Book review of “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Noah Harari.

After making sense of the past in his first literary effort Sapiens and turning his analytical mind toward the future in Homo Deus, Harari now seeks to provide some self-help for those living in the present century.

Harari’s first effort, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind, was first published in his native Hebrew. Once translated into English, it became an instant best-seller, with over 1 million copies sold. One of those one million copies belong to Barack Obama, who praised the book, saying it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilisation that we take for granted”.

Sapiens is a bold endeavour that fluidly transitions from giving a historians account of our journey to the civilisation we now inhabit to explaining why, via the use of evolutionary psychology and biology, this was even possible in the first place. This book correctly cemented Harari’s status as one of the great sense-makers of our time. Now, Harari attempts to decipher and inspect Homo Sapiens present moment. “In this book I want to zoom into the here and now,” Harari states. “My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of our human societies”. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century has been constructed through a culmination of Harari’s written op-ed columns and essays, as well as his Q & A sessions at speaking events. It is written as an intervention and conversation with the 21st Century world, with the intent of providing us with humility, knowledge and a prescription that will allow us to medicate our suffering.

Harari has no interest in piecemeal explanations for phenomena that require a macro take. This intellectual ambition was evident in Sapiens and is scattered throughout his new offering. As he elucidates “my agenda here is global. I look for major forces that shape societies all over the world and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole”.

Harari throughout this book supplements his best hits from Sapiens — that’re abundant in footprint during the whole of the text — with refreshing perspective and observation. He offers-up his view and explanation of war, as well as a reason why no nation state can ever win another; reiterates the usefulness of collective fictions, like that of the nation state, religion and ideology; he contends that terrorism should be met with less hysteria and more thinking and restates why nationalism has reached its sell-by-date (carbon emissions have no borders).

Alongside covering some well-worn territory — as, to his credit, he admitted he would – Harari also extrapolates and offers an abundance of original comment. The 17th lesson provides an intellectually warming discussion regarding fake news. He readily acknowledges that fake news is a problem and that the advent of new technology is only likely to exacerbate the issue but contends that truth has never been one of the most valued commodities to human beings. “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions,” he writes. “So if you blame Facebook, Trump or Putin for ushering in a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible”.

All our greatest stories and ideologies have always leaned on fake news for relevance and to dramatize what it is they actually offer. This is how stories unite, control and make demands of people. “By brining people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible,” Harari opines. “They inspire people to build hospitals, schools and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Adam and eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful.” Harari argues that fake news has forever been a tool of the populist extreme of politics, who knew, as Nazi propogandist Joseph Goebbels potently observed, that “a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.

Harari also skilfully dismantles the fallacy of free will and offers his reasons as to why it is now time to transcend this illusion. He enjoyably employs the use of the children’s blockbuster hit Inside Out to explain why free will is an illusion. The movie features the on-goings of the main character Riley’s mind, depicting how her feelings, emotions and choices come to be. “ Riley is not an unwitting star of a TV reality show, and she isn’t trapped in the matrix. Rather, Riley herself is the matrix,” Harari writes. The movie “takes viewers on a journey into Riley’s brain only to discover that she has no authentic self and she never makes any free choices”. The film takes our modern understanding of neuropsychology, its incompatibility with the notion of free will and explains it to children. “Riley is in fact a huge robot managed by a collection of conflicting biochemical mechanisms,” and “cannot be identified with any single core”.

Harari argues that a once benign belief in free will has now become terminal, due to the rise of the algorithm. Governments and corporations can now successfully hack people because of the enormity of computing power and gathered data, and the most susceptible people are, according to Harari, those who still believe in free will. Social media outlets are constantly developing new ways to grab our attention, manipulate our preference of choice and recommend what next to buy on Amazon. And they can successfully do all of this because they know about the reality of what “you” is better than you do; you might believe, as Harari writes, “that you choose what to desire,” corporations and governments, however, know that you merely “do what you desire”. Harari recommends us all to drop the free will act and understand that decisions are made by systems of neurones that are susceptible to previous experience, written word, images and what book you bought and read off Amazon last. Harari contends that we must begin to know and be honest with ourselves to stay ahead of the latest algorithm devised by Silicon Valley.

In the penultimate chapter and the 20th lesson, titled Meaning, Harari walks us through some of the more popular stories that have captured our purpose seeking brains over the centuries: religion, nationalism and, yes, even liberalism. He argues that none of these can give a truly universal meaning and, at bottom, are all fictitious stories that have nonetheless had some useful functions. “To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions”. This 20th lesson ends in an anti-climatic fashion, where Harari makes it appear as though the search for meaning is futile and that nihilism is the only true game left in town. And yet.

If the first 20 lessons were the diagnosis of a spreading disease, then the 21st is an attempt to prescribe to us the antidote that will remedy meaninglessness and suffering. During this lesson, Harari documents his un-satisfaction with being unable to find the truth of the world and lays bear his scepticism about the scientific method’s ability to illuminate such things. Which begs the question, “if we cannot construct meaning and learn truths about our own selves through knowledge, then how can we attain such things?” Harari suggests we all open our minds to our own awareness. “If you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is”.

Harari stresses that we must all take care to further delve into our own minds with a meditative technique known as vipassana (which means introspection in the pali language of ancient India), if we are to truly understand the mind, liberate ourselves from illusion and to understand life. “I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general by observing my sensations. . . than I learned in my whole life up to that point,” Harari writes in reflection of his first ever meditative sessions. “The most important thing I realised was that the deepest sauce of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind.” The answers to the questions that envelope the pages throughout this book, Harari hints, are graspable to those who seek to observe their mind. Nihilism, then,  is out and the meditative observation of the mind is in.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century will leave you, at times, feeling as though you’re reading a cliff notes of Sapiens. Yet that feeling becomes occasionally displaced by Harari’s fervent discussion of fake news and provocations about meaning, free will and meditation. This new offering does not replace Sapiens as Harari’s magnum opus, but it still acts to quench a thirst of the curious mind.

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