negative one (separation of church and state, minimisation of religion’s role, etc.).
The chapter on nationalism was also interesting. It started by stating that the previous “big political ideas” of the last century, namely democracy, communism, and (to a lesser extent) fascism, have run or are running out of steam with people. Fascism came and went from the 30s to the 50s, communism had a big international run from the 30s to the 80s, and only democracy was left standing at the start of the 21st century. But it too wasn’t meeting the demands of people as of the 2010s. So in many places of the world “illiberal” democracies with nationalistic agendas have cropped up. What I found insightful here was that these things are very local and localized solutions - the hungarian solution can’t work for australians. But the problems the world will face in the future are definitely global - megacorporations with little accountability, bioengineering, AI, global warming, etc.
Anyway, a nice and fast read overall, full of neat insights and various gems and anecdotes besides the “big ideas” it tries to cover.