21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Book Review)

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is a surprisingly original book about the near future. In the book, Harari describes current trends and extrapolates them forward to a future that is likely to arrive. As Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” it’s good to see that much of the predictions in the book are based on current events/technology.

The book fits nicely between Sapiens and Homo Deus. It’s true that there is some overlap between the books, but still 21 Lessons was refreshing.

See my notes below, also see these good reviews from a friend on Goodreads and Steve Glaveski on Medium.

Chapter 1 – Disillusionment
Simple stories win over statistics (i.e. even if you base your arguments on statistics and rationality, tell a frikkin’ story)
AI will enable some humans to get ahead of others (this theme comes back several times), they will be enhanced with features like tracking health (now) and better knowledge (now – internet, future – more direct connections to digital info via AI assistants/implants/smart glasses/or other things we haven’t thought about before).

Chapter 2 – Work
Blue-collar
jobs will also be taken by the algorithms. From driving (trucks) to art, in many cases, no humans will be needed in the future. Of course, we will need some, to make and upgrade the algorithms, but many (see the middle of America) will not have anything productive to do.

In chess, creativity is already being seen as the domain of AI. To check if someone is cheating in a human-only tournament, they check if a person isn’t being more creative than usual, how crazy is that eh

“In human-only chess tournaments, judges are constantly on the lookout for players who try to cheat by secretly getting help from computers. One of the ways to catch cheats is to monitor the level of originality players display. If they play an exceptionally creative move, the judges will often suspect that this cannot possibly be a human move – it must be a computer move. At least in chess, creativity is already the trademark of computers rather than humans!”

This is bad – we will have to figure out what to do (UBI, find meaningful things to do). This is good – nobody dreams to become a cashier, we have better things to do.

As an alternative to UBI (universal basic income), Harari mentions UBS (universal basic services), something that is already (partially) what the European/Dutch system looks like. But, the money that Google-eske companies will make with 3d printing something, won’t find its way to the person in Bangladesh without a job.

Chapter 3 – Liberty
Truth is what the first result in Google is (or what Alexa tells you when you ask a question). Liberty, as discussed in this chapter, is a slippery concept and something that needs to be defended. Algorithms can both be better (possibly no/less discrimination) and worse (algorithm bias, says no but humans don’t understand why (black boxes)).

Chapter 4 – Equality
Those who own the data – own the future.
(link to health care data and why that is valuable?)

Chapter 5 – Community
Digital tools make it easier to connect (online) and more difficult to connect (with the person sitting next to you).

Chapter 6 – Civilization
We are one world now, if we like it or not.

People care more about their enemies than allies (and so do countries).

Chapter 7 – Nationalism
Patriotism can be good, just imagine if we would still be mini-kingdoms fighting with the one 20km down the road. But ultra-nationalism is bad. We should/can be proud of a unique culture, not a supreme nation.

Environmentalism is also part of this chapter (as nationalists don’t seem to care about it). Some conventional mechanisms may help (reduce), but innovation is needed (clean meat is given as an example).

We need to have a global ecology, economy, and science. Not global governance, but indeed more focus on global issues/impact.

Chapter 8 – Religion
Religion doesn’t have much to say about the problems we’re facing nowadays.

Chapter 9 – Immigration
Don’t tolerate intolerance, let everyone else who comes, become ‘us’.

Harari also reflects on racism and culturalism. On this subject, it does make me think of correlational research that implies causation (e.g. your genes predicting educational outcomes) which may be just correlational (e.g. people with these genes have been living in poverty for generations).

Chapter 10 – Terrorism
“Terrorists are masters of mind control.”

Terrorism works because of the terror and subsequent overreaction it creates.
This can (partly) be combatted by 1) clandestine actions against terrorists, 2) media should keep things in perspective (good luck with that), 3) your perspective. I think that the three parts here miss a crucial fourth, improving the conditions in the places of origin of terrorism. But how.

Chapter 11 – War
The battle field is moving from physical to informational. From factories to energy grids.

Chapter 12 – Humility
Be humble, help others, you (your culture) is not the center of the universe.

Chapter 13 – God
Morality is about reducing suffering, no myths required. Secularism (as defined by Harari) is about a commitment to truth, versus belief.

Without (or even with?) a God, we are the ones responsible.

Chapter 14 – Secularism
“[S]ecularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans.”

It’s all bottom-up, not top-down.

Chapter 15 – Ignorance
We know very little, alone. We know a lot, together. We think we know a lot, that is the knowledge illusion (book). Our best ability is maybe not rationality (of which we have surprisingly little), but large scale cooperation (which religion, for better or worse, does enable – as does (good) nationalism).

Companies and religions are based on stories, not facts. This is called branding.

Chapter 16 – Justice
Can we grapple with knowing about the other side of the world, and our impact from our actions there? The answer is, probably no. Is buying a t-shirt from a Bangladeshi sweatshop bad? Or is it good when done in conjunction with calls for better living standards? Wicked problems.

Chapter 17 – Post-Truth
Fake news isn’t new (it’s on steroids now, but not new).

“Therefore instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognise it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction. Don’t expect perfection. One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world, and think in absolute terms of pristine purity versus satanic evil. No politician tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but some politicians are still far better than others.”

Chapter 18 – Science Fiction
Science Fiction FTW, but should do a better job of describing the (near) future.

Chapter 19 – Education
People need to learn how to make sense of information, not get more info that they can find on Wikipedia.

Four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Adaptability is what we need in the future, not a specific set of skills (Taken would be no movie if they had a killer drone available).

When do stories work? When we ask people to make a sacrifice for it. (me) This is something that Effective Altruism may learn from.

Chapter 20 – Meaning
Top-down (God?) or bottom-up (liberalism) or just without meaning (Buddism). But even those who claim to be the nicest, do fight wars with their neighbours or countrymen.

Chapter 21 – Meditation
Suffering happens in the mind. So learn to know your mind better.

See Sam Harris’ Waking Up and read the Stoics (e.g. Meditations).

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