Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His two previous bestsellers ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ (2011) focussing on the past, and ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ (2016) focussing on the distant future would be known many of us, while his latest book, ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ pays close attention to the here and now. In many ways it’s more disturbing than his previous two works, highlighting the existing and emerging harmscapes created by our new worlds, in particular the new planet courtesy of climate change and the new technologies courtesy of the digital world.
Technological disruption doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere near the attention it needs, with many among us feeling alienated and powerless in the face of AI, machine learning and the globalization of our economies. Even the most qualified young people sense an increasingly uncertain future, not to mention those who only have their physical labour to sell. ‘21 Lessons’ posits that while in the industrial revolution new technologies created new jobs for each one rendered obsolete, AI will shortly be capable of outperforming humans, not only in our physical labour but also in professions requiring ‘human intuition’, such that even the most cognitively demanding jobs won’t be safe.
Add to that the deep and growing sense of insecurity made available by technology in the hands of those bent on manipulating communities to their agendas. Terrorists, like all clever marketers, have discovered and exploited social media and other platforms to sow fear and distrust within and between communities whom might otherwise co-exist peacefully. In the same vein, political leaders, policy elites and those with vested interests in sustaining existing alliances, use the new technologies to project knowledge that enables them to propose disastrous climate change policies that are already harming countless human beings. And where once the problem was scarcity of information, now the problem is information overload.
‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ is a plea for all of us to consider the new worlds we already inhabit and the new harmscapes these worlds generate. They create profound challenges for our key institutions, including policing, security, health and work. The looming threat of ongoing catastrophic weather events has profound implications for all sectors of society, not least the insurance and security industries which if we’re to believe Harai, will need to make significant changes quickly or cease to exist.
Harari’s paints a sobering picture of the present and near future, yet the breadth of his thinking urges us to push for much needed change.