Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, Jonathan Cape

Harari has carved for himself a pop-Historian and Philosopher status with the successes of his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. While Sapiens was an attempt to make sense of humanity’s past, Deus explored what would become of humans in the distant future. With his new offering 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari elucidates our immediate concerns in the 21st century including technological, nuclear, and climate disruption.

Harari’s previous bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus (Source: Bradshaw Foundation)

I have always enjoyed Harari’s writings and his ability to simplify otherwise esoteric ideas. His lucid prose replete with relatable examples make him one of the most coherent writers of our times, having said so, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is his weakest. He attempts to cover too much and in the end, fails to build a concrete case. By the time you are done, you have been through twenty-one disjointed opinion pieces with little rhyme and reason. Harari describes the news market model as “exciting news that costs you nothing in exchange for your attention”. As it appears, the author himself falls in the same trap as the news market by disseminating near-hysterical exaggeration that he so deftly avoided in his previous two books. He takes you in a world where the state-corporate nexus may soon possess “the computing power necessary to hack biochemical processes shaping desires and choices” giving them unprecedented power over our lives that “Spanish Inquisition and Soviet KGB ” could never imagine.

Harari begins by claiming how the global liberal order that engendered a relatively peaceful world since the Soviet dismemberment is beginning to unravel. With the collapse of Fascism in 1945 and Communism in 1991, the liberal-capitalist doctrine became the de-facto global creed.

“In 1939, humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1969 just two, in 1999 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2019 we are down to zero”.

Harari, 21 Lessons for 21st Century

He then expounds on why the challenges facing us are far more fluid to be comprehended via the liberal-capitalist lens. According to the author, for the first time in over 10,000 years of sedentary civilization, we don’t know what our immediate future holds.

Liberalism deifies individualism. That the individual can make the right choices at the right time is the central tenet of the liberal-capitalist credo; he knows what to buy, what courses to pursue at the university, and whom to send to the parliament. All of this begins to fall apart in the face of an increasingly chaotic present. Harari‘s commentary on fake news is disconcertingly true and in chapter 17, Post-Truth- Some fake news last forever he attempts to link the present glut of fake news with the universal myths of religion, nationalism, and political ideologies. He claims “In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth”. Their ability to forge collective fiction has helped them reign supreme on the planet. As he eloquently puts up:

“So if you blame Facebook, Trump or Putin for ushering in a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that for centuries millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestionable faith on Quran”.

Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

He berates the creed of Nationalism; the scourge of the 20th century, lately been rearing its ugly head globally. The author wittingly compares Nations and religions to “football clubs on steroids“. He rues how Nationalism and Patriotism open the floodgates to chauvinistic ultra-nationalism creating the groundwork for violent conflicts. In the author’s own words:

“Instead of believing that my nation is unique- which is true for all nations- I might begin feeling that my nation is supreme, that I owe my entire loyalty, that I have no significant obligations to anyone else”.

Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

In effect, the book attempts to dismantle popular “stories of humanity” and aims to strike the final nail in the coffin of the grand idea that the self is anything but unique. Harari shows his usual flair for hard-hitting analogies when he compares the human self with the central character Riley of the widely acclaimed 2015 animated movie, Inside Out where an eleven-year-old Riley is a biochemical robot with no authentic self or capacity to make free choices. He rightly points out:

“If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire- then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire- then no, humans have no free will”.

Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

I kid you not when I say Harari’s answer to all of this is meditation.  To be precise, “if you can really observe yourself for the duration of a single breath- you will understand it all”, this is Harari’s message. Probably, the book leaves you dumbfounded and more confused than ever before.  Also, this book generously borrows from Harari’s Sapiens and at times feels repetitive. In an age, when Globalism seems to have been expunged from our collective imagination, the author forcefully argues that Globalism is the panacea.

Harari’s latest ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ feels like a manifesto for Globalism and self-reflection. Trite, unimaginative, and a ludicrous supply of sweeping statements. If you have read Sapiens, you won’t regret skipping this.

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