Sapiens is one of my top favourite books of all time, while Homo Deus was generally disappointing for me. Now Yuval Noah Harari’s 3rd book, 21 lessons for the 21st century, feels more like a summary from the previous 2 books, with the best frame of thoughts of Sapiens are filled with additional commentary and analysis for the prediction onto the future. Hence, in a way this book is like Harari’s 2nd attempt to complete the incomplete Homo Deus, or, dare I say it, with rhyming pun intended, Homo Deus part deux.
True to Harari’s style, in this book he takes some current affairs key ideas and scale them wide to the scope of global macro and everything in it. He then reframe them into 21 lessons in 21 chapters. Let’s jump straight into them shall we.
Lesson 1 evolve around the evolution of the 3 stories of fascism, communism, and liberalism, and how the world evolved from having all 3 in 1938, to 2 in 1968 (with fascism virtually disappeared), to only 1 in 1998 (with communism already collapsed), and zero in 2018 (when the book was written). It covers all the different countries adopting different political systems and all the geopolitics that come with it.
Lesson 2 is about work, specifically analysing the threat of work being replaced by AI. Lesson 3 dives deep into liberty, whether what we have today is pure or fabricated liberty, and what will happen with our liberty once AI takes over. It is also elaborates on the potential of AI which in truth is already embedded within our daily lives, such as in the smart watch we wear to track fitness, the algorithm in Netflix to cater the movie suggestion for us, the google search engine, etc (and fittingly, I’m reading this book on Kindle after buying the book thanks to Amazon recommendation).
Lesson 4 is what we should ideally have after liberty have been sorted out: equality, with one line in particular caught my eyes: “If we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, the key is to regulate the ownership of data.” Meanwhile lesson 5 is about global community, with special focus on facebook and its control over digital community that fits the AI narrative.
Lesson 6 is about the long road towards our modern civilisation, how society has evolved into a more homogenous global civilisation with the same consensus on the likes of medicine, form of money, even sports where Harari put a nice touch of fictitiously organising the 1016 Olympic games where countries weren’t countries yet and the various empires each had such big egos and complications. Harari then elaborates that “when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement.”
Which brings us to lesson 7, nationalism. Again, old frame of thought that we’ve already learned in Sapiens but with additional commentaries, such as “huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties”, which sums it all about nationalism. The same goes with lesson 8 on religion, where Harari adds more examples into his old frame of thoughts, such as religious conflicts are seldom about theological differences but instead a class war or struggles about power and money. His take on the use of state religion to organise a country is also fascinating.
Lesson 9 is about the dilemma and complications of immigration. Lesson 10 is putting terrorism in a bigger context, where since 9/11 much less people are actually killed by terrorist attacks compared with diabetes, car accidents, and air pollution, but yet they provoke the most profound reactions among countries around the world. It also provides the cause and effects and the reasons for terror attacks, and most importantly how to properly face them.
Lesson 11 in war confirms the suspicion that when it comes to Israel, his home country, Harari is biased, where according to him native Palestinians are Muslim fanatics, the 1967 (illegal) war was successful, that Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance from conquering Damascus during the 2011 Arab Spring when he can easily captured the city was considered the greatest political move. But to be fair, later on in lesson 17 he is critical on the Zionist movement and Israel’s general propaganda on Palestine.
Lesson 12 is an interesting take about humility (or the lack thereof throughout history), especially interesting is his take on the formal Jewish education system that hugely explains why Jewish people stereotypically behave the way they behave. Lesson 13 is the vain attempt to describe God, lesson 14 is his attempt to include secularism in the vanity. Lesson 15 is about ignorance, while lesson 16 is his interesting take on justice, where the lines on the sand of justice in this vast and complicated global web are becoming blurrier than ever (where even the meat that we eat and the clothes that we wear can make us indirectly complicit to unethical and immoral injustice occurring halfway across the globe).
Lesson 17 is about the “post-truth world”, which is arguably one of the most relevant chapters for current time, which also happens to be the most eye opening chapter in the book for me. This line perhaps sums it up best, “if you want reliable information, pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product”, where Harari then elaborates “[y]our attention is first captured by sensational headlines, and then sold to advertisers or politicians.”
Lesson 18 is somewhat the extension of lesson 17, and it is everything about science fiction, where you might not realise it but the ideas that the people in Hollywood planted in our heads are more deeply embedded in our views of the world than we’d like to think. And this thinking transitioned smoothly into lesson 19, education, where “[h]umankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them.” So how better prepare for the future?
Nobody have the definitive answer but Harari provides an intriguing analysis and proposal for what modern education should be. With the essence can be found in this line, “[m]any pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. More broadly, they believe, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasize general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.”
In lesson 20 we circle back to meaning, to reflect and contemplate the underlying meaning behind every ideology, using vast examples from Bhagavad Gita to Lion King, Zionism, Communist Manifesto, Sikh’s turban, Easter Egg, diamond engagement ring, Ashura reenactment, to buying local but inferior pasta. Or in other words, according to Harari, finding meaning using what practically are fiction stories and the personal identity we build around them. As Hariri commented, “[o]nce personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundations.”
The final lesson 21 is on meditation, in which Harari provides his own personal story and reflections on the practice. And the book then culminates in a Q&A session with what I assume is himself, addressing several key points that are unable to fit in any of the narratives in the 21 lessons.
All in all, this is a big book, with big ideas, big examples, and big enlightenment. There are definitely a lot of new things to pick up in this 3rd book, although there are also quite a lot of elaborations that went a little too long and can become repetitive after a while. It has genuine 5 stars qualities for some parts of the book but it also has 3 to 4 stars qualities for others. A solid 4.5 would probably give a fair rating, as it’s definitely not a flawless 5. So in the end it’s a 4 stars book for me in an only 5-level ratings system, although it probably doesn’t fully reflect the whole sentiment on the book.