Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better than answers you cannot question.” Yuval Noah Harari

Let me begin by saying Harari’s newest book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is rocking my world. It is a call for discussion/debate/conversation about what kind of world we want in the middle of the 21st century. It will not be the world most of us have grown up in, but what will it be? How will “Big Data”, algorithms and artificial intelligence to name just a few impact our lives and the lives of our grandchildren? We need to begin discussion now. Harari writes, “…it’s hard to maintain a clear vision. We might not even notice that a debate is going on, or what the key questions are…because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give discounts.” We all have to participate.

We humans love our stories; stories help define us, tell us who we are as individuals and as societies. Harari notes that the overall historical story of the 20th century has been reduced to the fascist story, the communist story and the liberal democracy story. Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of liberal democracy from our high school government class. “Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, i.e. protecting the rights of the individual, which are generally enshrined in law. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all persons” (Wikipedia). The Allied victory of WW2 eliminated the fascist story. The collapse of the USSR did away with the communist story, which leads us to the discussions of liberal democracy that “celebrates the value and power of liberty.” It has long been accepted by America and the West that peace and prosperity are brought about by liberal democracy and global economies.

However Harari writes that today with the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and the disillusionment with globalism, we are suddenly left without a story for the 21st century. Who are we now? Humans have always defined ourselves by our stories, myths and legends. Harari says we “lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality. Disorientation causes [us] to think in apocalyptic terms, as if the failure of history to come to its envisioned happy ending can only mean that it is hurtling toward Armageddon. Unable to conduct a reality check, the mind latches onto catastrophic scenarios… portend the end of human civilization.” Add to this toxic thought life, the reality of instant information, artificial intelligence, bots and fake news, cryptocurrencies and blockchain revolution, biotechnology- Whoa! It’s overwhelming. We’re hamsters on a treadmill struggling to keep up with these vast changes and their impacts on our lives. “Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by…The liberal [democracy] story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?…We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions. The next decades might therefore be characterized by intense soul-searching and by the formulation of new social and political models.” We will not be successful in formulating fresh visions while we are telling ourselves the sky is falling. As Drs. Leaf and Amen from last week’s blog would say that we are stopping the toxic chemical flow in our brains when we stop the panic-driven thoughts. We could definitely benefit with less toxic brain chemicals.

We need “a new and meaningful narrative” with no blaming, hollering, finger-pointing and snarling. We need to work not only one on one but government to government because many of these challenges are global. They don’t just effect one country. Defining a new and meaningful narrative could be more difficult in this season of nationalism and isolationism that America is experimenting with. These challenges have universal implications and will take nations working together, not withdrawing their little heads into their shells. We are not turtles, and we don’t need to pretend to be. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if America leaves a void in defining the narrative for the rest of the 21st century, we will live with the consequences of someone else filling that void. Harari puts it brilliantly when he writes, “If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair, but who said history was fair.”

Let’s look at these challenges as possibilities instead of problems. Let’s take heart, find our courage like the lion in the Wizard of Oz- it’s already inside of us. Our little planet has lived through many world-changing revolutions- in politics, industry and civil wars. We have written many new and meaningful narratives since time immemorial. We can do it again.

#yuvalnoahharari #21lessonsforthe21stcentury #spiegel&grau

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