21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

The Book Club Pune met on Sunday, 27th September 2020 to discuss 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. The discussion was led by Abhay Vaidya who presented his review of the book.

Read on to know what Mohan Madiman thought of the discussion

Abhay Vaidya’s choice of this very significant book ensured a large number of people logging in for this discussion. 

Yuval Harari is a Prof. of History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. This book is a compilation of 21 essays, outlining technological changes and his view of the societal and political impact on individuals and specially children. The book is about the more immediate future, while his “Sapiens” delves into history and “Homo Deus” explores the distant future.

He speaks about pivotal technological changes of bio-engineering and bio-technology (the linkage between technology and our bodies, through devices like wearables), the Internet of Things (a network of machines that can interact with one another), Artificial Intelligence (the ability of machines to learn and solve problems by themselves) and Big Data (large amounts of data being analysed to take decisions).

The book then outlines social and economic implications of these changes, primarily “the rise of the useless class”, given that many jobs will become redundant – like factories not requiring workers, vehicles not requiring drivers and so on. He goes on to outline the need for universal basic financial support.

He then addresses the implications on the political dimension, and the adequacy of current political systems of governance to deal with future challenges. He opines that liberty and individual freedoms are going to be threatened by digital dictatorships, leading to disillusionment with existing political systems. Global challenges would need to be solved by a global civilisation, and ultra-nationalism may not be sustainable. Therefore, values of humility, truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility in such a world would become increasingly relevant. While not being overly concerned about terrorism, he is more cautionary about war – since “no God or no law of nature can protect us from human stupidity”.

There are various implications of his writings to us. Firstly, the need to educate ourselves with reliable information and guard against fake news; secondly, the importance of not overloading children with information but instead to help them develop general purpose life skills, like learning new things, preserving mental balance in unfamiliar situations, and reinventing themselves; and also, to constantly explore new ways that give meaning to life.

While the book raises questions that may be seen as disturbing, as summarised in his belief that “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods”, he also brings the perspective that Man is the only living being with two unique abilities – the ability to imagine and to think of possibilities, and the ability to plan & work towards a goal in a collective manner.

Abhay Vaidya made it easy for his viewers to pick up the main themes in the book and get a good idea of Harari’s approach. His slides were clear and concise, and his commentary showed a close reading of the book. In addition to an analysis of what Harari has hypothesized, he  also shared his own views when asked questions. There were many questions and the discussion went on longer than usual – sure proof of the interest generated! A very interesting session, which drew a lot of appreciation from viewers.

Nityaasha Foundation