21 Lessons for the 21 Century Cover

21 Lessons for the 21st Century - By Yuval Noah Harari

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My Thoughts

Collection of thoughts on humanity's past, present, and future. Terror, automation, the decline of nation states; a lot gets covered. Seems more like a collection of blog posts.

Summary Notes

Part 1: The Technological Challenge

Humanity is losing faith in the liberal story

For centuries, chess was considered one of the crowning glories of human intelligence. AlphaZero went from utter ignorance to creative mastery in four hours, without the help of any human guide.

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!

People will enjoy the best healthcare in history, but for precisely this reason they will probably be sick all the time. There is always something wrong somewhere in the body. There is always something that can be improved. In the past, you felt perfectly healthy as long as you didn’t sense pain or you didn’t suffer from an apparent disability such as limping. But by 2050, thanks to biometric sensors and Big Data algorithms, diseases may be diagnosed and treated long before they lead to pain or disability. As a result, you will always find yourself suffering from some ‘medical condition’ and following this or that algorithmic recommendation.

Of course, it is not absolutely impossible that AI will develop feelings of its own. We still don’t know enough about consciousness to be sure. In general, there are three possibilities we need to consider:

  1. Consciousness is somehow linked to organic biochemistry in such a way that it will never be possible to create consciousness in non-organic systems.
  2. Consciousness is not linked to organic biochemistry, but it is linked to intelligence in such a way that computers could develop consciousness, and computers will have to develop consciousness if they are to pass a certain threshold of intelligence.
  3. There are no essential links between consciousness and either organic biochemistry or high intelligence. Hence computers might develop consciousness – but not necessarily. They could become super-intelligent while still having zero consciousness.

At our present state of knowledge, we cannot rule out any of these options.

The data-giants probably aim far higher than any previous attention merchant. Their true business isn’t to sell advertisements at all. Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertising revenue. We aren’t their customers – we are their product.

In the medium term, this data hoard opens a path to a radically different business model whose first victim will be the advertising industry itself.

Once algorithms choose and buy things for us, the traditional advertising industry will go bust.

Selling advertisements may be necessary to sustain the giants in the short term, but they often evaluate apps, products and companies according to the data they harvest rather than according to the money they generate. A popular app may lack a business model and may even lose money in the short term, but as long as it sucks data, it could be worth billions.4 Even if you don’t know how to cash in on the data today, it is worth having it because it might hold the key to controlling and shaping life in the future. I don’t know for certain that the data-giants explicitly think about it in such terms, but their actions indicate that they value the accumulation of data more than mere dollars and cents.

In the big battle between health and privacy, health is likely to win hands down.

Part 2: The Political Challenge

Any solution to the technological problem has to involve global cooperation.

Zuckerberg explained that the sociopolitical upheavals of our time – from rampant drug addiction to murderous totalitarian regimes – result to a large extent from the disintegration of human communities. He lamented the fact that ‘for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else.

For millions of years, humans have been adapted to living in small bands of no more than a few dozen people. Even today most of us find it impossible to really know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Facebook friends we boast.4 Without these groups, humans feel lonely and alienated.

Yet what people might really need are the tools to connect to their own experiences.

People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented.

If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.

Ideally, building communities should not be a zero-sum game. Humans can feel loyal to different groups at the same time. Unfortunately, intimate relations probably are a zero-sum game. Beyond a certain point, the time and energy you spend on getting to know your online friends from Iran or Nigeria will come at the expense of your ability to know your next-door neighbours.

A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices that corporations, their employees and their shareholders are not willing to make. That’s why revolutionaries establish churches, political parties and armies.

Yes, democratic ideas have been part of European culture for centuries, but they were never the whole. For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a half-hearted experiment that survived for barely 200 years in a small corner of the Balkans.

In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills.

Species often split, but they never merge.

Human tribes, in contrast, tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Modern Germans were created from the merger of Saxons, Prussians, Swabians and Bavarians, who not so long ago wasted little love on one another. Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked (having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human.

In the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. Ten thousand years ago humankind was divided into countless isolated tribes. With each passing millennium, these fused into larger and larger groups, creating fewer and fewer distinct civilisations. In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation.

The process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: establishing links between distinct groups, and homogenising practices across groups.

The world may be peppered with various types of ‘failed states’, but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package.

Even the Taliban sought international recognition as the legitimate government of the sovereign country of Afghanistan. No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.

People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.

When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas. For example, in 1618 Europe didn’t have a single religious identity – it was defined by religious conflict. To be a European in 1618 meant to obsess about tiny doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants or between Calvinists and Lutherans, and to be willing to kill and be killed because of these differences. If a human being in 1618 did not care about these conflicts, that person was perhaps a Turk or a Hindu, but definitely not a European.

Contrary to common wisdom, nationalism is not a natural and eternal part of the human psyche, and it is not rooted in human biology.”

Iit is hardly natural for humans to be loyal to millions of utter strangers.

In order to convince me to be loyal to ‘Israel’ and its 8 million inhabitants, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state had to create a mammoth apparatus of education, propaganda and flag waving, as well as national systems of security, health and welfare.

Huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties, and expanding the circle of human empathy certainly has its merits.

Peaceful, prosperous and liberal countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland all enjoy a strong sense of nationalism. The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.

As long as the nation provided most of its citizens with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity, they were willing to pay the price in blood. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Though nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, modern nation states also built massive systems of healthcare, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

In the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations, because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

As long as humans know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival depends on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation.

