If you’ve read either Sapiens or Homo Deus, you’ll appreciate why I was excited about reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Yuval Noah Harari’s breadth of knowledge is pretty astounding, allowing him to weave together a framework for understanding the past (in Sapiens) and the potential future (Homo Deus). And now, with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he presents a framework for understanding the present.
A few years ago, the idea of ‘understanding the present’ might have seemed a little strange — things didn’t feel quite so complicated. In the past our expectations of ourselves were limited to understanding our immediate circumstances — we simply didn’t have the means to understand the deep connections between ourselves and people on the other side of the world (or ourselves and nature). But now we do have those means — the internet allows us to follow everything, everywhere. If we desire, we can follow every thread we encounter to its source, discovering the real impacts of our decisions. But this sudden ability to understand more has simply overwhelmed us.
Add to the mixture the rapid pace of technological advances and you find that we’re simultaneously trying to understand more than ever before whilst seeing things change more quickly than ever before. We don’t know what to believe, who to believe or where to start. We need a framework for understanding the present.
Basing your own understanding on the present on the writings of one author clearly isn’t advisable. But as a start point, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is brilliant. Harari (as in Sapiens) analyses things with incredible clarity. He talks about the big issues facing humanity — climate change, new technology and how we use it, nuclear war, nationalism, polarised politics, fake news — in a global context, looking at where we can go next. If you want to draw the links between Brexit and ecological collapse or Facebook and nuclear war, this is where to look.
As Harari recognises in the book, everybody is subject to their own biases. He endeavours to recognise his own and account for them when discussing related issues, which I think is a lot more than many other writers do. He also endeavours to present the alternative views on various issues, allowing the reader to make their own decisions. This makes the book challenging — you are constantly having to take a step back and consider your own opinion — but it also feels real. If we want a framework for the present which is honest and realistic, it’s not going to be totally comfortable. Many of the big issues we face have become so polarised that people aren’t able to bring themselves to consider the other side. But in a complex, global world, there’s always going to be disagreement. If you hide behind your own view, unable to hear others out, you won’t really be partaking in the present. You’ll just be a passenger.