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Book Review: 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Harari

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Book Review: 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Harari

The highly stimulating and inspiring Yuval Noah Harari is back! His latest book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century‘ completes his trilogy. While his previous best sellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus explored the past and the future respectively, 21 Lessons focusses on the present and contemporary topics.

I read the book on a long SFO-Delhi flight in one reading, amidst the chaos of Brexit and US-China trade tensions. I was returning from an annual planning pilgrimage where we were trying to look at the crystal ball and make our bets. So, the topic of knowing the present and the modern challenges made a lot of sense. The book’s cover jacket and introduction indeed made the right claims:

How can we protect ourselves from nuclear war and technological disruptions? What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? What should we pay attention to? Are we still capable of understanding the world we have created? What should we teach our children?

The book is divided into 21 chapters over 5 different sections and cover topics Work, Terrorism, Immigration, Nationalism, War God, Fake News, Education etc. So how does the book measure up? Does it rise up to the claims?

The vegan smartphone-less Yuval Noah indeed makes a compelling reading. His wide knowledge and deep intellect are evident in his strong claims. The contemporary examples quickly relate and establish a shared platform for arguments. It offers interesting insights and ideas to provoke further thinking and find answers. Sample this:

1. Donald Trump warned voters that the Mexicans and Chinese will take their jobs, and that they could therefore build a wall on the Mexican border. He never warned voters that the algorithms will take their jobs, nor did he suggest building a firewall on the border with California. True indeed. It is very easy to create a narrative and channelize resources against a visible threat, but what about the larger invisible challenges. It is easy for Donald Trump to talk about Mexicans but how do we prepare to deal humanity with the challenges arising from the confluence of AI and Biotech? The same thing is happening across the world.

2. The Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolution were made by people who were vital for the economy and lacked political power. But Trump and Brexit were supported by people who enjoyed political power and were afraid to lose the economic power.

3. Humans vote with their feet. Which countries do people want to emigrate to? It tells the answer for the future. People want to move to USA, Germany, Canada, Australia.

4. Why terrorism makes headlines? Because the world has become a safer place as compared to the past and any new acts of violence makes more noise. Terrorists are successful because they are like a small fly that can drive a large mad bull to smash up a china shop. That is exactly what 9/11 did. It drove US to smash up Middle East. Terrorism requires action on three fronts: state action against terrorist networks, responsible media management and individual self-restraint.

5. Humans have two types of abilities – physical and cognitive. In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in the raw physical abilities, while humans retained an immense edge in raw physical abilities. Today, machines are taking over human beings even in the cognitive abilities. So how can humans retain an edge over machines?

6. Artificial intelligence and biotech are the future and will change humanity. Are we ready for it?

7. Self-driving cars are safer, but will we understand that? Shall we protect people, or shall we protect jobs? The jobs in Bangladesh and Bangalore will be lost soon. How do we train the redundant workforce? It was easier for farm labourer to become industrial worker or retail help as it required very less significant training. What happens in the future when jobs are becoming very specialised?

8. The rich are becoming richer, but they may become superior and more talented as well in the future. There will be a rise of “useless” class of people. What are the implications for the society and humanity?

9. The climate change will be good news for Russia.

Does the book offer solutions? Yes and no. It offers high level solutions – universal basic income, globalisation of politics, meditation etc. However, if one is looking for practical and innovative solutions, there are very few. And it is not Yuval Noah’s fault – nobody has got the answers right to these questions. At least he has identified the right questions to find answers for and given some initial thoughts. He wants us to debate and find our own answers.

The book is a good read and a recommended reading. But first do read Homo Deus and Sapiens as well.

And then let us meet and brainstorm…

Further Reading:
Yuval Noah Harari Official Website
Yuval Noah on YouTube

Image Courtesy: www.ynharari.com

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