Hence there are many things that governments, corporations and individuals can do to avoid climate change. But to be effective, they must be done on a global level. When it comes to climate, countries are just not sovereign. They are at the mercy of actions taken by people on the other side of the planet. The Republic of Kiribati – an islands nation in the Pacific Ocean – could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero and nevertheless be submerged under the rising waves if other countries don’t follow suit. Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners. Even powerful nations such as China and Japan are not ecologically sovereign.

If even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has at least three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption.

Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.

The difference between Anglo-Saxon England and the Indian Pala Empire was far greater than the difference between modern Britain and modern India – but British Airways didn’t offer direct flights between Delhi and London in the days of King Alfred the Great.

Part 3: Despair and Hope

Humankind can rise to the occasion.

Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).1 In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether.2 Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.3 So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?

Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).1 In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether.2 Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.3 So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?

Hence terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.

Terrorists don’t think like army generals. Instead, they think like theatre producers.

Because we intuitively understand that terrorism is theatre, we judge it by its emotional rather than material impact.

Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to the terrorist provocations.

A regime can withstand terrible catastrophes, and even ignore them, provided its legitimacy is not based on preventing them.

In the fourteenth century the Black Death killed between a quarter and a half of European populations, yet no king lost his throne as a result, and no king made much of an effort to overcome the plague. Nobody back then thought that preventing plagues was part of a king’s job. On the other hand, rulers who allowed religious heresy to spread in their dominions risked losing their crowns, and even their heads.

Terrorism did not bother our medieval ancestors, because they had much bigger problems to deal with.

A small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise.

The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism.

A successful counter-terrorism struggle should be conducted on three fronts. First, governments should focus on clandestine actions against the terror networks. Second, the media should keep things in perspective and avoid hysteria. The theatre of terror cannot succeed without publicity.

The third front is the imagination of each and every one of us. Terrorists hold our imagination captive, and use it against us.

It is the responsibility of every citizen to liberate his or her imagination from the terrorists, and to remind ourselves of the true dimensions of this threat. It is our own inner terror that prompts the media to obsess about terrorism, and the government to overreact.

Whereas in early agricultural societies human violence caused up to 15 per cent of all human deaths, and in the twentieth century it caused 5 per cent, today it is responsible for only 1 per cent.

In 1914 war had great appeal to elites across the world because they had many concrete examples of how successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. In contrast, in 2018 successful wars seem to be an endangered species.

Today the main economic assets consist of technical and institutional knowledge rather than wheat fields, gold mines or even oil fields, and you just cannot conquer knowledge through war.

Would the victorious People’s Liberation Army loot the riches of Silicon Valley? True, corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but you cannot seize these fortunes by force. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley.

Yet the truth is that Judaism played only a modest role in the annals of our species. Unlike such universal religions as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, Judaism has always been a tribal creed.

Relative to their numbers, the Jewish people have had a disproportionate impact on the history of the last 2,000 years.

About 20 per cent of all Nobel Prize laureates in science have been Jews, though Jews constitute less than 0.2 per cent of the world’s population

Jews began to make their remarkable contribution to science only once they had abandoned the yeshivas in favour of the laboratories.

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

If you want your religion, ideology or world view to lead the world, my first question to you is: ‘What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong?’ If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.

Part 4: Truth

What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.

Modern democracies are full of crowds shouting in unison, ‘Yes, the voter knows best! Yes, the customer is always right!

If you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth.

If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge.

When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly by stating that ‘A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.’7 In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that ‘The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.

You cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.

If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth.

Scholars throughout history faced this dilemma: do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? The most powerful scholarly establishments – whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues – placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.

As a species, humans prefer power to truth.

If you want reliable information – pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product.

Silence isn’t neutrality; it is supporting the status quo.

Romantic comedies are to love as porn is to sex and Rambo is to war. And if you think you can press some delete button and wipe out all trace of Hollywood from your subconscious and your limbic system, you are deluding yourself.

Part 5: Resilience

We have no idea how China or the rest of the world will look in 2050. We don’t know what people will do for a living, we don’t know how armies or bureaucracies will function, and we don’t know what gender relations will be like. Some people will probably live much longer than today, and the human body itself might undergo an unprecedented revolution thanks to bioengineering and direct brain–computer interfaces. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050.

The last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.3 More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

We cannot be sure of the specifics, but change itself is the only certainty.

To stay relevant – not just economically, but above all socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty.

So the best advice I could give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life.

To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions: first, it must give me some role to play.

Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself.

When you believe a particular story, it makes you extremely interested in its minutest details, while keeping you blind to anything that falls outside its scope.

A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its ultimate scope matters little.

If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer. The exact details don’t really matter. Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.

Most people don’t like to admit that they are fools. Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes.

The problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful. Christianity knew this better than Hollywood, which is why traditional Christian art tended to depict Satan as a gorgeous hunk. That is why it is so difficult to resist Satan’s temptations. That is also why it is difficult to deal with fascism. When you look in the fascist mirror, what you see there isn’t ugly at all. When Germans looked in the fascist mirror in the 1930s, they saw Germany as the most beautiful thing in the world.

the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite. There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now.

99 per cent of what we experience never becomes part of the story of the self.

It is particularly noteworthy that our fantasy self tends to be very visual, whereas our actual experiences are corporeal.

The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.

The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying. You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind – but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you.

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