The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who vaulted to international fame with his highly acclaimed best seller, Sapiens, has written a new and interesting book that instead of looking towards the past to understand who we are today, looks at who we are today to try to see where the world is headed tomorrow. 21 Questions for the 21st Century, is a challenge to the failures of the political world, a celebration of the technological future, and a discourse on the nature of human society. Of course being a historian Harari does indulge in a brief discussion of the “isms” of the 20th century: liberalism, communism, and fascism.
He explains how each political doctrine came about, and why they all have disappeared, or as in the case of liberalism, is on the verge of disappearing. His analysis of why these historical events took place are more than a simply recitation of events. He analyzes each with unique frankness. Of course, he is without a doubt biased towards liberalism, and is rather unnerved to see it waning. Communism and fascism, on the other hand, don’t receive even the slightest note of a mournful dirge.
He explains why in a world where liberalism, the idea of free expression conjoined with an open economy, has freed and educated more people than in any time during human history, the world is seeing the advent of populism, nativism, xenophobia, and a slide towards authoritarianism. There is no political correctness in this discussion. He is unfettered in his exultation of a free society. How many people are trying to get into Russia, and comparatively, how many people are truly trying to seek refuge in the Moslem Middle East he asks? There is no comparison with those who brave trials and travails to find a future in the western world.
The world wants liberalism, but then he asks, why do we end up with the likes of Trump? In other words RUFKM? (and for anyone that doesn’t speak text speak, that means Are.You. Fucking.Kidding.Me?) The interesting aspect of the book is that he explains it. It is of course all about fear. But not the fear that we think of as being exploited by the 1 percent, or wanting equality of purpose and the equality of a future. It is in fact, the fear of being forgotten, of becoming irrelevant. As Elie Wiesel said, “the opposite of love is not hate it is indifference.” And being indifferent to a large part of humanity, as we see through out history, can lead to a lot, a lot of anger.
Society has reached a new age. It is an exciting age full of immense possibilities in technology. Artificial intelligence is going to create a future that we cannot even imagine. Nothing like this has ever happened before in human history. As Harari explains, we have lived through the industrial revolution. Society went through enormous upheavals. But at least everyone had a place. Everyone knew that they had a future, of some kind. Everyone knew that in the end they were needed on some level. Not so anymore.
The issue with the future, is that there are possibly billions of people who will have no place in society. Technology will not only take jobs, but it will make most jobs obsolete. It’s interesting to think about that in a world today that is short on workers, and seems to have low unemployment, where the question of who will be tomorrow’s workers is the topic of the day, there will be no need for human workers.
Moreover, he discusses what will globalization look like, what in fact would that even mean? How will that even shape our view of universalism and how do we, with so many people in the world actually understand each other? He asks interesting questions: Can people from extremely diverse parts of the world, with different cultural realities, with different social expectations, with completely different life experiences, really truly understand each other? How will that shape for the future? How will this shape the world’s expectations?
Harari also discusses that the issue facing planners is about human usefulness, or what we call jobs. What will happen to the average person when Article Intelligence comes full throttle? Will humans be expendable? And with that comes another kind of issue. More than mere disdain for those who do not give anything of value to human society. But what if there is nothing of potential for them to do? What if people are going to have to change, grow and develop at such a rapid pace that for some it is impossible to keep up? Or for those that could keep up, how will they live as they transition into our new world?
Society is going to face enormous questions in the next several decades ranging from economic, medical, educational, social and political. Luckily some of these questions are already actually being asked, which is a good thing. Discussions of a universal basic income, or universal basic services and what exactly do these mean and are they realistic or viable? Real national education geared towards not simply stuffing your head full of facts that you could find easily on google, but learning how to evaluate, understand and analyze these facts. Does that mean education for everyone who wants a Phd, or is it simply to make sure that every person can write basic code?
But more importantly, and especially in the era of the rise of authoritarianism , oligarchies and conspiracy theorists, people need to be taught how to figure out what is a post truth mythical nonsensical story, as opposed to what is reality. On this front, Harari does something completely unexpected. He explains that myths, fantastical stories and what we see as disinformatzia has always been with us as humans, only we called it religion. For this part of the book, no religion leaves unscathed.
Humanity has always relied on lies, Harari says. Fake news is nothing new. We made up stories for things we never understood and we passed these stories down through the generations. Now many would disagree with the author on his analysis of religion and mystical views of the universe, but in truth political lies and prevarications are not new in human history either. The Romans called it “Bread and Circuses.” In fact, one major backtracking from liberalism is that so many people actually are deciding that truth only comes in one forum. That if you don’t believe as instructed, then your reality is false, heretical and either its the gulag for you, or Torquemada’s pyres. It’s as if the absolutism of the Middle Ages has come full circle.
Unfortunately, while we want to think of ourselves as too sophisticated to attach society to such medieval thought patterns, it is interesting to witness just how humans do tend to fall back on age old tried and true tribalism, ethnic alacrity, and out and out hatred of the other. The more interesting question that has to be asked however, is why is this so comfortable, and why instead of fighting for the liberal world order, are we so easily swayed toward demagoguery and despotism.
And despotism does not need to come in the guise of a government or politician. It can come in the guise of an algorithm, of cryptocurrency, of an AI that thinks faster, more methodically and with out the baggage that humans carry. And we have happily given over our world to these technological wizards. They are unregulated. They are free to do as they please with our data and information. But more so, and even more frightening is that these unseen goblins have the power to decide who can and cannot be heard without us even knowing about it. Anyone who has spent any time on social media knows that there are just some opinions that are algorithmed out of existence. The question is what do you want to do about it, and is it already too late?
So what do you want the world of 2050 to look like?
Harari asks 21 Questions for the 21st Century, These issues are thought provoking. They are good questions. They make you uncomfortable. They make you think.
This book is available September 4, 2018.