21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari – My Six Lessons and Takeaways

{Unfinished business:  I am wayyyyyy behind on my intended blog posts; as I am behind on quite a bit more. Anybody else feel that way? Anyway, a month late, here is this post…}


81o9vblSjmLI presented my synopsis of the book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari at the December First Friday Book Synopsis.  This is the third book by Mr. Harari that I have presented.  He writes sweeping, substantive books.  This book is a little different from his first two, Sapiens and Homo Deus.  This almost has the feel of a collection of essays musing about the present and soon-to-be-future.  And I found it a very stimulating to read.

Here is my summary statement about the book:

Things are changing; profoundly changing.  We need to understand the changes.
We need to get ready for the changes.  We need to adjust to the changes. As things change, we need to change. What are the lessons for this era of change in the 21stcentury?
The book provides some key lessons for this changing century.

He tackles a number of big issues.  Here is one that especially grabbed me: 
• the rise of the “useless class” — people feel “useless” – (maybe, because, they are becoming useless) — By 2050 a useless class might emerge due not merely to an absolute lack of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also to insufficient mental stamina.

As always, I ask: Why is this book worth our time?

#1 – This author has the attention of the leaders in Silicone Valley. Maybe he should also have our attention.  (This New York Times article will help you learn about his impact on Silicon Valley: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer).
#2 – This book is a true sweep of history and current reality. This expands our knowledge and understanding.

#3 – This book seems especially “honest.” I’m not sure we like such honesty. Maybe we should.

Here are a few of my highlights directly from the book: the best of the best of Randy’s highlighted passages (I include many more on my synopsis handout):

But during the twentieth century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin, and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story.

In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, and in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail. In 2018 we are down to zero.

Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by.

In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious words are bandied around excitedly in TED Talks, government think tanks, and high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning—and common people may well suspect that none of these words are about them. The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms? … Now the masses fear irrelevance.

For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents.

We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next?

Vaunted “human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition.” …If you think AI needs to compete against the human soul in terms of mystical hunches, the task sounds impossible. But if AI really needs to compete against neural networks in calculating probabilities and recognizing patterns, that sounds far less daunting.

Change is always stressful, and the hectic world of the early twenty-first century has produced a global epidemic of stress.

It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise).

Globalization has made people in one country utterly dependent on markets in other countries, but automation might unravel large parts of this global trade network with disastrous consequences for the weakest links. …Yet with the rise of AI, robots, and 3-D printers, cheap unskilled labor will become far less important.

Engineers are currently developing software that can detect human emotions based on the movements of our eyes and facial muscles.

The superrich will finally have something really worthwhile to do with their stupendous wealth. While up until now they have only been able to buy little more than status symbols, soon they might be able to buy life itself. If new treatments for extending life and upgrading physical and cognitive abilities prove to be expensive, humankind might split into biological castes. …The average duke wasn’t more talented than the average peasant—he owed his superiority only to unjust legal and economic discrimination. However, by 2100 the rich might really be more talented, more creative, and more intelligent than the slum-dwellers.

Humans have bodies. …We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers.

Each of these three problems—nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption—is enough to threaten the future of human civilization. But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound one another.

In the twenty-first century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes: they are no longer the right framework to manage the most important challenges of the age. …We now have a global ecology, a global economy, and a global science—but we are still stuck with only national politics. …To have effective politics, either we must deglobalize the ecology, the economy, and the march of science or we must globalize our politics.

There is much to ponder in  the book.  Consider this:

• what if an app could/would identify…sexual orientation?
• what if an app could dictate our future endeavors?
• what if technology creates jobs that we can’t fill? – (there is a serious shortage of military drone pilots)…and all protocols and manuals will have to be rewritten each year.

• And here are my lessons and takeaways:

#1 – We need to know/learn about the past, with analysis help from a deep thinker, to get the big picture.
#2 – There are, in fact, some real, big, big-implication changes that have occurred throughout history.  We are in the midst of such a change now.
#3 – There are divisions coming, especially between the super rich and the rest; the “useless” class.  This has enormous implications for the future.
#4 – The very future of work is so uncertain. It is not only “where will the jobs be?’ but also “what will the jobs be?”
#5 – We all believe some very big fictions. Is this ok?  How will we think about the fictions we believe?
#6 – In many ways, we all are ignorant; and we are wrong; and we believe “fake news.” We need to cultivate humility, and acknowledge our deficiencies – deficiencies in our thinking; deficiencies in our practices.

I recommend this book.  And, here’s what I think:  if you tackle all three of his books, you will find yourself thinking a little more deeply about the big, big picture, and the issues that we face.


You can purchase all of my synopses, including the three for Harari’s books, at the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page handout, plus the audio recording made from my presentation at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.  Click here for our newest additions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *